Left Out In The Cold

September 11, 2010

I write this as quietly as possible, typing noiselessly at the keyboard as my colleague, Cityslikr, has finally collapsed into an aggrieved slumber/stupor/blackout onto a nearby couch after a tumultuous 48 hours. Not sure what drug it was that finally did the trick. Whatever it was, just hoping it doesn’t prove lethal. We’re regularly employing the breath-on-the-mirror method to see that he’s alive although wouldn’t have the slightest clue what to do if he isn’t. We’re not even sure he’s given either of us the password to this site.

It all started (cue flashback squigglies) Wednesday night at the MaRS mayoral debate. Cityslikr had finally convinced me to attend one with him, assuring me that from here on in there could be substance to them, some meat on the bones. “This here dog just might start to hunt,” he said, affecting a southern drawl that usually means he’s got nothing left to say but can’t stop talking immediately.

If nothing else, I thought, I’d get to take a peek inside the MaRS building on College Street that brings a smile to my face every time I pass it.

Things started to unravel almost as soon as we sat down. Cityslikr couldn’t get any cell reception and therefore unable to tap into the Twitter account. “A blessing in disguise?” I suggested. Now he might actually listen to what was going on up on stage rather than sitting, coiled and ready to rip off snappy rejoinders. This was met with a chilly silence.

I was instructed to take notes as my Twitter-less companion found himself too jittery to even hold a pen. Good God, man! You can’t be that indentured to the new technology, can you? Get ahold of yourself! (Grabs him by the lapels and slaps him several times across the face. A few more times than necessary.)

At least, that’s how it played out in my mind as I waited for the debate to commence. Which it did, eventually, with the Board of Trade’s Carol Wilding moderating and handful of media types parked beside her to ask questions of the 5 candidates. Yep. The 5 candidates. It seems the organizers of Toronto Debates 2010 (along with the Board of Trade, Toronto City Summit Alliance, United Way, Toronto Community Foundation, Toronto Star and 680 News) have decided to dispense with the niceties of inviting any of the 33 or so other mayoral candidates including Rocco Achampong who’d been making the occasional appearances at other debates going on around town. Setting aside suspicions that the good folks behind Toronto Debates 2010 were simply trying to limit the scope of the debate, we decided their reasoning was more along the lines of making it easier to manage things with just five candidates on stage. Ain’t that right, Stephen LeDrew.

Judging by how civil the proceedings were it would be difficult to argue with that thinking. No shoutfest. No ugly personal exchanges. Just straight up answers given to questions that weren’t asked.

To be fair, the candidates may have been thrown off their game a bit as the tone of the debate was a more positive one than I’d been told to expect. The moderator and questioners weren’t operating from the premise of everything in the city having gone to shit and what were the candidates going to do about it. It was more to do with building upon or developing existing aspects that could be doing better in order to encourage prosperity equality and promote economic growth. More or less.

Because let’s face it. The whole developed world has just endured a shit storm of an economic downturn and the recovery is still very tenuous. So yeah, things aren’t great but they could’ve been a whole lot worse.

Councillor Pantalone embraced the tenor best and caught our attention right off the bat with his reference to the ‘myth of the broken city’. What was that you say, Joe? Do go on. Pantalone was fighting mad, telling the audience that the city was nowhere near in as bad a shape as his opponents claimed. A debt? Sure. What government wasn’t carrying a debt right now? I think he might be the first of the candidates in this race to even mention the word ‘recession’. Yes, Toronto’s debt sounds large ($3 billion) but was it? I don’t know. But let’s have the conversation instead of just repeating the number over and over again.

The timing was right for Pantalone to start battling back and staking out his ground centre-left. All his opponents were tripping over themselves to get to the furthest right with their talk of freezing taxes, cutting council numbers, selling assets, outsourcing city services. And the leader of this pack, Rob Ford, had just laid one large stinky turd of a transit plan that was so bad that even his paper of record, the Toronto Sun, dismissed it out of hand. Come on, Joe. Your time to shine.

But slowly, regular Joe re-assumed control, doling out half measures; qualified successes of the past 7 years and highlighting missteps. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? The one issue where Pantalone had no doubts? That he was a consensus builder unlike the others up on stage with him. He’s proven he can work with anyone. David Miller. Mel Lastman. Alan Tonks. Left. Right. Centre. NDP. Conservative. Liberal. By the time he was wrapping up with his final statement, old Joe was back, flying in the face of the anti-incumbency movement afoot, warning the audience that the mayor of Toronto is no place to experiment with unknowns. Go with what you know. And you know Joe Pantalone.

As usual, the performance wasn’t bad but it could’ve/should’ve been so much better. At least it was a start, we thought as we left the auditorium, Cityslikr desperately trying to find a signal somewhere, anywhere. Better late than never.

And then came the next day. Sitting together at a table in a Chinese restaurant on Spadina, waiting to hear Joe’s big announcement. MP Olivia Chow had already endorsed Joe. That certainly couldn’t be it. We’d already been unsurprised by Jack Layton’s endorsement of the Pantalone campaign a week or so ago. But wait, they weren’t finished. What’s that he just said, Cityslikr asked me.

“He said, if elected mayor, he’d freeze property taxes for 40 000 lower income senior citizens.”

“What?”

“Yeah. A tax freeze.”

“That can’t be right. Are you sure?”

“Yep. Wait. He just said something else.”

“What? What did he say now?”

“Huh.”

“What? What?!”

“I’m pretty sure Joe Pantalone just said as mayor, he’d cut the vehicle registration tax for seniors as the first step to phasing it out altogether over the course of the next 4 years.”

“What? A tax cut??”

And the rest, as they say is history, bringing us to our current situation, Cityslikr asleep on the couch after a Don Draper two day bender minus the girls. He stumbled disconsolately from the restaurant, pocketing dumplings and spring rolls as he went, mumbling words like ‘betrayal’, ‘Judas’ and something about his upper thigh burning from the hot oil oozing from the spring rolls. Fortunately he’d left before Pantalone tried justifying himself to the Globe and Mail’s Kelly Grant who’d politely inquired about the sudden about face on the vehicle registration tax.

As Deputy Mayor, Pantalone had fought hard for the VRT. It was a modest use of the new taxation powers granted in the City of Toronto Act and now, just a couple years in and he was calling it a ‘mistake’ with no ‘moral authority’ since the people of Toronto ‘unanimously’ hated it. How’s that for consensus building? Hoping aboard the anti-gravy train and riding it to join the throng at the right end of the political spectrum. Neoliberalville, where all taxes are bad and have no moral authority within the city limits.

Not everyone here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke have turned their backs on you, Joe, like you did us. You’re just lucky we’re not all as quick to indignation as our unconscious leader, snoring over there on the couch is. We do feel like you’re taking our votes for granted as if we have no where else to turn. That’s hardly the firestarter you’re campaign desperately needs at the moment.

You have, though, most definitely lost one supporter who was willing to follow you into battle against the forces of darkness. If only you’d picked that fight instead of settling for the mushy middle that the loudmouth Rob Ford keeps moving further in his direction. And if that strategy doesn’t work for you, don’t be blaming the likes of our Cityslikr for abandoning you. You left him first.

And to you over there, my troubled, bereft friend, pleasant dreams. You are still breathing, aren’t you?

hawk watchingly submitted by Urban Sophisticat


Germanically Speaking

March 9, 2010

Zwischenstadt. One of those malleable German word/phrases that can be both laser-like in its specificity and so hopelessly ambiguous as to be utterly meaningless when translated into English. Like gestalt. Or fahrvergnügen.

Coined by German architect and urban planner Thomas Sieverts, zwischenstadt originally referred to the newer outlying sections of European cities that were built around the old historic centres, largely after the Second World War. The places where urban and rural meet; the ‘sprawl’ on the margins of a city. Adopted and then adapted for a wider non-European meaning, zwischenstadt came to mean the Edge City to Joel Garreau and a Technoburb for Robert Fishman. Ed Soja’s zwischenstadt was Exopolis.

For our purposes here, let us think of zwischenstadt as what is called an ‘in-between city’. These are the largely residential post-war suburbs that sprung up around the inner downtown core of Toronto and once were on the edges where urban met rural but are now sandwiched between the downtown core and the newer, more prosperous suburbs that make up the 905 region. Places like Scarborough and North York that, to borrow a phrase from Julie-Anne Boudreau, Roger Keil and Douglas Young in their book Changing Toronto, operate “in the shadows of Toronto’s glamour zones…”

What’s that? Markham, Pickering and Vaughan? Glamourous?! Yes 416ers, for a good many people, you are not the only game in town as much as that may bruise your collective egos. The in-between city possesses neither the allure of downtown gentrification nor the shiny newness of big houses on big lots in the exurbs.

While both the outer ring and inner core of what is now termed the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) have generally flourished overall during the era of globalization and neoliberal economic policy rule, large sections of the in-between city have fared less well. We now talk of the frayed suburbs and their high priority neighbourhoods that are underprovided with both resources and organization. These are the parts of the city hit hardest when the economy nosedives and the last to reap any benefits that trickle down when times are good. When talk turns to the in-between city, it usually involves crime (Summer of the Gun) or economic insecurity.

A school of urban thought believes that the in-between city suffers from the consequences of our adherence to “… the myth of the ideal compact city…” as Boudreau, Keil and Young refer to it in their book. The suburbs seen as mere satellites of the central core, providing space and more affordable living to those who serviced the needs of downtown. Now with the phenomenal growth of the regions even further on the periphery, the in-between city is neither here nor there. It just is. Its needs and issues, as usual, subservient to those of the core or lost in the tug of war between powerful 416 interests and those in the 905.

Certainly the inner-ring suburbs are receiving little attention so far in the municipal election campaign. The battle lines have been drawn between the wealthier enclaves of midtown Toronto, Etobicoke and North York versus those living between St. Clair and the lake. In the increasingly vigorous move to the right by the leading candidates for mayor and their calls for cuts and freezes at City Hall, the needs of the in-between city like public transit and affordable housing are, in fact, coming under threat.

Mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi has touted his City Builders Fund where he would direct 50% of additional fees that the city receives whenever a development goes beyond existing zoning laws into community projects in high priority neighbourhoods through the Toronto Community Foundation. This is fine as far as it goes but it is simply more of the same approach; public financing dependant on private money and will. It’s highly discretionary and often times a one shot deal that undercuts the notion of an overall plan. There’s no vision.

Without vision, Toronto will continue to stumble along with the increasingly familiar widening gap between the haves and have-nots. There will be those living in the city and those who live in the in-between city. Such an imbalance can only adversely affect our ability to contribute to the region’s growth as a vital economic and social centre. Moreover, by giving into the fiscal pressures of naked self-interest, we are undermining the system as a whole and threaten the very, as I think the Germans might say, gestalt of our city.

Teutonically submitted by Acaphlegmic