Enemies List

May 25, 2010

The topic’s probably been explored to death in our absence (even by our own Distant Cousin) but I just can’t let it go unremarked upon.

The deep-sixing of a trial run of bike lanes on University Avenue earlier this month.

A note to the 15 councillors who carried the amendment and spiked the project: I will overlook the fact that your opposition to the plan seems to be directly proportional to your actual physical distance from it. (Let’s call it the Etobicoke-Scarborough Alliance). Your argument probably goes that you and your constituents are the ones who are actually using those two lanes that would be lost to bikes to drive your car to work downtown.

But here’s what I don’t understand. If you were actually convinced that these bike lanes were such a bad idea, that congestion and chaos would rule with the loss of roadway to cars, why wouldn’t you vote for this? It was only on a trial basis for 3 months. Arguably the 3 months with the lightest amount of business traffic going back and forth, what with summer vacations and such. If you were indeed correct and the whole Avenue Road-University Ave. corridor ground to a screeching halt and the bike lanes remained virtually cyclist free, imagine the ammunition you would have had at your disposal. Not only to kill this proposal dead but any more misguided attempts to impose bike lanes on major arterial roads in the city. Remember the University Ave. Bike Lanes!

By successfully stopping this plan before it even started, well, let’s just say your motives are suspect. It could be argued now that you are nothing more than a pack of fat-assed, myopic inner suburban dwellers, fighting a rear-guard battle against any sort of change in order to maintain a dysfunctional status quo. Simple-minded car huggers representing the worst of cowering reactionary impulses.

Yet the disdain and disgust I feel toward you is miniscule compared to that which I harbour against the 14 councillors, 2 would-be mayors and 1 sitting mayor who felt their presence at the vote was unnecessary. Aren’t you elected to office to attend to city business? So what other pressing engagements do you have to attend to that supersede being in council chambers to vote?

I’m sure the Mayor of Torino would’ve understood, Mayor Miller, that you had to be late for your date because of a council vote. Councillor Ford couldn’t be there because he was taking calls from his constituents? Hmmm. Imagine how many votes councillors are going to miss once there’s only 22 of them. And Councillor Michael Walker whose St. Paul’s ward contains a stretch of Avenue Road, the north of Bloor Street extension of University Ave. that would see a lot of backed up traffic if the bike lanes further south caused all the pandemonium opponents claimed they would, aren’t you retiring this year? What did you have to lose by voting – either yes or no – on this issue? Were you afraid of hurting your executive assistant, Chris Sellors’ chances of succeeding you by offending either side of the debate?

Except that it’s this refusal to offer up the courage of your convictions that gives politicians a bad name with the public. I know, I know. This was only a vote on a trial run at installing bike lanes on a major downtown road. A minor issue to many, for sure. But in some ways, it is representative of competing future visions of the city. Lessening our reliance on cars versus a continued catering to their every uncivil whim and demand.

At least we know where those councillors who led the charge and voted against the University Avenue bike lanes stand on the issue. We can combat an established target. It’s the slippery, elusive, greasy ducking of controversy that irks and is ultimately unhelpful in charting a course for the city. Those are the kind of politicians we don’t need and who should be targeted for defeat this fall.

Remember the University Bike Lanes!

belatedly submitted by Urban Sophisticat


Back On The Ground

May 24, 2010

Waking from a heavily self-medicated post-flight slumber, the fog is thick. Part jet lag, part scrambled mass of neuronal misfirings, the very recent past elusively slips in and out of grasp. I’ve been asleep for how long? Four hours? Fourteen? How long ago did we board that plane? That exchange with the customs guy, it didn’t really happen, did it? It must’ve been a dream. “Where am I coming from this morning?! What do you mean, where am I coming from this morning? The ether, man! The ether at 35 000 feet!!” If that was indeed real, why would they have allowed us back into the country?

Perhaps ill-advisedly, I hop on my bike and pedal to the office in order to get a head start on the inevitable steaming pile of whatever that always awaits a return from a two week sabbatical. Fortunately for me, the streets are pretty well deserted, either due to it being a long weekend or because of the very early hour. Maybe a combination of the two. Whatever the reason, I am free to cycle in whatever manner I feel to be appropriate.

Eventually I locate the office. It wasn’t on the street I initially thought it was or the one I thought it was after that. But it wasn’t that far away. Pretty well the very street we had left it on.

My confusion is prolonged, however, as the condition of the office strikes me as completely unfamiliar. It is neat. It is tidy. Our 13 years of National Geographic magazines that nobody ever reads but refuses to recycle has been chronologically arranged and put into what seems to be an entirely new shelving unit. Maybe this isn’t our office after all. But then, why did my key work in the door?

A bouquet of flowers lying on a desk with a note addressed to us confirms that I am in the correct space. From Distant Cousin, thanking us for the unexpected opportunity to contribute to the site and hoping that he did no long term damage to the brand. Ahh, yes. The disappearance of Acaphlegmic and the emergence of some distant cousin to hold down the fort and keep the wheels of opinion from grinding to a halt in our absence. Hopefully we can make this a more long term, regular arrangement and talk him onto the payroll. And by payroll, I mean some sort of non-monetary, stock option kind of set up that will pay off for everyone in the end. Eventually.

I make myself a Spanish coffee from all the proper ingredients that I find in the shockingly clean kitchen and fully stocked fridge that was definitely not that way when we left it. Another Distant Cousin touch? Yeah, he is definitely a keeper. Then I sit down in front of the mountain of material that awaits my perusal as we start to bring ourselves up to speed on the goings on here in the Big Smoke over the past couple weeks.

Have we missed much? What’s that you say? Rob Ford’s now at the front of the pack in the mayoral race according to an unpublished poll? No, that can’t be right. It’s just the jet lag talking. Or the Spanish coffee just kicking in. Come on. You can’t be serious. Rob Ford? That Rob Ford?! In the lead?? There must be some kind of mistake. We haven’t been away that long. Surely we would’ve heard if hell had frozen over.

disbelievingly submitted by Urban Sophisticat


A Night At The Opera

May 22, 2010

Sitting watching Bizet’s Carmen at Beijing’s National Grand Theater on our last night here in China, my mind wanders over a few things as this amazing trip draws to a close. For one, why am I at an opera? It’s not even the Beijing Opera which is what I thought it was going to be when Urban Sophisticat said he’d secured us a couple tickets to the opera. We are in Beijing after all. If not now, when?

Otherwise, this is just opera opera and I fucking hate opera. There, I said it. It is nothing more than an elitist art form that has long since outlived any purpose whatsoever other than serving to build grand edifices like the one we’re sitting in, listening to Bizet’s Carmen. Oh for chrissakes, Don José, run, run!! The woman is nothing but trouble!

The National Grand Theater or, the Egg as it has been dubbed, sits just east of Tian’an Men Square, behind the Soviet style Great Hall of the People. Designed by French architect, Paul Andreu, this wonder is yet another example of the architectural boldness we have witnessed in China. While Beijing is somewhat more subdued than Shanghai, it certainly hasn’t shirked from embracing modernity when the opportunity has presented itself. In a matter of minutes, pedestrians can stroll through a 15th-century, Ming dynasty gate into an alarmingly open space lined with mid-20th Brutalist buildings before turning the corner to find themselves staring directly into the sci-fi future.

China seems undaunted by its 5000+ years of history, at least architecturally speaking. Instead of being weighted down by centuries of tradition, China today has little trouble obliterating whatever it perceives to be standing in the way of its progress. It is not an approach I embrace wholeheartedly to be sure. In this mad dash to assume a spot at the head table, lives and communities have been completely overturned and not everyone is sharing equally in the country’s dizzying growth spurt.

Still, I could go for a pinch of the Chinese gusto, their dispassionate disregard for the past when it becomes a hindrance. China remains a conservative country in many ways, especially politically and socially. Yet in others it is bold in facing the future. We, on the other hand, think of ourselves as progressive and forward looking while displaying all the attributes of cringing, cowering, unbending obdurates. (No, that isn’t an actual noun but I like the sound of it so I’m going to use it in a willful rejection of convention. See how easy that was?)

If they need to modernize their transit system, they modernize their transit system. Us? We fuss and fart, wring our hands and gnash our teeth. We can’t afford it, we mewl. What about the businesses that’ll be affected if we tear up the streets? Drivers are going to be so pissed off at more delays, detours and congestion. Change is difficult. Outcomes aren’t always predictable. But there are points in history when standing pat is no longer an option.

And right now we are quaking and quavering in the face of necessary change, clinging to tried and untrue ideas and philosophies in the vain hope of ineffectually staving off the inevitable. Maybe we were nothing but the luckiest nation on earth, chasing off the original inhabitants just in time for the resource boom that rocketed us into the modern age. Our number came up and we cashed in.

That’s all about to change, however. Only those that recognize that fact and act accordingly will prosper and thrive. Tradition and history strengthen us as long as we recognize that neither is immutable. What once worked is no guarantee of future success. Sometimes throwing the baby out with the bathwater becomes an absolute necessity if the infant is actually the devil’s spawn.

The fat lady has begun to sing. In fact, it feels like she’s been caterwauling for some time now. As tempting as it might be, we ignore her aria at our peril. Time to step up and move forward. China is showing us that it’s possible.

prophetically submitted by Cityslikr


Meet A Mayoral Candidate — XIV

May 21, 2010

It’s Friday. Time for another installment of Meet A Mayoral Candidate!

This week, Don Andrews for Mayor.

For all the wrong reasons I think it might be funny if Don Andrews got to be mayor of Toronto just for a day. Can you imagine the whole change in dynamics around City Hall if there was a Mayor Andrews who, after getting a tough question from a reporter, simply said: I don’t talk to a Jew media stooge? At council meetings he’d refer to any councillor left of Rob Ford (that would be all them, I believe) as Marxist goons. And since the demographic make up of the city council remains stubbornly white and male, a Mayor Andrews would label any of his council detractors as ‘race traitors’.

It’d be like watching Archie Bunker crossed with Sgt. Rock.

Now I know to someone like Don Andrews, we here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke are a bunch of self-loathing Caucasians but we’ve never got our heads fully around the whole racial superiority thing. It doesn’t seem to hold up, biologically speaking. Pure bred dogs may be beautiful to look at but they tend not to live as long as their mongrel counterparts not to mention their bad hips and such. Without a diverse gene pool, the human race might be susceptible to one particularly virus or bug. Hitler’s dream of a master race, made dubious with Jesse Owens performance at the 1936 Olympics, had flamed out completely by 1945.

And as for the whole white thing, who qualifies as ‘white’ white? Certainly not the Jews. How about swarthy southern Italians or the Greeks? If Greeks qualify, why not Turks? Andrews himself is of central European stock, from the former Yugoslavia with an Anglicized name. More importantly, what about me and my mixed Euro background? Am I white enough?

Not that we’ve found any actual reference to white supremacy in the campaign literature we’ve read through so far. It’s just the indignation Mr. Andrews displays at the decreasing percentage of the once visible majority in Toronto and the fact that it means the city is deteriorating into “a pirate port” that hints at his thinking of racial hierarchies. By talking about ‘the white man’s pledge of common sense, good will and fair play’, there seems to be a suggestion that non-whites are unfamiliar with any of those positive attributes.

All that aside (admittedly, a big aside), what we find astoundingly compelling about Mr. Andrews is the raging contradictions that run through his beliefs and campaign platform. Some of which he’s admittedly aware of. Like the fact that as an immigrant himself from ‘the hills of Sarajevo’ who ‘was bullied for my fat lips and East European complexion by a ginger-headed ruddy, pimple-faced love rival’ back in the 50s, he now finds it ‘ironic’ that he’s ‘appealing to self-protecting bigotry’. His paranoid frettings about a ‘globalist police state’ bring him and the National Party firmly onside with another Canadian bete noire, the Khadr family.

To truly get a sense of the kind of cognitive dissonance someone like Don Andrews must have to live with day in and day out, read the May 3rd account, Fearless Voters Wanted, of his encounter with two Chinese ladies in a cemetery. Even the finest of fiction writers could not make that kind of shit up.

What ultimately caught our attention about Don Andrews, race warrior, was that he appears to also be somewhat of an eco-warrior. He is passionate in his dislike of graffiti. Another one of his Initial 5-Point Program is to plant trees throughout the city. Mr. Andrews also shares our dislike of traffic congestion although, so far, he hasn’t put forth any idea on how to solve that particular problem.

Short, of course, of putting an end to non-European immigration. Less people means less cars but we’re not even sure if Mr. Andrews has a problem with too many people in Toronto or just not enough white people. Perhaps there is a logic to this seeming dichotomy. Clean up the streets of non-white riff raff and you clean up the streets. Period. His is the Green and White Revolution.

So to answer our own question that we’re poising to all the mayoral candidates, If the current mayor wants his legacy to be that of the Transit Mayor, what would a Mayor Andrews legacy be?, we’ll say the Mayor Andrews legacy would More White, More Green. A lighter shade of green.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr


On A Midnight Train To Beijing

May 19, 2010

A definite theme of this trip is beginning to emerge.

Sitting on the overnight train to Beijing from Nanjing, I can’t help thinking that I am a member of a society on the decline. If the 20th-century belonged to America (one in which we’d hitched a ride on the coattails of), things are most definitely not trending that way in this one.

I mean, come on! Here we are on what is a regular high speed train route, covering 1,100+ kilometres, in relatively comfortable if cramped quarters, as a simple matter of fact. At least, I assume it’s matter of fact based on the ease with which our two Chinese, non-English speaking cabin mates share their bottle of clear, solvent tasting but with a hint of blue cheese liquor with us. They regale us with grand stories of adventure, I assume, given their reaction to the tales they tell. We all sleep like babies until I stumble out to the bar car a couple of hours before arriving in Beijing in order to take in the passing scenery.

At home this kind of trip is treated as a novelty. Train travel as a throwback to an earlier time; something to do when you’ve run out of other vacation options. A relic of the past that has no real bearing on the future.

A side blurb in a Macleans magazine issue last month talked of China’s negotiations with 17 Asian and European countries to develop high speed train travel traversing the two continents, culminating in a Beijing to London link over some 8,100 kilometres in 48 hours. And we can’t even get our shit together enough to come up with a comprehensive plan to build a modern rail system throughout the GTA and Golden Horseshoe region. No, diesel does not qualify as a comprehensive plan, people. It’s merely indicative of small-minded, short-sighted thinking and a lack of leadership and balls. (The emerging theme for those who just tuning in.)

Oh sure, I hear you mumbling out there, a half a day behind me, we could be all out on the forefront and cutting edge too if we gave over to authoritative, autocratic rule. Making the trains run on time is easy if you set aside democracy. If China’s so great, why don’t you just move there, you slavering, pandering, useful idiot Sinophile? (Huh. A passing side thought. If you’re a fan of Chinese movies, does that make you a Sinocinephile?)

You know that’s not what I’m having you suggest I’m suggesting. It is far from perfect here. Even ignoring the political reality for a moment, China is still very much a developing country in many, many aspects. It is dirty, polluted and does consume an ever increasing amount of the world’s resources although it does seem to realize that and is investing heavily in alternate sources of energy to a much larger extent than we are in the west. There is a sense that by watching the emergence of China we are being offered a glimpse through the window of what our very own industrial revolution might’ve looked like. It is a very relevant question of whether or not China is attempting to sustain what is not sustainable.

But this is not about China. It is about us, the former masters of the universe, the west in which the sun is very much threatening to set upon. We are being eclipsed not because of imbalances in trade or democratic principles. We have simply lost our way, locked as we are in a useless and unimaginative ideological either-or standoff. Money, and the accumulation of it, has replaced vision and grand dreams of progress and enlightenment. There is an assumption of superiority on our part owing to the fact that we have already overcome the battles China is now waging. Been there, done that. We are waiting for greatness to return, assuming somehow that it is our birthright. This is how it shall be for it has always been thus.

History doesn’t work like that. It is largely trial and error, learning from our mistakes and adapting to new and varied environments. Past success does not guarantee future success. In fact, as we who once were giants might slowly be realizing, resting on our laurels is the surest, quickest way to find ourselves standing at the back of the que as the rest of the world blows on past us faster than, well, a high speed train on its way to Beijing.

wistfully submitted by Urban Sophisticat


Cycling Schizophrenia And Colour Blindness

May 17, 2010

I am quite perplexed at Toronto City Council’s recent schizophrenic voting behaviour when it comes to embracing and enhancing bicycle riding in our fair metropolis. Here’s why:

On May 11th just passed, I was delighted to see that city council voted overwhelming (38-8) to support a plan that would see about 1,000 bicycles available for rental at 80 stations across Toronto. A start up loan of $4.8 million was guaranteed by Council as long as the Public Bike System Company generates a minimum of 1,000 subscribers and private sponsorship support of $600,000 by end of November, 2010.

Evidently a large number on council agreed with councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, an ardent supporter of the proposal. De Baeremaeker feels that the plan “is going to be very, very successful.” He and his other supportive council members have every right to be optimistic. The same Public Bike System Company has initiated a similar, highly successful operation in Montreal. At the end of its first year, 20,000 subscribers in that city made use of the rental operation. The company now makes available 3,000 bikes at over 300 sites. As in aforementioned Montreal and also Berlin and Paris, our urbanites and visitors could grab a bike, cycle and then drop it off at the nearest station to their destination.. The proposed fee structure is $78 annually, $28 per month or a fin for a day rental. The operation will hopefully become available by May 2011.

I was glad to see our city council giving the thumbs up to a progressive, much-needed plan such as this. Providing an opportunity for Torontonians and visitors to take a bike ride between destinations grants them another way to enjoy this great multicultural city of ours, adds a little healthy exercise to their lives and may help decrease some traffic congestion and pollution by potentially reducing some vehicle usage. A plus all round, I happily concluded.

My joy was to be short lived, only 24 hours to be exact. The very next evening, on May 12th, the same Toronto City Council turned down a motion to install two temporary bicycle lanes on University Avenue smack in the middle of the downtown core. Under the proposal, cyclists would have ridden in the two centre lanes on University Avenue, next to the pedestrian median that runs down the middle of the street. The bike lanes would have been separated from vehicles by posts. (Many other cities around the world have implemented these protection lanes.) By having the bikers use the centre lane, curb side parking would not have been affected. The lanes were to be set up from July to September this summer as a trial project.

I agreed with Yvonne Bambrick of the Toronto Cyclists’ Union who had stated earlier that she felt that with protected, bicycle-only lanes, ridership in our city would soar. “A lot of people want to get out of their cars and the number one thing we hear is, ‘I would do it if I felt safer. If there were bike lanes there I’d get on my bike more often, if I felt safer.’ So we need to be providing Torontonians with choices,” said Bambrick.

Well, Ms. Bambrick, sadly it is not to be. For some strange reason, close to half of the 44-member city council and Mayor David Miller were absent from that night’s vote. A close vote of 15-13 against was made even more exasperating when Councillor Paula Fletcher confessed she had accidentally pushed the red ‘opposing’ button instead of the green ‘in favour’ button thereby defeating the motion instead of resulting in a tie vote. (Note to Ms. Fletcher: Given your confusion regarding red and green lights, you’ll understand my trepidation at getting into a car with you behind the wheel. No wonder potential cyclists are scared.)

So how schizoid is that? One day, council gives thumbs up for an excellent proposal to increase bike use in the city and the very next night denies a pilot project that would grant safe, accessible bike routes to exactly those bikers the city wishes to attract. Don’t know about you, but I’m certainly scratching my head over that one. Surely, trying out this proposal for a mere three months was not asking too much. We’ve had road construction that paralyzed traffic on main city routes (such as on Bloor and St. Clair) that have lasted much longer than three months. The proposed University Avenue bicycle route never got a chance to be evaluated and not because it was a bad idea. Nope, it was defeated because not enough supporters on council (and also avid bicyclist David Miller) never bothered to show up to vote for its implementation, thereby allowing one councillor’s temporary colour blindness to sink the plan.

Concern now abounds if this proposal will be resurrected under the to-be-elected new mayor and council next October. If it does see the light of day again on council’s agenda, I suggest all supporting councillors arrive for that vote wearing eyeglasses with corrective lenses.  

– colour correctly submitted by Distant Cousin


On The Road To Nanjing

May 16, 2010

Reluctantly leaving Shanghai behind us, we set off inland for Nanjing, twice the nation’s capital. Perhaps the exquisite trains and subways had spoiled us but the bus ride was pretty well unbearable. Long, bumpy, jolting. It’s a sad fact that rather than see western car culture as the blight on society that it is, China has embraced it, buying into the lethal notion of car as status. Traffic in these parts is truly awful, making us homesick for the relative pastoral quality of our roads and highways.

It is the better part of a five hour trip and once I’ve quelled an unusual wave of nausea due to the bouncing and swerving and honking and smoggy air, I begin to take in the surroundings. Shanghai extends for fucking ever. We are still fully urban 3 hours into the trip. It goes on and on and on and on.

As I look closer, I realize entirely new cities are being built on either side of the freeway. Blocks of high rises, some 10-15 St. Jamestowns in number, some other more townhouse like low rises, roads, highways, major infrastructure rising up at breakneck speed for miles on end. Empty land is being gobbled up. Older settlements have been levelled or built around. New communities (most of which are surprisingly green and treed throughout) springing up relentlessly.

A passing billboard catches my attention. Export Processing Zones. In amongst these communities and cities, I begin to spot factories and plants (of the very non-green type) dotting the landscape or, in some cases, dominating it. Hey, look! There’s a Makita Tools site. Clearly what we are witnessing is the making of modern company towns right before our very eyes.

Moreoever, we are travelling through the destination of lost, well paying North America manufacturing jobs. That is not a condemnation of China (in case anyone’s listening in.) This is simply the outcome of the deal made by our titans of industry and signed on by us twenty years or so ago, in return for access to cheap trinkets and gewgaws. Here lies the remains of our healthy middle class, may it R.I.P.

What boggles the mind upon further reflection is that we’ve really learned nothing from this whole situation. We’ve applauded the Chinese for reaching out and embracing western style, free market capitalism while choosing to ignore the fact that the state, in fact, still holds a mighty heavy hand on the economic tiller of the nation. When the global economic meltdown occurred nearly 2 years ago now, fuelled by our laissez-faire attitude to financial regulation, lack of government oversight and a blind zeal for the market knows best thinking, it was China that weathered the storm more stably, didn’t dip as deeply and has come out the other end more vigorously.

Us? We stood by and watched as our governments came to the rescue of short-sighted failed businesses and bailed out greedy, reckless industries, saving our entire economic system from yet another cataclysmic collapse and then immediately upon spotting a possible turnaround started demanding that they step back, pay their bills and allow everything to go back to normal. No harm, no foul. Because remember, as St. Ronnie told us: government is the problem not the solution.

All the while, China marches forward, continuing to build its cities.

— also shamefully submitted by Cityslikr