Architecture Of A Debate

August 31, 2010

Seated in a packed Great Hall on the 3rd floor of the St. Lawrence Hall last night awaiting the most recent mayoral debate, this one hosted by Heritage Toronto, I took in the (mercifully) air-conditioned magnificence of the room. Its salmon coloured walls… or were they pink? Hard to tell in the dim light cast by the gas-powered chandelier and wall sconces. Is that what they’re called, sconces?

Politics runs deep in this building, having hosted the likes of John A. Macdonald, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, George Brown and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Maybe tonight we’d witness a politician rising to the occasion to match the august surroundings. A breakout performance that would signal a turnaround in the so-far dreary race. One has to maintain hope in such possibilities if one doesn’t want to become totally disillusioned with the process.

After two hours, it was obvious nothing of the sort was going to happen but… but… Let me say this as we head humidly toward Labour Day, the unofficial end of summer and beginning of the campaign’s witching hour where carriages turn into pumpkins and us Prince Charmings run around in a desperate attempt to find someone who fits into the glass slipper. George Smitherman looks as if he’s getting into fighting form.

There were flashes during the debate where, for the first since he declared his intentions to run for mayor, we actually caught glimpses of humanity in George rather than a political machine. Hey, I found myself thinking a couple of times last night, the man actually likes this city he wants to lead. Maybe City Hall isn’t just a stepping stone for him on his way to a higher profile political gig. Who knows how much smoother the campaign trail might’ve been had he embraced a more conciliatory stance toward the current governance of this city from the get-go instead of joining the chorus of blind ragers looking to do nothing more than stir-up a pool of discontent with loud bellowing.

Smitherman was primed and ready for a healthy debate, having released his 5-point Heritage Plan earlier in the day. He came across as one-step ahead of everyone else on stage (football fields ahead in some cases), weaving policy talk in with personal anecdotes of living a heritage related life, not always seamlessly but more often than not effectively. His response to the question about the disparity between heritage preservation in the downtown core versus the suburbs, slyly extended an olive branch to the suburbs with his vow to empower community councils to deal with such matters. There was the odd political swipe, left and right, here and there. He also expressed a surprising antagonism to the idea of putting a Toronto museum into the old City Hall building ‘sometime in the future’ after the courts had been moved elsewhere which seemed an unnecessary shout-out to the fiscal conservatives surrounding him.

Still, to our eyes, it was Smitherman’s strongest debate performance to date and should make Team Rob Ford look down from measuring for new curtains in the Mayor’s office (paid for entirely by Rob Ford, of course) and realize that it may take more than name-calling and scandal mongering to put their candidate into office. For his part, Mr. Ford once again looked out-of-place and ill at ease addressing one of them downtown, elitist crowds. Although he did zero to help his cause like, maybe, brush up on the topic at hand a little. He seems pathologically unable to veer from his script and eventually drew derisive groans, mocking laughter and the odd heckle as he refused to answer many of the questions asked of all the debaters, and drifted off onto inane non sequiturs and pat responses.

It’s almost painful to witness over the course of 2 hours. Almost. To the point where I wonder why he participates in these particular debates at all. Then I remember this is primo campaign strategy. The laughing and jeering has nothing to do with Rob Ford being ill-informed and thick-headed and all about the smug, condescending downtowners who’ll get theirs when Rob Ford becomes mayor. So far, it’s been working for him but they may have to add to the repertoire if Smitherman continues to perform like he did last night.

As for the others?

Rocco Rossi, despite his campaign team shake up over the weekend, remains almost as single-mindedly fixated on a ‘single money for value’ issue as Ford although he’s added another neo-conservative trick to his… wherever you add a trick. A trick bag? Voter Recall which has done wonders for places like California. Rossi just seemed louder than he usually does but did pronounce his love of the city’s ravines. Loudly.

Joe Pantalone was performing in front of a supportive crowd and, as usual, had nice moments especially when he responded to a question of ‘cultural landscapes’. But he seems unable to deliver a sustained performance over the course of an entire debate, lapsing back into soft platitudes when he doesn’t appear all that interested in the topic. He’s also developed an annoying tic of punching a single point relentlessly from the morning’s strategy meeting. Last night? The Fort York bicentennial, coming up in 2012. Again and again. Yeah, we get it, Joe. Fort York = Heritage.

Once more, Sarah Thomson appeared out of her depth, saying little more than ‘let’s preserve old buildings’. How can a candidate (aside from Rob Ford) seem continually surprised and caught off-guard at a debate on Heritage by questions about, well, heritage? Last night might represent the weakest we’ve seen Ms. Thomson.

For the second time we watched Rocco Achampong take a spot alongside the front running candidates and are now convinced that it should be his last. While chalking up his underwhelming performance at June’s Better Ballots debate to a case of nerves, once again last night he displayed a knack for not delivering a succinct point in his allotted time. Ever. There’s no focus to his campaign and as a candidate, he seems torn between two instincts: a fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. They seem at war with one another and render him conflicted and ineffective. It’s time to turn over the one measly chair to another outsider candidate.

Debate moderator, former Chief City Planner of Toronto and professor of City Planning at U of T and Ryerson, Paul Bedford, closed out the debate saying that cities need to grow on purpose not by accident and implored all those in the Great Hall to go out and “make passionate love to the city”. Well, we didn’t see a lot of that on display from the candidates but it was interesting and more than a little heartening to watch George Smitherman’s iciness toward it begin to thaw, just a little. With it not even Labour Day yet, we may be seeing signs of the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr

We Can Get Angry Too

August 30, 2010

This is composed as a dare.

After yesterday’s post there was an exchange of heated words tossed around the office here. While my colleague, Cityslikr, was quite content with his evisceration of the Rob Ford/reactionary phenomena now running amok on the campaign trail, I suggested it wasn’t nearly as belligerent or uncompromising as he might think. In fact, I may’ve called it a ‘cop out’ if memory serves. A mere reactive piece cast in the terms of the debate that they’ve established.

“I’m the angry one here,” I was informed, haughtily. “All Fired Up’s John Lennon.” Refusing to bestow the McCartney label upon me, Cityslikr reluctantly granted me George Harrison status, saying it was impossible that I could match him, taunt for taunt, mockery for mockery, in putting together a cogent argument against the rising tide of Fordism. So here I am doing just that.

Since the very beginning of this campaign, an inchoate anger has driven the political discourse. While sometimes veering of onto bike lanes and the nebulous ‘War on Car’, its focus has been largely on numbers. Big, absolute numbers devoid of much context and certainly no explanation. $9.2 billion. $3 billion. Wow! That’s a lot of money. Clearly something’s wrong at City Hall.

With Rob Ford’s cannonball entry into the race, words were put to numbers but with no additional clarity. We don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem. The gravy train ends now. Nice, easy-to-remember T-shirt slogans, full of emotive power with negligible substance. The campaign became awash in indignant, empty rhetoric.

Of which, much of the mainstream press has lapped up. Witness last Wednesday’s piece from the Globe’s Christie Blatchford who is clearly vying to become Election 2010’s Queen of the Dumb-Down. Nothing more than a litany of councillor salaries and expenses, it reads like a Team Rob Ford press release. Did you know that a Toronto city councillor makes more than 3 times the median income of Joe Average Torontonian, and has a hefty expense account to boot? (Where’s the wage comparison between a councillor and, say, a columnist for the Globe and Mail, we wonder. Know the newspaper industry has taken a hit lately but surely someone like Christie Blatchford still has an expense account.) The insinuation in all this is that those working at City Hall are not worth the money we spend on them.

No, no, no, you’re saying. That’s not the point at all. Comparing the public and private sectors is apples and oranges. What happens in the private sector is none of our business and beyond our control. The public sector spends our money.

Alright, let’s disabuse you of that notion. It is not our money. It’s tax money. The agreed upon amount that each of us contributes to various levels of government in order that our society functions properly. I know this quote’s been bandied about almost to the point of irrelevancy through repetition but I think it worth another go-round so that it might begin to penetrate the thick skulls of the Christie Blatchfords of the world.

“I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.” So said Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Now we can argue about if our tax money is being spent wisely and what to do if it’s not. Or, we can debate about how much tax money is too much or too little. That’s a matter of ideology and can be hashed out over reasoned, rational discussion.

The thing is, there’s none of that happening. When confronted with opposing views that call into question some of their claims, the Anger-stons have taken to turtling, and wrapping themselves in a cloak of Just Ol’ Down Home Plain Folks. (Witness Blatchford’s recent offerings.) Well, I may not be much of what you city types call a ‘Big Thinker’ with all yer university edu-macations and $19 coffees and uncooked fish but I do claim to knows what I knows and I knows we taxpayers are bein’ fleeced.

No. You know what? Fuck you.

Grow up and stop trying to mask your obstinate ignorance as some kind of homespun wisdom. It isn’t. It’s just obstinate ignorance.

We’re tired of having to talk down to your level. Being uninformed cannot be proudly called ‘populist’. It isn’t. It’s just being uninformed.

Does that make me an elitist? Only if it means that I feel a sense of entitlement to a thoughtful, cogent and logical debate about the future of this city and not some boiling brew of unharnessed and misplaced ire that spouts speculative, spurious nonsense with the demand of being taken seriously. Blind rage is not a reputable campaign platform. Thinking it is, is just your own sense of misplaced entitlement.

So all your Rob Ford types out there (and the Smithermans and Rossis trying hard to tap into that bitterness and bile base), you’re not the only ones capable of being angry. There is a growing contingent of us out here who feel that you are misrepresenting the wider swath of Toronto voters and are threatening much that has been accomplished in this city over the last 7 years. The difference is that ours is a positive outrage at your increasingly outlandish claims and childish behaviour. Ours is the anger that builds not destroys things.

And calling that patronizing and condescending doesn’t make it any less true.

— angrily (even lividly) submitted by Urban Sophisticat

Do Worry Be Unhappy

August 29, 2010

So just what the hell is going on out their on the mayoral campaign hustings? Are we really angry, like spittin’ nails angry, or are we just fine and dandy, cool as a cucumber, happy as clams? To hear Rob Ford and his vocal supporters spew bile, the whole city’s going into the crapper and the people we elect are to blame. Except Rob Ford, of course. In Friday’s Toronto Sun candidate George Smitherman is quoted as saying that he’s running for mayor because he was “… pissed off too” with City Hall.

And yet in NOW magazine this week, according to an exploratory poll conducted in July to track support for a possible John Tory run, 77% of those asked said that they thought “City Hall is on the right track.” Curiouser still, that same poll concluded “that a third of Ford supporters are comfortable with the Miller regime.” We says WHAT?!?

Pbn;oyaehpgPOANnNPOAhpap;oaP]ahhenahgv89!!!!! [Cognitive dissonance!! Cognitive dissonance!!! Does not compute! Danger!! Danger, Will Robinson!!!]

Just what gives?

After a long pause to stare wildly at the screen expecting it to provide me with some sort of credible answer, followed by a wild night of totally out-of-control binge drinking which itself was followed by a 3 course carbo-heavy breakfast to quell shaky nerves and an irregular heartbeat, I am back in front of the computer with what seems as plausible an explanation as any. This is all David Miller’s fault.

If the guy would just run again, just get back in the ring and take his lumps like a man, then everyone would have a real-life, tactile object to hate on. In his absence, they are forced to rail at the darkness, throw shit at the wall to see what sticks or blare outrageous noises and yell about perfectly reasonable things at the top of their voices so that IT ALL SEEMS SO CORRUPT AND UNHEALTHILY FATTENING SLURPING FROM THE GRAVY TRAIN! And none of it has to make a lick of sense.

David Miller not seeking re-election leaves a void in the campaigns of those vying to succeed him, throwing phantom punches at a chimerical bad guy in the hopes of landing a knockout blow against a non-existent opponent. Without him there, they just can’t seem to focus on why it is they want to be mayor of Toronto. Instead, they can only serve up a heaping helping of outrage and indignation, needing constantly to remind voters just how angry we all are.

Of course our blind rage is food that drives the media narrative. It is much more compelling than contentment. This boiling ire on the part of the Toronto electorate can be traced back to last year’s outside worker’s strike, manifested in all its debilitating horror by homeowners having to deal with their own garbage for six whole weeks. Has ever a city been so put upon as we were in the summer of `09? When Mayor Miller and his merry band of labour-loving socialists failed to crush the union into oblivion, sending its members packing and onto the streets looking for ‘real’ jobs, well, clearly he’d lost the war. He caved. Gave in. Handed over the keys to the vault.

None of which was true but that hardly mattered. As far as the press was concerned, the strike and its awful conclusion was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Toronto was on the wrong track, heading for some apocalyptic ending unless our wayward spending spree was stopped dead in its tracks. Reduce taxes! Reduce government! Stop the gravy train!! Remember, voters, you are really, really angry.

Except that, if the numbers from the John Tory exploratory poll are to be believed, we’re not. More than 3/4s of us think City Hall’s heading in the right direction. That’s well over twice the support current front runner Rob Ford has amongst the voting public. And one out of three of the Ford Army is apparently happy with the David Miller administration. So, the focus of their anger is something that they’re happy with… ?!

Does this mean we are dealing with a very vocal minority, kicking up a lot of fuss and generating little more than manufactured outrage, egged on by certain self-proclaimed ‘dumb’ members of the press like Christie Blatchford who routinely fills her column with a laundry list of supposed excesses at City Hall, wallowing in her boastful ignorance about what those numbers actually show? If so, that’s not really a grassroots, populist movement swelling up to demand real, tangible change. If it were, it wouldn’t be marching in lockstep behind a self-serving millionaire blowhole and having its praises sung in the pages of corporate owned newspapers by elitist downtown hacks pretending to be just one of you-alls.

It’s one thing to contend, and try to find compromise, with genuine anger. But anger with no substance? That’s a temper tantrum. It’s irrational and will do little to help alleviate the problems that this city legitimately faces.

Simply being angry is easy. Two year-olds do it all the time. It’s rarely productive and usually only masks what they’re really mad about.

consciously patronizingly submitted by Cityslikr

Meet A Mayoral Candidate XXVIII

August 27, 2010

It’s that time of week with another Friday upon us to Meet A Mayoral Candidate! So come on down: Michael Flie.

We’re going to mix it up this week, juggle the format around a little. Instead of waiting until the end of the post to ask the question we’ve been asking all the candidates, we’re going to begin with it.

Mr. Flie? If our current mayor would like to see his legacy as that of the Transit Mayor, how would a Mayor Flie like to see his legacy written?

Michael Flie: “I would like to see my legacy written as the ‘People Mayor.’ A representative for the people by the people. A Mayor who will bring about change that will transform this great city into a shiny example of a major metropolis that supports its people and its needs without incurring huge debts to do so.”

OK, now wait a minute. I believe candidate HiMY SYeD has already taken the moniker of the ‘Peoples’ Mayor’. ‘The People Mayor’ may well be a mayoral descriptor infringement. Let us confer with the judges and we’ll get back to you.

Also? The ‘for the people by the people’ riff may be a little too American for our tastes. You might need to tone that down a bit.

Moreover, as a legacy, it’s all too broad. You have to be pithy. Short, sharp and to the point.

To be fair, this is a failing many of the mayoral candidates are exhibiting in the campaign this year, both front runners and lesser knowns. Prone to broad generalities and meaningless platitudes that ultimately make little impression and offer nothing to hold on to. It’s impossible to tell exactly why it is they want to be mayor.

The one exception of course is Rob Ford. He has boiled down his legacy maker into an easy to remember mantra that he punches out relentlessly and mindlessly with little regard to context that brings to mind autistic Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Stop the gravy train! We don’t have a revenue problem. We’ve got a spending problem!

It’s no coincidence that he’s now leading the pack.

This lack of focus on the part of candidate Michael Flie is something of a surprise since he’s a Marketing and Advertising Specialist. If anyone should be able to boil down a legacy to its barest essence, you’d think a marketing and advertising specialist could. So let’s unleash Mr. Flie from the legacy mode and allow him freer rein.

Michael Flie, Guardian for the People. “I will ensure that the police get better training, better equipment, multi-purpose helicopters that will perform such duties as transportation of equipment and people, search and rescue, recon, surveillance, high speed pursuits, fire support, research and crowd control.”

Michael Flie, Financial Protector for the People. “My goal to establish a balanced budget, and pay off the debt within a 10 year period at a fixed interest rate with the Bank of Canada.”

Michael Flie, Entrepreneur for the People. “I will establish new industries and new business for our City that will generate revenue strictly for Toronto and thereby offset our debt and curb the need to increase taxes. The goal to make our city more financially independent so that our city operates in the black not in the red.”

Michael Flie, Muse for the People. “My goal would be to create more support for Theatre, Ballet, Opera, and Music. Allowing people to expand their options in their pursuit of their career. As well as optimize the opportunities that are being created here by Hollywood for the creation of movies and tv shows.”

Things begin to crystallize about the Flie For Mayor campaign. He is a fiscal conservative, partial to a more aggressive police force but socially liberal with an eye towards the arts as a way of keeping the city vibrant. Flie favours “european style bike lanes and sidewalks and roads … as part of the New Urban and Planning Progam” although he feels “some roads downtown can not be expanded to accommodate bike lanes due to safety reasons. Compromise … might be a ONE WAY bike Lane.” In his view, taking the TTC is too expensive and some privatization may be in order although he’d first try something like a “Balanced Budget Allocation … and increase efficiency to expenditures allowing the TTC to sustain or increase its logistics without requiring pay increases.” What exactly that means, we’re not sure but will take the blame for the lack of comprehension.

For what it’s worth, Michael Flie states that “as Mayor, my stance on marriage for all the citizens of Toronto is covered already in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination…” He would aggressively deal with helping the homeless and the victims of abuse. All of this he would pursue while freezing property taxes – the city’s main source of revenue – for 2 years. How exactly would he do that? “Increase the city’s economic independence by implementing several businesses that are designed to generate revenue strictly for the city of Toronto.” We await word of what exactly those businesses would be.

It seems to us here that the problem with focus for Michael Flie is that he is endeavouring to be all things to all people. Deficit hawk for the Rob Ford crowd and socially enlightened for all the rest of us. That’s a mighty tough tightrope to walk. Many have tried. Few have made it successfully to the other side.

But at least Mr. Flie’s intentions in running for mayor are honourable and inclusive as he circles back in for another attempt at a legacy landing. “My legacy will be a city that will always shine and prosper because of my action and because of the people of this city.”

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr

Drive, He Read

August 26, 2010

To avoid any appearances of a conflict of interest or accusations of log rolling, I have been tapped to write this post today. I am not a reviewer of books. My métier of TV and movies is more passively pleasing to me. But since both Acaphlegmic and Cityslikr are, if not friends, than certainly amiable drinking companions of Tim Falconer, it was felt that perhaps we needed a more objective take on his 2008 book, Drive. My lone encounter with Mr. Falconer was just after he’d had a pedicure and kept demanding to see my feet which didn’t make me partial to liking his book.

Although of all of us who toil away here under the All Fired Up yoke, there’s little question that my voice is loudest when it comes to making anti-car noises. So Drive is really up my gasoline alley, as it were. It’s almost as if Mr. Falconer wrote the book with me in mind. Quite a feat since we had never met during the course of the writing.

But the author and I do share a similar non-car background. He didn’t get his full on, non-learners driver’s licence until his late-30s. I got mine when most red-blooded males did back in the day. At the age of 18 when you needed it as picture ID to get into bars and buy booze in the stores. I’ve not had much use for it since, living as I do, along with Mr. Falconer, in downtown Toronto and its wide range of transportation options. (Note to ed.: I don’t live with Mr. Falconer but rather we both live in downtown Toronto. In completely separate abodes.)

Unfortunately, a few years back Falconer broke down and sold out, buying a 1991 Nissan Maxima despite considering himself first and foremost a pedestrian. In it, he headed off on a 9-and-a-half week, nearly 15,000 K road trip from Toronto to the heart of car culture, Los Angeles, and back again; a journey that is the narrative basis for Drive. Like any good road trip (and I would never claim that there can’t be good road trips), the tale Falconer spins is a meandering affair, never doggedly adhering to a rigid map route. Along the way, we get a thorough history of the automobile and its immense impact on the development of society especially after World War II.

The subtitlely thingie of Drive is “A Road Trip Through Our Complicated Affair With The Automobile” and truer words have never been written after a book’s title. What was most startling to me while reading this book was, for every sane person who either hates cars or doesn’t put much thought at all into their existence, there seems to be a dozen who absolutely love them. I mean, really, really loves them. These self-proclaimed car nuts never outgrow their adolescent fascination with their toys.

If there’s one complaint I had with Drive, it’s that too much time is given over to these car freaks which, to my deaf ear on the subject, began to sound all the same. After yet another outing Falconer takes with the Rocky Mountain Mustangers or Gateway Camaro Club, I found myself growing increasingly irate and finally snapping. I KNOW HOW MUCH YOUR CARS MEAN TO YOU, PEOPLE! BUT THEY’RE JUST THAT! CARS! I COULDN’T GET ENOUGH OF CRACK COCAINE EITHER. I JUST HAD TO STOP DOING IT FOR THE SAKE OF EVERYONE AROUND ME!! YOU SHOULD TOO!!!

The beauty of Drive is that it seems to anticipate that reaction in many readers and delights in turning the tables on them… er, me. It’s not surprising that I reacted so violently negative to yet another pot-bellied, middle-aged car jockey waxing nostalgic about his Ford Falcon because early on in the book, Falconer provides data that shows Canadians are more prone to see their cars as little more than appliances to be used in getting to where they need to go. Americans revere their cars and treat them accordingly as potent symbols of freedom and mobility. So naturally, I’m going to see them as completely out of touch with reality and vile, brainless materialists. Thus, Falconer deftly manages to shine a glaring light on my prejudices.

That makes the real heroes of the book the ones Falconer meets who have a much more rational approach to the car conundrum than I do. Hell, some of them even like driving but have concluded that urban planning around the needs of cars is the surest way to inflict the greatest amount of damage on cities.  There’s James Kushner, a teacher at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles and perhaps the only Angelino who does not own a car. His two books, The Post-Automobile City and Healthy Cities are in the mail as I write, destined to the growing pile of books I need to get to in order to truly start understanding urban dynamics. Donald Shoup, ‘America’s Parking Guru’ (and who we featured here back in March. You may recognize my colleague’s dining and discussing partner) is a joy to listen talk so academically about the problems of parking and how to fix it. (Heads-up: we aren’t paying nearly enough for it.) His book, The High Cost of Free Parking is already on my book shelf.

But the nucleus of the post-automobile future city truly emerges in the last 8 pages of Chapter 16 (San Francisco, Man versus the Internal Combustion Engine). Mr. Falconer talks with two members of the Sierra Club. John Holtzclaw chairs the organization’s Transportation Committee and Tim Frank is the chair of the group’s Challenge to Sprawl Campaign Committee. Together they put together an urban environment where private vehicles will slowly and naturally be squeezed out or, at the very least, be severely reduced in importance. How will this come about? Our growing urbanization and need for higher density. (A ‘variety of densities’, according to Holtzman.)

Presently, density is a hot button issue but those resisting it appear to be on the wrong side. Frank argues that density could, ironically, wind up uniting right and left. He sees density appealing to the left because of its tendency toward social justice if things like mixed income housing are part of the plan. The right will take to it as denser communities make various government services less expensive to deliver and need fewer people to deliver them. Increased density equals smaller, more efficient government.

More exciting still for those of my political stripe, John Holtzclaw believes that increased density creates a more tolerant, liberal-minded society. “People who live closer together and are less dependent on the automobile develop a different attitude toward citizenship and activism,” concludes Falconer. So take heart, all you who grow dismayed in the face of Rob Ford’s spike in popularity and Stephen Harper’s relentless push to neo-con Canada, for they are fighting a losing battle. The slow march of history is on our side.

How cool is that? A political manifesto rising up from a book about cars. That’s quite something to pull off but is exactly what Tim Falconer does in Drive. So run, don’t walk (and certainly don’t drive although cycling is encouraged) and pick up your copy. The revolution (or – a-ha, a-ha — the rpms) has begun.

car-freely submitted by Urban Sophisticat