It’s difficult to reconcile being in a room full of articulate, passionate and fully engaged Torontonians for about 6 hours or so and the state this city finds itself in currently. I mean, if we’re facing such seemingly intractable and menacing issues, why aren’t some of these people in charge? After all, they can’t be that busy. Here they were, taking an afternoon to talk to the likes of us.
So it was yesterday as I sat in attendance in the Baillie Court auditorium at the AGO for a symposium, Imagine Toronto, that kicked off the launch of The Toronto Project followed by a Walrus sponsored debate, Be It Resolved That Toronto Will Never Be Beautiful. The room was packed with bright stars both on and off the stage, exchanging ideas, expressing hope (guarded), concern (sincere), outrage (very, very palpable). David Crombie moderated the afternoon session that featured 10 takes on the essence of Toronto, past, present and future. There was author-professor-philosopher Mark Kingwell. From the Maytree Foundation, Ratna Omidvar. Author-editor-stroller, Shawn Micallef. CivicAction‘s Naki Osutei. Rahul Bhardwaj talked about Toronto’s worrisome Vital Signs but remained surprisingly upbeat. Architect Wayne Kuwabara. Visual artist Shary Boyle tore up the place, beseeching the audience to imagine a Toronto that embraced itself and its artists proudly rather than half-heartedly. Writer-activist Dave Meslin called for more community, grassroots engagement in our political process.
That was all before the evening’s entertainment had begun.
One crossover between the day’s two meeting of minds was journalist John Lorinc. His cover article for the November issue of The Walrus magazine, Where Toronto Went Wrong, has been the talk of the town since it came out and was the cornerstone of both gatherings. No, folks. Things didn’t suddenly go south when Rob Ford became mayor. Even the enforced amalgamation foisted upon us by the Harris government and the subsequent downloading and bailing of responsibilities by Queen’s Park cannot be pointed to as the only culprit although it certainly served as a key role in how things are playing out here presently. Weaving a historical overview, Lorinc writes about how for every positive step the city leaders and their provincial overlords took, such as the creation of a two-tier system of regional governance with the formation of Metropolitan Toronto in 1954, there were two steps back like, well, the undoing of Metropolitan Toronto in 1998. (Amalgamation didn’t have to include the elimination of the metro level of government.)
My take on the whys and hows Toronto ‘lost its groove’ can be distilled in two points Mr. Lorinc makes in his article. “Unfortunately, Toronto’s history is filled with examples of high-minded plans for open spaces that were crushed by its deep-seated disinclination to invest in the public realm.” Four paragraphs later he writes, “Such not-so-benign neglect, borne of a culture of stinginess, has been a long-standing element of Toronto’s DNA.”
Our leaders have suffered from a severe aversion to boldness, masked in an embrace of parsimoniousness calling itself fiscal prudence. Not only have we allowed them to conduct their business in such a fashion, we’ve encouraged it, demanding low taxes before civic amenities. ‘Need-to-haves’ over ‘nice-to-haves’ to use Mayor Ford’s words.
A ‘stinginess’ with money infecting a ‘stinginess’ of spirit. No to a Yonge Street subway in 1912 because of its price tag, repeated some 80 years later when Mike Harris buried the hole already dug for an Eglinton Avenue subway. The costs too rich for our blood that would haunt and saddle future generations with a significantly higher amount of money needed to think big on matters of transit. A history of here and now closed-mindedness and fistedness.
Remember a few months back when Councillor David Shiner killed plans for the Fort York bridge because he thought it ‘too fancy’? A miserliness of thinking handed down from his mother, Esther Shiner, Spadiner Shiner, who led the charge to extend the Spadina Expressway from where it had been stopped in its tracks at Lawrence Avenue down to Eglinton Avenue. The so-called Davis Ditch which, among other proposals was one from Buckminster Fuller that feature a mixed use development atop the Spadina subway extension. Instead, we got Allen Road. Anyone who’s ever tried to negotiate that intersection on foot, bike or even a car knows the price we paid for that.
We have inherited a short-sightedness in terms of money that never seems capable of taking in the bigger picture. A deficit of boldness that always means passing the buck, both literally and figuratively. Sometimes, oftentimes, a penny saved is not a penny earned. It’s just responsibility deferred.
To be bold means more than strictly adhering to the bottom line. Down the road, money you think you’ve saved just accrues, collecting interest that will have to be paid by someone else. Not doing something because it seems unaffordable now may seem noble and conscientious and shows Respect For The Taxpayer but in many cases, when it comes to building a sustainable, liveable, just city, is nothing more than a refusal to govern. It isn’t even caretaking. It’s obstructionism. Politicians priding themselves in that would do us all a favour and step out of the way. As I witnessed yesterday, there’s plenty of people ready to offer up solutions and ideas to get Toronto back on the right track.
— hopefully submitted by Cityslikr