Toronto: A City Becoming… er, Way too Insular

Cover of

So it’s a bit late for this, but I wanted to share a few thoughts from the Toronto: A City Becoming launch that happened on Monday night at the Gladstone. Ron Nurwisah reviews the book itself in our new issue, so I’m not going to address the print version per se. But what I noticed at the panel could perhaps apply as well.

While the event’s panel did offer a bit of enjoyably spirited discussion (the most heated of which involved artist Michael Awad proclaiming that he loves the Island Airport—a brave admission in a room of west-end denizens), the overall feeling for me was that the Toronto this book is addressing is way too insular. This critique can be made of many media outlets (including, to be fair, this one), but perhaps being beholden to it in standing-room-only style was all a bit much.

As architect John Von Nostrand noted during his turn at the mic, the Toronto that exists north of Eglinton is severely disregarded in city planning. Sadly, it quickly became apparent that the area is also disregarded by books about city planning, like this one. Also, although columnist/panelist Linda McQuaig is usually a class warrior par excellence, her adamant dislike for the suburbs did seem to paint the people who live there (and not just their architectural features) with one broad (and ignorant) brush.

Strangely, I think the whole thing really brought out my inner conservative economist — who, frankly, I never knew existed up to this point. Yes, I thought to myself, as the panel and audience chatted on, there are some really great things about Toronto that make people want to live here. But when people go on and on about them to the exclusion of all else — ravines! neighbourhoods! waterfronts! moral sensibilities! — I’m reminded rather pointedly about a few of the main factors that made me decide to settle here rather than in another Canadian city. And those factors were: (1) the large number of job opportunities in my field; (2) the abundance of specialized health care services that go with being in a very large city; and (3) that I knew some nice people here. Economic opportunities and social links are huge reasons people move here (and settle in particular parts of the city), and I really didn’t see that reality acknowledged at all.

There were a few other points I had problems with as well. When a panelist mentioned how Toronto’s open-mindedness was an asset — particularly, he suggested, in early acceptance of the queer community — it seemed to me that they might have some severe illusions about queer rights being easily won, whether here or elsewhere. While queers might have been tolerated more readily in TO than in Calgary (and still are), the level of tolerance enjoyed by gay folks here today is due in large part to plain, old-fashioned pink-triangle activism. The kind that took bravery, and met backlash, well before thousands lined the streets for our Pride Parade.

I have to say this sense of insularity was also reinforced by the bulk of the panel’s mystification at how (or even whether) non-Torontonians could hate the Big Smoke. Fuelled by a few more drinks, I likely could have launched into some tirade about concentration of media, and Bay Street resting on the fates of the tar sands, and how, yes, there really are great artists and art-lovers who live in every city in the land.

But I only had one drink Monday night. So I told the panelists to see Let’s All Hate Toronto. And then, with some regret at being such a spoilsport, I went home.

20 comments

  1. Maybe we need a spacingnorth.ca and maybe you moved here because you wanted to be part of the Tor-Buff-Roc axis thingy.

  2. It seems that this sort of recent (perhaps occasionally excessive) celebration of Toronto stems from our hitherto (and, I think for many, extant) severely lacking civic pride. but i guess that’s obvious

  3. My wife and I went to the discussion as well and this “North of Eglinton” topic dominated a large part of our follow-up conversation on the walk home.

    What nobody mentioned, or seems to factor in, is that Toronto used to pretty much end at Eglinton up until the mid 90’s.

    Given that, it kind of makes sense that us downtown folks sometimes forgot about the rest of the city — I didn’t think about North York much back in 1994 and frankly I don’t really think much about it now.

  4. Toronto north of Eglinton being ignored in planning? I assume he’s not including the $8+Bn dollars in light rail about to be lavished almost exclusively on that part of the city, at the expense of doing anything at all for transit in Toronto south of Eglinton. Right?

  5. It does seem like quality of planning deteriorates quickly outside of downtown, and the planning downtown never the best either. Look at the Old Stock Yards area along St. Clair for instance. Geographically close to midtown and downtown, it was redeveloped as if it were replacing a farm in Brampton.

  6. This stigma (if i can call it that) against the suburbs is largely disappointing. Statements i have seen in the Spacing comments throughout the years indicates resentment towards those of us who live out here. Specifically, the statements regarding Transit City (and those in the recent DRL post) assume that those of us in the suburbs don’t deserve this service, as if we do not live in the same city and contribute to the same property tax pool.

    I enjoy and am in downtown almost everyday and agree that while resources need to be spent in our vibrant city core, we cannot forget that half the city lives outside of the traditional boundary of old Toronto. Of particular importance is the changing demographics of our suburbs, where we find most of our new immigrants and low income citizens (see Hulchanski, United Way, etc).

    As a long-time resident of Scarborough, i invite anyone living south of Eglinton to visit the suburbs that are a part of our city. Notice the need of north-east Scarborough or north-west Etobicoke and tell me we don’t need our tax dollars more than the downtown does.

    Blame amalgamation if you will, but we have what we have so let’s save the attitude for something we can all fight for – the federal government to give our city, and i mean the entire city, the resources we deserve.

  7. J> I don’t understand those comments either re: the suburbs. Mostly, generic suburb poo-pooing is bloody boring — the city is long past & beyond that, and anybody paying attention knows that. Loudmouth hipsters or out-of-touch journalists perpetuate it. It’s kind of like inner-city provincialism, and equally square.

  8. All I know is that since I moved to Oakville, I am finding far fewer junkies in my car port than when I lived in Toronto.

  9. Leah, good post. It’s, frankly, a welcome change from some of the downtown navel gazing that goes on on this blog.

    I wasn’t there, and I detest much of what suburbia represents surely as much as the panelists seemed to, but it’s a complex beast, and reductionism isn’t going to solve anything.

    Matt C – Transit City really just proves the point to my mind. It’s a solution that’s totally inappropriate for Toronto’s suburbs and will do next to nothing to get people to shift to transit from cars, unlike actually building a legitimate trunk subway line. (this gets us into a debate about LRT vs. subways that is beyond the scope of this thread) Attaching a big dollar sign to it doesn’t make it better. And the ridiculous hue and cry from downtowners about the York U/Vaughan subway extension, constantly complaining about building a subway to empty parking lots, really exemplifies the attitudes Leah is talking about.

  10. Conversely, there are thoughts like ian’s above that are equally one sided. I live in the downtown east side, w/in blocks of hostels and huge public housing project, yet we have no “junkies in the carport”. Once and a while a person looking a little haggard (a “junkie” — I don’t know) comes up to the door and asks for money, but to reduce the downtown experience to that is dishonest and ridiculous.

    Asher — What is downtown navel gazing? Can you pick some specific times a post about downtown became navel gazing? I don’t know what that means — it seems like one of those comments that are just thrown out and sit there. What is the difference between a post about a downtown issue and one that is navel gazing?

  11. I think that it’s much too easy to think of all suburbs as the same. Many of the charming little downtown neighbourhoods that suburb-haters claim to prefer used to be at the edge of town, and Scarborough is not the same as the exurban, plastic tract house hell that you see on the drive to grandma’s place in Aurora or Maple.

  12. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that we *shouldn’t* pay attention to the Toronto outside the downtown core. We should.

    I’m just pointing out the reason it’s often not part of the mental landscape for those who live downtown — for a long time North of Eglinton (or East of the Beaches, or West of the Humber), were different cities with different plans driven by very different mayors with different agendas.

  13. I was there that night, and what struck me was the intense bland negativity of several of the panelists. I’ve only been in the city for three months (after years in NYC and Paris) and I’m blown away by the vibrancy of what is going on here. But the panel at the Gladstone, particularly the journalists for the Star and Globe and Mail, seemed delighted to shoot down any attempt to define the city in active or positive terms (not to say that they shouldn’t be critical, but they seemed pathological about it). Frankly, they scared the hell out of me – that these ‘tastemakers’ of Toronto can’t even bring themselves to make interesting critical statements.
    Suddenly I understand Toronto’s mania for Richard Florida who at least is able to make critical commentary in an active and engaging way, and define a forward trajectory while also looking at problems. If we’re relying on these types to chart a way forward for the city then I think we’re in trouble. I went with the intent to buy this excitingly named book ‘Toronto, Becoming’ and left the debate determined to just avoid it and find other sources of judgment about this extraordinary city.

  14. Asher, Steve Munro has a few good posts on his website about why the Transit City lines are LRT and not subways.

  15. The reminders about the history of the city helps me understand this whole north of Eglinton divide. But I still get riled, as some others do, by the implication that the suburbs are useless and vapid. I think that mainly comes from folks who grew up in the suburbs AND who decided it was really important to reject that area to become independent adults. Note: Just cuz your parents live there doesnt mean a place is degenerate.

    I grew up in the Calgary burbs, which are extensive, and I am steadfast in believing that good and worthwhile and progressive things do happen in these types of environments, even if its not as self-consciously promoted as similar actions might be by downtowners. The main problem I think with suburban life is the amount of time spent commuting and driving. It is just built into the whole deal most of the time, which sucks both for those who live there and those who breathe the smog. But yes I think that is the worst thing I could say.

    I appreciate all these comments though, gives me more to consider.

    (Sorry for the lack of apostrophes, I am on a strange keyboard.)

  16. i’m an architecture student, and i find this anti-suburban attitude frustratingly pervasive in my classes– students and professors alike. it’s not so much that they hate the suburbs as that they’ve given up on them. personally, i’m kind of appalled that the city pours so much time, money and energy into a waterfront that currently has a population of basically zero when i have met kids born and raised in outer toronto who not only have never seen the lake, but don’t even know it exists. or that vince carter had to build a basketball court for kids in dixon and nike built a running track in malvern. in my neighbourhood at ellesmere and VP, every piece of city property, from the library to the transit shelters and the signs in the park (these are basically the ONLY city amenities in a low-income neighbourhood of some 7,000 people), still said “city of north york” for ten years after said city had ceased to exist. i guess downtown folks really did forget about the “rest of the city.” which is a shame, because like, i read the death and life of great american cities too, but it’s almost 50 years old. people don’t want to hear it or just don’t care, but the inner-ring suburbs are where the downtown core was in the 60s: ethnically diverse, with a mix of incomes and household types, full of independent businesses that actually cater to residents’ day-to-day needs (hookah bars, 24-hour italian bakeries, guyanese chinese food never more than 3 minutes away), etc. i can deal with the fact that the former white suburban middle-class and their spawn don’t want to live in the suburbs anymore– frankly, i think the suburbs are better off. but when the media, the city government and, er, architecture schools follow them, i’m sorry, i’m not exaggerating– it’s called white flight (or at least “an assimilated multi-ethnic middle-class embracing a common, vaguely anglo-saxon value system” flight). unfortunately, i don’t think very many people reflect on the ramifications of this kind of development (the people who really should are mostly still wrapping their heads around the idea that the suburbs aren’t affluent, white and conservative anymore).

    p.s. with all due respect, these discussions might not be so insular if they weren’t always taking place at the gladstone.

  17. “these discussions might not be so insular if they weren’t always taking place at the gladstone.”

    +1

  18. Leah, you were gentle in your assessment compared to Christopher Hume’s scathing review:

    http://www.thestar.com/article/416088

    As a contributor to uTOpia, I’m treating this book as an imitation-best-form-of-flattery thing – the Toronto establishment gets around to copying the format a few years later (glossier and more expensive, of course).

    But it does amaze me that they also chose to launch the book in exactly the same format pioneered for the uTOpia books – a panel discussion of contributors talking about urban issues at the Gladstone. Couldn’t they even imagine another venue?

  19. Bethany, thanks for your thoughts. I would have thought the arch-school environment would be more progressive, but there’s my biases showing. It’s good to know what’s really happening, though. The waterfront obsession is also, I have to say, something I don’t quite understand… maybe there’s some history showing there too in some way? In any case, the burbs do need and deserve more services and facilities, and not just from Nike. And the “white flight” observation is way cogent.

    Dylan, thanks for the link. I was out of town this weekend and didn’t see the paper.

  20. Next time, have a book launch or similar discussion at a Tim Horton’s in Milton or Brampton….

    Even the TRL is a better venue.

    Oh and next time, please invite me. I don’t need even one drink to open my huge mouth.:)

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