Detroit Rocked City

July 23, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot about Detroit recently, and it’s probably the first time I have since the 1987 Blue Jays collapse down the stretch, torontodetroitaided by 7 straight losses to end the season including 3 one run games to the Tigers in the final series. Man, those fucking Tigers. A one game lead with only 3 to go! Toronto was 19-5 in September until The Swoon. Fucking Detroit, man.

Fucking Detroit.

It’s impossible to wade through the coverage of the city’s financial turmoil to find a straight forward narrative. Obviously, there’s no one reason to explain how this all transpired although both sides of the political spectrum will tell you otherwise. Unfunded public sector pensions and benefits! Corporate tax giveaways!

One of the more compelling and heartfelt discussions I found was over at The Corner Side Yard by Pete Saunders, Detroit – Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? (If you want to get your fill of Detroit on the Verge of Bankruptcy, check in regularly with Urbanophile.) detroitStill, as with any complex situation, there are no easy conclusions to draw, no simple answers.

A couple parallels do jump out at me, though, that elicit passing thoughts along the Toronto, the next Detroit theme song we will inevitably be hearing sung over the next little while. The first is the municipality as a political football. Like Canadian cities, their U.S. counterparts have a surprising lack of autonomy in the bigger picture decisions. They are granted the crumbs of governance, largely in the day-to-day operations and, can do that poorly with negative consequences to residents. But the macro-decisions are often beyond their control.

And if, as appears to be the case of Detroit, a city’s overseers at the state level are not particularly partial to the city in question or, at least, to those in power at City Hall, they can essentially use it as a punching bag. Remember Mike Harris and the amalgamation of Toronto? underthumbWell, Mike Harris and anything to do with Toronto really.

A city can attempt to mitigate the damage it inflicts upon itself but is helpless if the blows come from above.

So in Detroit’s case, a city that votes overwhelmingly Democrat is manhandled by a Republican governor who seizes the woeful economic opportunity to experiment with his radical right wing anti-labour, anti-public sector, selling of public assets ideology. And there doesn’t seem to be much the local officials can do about it outside of taking the state to court which it’s done. A judge has ruled the bankruptcy filing to be unconstitutional, a ruling Michigan’s Attorney General has vowed to appeal.

It’s not different levels of government so much as warring levels of government.

(Can you say Scarborough subway?)

Such governance dependency on the part of municipalities breeds the type of local politician averse to responsibility. walkintoawallWe’ve all heard it before whenever a city asks for more powers. You really want these jokers with more power? will come the response with a pointed finger legitimately to the one or two walking shitshows that inevitably make up any part of a city council. But it’s a chicken-or-egg argument. Do the conditions produce the politician or does the politician produce the conditions?

It’s easy to see how enabling bad municipal behaviour helps to strengthen the legitimacy of state and provincial governments in a regular game of political one-upmanship.

Detroit also illustrates that once decline starts it sets in motion a toxic civic dynamic that makes the tough choices needed to turn things around nearly impossible. Just as growth begets growth, decline begets decline, and part of the reason is social dynamics.

This comes about because in a city in decline — such as in late imperial Rome — people start thinking only about themselves and no longer come to see themselves as part of a greater enterprise or commonwealth. The city and suburbs, blacks and whites, taxpayers and unions no longer see their fortunes as linked. Rather than rising and falling together, it’s every man for himself.

Toronto’s economic situation is nowhere near as dire as that of Detroit’s. The truth is, it’s in far better shape than almost any other city on the continent. But some – hint, hint, it’s duly elected mayor – would have you believe otherwise. chickenlittleThe language of decline will only grow more intense I imagine in the wake of Detroit’s misfortunes.

Why?

Pretty much the entirety of the above quoted second paragraph. “people…no longer come to see themselves as part of a greater enterprise or commonwealth. The city and suburbs, blacks and whites, taxpayers and unions no longer see their fortunes as linked. Rather than rising and falling together, it’s every man for himself.” Political opportunism, pure and simple. “Toronto’s financial foundation is crumbling,” Mayor Ford told the Empire Club early on in his term. Divide and conquer using fear as a tool. City versus suburbs. Taxpayers versus unions.

Create a crisis if one doesn’t exist.

Challenges are very different than crisis. Toronto shouldn’t bury its head and hope there aren’t serious challenges we have to face. Do we have massive under-funded liabilities lying in wait for us sometime in the future? I’m not sure but let’s examine that claim closely before rushing off to slash and burn shit to the ground. We are certainly lagging in infrastructure maintenance, and that’s even before we start talking public transit. detroitarmThe question that needs to be answered is, do we have the political will to do something about that, to reach into our pockets and do what needs to be done?

At this juncture, I wouldn’t bet on it. The rot of ‘poisoned civic culture’, to paraphrase Aaron M. Renn, has set in. It’s very much everybody for themselves, taxpayers versus residents. A terrible but not entirely surprising mindset under actual circumstances of duress like Detroit’s but unnecessarily and arbitrarily destructive in our manufactured case.

It’s not our economic model that requires a complete overhaul. It’s our approach to civic engagement. We’ve given up the greater public good long before circumstances might dictate we would.

warningly submitted by Cityslikr


The Meter’s Running

January 19, 2011

Parking my ass down on a chair in committee room #1 at City Hall to take in the view of the first Toronto-East York Community Council meeting of the new year, look at all these shiny, fresh faces in action. Councillors Fragedakis, Bailão, Matlow, McMahon, Layton, Wong-Tam. Such a relief after being subject to the grizzled, grim visages that occupy desk space on the Budget and Executive committees. Cllrs. Del Grande, Shiner, Thompson, Kelly, Pelacio. Del Grande, Shiner. Did I mention them already? Yeah well, slap an eye-patch on either of them and we’ve got our very own Rooster Cogburns minus the infinitesimal traces of empathy displayed by the fictional cowboy. The Toronto-East York Community Council also includes 3 of my 4 favourite councillors, Cllrs. Vaughan, Davis and Perks who is serving as the council chair.

In case you don’t know, community councils serve as a direct contact between citizens and City Hall. Members from council sit and listen while people depute. Depute. Didn’t even know that was a word. There are 4 community councils throughout the city and, while they were given some power over local matters like by-laws and permits with the City of Toronto Act back in 2006, they still seem to operate more at an advisory level than an actual hands-on enforcement body.

Armed with information from their respective deputations – fun fact, the word ‘deputation’ can mean the group or person who deputes as well as both the act of being deputing and the state of being deputed. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, ya thesaurus loving kooks! Each Community Council will then take their recommendations on their respective local matters to the full city council for further consideration and an eventual vote.

More or less.

Civics pseudo-lesson over.

During the course of a deputation regarding a planned condo development out on King Street West, the subject of parking came up. A lot. (Pun not intended but not shied away from either.) It has been my experience watching public debates on proposed high(er) rise developments throughout the downtown core of Toronto that parking is up the list of resident and business concerns. Which comes as a surprise to me, frankly. Density intensification, public transit concerns, these things I get. But parking?

Of course, business owners will beat that drum, intractable as they are in the mid-20th-century mindset that cars equal sales. No number of studies suggesting that may not be the case will convince them otherwise. Local residents, too, are leery of new apartment/condo developments not only because of increased congestion but because of the premium it puts on their street parking. In the face of these fears, developers claim that there’s seldom a dearth of parking spots in their new buildings as those buying condos downtown don’t seem to want them. Hear, hear. I say. Urban dwellers reducing their dependency on the automobile. That sounds about right.

Not so fast, says Councillor Pam McConnell, our Katherine Hepburn’s Eula Goodnight I think for no real good reason other than I’ve still got True Grit-ish things on my mind. She says that those buying condos pass on parking spots not because they don’t own cars but to save money. Councillor McConnell claims that spaces in the condominiums comes with a price tag anywhere from $20-30 K. Why pay that when you can buy a six month street parking permit for $60?

Wait. I’m sorry. What? Sixty dollars for six months of parking! Are you sure about that, Councillor McConnell? It’s 2011 not 1980. Nobody living in the downtown core could be paying $10/month for parking. You must have your facts and figures wrong.

Checking the city’s website and it turns out that the councillor’s numbers are, indeed, off. With no access to off-site parking, a resident will pay just under $15/month for their first vehicle. It’ll cost them under $40/month for any subsequent vehicles. If a resident wants to park out on the street just for the convenience of it, you know, they have access to off-site parking, they’ll be out of pocket slightly under $50/month. That’s about $12 a week, under $2 a day, to park on the street simply as a matter of convenience.

How’s that for your Gravy Trains?! In fact, if you want to guest street park your gravy train outside your house, the city merely asks you to hand over $21.18 for a week. That’s $3 a day for those of you not good with the long division. To park on a street in downtown Toronto.

The War on the Car indeed.

Now I know that parking is a mystifyingly visceral topic, driven more by some ancient sense of entitlement than by good economic/environmental sense. I own a car therefore I am allowed to put it right here at no extra cost to me whatsoever. It just seems outrageous that a city as purportedly under the fiscal gun as our current administration claims it is simply gives away huge tracks of its public space for peanuts. Yes, I called on-street parking ‘public space’ and I’m not the only one. In fact, I lifted the idea outright from a much smarter writer on city stuff over at Urbanophile. Parking on a city’s streets for chump change is not some inalienable right.

We’ve talked about this before and much brighter minds than ours deliberate over the concept of proper pricing for parking to maximize profits while mitigating congestion and the resulting environmental impact. But it doesn’t take a genius to conclude that Toronto, at least in terms of its handling of on-street parking, is simply acting as Santa Claus to drivers. If you own a car, you better be prepared to pay for it. That includes the real cost of parking. And the price of that is a lot more than pennies a day.

indignantly submitted by Cityslikr