Boxstore Aesthetic

April 29, 2011

There’s not much I can add to the discussion about this week’s decision by the Public Works Committee to kill the Fort York pedestrian bridge that hasn’t been already said more fully and completely by Derek Flack at blogTO and Ford For Toronto’s Matt Elliott. Except maybe to introduce a new word to the English language. Derived from a combination of despair and anger that has become the prevalent mood here in Toronto during the Mayor Rob Ford era. Angair? Desger? Despanger? (Try it with a French pronunciation. Day-PAN-jay.)

How many times and ways can we talk about myopia and short-sightedness? Pennywise and poundfoolishness. The stunted notion of ‘core services’ being seen as little more than roads and sewers and not the wider, longer view of all round liveability.

That the public face of the move to kill the bridge is Councillor David Shiner comes as no surprise. He is part of the core group of Team Ford whose prime motivating factor seems to be, even more than simple political ideology, exacting revenge on anyone or anything from the Miller administration for excluding them from positions of power or influence. Once the mighty budget chief under Mel Lastman, Councillor Shiner was reduced to outsider status during the David Miller years, and somebody has to pay for that slight.

He couldn’t really have bagged a bigger prize, either, than the Fort York bridge. Not a big ticket item money-wise (less than the revenue the city won’t see from the decision to repeal the VRT), it was the baby of Ward 19’s former councillor and Miller’s Deputy Mayor, Joe Pantalone.  ‘An attack on taxpayers’, Councillor Shiner called the bridge and its ‘fancy’ design. Fancy’s the old way of doing things at City Hall. Austerity (in both mind and matter) is the new fancy.

What’s especially rich about Councillor Shiner’s demand for more financial accountability in somebody else’s ward is that he’s one of the beneficiaries of perhaps the biggest boondoggle… I mean, investment in future development… in recent memory:  the Sheppard subway line. Running through a bottom slice of his Ward 24, we have recently heard the councillor get up and defend the mayor’s plan to extend the subway, extolling ‘the subway to nowhere’’s contribution to a construction boom along its corridor. An argument some have made about the Fort York bridge. Its fancy design would help spur interesting investment around it much more than a Gardiner Expressway version of it might.

It’s also interesting to note that in justifying his decision Councillor Shiner said, “… just think about what that $23 million could do for bridge rehab, for road repair; think of the community centres it could fix up, of the children’s services and child care centres it could provide.” I believe that this is the same councillor who back a few months during the budget debate, grilled a representative from the Toronto Public Library about switching projects after money had been specifically allocated even if timelines and preparedness dictated a strategic change. Doesn’t his rationale about using possible savings from a scaled back version of the bridge on more pressing needs use the same kind of reasoning he dismissed on the part of TPL?

While I’m sure impossible to track, it would be interesting to see how much of any savings that might arise from a new, modified bridge construction Councillor Shriner will then fight to spend on infrastructure upgrades, community centres and child care. Colour me sceptical (which is more or less teal-like) that’ll be the case. Instead, I see whatever money there is being flushed down the sinkhole created by tax cuts and freezes, and the fundamental ill-will the conservative faction at City Hall bear toward generating revenue.

The fate of the Fort York bridge is the inevitable outcome that arises when politicians elected on a platform of respecting taxpayers not citizens gain power. There’s no bigger picture outside the bottom line. Why do anything special or fancy when it can be done for less money? Imagine the oodles of dough saved for Paris way back when if Napolean III told Baron Haussmann that his plans were all pretty and such but let’s scale it back a little, shall we. Why build a stage with a Frank Gehry proscenium arch (to use an example from one of the mayor’s favourite cities, Chicago) when a concrete band shell would work just as well?

despangerly submitted by Cityslikr


Au Paris!

August 2, 2010

Paris is not a perfect city. It is expensive, still with the power to shock. Few adult males wear short pants even when temperatures nose up to 30-degrees C while many steadfastly sport scarves. Outside on busy street cafés, grown men unselfconsciously swap spit with their Yorkshire terriers. (Does one ‘french’ another in France or is that just a label we étranger use for something that may not come naturally to us?)

More disturbing, Paris’ fêted core, let’s say arrondisements 1 through 20, is encircled by a second city where the less affluent, the less, well, French, live, where unemployment and racism run rampant and on any given night after some sort of altercation between the residents and authorities will light up riotously under the glow of burning cars. It is a part of Paris not included in the travel brochures although it does grab its fair share of international news headlines. A dynamic Toronto would do well to heed, as the have and have-not gulf between the downtown and the older suburbs here simmers on low-to-medium boil during the current election campaign.

But this isn’t about how not to run or design a city. For all its grand and glorious architectural splendor, what works most about Paris is the very human scale on which it is built. It doesn’t simply overwhelm by over-awing although there are times when it most certainly can do that. No, Paris is Paris because it embraces you, pulling you into the rhythm of life on the street. Unlike New York or London where you seem to be contending with place, Paris allows you to be a part of it. In its justifiably renowned cafés. The galleries both large and small. Along the banks of the Seine which lie wide open with few barricades between it and those who stroll, sit, picnic or wait for sunset by the river.

Of course, there is some irony to this people friendly feature. Under the mid-19th century plan for a “new” Paris, the self-anointed Baron Haussmann razed the “old” Paris to make way for large, wide open spaces and boulevards at least in part for the ease of mobilizing forces to get in and out of the city to quell uprisings as well as inhibiting the ability of budding insurgents to protect themselves in cordoned off sections of Paris. Haussmann’s “new” Paris was to be the playground of the elite to flaunt and promenade their wealth and not for the fomenting of further revolutions.

Many sections of the city still display those traits but they tend to be the least interesting places with the Champs-Élysées springing immediately to mind. But there are neighbourhoods throughout Paris that aren’t about exclusion. With almost no single family dwellings within the core (especially after the violent elimination of royalty and the eventual petering out of emperor-ity), Paris possesses a vigorous communal vibe. Not only in the oft-mentioned and boundless number of cafés but in the plentiful amounts of public green space both large and small. In good weather, this is where people have their dinner parties. They congregate together even in their private moments, to read, to reflect, to drink wine and wallow in their amazingly livable aesthetic.

The Paris we visit today, like many other European cities, has the advantage of coalescing before the modern age truly kicked in. Space was limited not only because of size but because travel was no easy feat. People (certainly those not graced with money) stayed put unless dire circumstances forced them to move on, and cities were built up around their citizenry.

We here in the new world were blessed and cursed with the advantages of growing and prospering in a later age. With perceived unlimited space, our neighbourhoods consisted of houses not flats or apartments. Travel was made easy by the development and encouragement of private automobiles and the evolution of the car culture. Whole communities sprung up owing to that one single fact. The car scar is what we bear now. Our places, including much of Toronto, were designed for things, namely cars, not people.

We will never be Paris. Or London. Or Amsterdam. Or Copenhagen. We shouldn’t try to be. Much of what works in those places would never work here and vice versa. But there are elements we could try to adopt and adapt to our situation. The first of which is to realize the difference between people and individuals, and the best, most livable cities are home to citizens not stakeholders or taxpayers. Take away the Eiffel Tour, the Louvre, the Pantheon and Notre Dame and Paris would still be Paris.

parisienly submitted by Urban Sophisticat