Book Club V

January 30, 2015

For John Barber & Jamie Bradburn

Unless it’s Miss Shirley Bassey and the Propellerheads block-rockingly telling me, I’m not one to embrace the history repeats itself trope. It gives too much agency over to this beyond our control notion of fate, of the march of time blindly spinning its wheels, oblivious to any sense of direction from us. revengeofthemethodistbicyclecompanyWe’re absolved of responsibility. Hey. Authoritarianism is on the rise again. Oh well. It’s just history repeatin’!

I’d argue that any sense of déjà vu we may experience in terms of current affairs is the result of our obstinate inability to learn from the past, from the mistakes we made, grievances we hold, just all `round stupid-head pettiness we cannot, will not let go of. We make history. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, yeah, history does seem like it might be repeating itself.

So you wanna talk endless Scarborough subway debates? Let me tell you about the late-19th-century struggle to run streetcars on Sundays in Toronto. We do have a way here of turning public transit decisions into pitched, prolonged battles.

The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company by Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles tells the story of the almost decade long back-and-forth it took to bring streetcar service into operation on the Lord’s Day. There are very few good guys in the book. Corruption runs rampant. Vested business interests infect almost every level of public life. Religious fervor masks class divisions. Toronto the Good? Maybe not. Toronto the good yarn?

Huh? Huh?

Horse-drawn trolley/streetcars started up along Toronto streets in 1861. A 30 year franchise to run the service was granted to a private consortium, Toronto Street Railway Company. horsedrawntrolleyAs will surprise very few people these days, the relationship between the company and the local government wasn’t always smooth. There were constant disputes over who was obligated to do what (maintain the street tracks, for one) and who was owed what as a slice of the farebox. Your basic P3 dynamics.

Sunday streetcar service was one item rarely put on the table for discussion. It was a no-go from the outset. A deal breaker.

The grip of religion on the city as portrayed in the book was a revelation to me. The City of Churches, Toronto was sometimes dubbed. I vaguely remember the Sunday shopping brouhaha, back when I first moved to the city in the mid-80s. Sunday blue laws were deep and long abiding.

Religion also delineated much of the class structure of the city at the time. Protestantism was where the power lie, with well over 75% of the population swinging in that direction. torontorailwaycompanyticket1As Armstrong and Nelles point out in the book’s postscript, the fight over Sunday streetcar service was really about maintaining control of the city levers of power as much as it was keeping the Sabbath holy.

The fight too served to shine a light on just how corrupt politics in the city was at the time. How corrupt? Giorgio Mammoliti, by a few fold. Almost anyone and everyone, involved in this story, had a price and could be bought. Even among the proclaimed faithful money changed hands to sway decisions and elections. Christian values remained in the church, to be unsullied by everyday affairs. Unto Caesar and all that.

How corrupt are we talking?

In the 3rd and final vote on the Sunday streetcar issue (the one finally won by the pro side), there were allegations some men – pluggers, they were called, professional voters – cast as many as 25 ballots. Newspapers were paid to run favourable coverage. torontowards1890You might even call them advertorials. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of $11,000 was paid by the Toronto Street Railway Company to the various city newspapers to win that last vote.

Corruption hung so heavily around the workings of local politicians that, in 1891 when the company’s streetcar franchise lease was ending, any notion of making public transit a publicly run system was largely dismissed out of hand. Let the politicians make their fortunes from it? Leave that to private enterprise.

The devious doings surrounding the awarding of the new streetcar franchise told in all the gory detail in The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company led to the McDougall Investigation and the beginnings of a reform movement in the structure of Toronto’s governance. But not before another class struggle between those wanting fewer, ‘right thinking’ men appointed to an executive style board of control whose decisions could only be overturned by a 2/3s majority of city council and those looking to further expand democracy beyond the current restrictive bounds. horsedrawntrolley1An agreement was reached with a board of control appointed by council from amongst their elected ranks. The hope was to take the big decisions, especially those ones involving big infrastructure projects, out of the clutches of pure ward based horse-trading.

Sound familiar?

There was also the hope that civic reform might result in more fresh blood being elected to council. Again, modern readers will recognize such a thing is easier said than done. The first mayor and 3 man board of control established after the change were all very familiar faces on the scene.

Other feelings of things never changing crop up throughout the book. Penny-pinching Presbyterians certainly rings familiar right now during yet another budget debate over how to do things without spending any money. Although, back then, residents were rightly concerned about being fleeced by their politicians. Today we’re just more miserly minded, I think.

Privilege and private interests imposing itself on the public will also remain constant over the past 125 years or so. Then it was about the streetcars. Today, look to the island airport expansion clash. torontorailwaycompanyticketWealth and control hovering around the city business is timeless, I guess.

Late Victorian Toronto also comes across in the book as unrecognizable to those of us living here now. Never mind the coming of electricity or the receding of religious rule. The city was abuzz with political engagement. Elections were held annually with short campaigns run over the Christmas holidays. Rallies were well-attended. One during the 3rd plebiscite on Sunday streetcar service had 5400 people show up. On election nights, crowds gathered outside newspaper offices to wait for the results.

Yes, only a small segment of the population officially “counted”. It was during this time that the right to vote was extended beyond merely property owning men to, well, men. Still, politics didn’t come across as a chore like it sometimes feels today. It seemed to be woven into the fabric of daily, civic life.

Or seen another way, maybe this was just an early display of Torontonians rallying around something they didn’t want. electrictrolleyNo to Sunday streetcars! No to Spadina Expressway! No to a bridge to the island airport! No to good governance (2010 edition). Toronto, a town, a city in spite of itself.

The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company is a quick, interesting read through a tumultuous time in the city’s history, as the pressures of industrialization and urbanization come down to bear on this otherwise sleepy, God-fearing borough. It does suffer from some repetition of election campaigns that didn’t really change all that much. And while it’s quaint to read about an era where satire and pointed political commentary came in the form of poetry, dreadfully bad poetry, there may be too many examples of it in the book.

It does leave one lingering question though. Has Toronto grown beyond the expectations English writer Rupert Brooke had of it when he travelled here a decade and a half after streetcars began running on Sundays? “It [Toronto] is all right,” the first chapter of the book opens with.  “The only depressing thing is that it will always be what it is, only larger…” Prophetic? It all depends on what day you ask.

historically submitted by Cityslikr


Evading A Solution

December 13, 2013

It should be easy. At least, it should be easier. There is a problem. The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area has become bogged down in congestion. easyAs it stands now, the region’s public transit network is not up to the task of helping alleviate the situation.

So… ?

Build more transit. Pretty straightforward. It won’t be cheap, in the short term. In the long run, however, the savings will manifest themselves with a general increase in productivity that comes from increased mobility.

Besides, investing in major infrastructure isn’t exclusively about saving money. It’s about paying it forward. Investing in the future, in your children’s future, your grandchildren’s future. Playing your part in posterity like previous generation did with the roads you now use, the subway tunnels that get many of us around from point A to point B.

The details will always be prickly. The wheres and the hows will inevitably be politically loaded. (At times like these, it’s good to go back and re-read Jamie Bradburn’s great Historicist piece in Torontoist, Opposing the Subway.) Paying for shit we need is never a slam dunk case to make.

But it gets done because common sense and fair-mindedness prevail. Nobody loves paying taxes. giveandtakeThey’re just grudging necessities if we don’t all want to live in hovels in the hills.

Unfortunately, we have been living in an era where common sense and fair-mindedness are in short supply. This is how we’ve arrived at the state we’re in. Everybody hates paying taxes. They’re no longer grudging necessities but rather, egregious burdens on our lifestyles. All taxes are evil, as one of our local representatives has informed us.

In the face of such ill-will, our politicians have grown cowardly. With yesterday’s arrival of the funding report from the provincially appointed Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel – appointed by the province to undercut put distance between counter-balance the revenue generation report from another provincial government body, Metrolinx – the general consensus is, no political party is going to push ahead into a very likely election year with a platform of tax increases. Electoral suicide!

While it’s easy to blame them for such displays of cravenness, this is really nobody’s fault but our own. For a generation now we’ve swallowed the notion of low taxes and small governments as a path to prosperity. taxesareevilNot coincidentally, the very same generation where we’ve invested comparatively little in the public sphere. We sit behind the wheel of our cars, stuck in traffic, and wonder why. We wait half an hour for a bus before squeezing onto the crammed vehicle when it finally arrives, and wonder why. Bridges and overpasses crumble, and we wonder why.

This is the urban definition of the tragedy of the commons. We want and need something of a public service – i.e. transit – but think somebody else should pay for it. Gone is any sense of the greater good. Don’t look at me, jack. I already gave at the office.

There is little doubt that the ruling Liberals at Queen’s Park have for 7 years now, since the inception of Metrolinx, been doing their damndest to avoid the issue of funding public transit expansion in the GTHA. It was very much the very last piece of the puzzle they sought. When it came time to finally have the discussion, they desperately searched for partners to participate in what would definitely be tough talk.

And everybody blinked, looked the other way, made like it wasn’t their problem to help solve.

Toronto city council demurred to put in their two cents, choosing instead to draw up a list of we’d prefer nots.passthebuck

The provincial NDP said the revenue should be generated solely from the corporate sector. Details to follow.

The PCs, now the fossilized remnants of the political movement that kick started the divestment in the public good, assure us we can totally pay for the transit we want by tightening our belts and dipping into the pools of unnecessary current expenditures to build capital infrastructure. Translation? Since Bill Davis, we are the party of could give a fuck about public transit.

There can be little doubt that the parties and their pollsters have delved deep into this issue and concluded beyond the shadow of a doubt that taxing (even dedicated taxing) and spending (even on something we should be spending on) remains a losing campaign platform. Nobody’s convinced Transit Champions will put their party over the top.

Before we tsk tsk our politicians for their unwillingness to nobly go down to defeat fighting for a good cause, maybe we should try and figure out how we can contribute to making it more of a winning atmosphere for pro-transit building proponents. rollingrockEfforts have started with organizations like the CivicAction Alliance, Toronto Board of Trade and the city’s Feeling Congested. But 30 years of conventional wisdom that’s told us governments are the problem isn’t effortlessly overturned. It’s difficult convincing people that their long held, self-centred, narrow focus is working at cross-purposes to their best interests.

It will seem as if we’re beating our heads against a brick wall because we, in fact, are. Eventually though, even the hardest stone breaks. You just have to keep pounding away at it.

loudly submitted by Cityslikr


Change Isn’t Always Worse Than The Alternative

May 16, 2013

You know what the scariest word in English just might be? No, not anesthetist. pickawordThat’s the hardest word in English to pronounce but not the scariest. Unless, of course, you’re going in for surgery imminently.

Change.

That’s the scariest word.

People are averse – averse? adverse? averse? Again, tricky words. Not necessarily scary ones — to change. Even those most likely to benefit from a particular change are reticent.. reticent? hesitant? I’ve clearly thrown myself off here. Pick a word and run with it.

Change ain’t easy.

Our penchant is to view change warily, assuming it’s always going to be for the worse. This despite the fact that we are where we are, doing what we’re doing in relative comfort because of change and our ability to adapt to it. adaptchangeI mean, we could still be creatures flopping around in mucky goo, trying to figure how to breathe oxygen in through these things called lungs not gills.

This is not to say all change is beneficial and that we should simply embrace any new fad that comes our way. Change for change’s sake and other interior decorating maxims. I need a change, while usually indicating a desire to move in a positive direction, doesn’t automatically signal improvement. It could be a phrase uttered by a guy in a bar who’s been drinking rye-and-cokes all afternoon and he just wants to change to, I don’t know, rum-and-cokes.

It’s not about blind acceptance but the moderating measured space between that and an open hostility to any notion of change.

Speaking out against the proposed First Capital Realty development for the Humbertown strip mall on Tuesday, Mayor Ford clearly falls in the latter camp.

“Time equals change,” the mayor said in his speech at Tuesday’s Etobicoke-York Community Council meeting, “we have to move on but…” But what? Gradually? In a thoughtful manner? Earlier on in his speech the mayor stated that “we have to maintain these strip malls in Etobicoke”. So we have to move on to what?

We Have To Move On But is the trademark phrase of the bonafide, heels-dug-in intransigent. Frankly, Etobicoke seems to be populated by such types. Look at their representation at City Hall currently. driveinrestaurantFrom the Fords to councillors Doug Holyday and Gloria Lindsay Luby, part of a historical lineage of obstructionist and obdurate municipal politicians fighting tooth and nail against the slow march of time’s encroachment into their neighbourhoods and pocketbooks.

Read Jamie Bradburn’s Historicist piece last week in Torontoist about the city’s west end politicians battling the building of a subway in the late 1950s. All the way to the Supreme Court! ‘Bamboozled’ is a familiar phrase to modern ears, a kissing cousin to boondoggle, and one used in reference to subway plans. “I am afraid these taxes [to fund subway construction] will tie people up so tightly it will make them move out of here,” said Long Branch Reeve, Marie Curtis, “the same as some of us moved from the city.”

“Don’t be misled by visionaries who would lead you to believe they see things the rest of us don’t,” decried York Reeve Chris Tonks.

That’s not an unreasonable statement if you’re talking about visionaries touting contact with occupants not named Hatfield of interplanetary crafts. overmydeadbodyBut it was 1958. Subways weren’t some new fangled technology about to be foisted upon an unsuspecting population. Cities had been building them for about century by that time. It was a question of figuring out how to pay for an established mode of public transit and putting it in the right place.

Intensification runs along a similar line of thinking.

Sprawl is no longer sustainable. These kinds of strip malls Humbertown represents are relics of a past that was guided by the idea of unlimited space and cheap fuels to get us to these far flung places. As a form of land use, they no longer make sense.

Defenders of the status quo proclaim that this isn’t downtown Toronto we’re talking about, but Etobicoke. But this isn’t Etobicoke we’re talking about, not the one of 40, 50 years ago in its leafy-streeted isolation from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Now a fully functioning inner suburb, its quaint dreams of a pleasant village life located miles and miles past the outer suburbs to the west and north that push it closer to the downtown many of the residents are trying to keep at a distance.

I don’t think it a coincidence this heavy resistance to such change comes from the mayor’s own backyard. I think it’s a sentiment deeply rooted in the notion of Ford Nation. leftbehindThe city of Toronto has been undergoing demographic, cultural and economic shifts, accelerated by amalgamation. None of it particularly easy or cheap. But the face of the city is going to change with or without our participation. Probably not for the better if we simply choose to stand on the sidelines hoping it all passes us by without altering and costing us too much.

In 2010, a plurality of Torontonians, a healthy majority of those living in the inner suburbs and experiencing some of the biggest changes, decided to stand pat and with fingers crossed wait things out. Rearranging the furniture and painting the walls instead of undertaking a major renovation. Hopefully, no one gets too attached to the colour of the room.

adaptedly submitted by Cityslikr


Straining The Bromance

September 11, 2012

One of the things about politics that flummoxes me most is the need for ‘likeability’ in our politicians. That notion candidates need to be just one of us, a regular guy, a hardworking Joe (note the gender bias there, huh?) Someone we’d all like to sit down and have a beer with. Best buds. BFF.

Personally? I’ve already got plenty of people in my life I’d like to sit down and have a beer with and not nearly enough time to do so. I’m not looking to my elected representatives to grow that particular list.

No, what I’m looking to them for is, well, good governance and all that. I don’t want to elect somebody who’s just like me. My god that would turn out poorly for everyone concerned. I want my politicians to be smarter than I am. To be more thorough. Exercise better judgement. To have a firm grasp on the issues they were elected to grapple with.

Frankly, I think this likeability bar candidates have to clear is nothing more than apathy on the part of the voting public. Don’t bore me with the details, folks. Who’s got the time for all that? Just send in the monkeys to perform and let me decide based entirely on that. You got 10 minutes.

So affability not acumen becomes the key ingredient for a successful run in politics. Forget the best and brightest. We want the cuddliest Tim Hortons types who understand we aren’t really that interested in the process just the outcome. Low taxes. Safe streets… Yeah, that’s about it.

Of course, writing that makes me an out-of-touch elitist, not grounded in the realities of life. This doesn’t have to be complicated, egghead. Running a city/province/country isn’t rocket science. Anybody could do it if they really wanted. So why not elect just anybody?

This attitude is very advantageous for your run-of-the-mill anybody politician. When you’re just one of us, a regular guy, any sort of criticism directed your way is perceived as an attack on one of your friends. It’s not about policy differences or politics even. It’s personal. It not only questions a voter’s political judgement but their judge of character.

Regular guy politicians like Mayor Rob Ford continue to get a pass from his supporters despite mounting evidence that he’s not really up to the task of the job he was elected to do because admitting that’s the case is akin to bailing on a friend when he gets into a tough spot. Hey. Come on. Give the guy a break. Nobody’s perfect. He’s doing the best he can. Just like us.

Just like us, he has trouble understanding conflict of interest rules. I mean, who has time to read the fine print of the guidelines? Just like us, he mumbled and contradicted himself on the stand in court under the heavy artillery attack of Clayton Ruby. You’d be cooler? Just like us, he hosted a BBQ for thousands and thousands of people in his mom’s backyard because that’s what good friends do. It had nothing to do with amassing a substantial voter database to use in 2014. Suggesting that is just cheap politics. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Just like us, Mayor Ford takes time from his busy schedule at work to help kids avoid a life of crime. Sure, he loves football and hates the nitty gritty that comes with doing the job he’s paid to do but who doesn’t? What? You have something against keeping kids on the straight and narrow?

Politicians like Rob Ford wear their populism as a shield against legitimate, fact based opposition. You don’t agree with him, offer up criticism of his policies, you are questioning the wisdom and intelligence of those who voted for him. You’re railing against democracy itself. Nothing more than a sore loser.

Thus, his promotion of Ford Nation.

“As you saw this week,” the mayor told last Friday’s gathering at Ford Fest in a non-campaign speech for his 2014 campaign, “they’re coming after us every which way.” We’re in this together, folks. You and me against everyone who disagrees with us. Don’t listen to my critics, to the naysayers. They just want to take your vote away from you, your voices. Mi casa, su casa.

It almost dares you to criticize, to oppose. It hardens the resolve, the absolute commitment to the cause. It’s near perfect fucking strategy.

But the thing to remember is, it’s just that. A strategy. Like almost everything about Rob Ford the politician, it’s all artifice. A manufactured image created to mask the rage, inadequacies and disinterest that make up the core of his politics. That’s something easier to pick up and run with than it is to maintain. Eventually the failings will be too great for anyone but the hardest of hardcore supporters to accept as their own.

Successful friendships can’t simply continue down a one-way street.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr