Time For A Little Game Of Chicken

September 30, 2011

Despite the divisive and highly acrimonious environment that has settled over council chambers at City Hall these days, through all the sniping and partisan hackery, there is one item that could easily muster the support of more than a 2/3s majority of councillors. This city is being severely short-changed financially by the two levels of senior government, and have been for going on 20 years now. It is not a situation unique to Toronto or other municipalities in this province. It’s happening nationally. Listen to Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi. It’s taking place in the United States. Witness Chicago’s budget battles.

The difference of opinion, however, arises over what exactly to do about it.

While many of the right leaning councillors acknowledge the problem, their solution seems to consist of shrugging their shoulders and saying, what are you gonna do. We’ve tried and tried with very little to show for it. Let’s move on. It doesn’t hurt that the lack of proper funding plays into their desire to shrink local government down to size. Any case they might make for a more sound fiscal arrangement between the city, the province and the federal government is undercut by the mayor’s refusal to stop claiming that we don’t have a revenue problem.

Still, they do have a point. Previous administrations have endeavoured to secure not only more money from Queen’s Park and Ottawa (in most cases, money they once provided) but also to establish a stable funding formula in order to move past the almost ad hoc, yearly struggles to balance our books. All to only limited success.

Moderate councillors suggest we keep on keeping on, nagging away at our deadbeat provincial and federal politician to do the right thing and start ponying up the cash they owe us. On Tuesday, Councillor Pam McConnell successfully put through a motion for the City Solicitor “…to report to the Executive Committee on the legal implications of the allocation, funding and downloading of Provincial responsibilities to municipalities including a comparison of how municipalities in other provinces have responded to provincial downloading pursuant to the British North America Act and the Constitution Act, 1982.” The BNA Act? Chortles were heard from the council floor. Or maybe that wasn’t chortling. Maybe it was the sound of straw clutching.

But why not seek legal counsel on this issue? We are, after all, legally bound as nothing more than ‘creatures of the province’. Doesn’t that entail a degree of responsibility on the province’s part to keep us properly fed and housed? Aren’t even the lowliest of creatures entitled to move about freely, outside the cage of inadequate transit? (Yeah, I went there.)

Yes, yes, yes. Of course, go about your quixotic tilt. Councillor MacConnell’s motion passed 39-6, with only the mayor and some of his hardest core supporters voting against as well as.. what? Councillor Josh Matlow? What up with that, Councillor?

(Nope.. nope.. Do not get distracted by the curious case of Councillor Josh Matlow’s centrism. That’s… another post entirely.)

In any case, that’s more long term thinking. What about the here and now? Dire warnings rang out over the course of the meeting’s two days that if we could not get our fiscal house in order, if we could not come to some sort of agreement between service cuts and tax hikes, if we could not balance our budget as we were legally mandated to do, as we have every year previously, well, provincial caretakers would swoop down from their perch at Queen’s Park and do it for us. Oh, the shame! Oh, the horror!

You know what? Sometimes I think we should just dare the province to do it. One budget year, we just simply acknowledge that we have not been given the proper tools to do the job adequately and that instead of inflicting damage upon the city and the people living within it, we choose instead not to balance our books. Like the other two levels of government do, we run an operating deficit.

And if the province has a problem with that, hey, come on down, folks. You try it. You get your hands dirty, slashing and burning. You take the heat from citizens outraged at tax hikes. Yeah. Not so easy, is it?

Maybe the time for playing nice has come and gone. Maybe it’s time to up the ante a little. To, I don’t know, start withholding any money we normally pass along in the form of HST payments. The feds owe us some back taxes? Queen’s Park has some outstanding fines? We’ll just take that off the cheque we’re cutting for you, shall we?

Now, as with any belligerence married to a woeful lack of understanding about the implications, ramifications or even possibility of such gestures, my suggestion comes with a Wikipedia-like citation needed. All I’m saying is that we start exploring different approaches to the dysfunctional manner of our relationship to the other levels of government. Playing nice, rolling over and hoping for a rub of the tummy and the occasional bone thrown our way is not proving to be the healthiest of methods. Been there. Done that. And the fucking t-shirt is about 3 sizes too small.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. A more aggressive approach may be in order. By any means necessary. It’s time we thought of ways to beat our federal and provincial representatives out from the bushes where they’ve been hiding, avoiding their responsibility. We need them to come to the table and negotiate not from a position of power but as equal partners. Asking politely hasn’t worked to date. We need to start demanding. To do that, we just might have to upset an applecart or two.

feistily submitted by Cityslikr

We’re Back. Just Not Here. Over There.

September 29, 2011

Some of you may be wondering, what’s up at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke. Where’s the original content from that usually prodigious gang? (Yes, you did say ‘prodigious’ even if it might not properly fit). Have they broken up? Are they on some sort of hiatus?

No, we haven’t broken up although that new girlfriend Urban Sophisticat has is sort of annoying. Paul is not dead. We’ve just been lazy.

But we’re back now. Only you won’t find us here. We’re at the Torontoist today, writing about the crazy council meeting that was this week.

Think we’re lying? Just click this link and see for yourself.

Until tomorrow, monsters.

in absentially submitted by Cityslikr

Skirmish Won. Battle Still Ongoing. Victory From From Secure.

September 27, 2011

(As we were in absentia for Team Ford’s waterfront retreat, we turn to colleague Sol Chrom for a summary of last week’s important but very, very fluid victory on the waterfront.)

*  *  *

If Team Ford’s Port Lands plans are truly dead, would someone mind driving a stake through them?

The plans, that is.

That’s how a tweet from Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan is describing things, linking to a quote from Councillor Paula Fletcher.

This is a triumph for the public…This is a Toronto moment, a Jane Jacobs moment.

Can’t argue with the sentiments, but I’m inclined to agree with a comment left on the Torontoist site by one dsmithhfx:

Don’t celebrate quite yet… I don’t trust this cabal of scumbag opportunists as far as I could throw them. It’s a setback, to be sure. And much as we’d like to think of it as a turning point, the point where the wave of ignorance, resentment, stupidity, and short-term greed that the Ford approach taps into finally broke, let’s not start the happy dance just yet.

The Port Lands/Waterfront fiasco has captivated our attention for several weeks, to be sure, and we can’t underestimate its symbolic importance. But it’s also possible to think of it as this week’s Shiny ObjectTM — something thing that attracts our attention and keeps us all occupied while other things are going on.

A thoughtful essay by Dylan Reid in Spacing last week discussed the slow decline of a community through a process of dozens of little cuts. Cancel a minor program here, put less resources into something else there, cut back on the scope of something else over there. The examples Reid cites include things like litter pickup, tree planting, neighbourhood improvement programs, snow clearing, and making bylaw enforcement reactive rather than proactive. As Reid writes:

Individually, the impact of each of these is small. And it’s quite possible some of them could be reasonable proposals for a city with a screwed-up budgetary process if they were thought through properly (e.g. all parks could have citizen committees that take care of flower planting and care, if the city provides the flowers and eases up on regulation). But done all in a rush, and all together, the overall impact will be a gradual degradation in the walking environment. It will get dirtier and trickier, and many programs that make it more attractive will be abandoned. People will still be able to walk, of course. They just won’t want to walk as much, unless they have to. And since walking is how people experience their city most directly, Toronto will feel a little bit more like a city in decline — which, given the amount of building going on and people moving in, it really shouldn’t.

By themselves, these measures may not amount to much. They don’t have the impact or the visibility of the Port Lands clusterfuck, because they don’t carry the same scale or price tag. That’s why they’re mostly off the radar. Cumulatively, however, their effect on our quality of life could be just as serious. The places we love and live in, whether they’re downtown or in the suburbs, would become dirtier, more threadbare, and less welcoming.

But this is what happens when the function of government is entrusted to people with no commitment to the public sphere. I’ve already written that the current administration seems colonized by people with no interest in using the power of government to advance the common good, and the events of the past few weeks have done nothing to suggest otherwise. When you start pulling at the threads that hold a community together, you never know when the whole thing’s going to unravel.

This is not to take anything away from the the people whose efforts forced a retreat on the waterfront, of course. And the folks involved in CodeBlueTO deserve a special shout-out. Let’s just remember, though, that this is a long war that has to be fought on many fronts. These guys aren’t done yet. There’s still a long slog ahead.

submitted by Sol Chrom

(Not only is Sol Chrom an occasional commenter here but he’s also been known to blog over at Posteroustumblr and OpenFile.)

Notes On Buenos Aires

September 25, 2011

Just shy of a week spent in Buenos Aires, I wouldn’t even try to pretend to have a handle on the place. They speak Spanish there, a language I am unfamiliar with aside from the barest of essentials. ¿Dónde ésta… ? Por favour. Lo siento. Lo siento muy, muy, muy.

One glaringly apparent fact was that European connections still run in the Argentine capital. So deep that it’s hard to get your head around the fact you’re in South America when you’re in Buenos Aires. Another easy observation was they sure do love their meat. Sports are also near an obsession. Pics of football, rugby and tennis feature heavily on the front pages of their daily newspapers.

Yeah. That’s all I got. But in my defence, the wine was also plentiful, so my note taking had something of a rosy and, at times, hard to later transcribe glow to it.

I will tell you this, though. Buenos Aires is a city Mayor Rob Ford would hate. Sure, cars are kings of the road, more than ably filling the ample space given to them throughout the city (an admittedly non-European trait to the place). Pedestrians must be on their toes even with the apparent right of way at green lights. Buses are the only surface form of public transit with nary a streetcar in sight. The rest is buried on 6 subte lines underground. And cyclists? Forget about it. What on-street bike lanes there are are riddled not just with potholes and crumbling asphalt but eruptions of infrastructure demise. The rest have been relegated to off-road public spaces.

Despite all that pro-Ford urbanism, Buenos Aires is not what you would call orderly. It’s messy. Parts of it have clearly seen better days. From my hotel balcony I looked across the street at an abandoned Belle Epoque (I’m thinking) building, broken windows and strewn furniture abound. Streets have buckled. Sidewalks cratered. Cobblestones jut and sag, making for a concentrated stroll through the San Telmo neighbourhood. On any given day, a protest or two can close down a street and snarl up traffic even more than usual.

And the graffiti? Our mayor wouldn’t just have a war on his hands in Buenos Aires. It would be a protracted struggle of epic proportions with the very real possibility of the nuclear option being used. (In fact, the mayor’s reputation as an anti-graffitist may have travelled beyond this city’s limits as some graffiti on the streets of Buenos Aires looks eerily familiar.)

Of course, little of these signs of urban decay will be what I will remember from the trip. It is the vibrancy and vitality of life on the streets that makes Buenos Aires so fascinating. Despite the architectural grandeur and precision of its spoke-like design, the city operates at a very human scale. Buildings tend to inspire rather than overwhelm. There’s a certain seamless transition travelling from one neighbourhood to the next. Even though the grandest of boulevards are used as an inter-city freeway, the street life along them, while somewhat diminished by fast food joints and low end retail, has not been quashed.

It is impossible and somewhat unfair to make a comparison at this level between Buenos Aires and Toronto. The climate is more conducive to being outside in Buenos Aires. Two-thirds of porteños live in apartment buildings which increases demand for inclusive public spaces. Not just malls (although they are present) and retail outlets but open and accessible green spaces. The streets aren’t simply routes for travelling between home and work.

Interestingly, Buenos Aires is also transforming its waterfront. Puerto Madero bestrides the city’s business centre as well as a couple of its older, more downscale (although certainly experiencing a degree of gentrification) neighbourhoods. Cranes dot the old port’s landscape without a ferris wheel or monorail in sight. Instead, it’s a mixed use development of businesses, retail and residential. Can you say, Hello Waterfront Buenos Aires? Ballooning home prices suggest that mixed income housing may not be part of the plans but a Sunday stroll along the boardwalk (including the crossing of a fancy pedestrian bridge) reveals unfettered access to much of the street level public space.

History looms large in Buenos Aires, much larger than it does in Toronto. Some of it spectacularly grand, some of it much less so. (Did I mention the cars? A major autoroute bisects the heart of the city, vividly reminding us of what could’ve been with the Spadina Expressway.) There is also an undercurrent of fiscal instability here that only the truly misguided and most exploitive in Toronto can see in our finances.

Yet, Buenos Aires appears to be meeting their challenges with boldness rather than panic. Investment in public spaces is in evidence throughout the city. The subway is undergoing expansion. Despite a very recent rocky past and a somewhat worrisome immediate future — given our dim global financial outlook – you get no sense of submission or retreat in the face of the so-called ‘realities’ we are told we need to face.

Embracing the city as an asset, warts and all (and the warts in Buenos Aires, like the very best of its elements, dwarf the problems and blights Toronto faces). To be nurtured and developed not to be exploited and sold off for a quick but wholly unsustainable boost to the books. It’s something you can feel wandering around the place. The city as an ally not an enemy.

If I’ve brought nothing else back from Buenos Aires, that’s a sentiment I hope to retain. Just with a little less meat and malbec.

sleepily submitted by Cityslikr

More Strutting And Fretting

September 19, 2011

A quick follow-up to my post from last month about graffiti and my friend, Crazy Stanley.

He received a Notice of Violation in the mail from the city, instructing him to ‘eradicate’ some graffiti that had been put up on his garage door in the back alley of his house. Failure to do so would mean further inspection charges of $94 for the first hour and $55 for every hour after that, yaddie, yaddie, yaddie.

Crazy Stanley decided to do some further inquiring into the matter with the city and actually got on the blower with somebody there. Talk about your customer service, right? In a nutshell, he was told that there were gangs and prostitution operating in the neighbourhood.  The man from the city had seen it on video camera footage himself. Video cameras located in the back lanes.

I says, hold on, run that by me again. Video cameras located in back lanes? Since when do we have video cameras in our back lanes? Am I being hopelessly naïve? When did we start installing video cameras in back alleys? I’d seen them at alleged hotspots, looking down on us with their cold, 1984 stare. But in back alleys? Who decides in which alleys? What is it with law and order types and their surveillance cameras but yet we can’t have an intelligent discussion about photo radar. And if they have the money to be installing video cameras, where’s the funding at to plow my alley in the wintertime?

So many questions but Crazy Stanley was talking to me.

“… the graffiti isn’t just simple tagging,” Mr. City Man said,” but signature pieces by different gangs. To tell other gangs to keep clear of this neighbourhood because they have guns. Or that you can buy drugs here. Like we all haven’t seen The Warriors before.” Yes, Crazy Stanley is of that vintage.

“More to the point, Stanley,” I tell him, “if they’ve got all this surveillance going on, why aren’t they arresting the drug dealers and prostitutes? Cleaning the alleys up themselves.”

Stanley is slow to respond. “Well… that’s a bit extreme. You don’t want to be buying your pot from complete strangers…” But his eyes brighten as an idea lights up over his head. “You’d think with video cameras they’d be able to spot the taggers, track them down and make them pay to clean it up.”

You’d think.

Somehow the small/anti-government contingent just don’t see the disconnect between their political beliefs and promotion of a surveillance state. It really doesn’t get government off our backs. No more than ‘eradicating’ graffiti will bring about the end to the bigger crimes of drug dealing and prostitution. It’s just waste of what we are told are precious financial resources. Pure gravy, to use the parlance of our times, in the pursuit of looking like something’s being done while accomplishing next to nothing.

frustratingly submitted by Urban Sophisticat