Asleep On The Subways

January 31, 2012

I proceed on uncertain footing with this one, venturing into unfamiliar territory. Hallowed literary ground. It already feels ill-fitting and clumsy. I mean, five or six attempts to get this first paragraph sounding right should serve as proper warning sign that this couldn’t possibly work out well.

But, fuck it, throwing caution to the wind and blustering on through does seem to be the modus operandi around here these days.

So I give you an analogy.

Our last night in New York City, back in the hotel room, with some wine on board I should note, I finally conceded to the lure of the Crosley box turntable and decided to give it a… ahem, ahem… spin. Me being totally ignorant that Crosley was, you know, a thing, I wasn’t even sure it worked. It could just as well be a decorative touch, to give the place some additional ambience.

Turns out, the turntable was in very good working condition, far better than I expected. Like I said, Crosley is a thing, a digital contraption with an analogue throwback, designed, at least in part, to hit the nostalgia button for those of us who grew up on the vinyl. With the reminder wine had been consumed, I can tell you that I was captivated.

Yes, there was a little bit of my obsessive 14 year old self plugged into listening to music that doesn’t happen very often anymore. Who’s got the time, right? You slap something on in the background while going about your daily business without taking the time to pour over the album cover and liner notes. Besides, CDs kind of killed that thrill long before the advent of cold, clinical, distant downloading.

But there I was, sitting at the end of the bed as the record rotated, the arm gently undulating I guess you’d call it. Watching as well as listening. It was a much more inclusive experience, a bigger connection to the music. Nowadays it’s mostly about clicking. Click to download, double click to play. Done and done. To listen to Bill Evans’ We Will Meet Again on vinyl, I opened the box, turned the unit on, slipped the record first out of its cover, then out of the paper sleeve, set it gentle onto the turntable, lift the arm from out of the cradle and moved leftward toward the album, the turntable began to turn. As gently as possible set the needle down into the groove. The first sound is that familiar crackle and pop. And then the music starts.

I should totally get one of these, I thought as I poured out another glass of wine. Listen to how rich that sound is. I could start making mixed tapes again, reacquiring the skill of placing the needle just right in that groove between songs. Can you imagine?

Seriously. Can you imagine?

Yet another piece of machinery to house somewhere and maintain. And what about collecting LPs again. Where the hell are you going to keep them? I wouldn’t even know where to begin to look for those plastic milk crates. Never mind having to get up and push things along when the needle gets stuck which it did twice, once per side. The first time probably due to the fact of guys like me trying to set down the needle just so and scratching the record up while doing so. The second seemed to be the ball of dust that the needle had collected.

In fact, truth be told, I’m not even sure the music was that much better sounding. It’s just something I’ve read along the way. A myth propagated by elitist audiophiles and the vinyl industry that fronts them and benefits most from a record revival.

On that note, let’s talk about subways. (Yes, folks. That there is the awkward clumsy segue toward a hoped for analogy.)

Having spent 4 days in a city chock full of them, up and down, right to left, under bodies of water, above ground in places, there is no argument that they aren’t great, perhaps the best mode of urban public transit there is. In places with extensive lines like New York and Paris, you can get from one corner of a big city to another in the matter of minutes, the blink of an eye. Here’s to subways. We all should have subways.

Except maybe not, not always, not everyplace.

Like the long playing albums of yore, for all their appeal and plusses, subways have their drawbacks. The expense of not only building but operating them is one especially in these days of cutbacks and austerity. It’s interesting to note that some of the more ardent fiscal hawks around City Hall seem hell bent on foisting such a costly system on the city’s taxpayers when less expensive options are already in place. I guess to them, subways just sound better.

Subways will also affect future development in ways parts of Toronto will resist. Build it and they will come? Eventually but is everyone prepared for the kind of density needed to make it feasible? Returning to Brooklyn from Manhattan on Sunday night and I was struck by the fact that if was one of the very few trips I took on the subway that I actually found a seat. The trains were full throughout the day and night. You know why? Because New York City is dense. Dense, dense, dense in a way we won’t be for decades if ever.

Not to mention that they have a subway tradition, actually dating back over a 100 years rather than the imagined century of subways Mayor Ford claims for Toronto. So there’s the infrastructure in place there. A  turntable, if you will, still capable of churning out subways. Ours is a much more torturous, push-pull relationship. We love subways in theory (and out on the campaign hustings where nuance and detail take a back seat to empty rhetoric) but when it comes to implementation we’ve proven to be more than a little tone deaf.

Like vinyl records, subways sound great initially. Crisp, clean with a full sound that is entirely pleasing. Subways? Nothing beats them. But then upon a closer, second, third listen, there’s that hiss and pop right before it gets stuck on that almost imperceptible scratch. And, of course, have you ever tried to get around town while listening to an LP? Pretty much impossible.

Beware the pleasing sounds and easy listening of the call for subways. Nice to have but at this juncture and for the parts of this city in most need of rapid transit, they seem to be highly impractical and out of place. A novelty item almost. An expensive novelty item at that, providing less benefit for fewer people. Not a transit strategy so much as building a collector’s item.

stereophonically submitted by Cityslikr


Austerity. What Is It Good For?

January 29, 2012

Austerity is in the air.

Can you smell it? It’s acrid, like burning hair, with a hint of pungency as if wafting upwards from Satan’s unwashed bum. Unpleasant. Vile. But an absolute necessity in these days of economic uncertainty.

Or so we are being told at the turn of every newspaper page, radio channel, and at every level of government. Prepare for the Big Cut. We’ve been living too high off the hog for too long, living way beyond our means. Poke another hole further along your belt and tighten up.

All a great heaping pile of steaming bullshit, of course, from the root causes right up to the tip of the stiffy we’re being screwed with.

[Don’t believe us? Put Alex Himelfarb, Trish Hennessy and Sol Chrom on your immediate reading list. – ed.]

What I don’t understand about this coming age of austerity is how it’ll help anyone other than those who’ve already benefitted most from the supposed bacchanalian descent into debt that we’ve all been participants in. How will everyone spending less turn things around and grow our economy? I get the whole government cuts reduce deficits pitch but that’s only a part of the whole equation. Those cuts result, usually, in lost jobs and, ultimately, further lost revenue to governments in the form of taxation. Lower revenue means more cuts. A vicious, downward cycle; the snake eating its own tail.

Austerity2Prosperity is another mythical kingdom bordering on the Republic of Debtfreetopia that baffled Urban Sophisticat here earlier this week. Sounding good on paper or up on a blackboard but how exactly does it work in real life? It would be nice if someone could point to an actual occurrence of this theory working in practice. And if you’re about to write ‘Canada in the mid-90s’, don’t bother. You’ve already pounded back the koolaid and are blindly singing along to the set playlist.

We here in Toronto are looking down the barrel of some serious labour disruption next month entirely because we have a mayor who wants to dismantle city workers’ unions in order to contract out city services to private companies that pay their workers less, provide fewer benefits. The goal, we are told, is to save the taxpayers’ money although the case for that in many circumstances is actually quite iffy. For every example of, say, contracted out waste collection, there’s a counter example of municipalities contracting waste collection back in house. It’s a wash.

Instead of busting up unions on the theory that private sector workers can do any job more efficiently for less money, prove it first. Being wrong about that will wind up costing us all much more in the end. Mistakes always do.

Even if a case can be made that contracting out government services does save the said government money with the savings passed along to taxpayers, what is the bigger societal cost that comes with workers making less money? For the sake of pocketing 25, 50 cents per weekly curb side collection, how does a community benefit having workers make half of what they were paid before? I’m catastrophizing, you say? That won’t happen. Fearmonger.

Exhibit A. Caterpillar Inc. A company tax incentivized up the wazoo and how do they pay the economy back? Demand to cut themselves some $30 million in labour costs, thank you very much. Take it or leave it, and by leave it, we mean, the province for a more pro-low wage jurisdiction.

“That’s the game. That’s just the way the game is played,” claimed Metro Morning’s business commentator, Michael Hlinka. [Just a ‘yo’ away from claiming gangsta character status on The Wire. It’s all in the game, yo.— ed.] To Mr. Hlinka’s point of view, organized labour is a monopoly. And poor ol’, put upon free marketers like Caterpillar Inc. with only their 58% 4th quarter earnings increase and record revenues have no choice but to freely move their capital elsewhere if their workers insist on demanding their fair share of the wealth.

That’s the game. That’s just the way the game is played. Which leaves us with this kind of headline on a regular basis: More Canadians in low-paying jobs.

I am old enough to remember and to have voted in the 1988 federal election. It was the Free Trade election, and those standing in opposition who said that it would be the start of a rush to the bottom were labelled knee-jerk, parochial, backward-looking nationalists. [If you say so, old man. – ed.] Free trade was the way of the future. Glorious wealth will be sprinkled on more people. Don’t fight the future. It is inevitable.

Yet here we are, nearly 25 years later and more Canadians in low-paying jobs. Income inequality has grown to a degree that has not been seen here since the 1920s. And now we’re being told to prepare for austerity.

Tell me again, how that’s going to make everything better.

lavishly submitted by Acaphlegmic


Need A New York State Of Mind

January 27, 2012

Sometimes these days it’s hard to believe that we here in Toronto live in a big city that should be dealing with 21st-century, post-industrial opportunities and problems. An alpha city? Really? An ‘important node in the global economic system’? Seriously?

Have you been watching us lately?

It’s been all, we hate streetcars, nickel and diming ‘fancy’ design, you know what would make this place really great?, ferris wheel/monorails kind of thinking. Hey, folks. Tune in every Monday to see how much weight our mayor and his councillor brother have lost this week. Toronto the Good? How about Toronto the Good for a laugh.

My downtown elite core is running low, I guess is what I’m saying. I need to plug into the urban motherlode, recharge the system. Get my head back into a hey, that’s right, I remember now why it is I live in a city space.

So to NYC, we. For a long weekend of city fun and frivolity, free from the Mayberry RFD mindset that has settled in, alien spacecraft like over 100 Queen Street West. The Bronx is up but the Battery’s down. It’s not that New York is where I’d rather be. It’s just that I get allergic smelling hay(seed). Toronto, I love you but for the next 3 days, give me Park Avenue.

No Sleep Till Brooklyn.

Big Applely submitted by Cityslikr


The Politics Of Transit

January 26, 2012

If you’ve ever played one of those 3-D board games, like say, chess or Battleship, you can get a sense of what’s going on currently with public transit planning here in Toronto. Layers upon layers of intrigue and political jockeying where one seemingly unrelated move has serious ramifications on the machinations happening below. It sets the head a-spinning, and not necessarily in a good way.

Not to drive a wedge in the opposition now coalescing against Mayor Ford’s harebrained ‘Subways Only’ Transit – I mean, Transportation – Plan, and, oh yes, opposition is clearly coalescing. Last week, TTC Chair and Team Ford stalwart Karen Stintz openly mused about bringing the eastern portion of the Eglinton LRT back up from underground where the mayor had single-handedly banished it last year. She wasn’t the first one of the mayor’s gang to question the wisdom of burying it. Councillor John Parker had called the idea ‘goofy’ a few weeks back. But certainly Councillor Stintz as head of the TTC, her words carried significant weight. Enough certainly to draw Scarborough councillor Michael Thompson out of the woodwork as he expressed no particular drive to keep the Eglinton LRT buried.

Now the Chair was political enough to offer Mayor Ford a compromise of sorts, a facing saving out. She proposed that any money saved by keeping some of the Eglinton LRT at street level would be ploughed into building the mayor’s cherished Sheppard subway extension. But… but here’s where it gets murky, possibly operating on a second level. If the mayor were to take the money to build the subway, wouldn’t he be breaking one promise to keep another? He said there’d be no public money needed for Sheppard, and here he’d be taking public money.

A moot point perhaps, as the mayor seems categorically incapable of accepting compromise as was on display last week during the budget debate. Instead, the loyal members of his entourage went on the offensive. Mark Towhey, the mayor’s Policy Director proclaimed, “Residents don’t want trains running down the middle of the street.” Then Councillor Doug, the mayor’s brother, went full on bluster with the Toronto Sun. Forcing taxpayers onto streetcars or LRTs (Stalin style) relegated them to “second-class” citizenship. And apparently, according to the councillor, all that money that was diverted from other Transit City projects in order to bury the Eglinton LRT would somehow not be there if that decision was reversed. “There is no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow for $2 billion to fund something else.”

And where the mayor and his brother go, so goes the likes of Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, right?

Not so fast. This morning in the National Post Councillor Mammoliti is on record gently disputing Mayor Ford’s claim that everybody loves subways but not nearly as much as they hate streetcars. Read this last paragraph and tell me there isn’t an open revolt brewing within Team Ford’s ranks.

Councillor Mammoliti, who has pushed for a subway on Finch Avenue, says that if a forthcoming report on how to build the Sheppard line determines that private-sector funding will be hard to come by, then “we should be looking at improving what is there to begin with” on Finch. He favours a swift surface light rail line over a dedicated bus lane. As for what should happen on Eglinton, Mr. Mammoliti said that “during the election I didn’t hear anybody on the eastern side say they had some concerns with [surface light rail].”

If you’re counting at home, folks, that’s the TTC Chair, 2 members of the all-powerful Executive Committee and one staunch supporter of Mayor Ford openly and frankly challenging his Transportation City vision. It’s the kind of internal disarray proponents of a more sensible and feasible transit plan couldn’t be happier about. Alas, it’s also the kind of discord our ultimate political overlords at Queen’s Park can use to give them the appearance of having sound judgement and being above the fray.

“The city still doesn’t have its act together,” said Bob Chiarelli, the Minister of Transportation. “We have the chair of the TTC speculating about changes. We have some city councillors, we have the Mayor really not commenting on it. So, we need some clarity from the city.”

AAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGGGHH!

It’s this kind of multi-levelled, political gamesmanship that has stunted transit planning in this city for three decades now. If the province had remained resolute and kept to the already agreed upon Transit City plan last year, we wouldn’t have lost another 12 months or so chasing the mayor’s phantom transit vision. If the premier had called for a “formal proposal” from city council then to change course as he is right now to change back to the original plans (????), we might’ve had this discussion last year not now.

Instead, he capitulated in the face of the mayor’s self-proclaimed Ford Nation, signed on to the Memorandum of Understanding with the mayor, end-running city council, to use all the province’s money to bury the Eglinton LRT in what could only be seen for personal political reasons. Facing an election with, at the time, very dismal prospects, and a mayor of Toronto in his ascendancy, he chose to sacrifice the city’s transit future for his own political one. Unfortunately for the city, it wasn’t the first time such a thing has happened.

But… but… again, this is where it gets murky. I don’t credit Premier McGuinty with many things but his political acumen isn’t one that I question. Perhaps, he knew that if he forced the transit issue to a vote at city council last year, Mayor Ford may well have won the day. Transit City would truly have been buried for good along with the Eglinton LRT. By making nice and surviving last October’s election while exposing the ethereal foundations of Ford Nation while at it, he kept Transit City alive. The honeymoon now over, Mayor Ford faces a rejuvenated city council and very vocal, well-organized opposition to his transit plans.

Wheels within wheels. What should be a fairly straight-forward how to build a better transit system for the city situation is anything but. Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of it is that those who rely on public transit here the most aren’t the ones contributing to the decisions. It’s left in the hands of those who view it in terms of little more than their personal and political gain.

head spinningly submitted by Cityslikr


Joe Stalin Indeed

January 25, 2012

“These people are all two steps left of Joe Stalin”.

Seriously? That’s how the mayor of a major metropolitan city referred to councillors who didn’t vote for him? He said it out loud, on the radio?

Now, I get that Mayor Ford was simply blowing a dog whistle to his supporters who may’ve been hearing stories that their dear leader was losing his ironclad grip on city council. Bully boy politicians can never appear weak and be diminished in the eyes of their baying, rabid following. Whenever the mayor is in need of bolstering his image among the faithful, he inevitably turns to John Oakley and talk radio for a good fluffing.

But consider the circumstances that led to yesterday’s interview.

Yes, the mayor lost some key votes last week that mayors just shouldn’t be losing on such a crucial matter as the budget. A handful of councillors that usually could be counted on to back Mayor Ford when the chips were down didn’t. The optics looked bad. Perhaps for the first time in his tenure as mayor, Ford lost control of the agenda by losing control of the narrative.

A blow certainly but hardly a fatal one. The budget that passed was a Mayor Rob Ford budget through and through, chock full of cuts, reductions and spending decreases. He got what was ultimately the talking point he wanted. For the first time in the history of mankind, the city of Toronto is spending less this year than it did the previous year.

To use a football analogy, because the mayor loves his football, I was going to say that Team Ford had to settle for a field goal but in reality, they scored a touchdown and missed the extra point. Not because of a blocked or flubbed kick but because they decided to run it in for two points and were stopped at the goal line.

Now, a reasonable and responsible politician would’ve looked at that, polished it up a bit and began trumpeting it as a triumph. Hey, folks. We got most of what we wanted. We’re changing the culture down at City Hall. That’s how democracy works.

Instead, Mayor Ford went back on the offensive, trying to vilify all those who dared defy him. No consensus builder, he. You’re either with the mayor or you’re against him. My way or the highway.

In fact, his blather leading up to the Stalin reference was even more revealing. “You either vote one way or the other down there [City Hall]. You’re either on the right side with Conservatives and Liberals or on the left side with the NDP”.

Such a stark, black and white worldview is the mark of the far right wing. There is no middle ground with them. Dissent, disagreement is treachery. Compromise means defeat.

Mayor Ford is incapable of being gracious even in victory. Imagine the monstrous nastiness awaiting us once he’s really and truly defeated and sidelined. A politician that cannot accept the occasional setback and learn from it is not a politician comfortable with democracy. Total victory is not possible, nor desirable, in politics.

At least it isn’t in non-totalitarian political systems.

Joe Stalin, Mayor Ford?

Pot? Let me introduce you to kettle.

Back in the USSRly submitted by Cityslikr