A goodbye to David Miller’s Toronto

The following is a piece by Ivor Tossell that he posted to his site late last night. He’s a freelance writer. He lives in Parkdale. He once wrote a book review for us. Photo by Mandy No Good.

David Miller did not found Luminato, or Nuit Blanche. He did not spark a “cultural rennaissance” by funding the rebuilding of the ROM and the AGO and OCAD. He did not give Toronto its banks that withstood a global meltdown unscathed. He did not create a condo boom that’s pushed the city into the skies.

He didn’t rebuild the Distillery, or build the opera house, or plan Dundas Square and fill it with tens of thousands of revellers over and over again. He didn’t even start Spacing Magazine, even though he kept showing up at their parties.

In fact, the list of things that David Miller didn’t personally do is really very long. (Also: founding Rome; colonizing Australia; writing Dan Brown’s novels.) Yet when one thinks of David Miller’s Toronto, these are the things that come to mind: A city bigger, a city fairer, a city covered in the tokens of prosperity and the evidence of enthusiasm.

We’ve just come through an election campaign that was fought on the premise that Toronto is broken, its leaders on the wrong track, its citizens divided by class. But the fact that Rob Ford won, and won big, doesn’t necessarily make that an immutable truth. Because the contradictory fact remains that, between 2003 and 2010, Toronto flowered.

Of course, anything would look like a blossom next to the atomic winter of the late Lastman years, when Toronto’s post-amalgamation governance was giving gong shows a good name. Mel Lastman was at the height of his weirdness. The police were bouncing from one corruption scandal to the next. Millions of tax dollars had been bilked in a computer-leasing intrigue that unravelled with the saddest-sack love affair ever to have its cell-phone records read in court. The city was littered with the decaying corpses of fiberglass moose.

It seemed, at the time, that the only power driving the city was its unweildy system itself. The city belonged to neither downtowners or suburbanites back then, but rather to opportunists who had stepped up to take advantage of it.

This was why the bridge to the island airport, of all the parochial squabbles, became an winning issue for Miller in 2003. The public imagination was not ignited by an airport few cared about, on an island full of uppity cottagers even fewer had much sympathy for. But a candidate willing to halt a bridge being rammed through by an unpleasant agency on behalf of a private company – well, now you’re cooking with gas.

So we stepped into the Miller era, an era that abandoned rudderless damage-control in favour of earnest city-building. We know what David Miller did do: Re-equip the TTC and rebuild the waterfront, fix the city’s waste fiasco and preside over bold new plans to revitalize the city’s low-income, high-risk neighborhoods. He installed a police board and chief that – until the heartbreak of 2010 – restored public trust in the force.

He set up a 311 service to provide better (yes) customer service to Torontonians. He won us the Pan-Am games. He rewrote the City of Toronto act, and used his new powers to plug the city’s budget gap with taxes that – surprise! – turned out to be less than crowd-pleasers.

He established an integrity commissioner, and ran his office with integrity. Million-dollar scandals became a thing of the past. By 2010, Kyle Rae’s $12,000 cash bar seemed a ripe target (and fair enough). It is not too much to say that David Miller cleaned up City Hall. But this laundry list – obscured as it often was by Miller’s oftentimes furrowed, droning performance as a communicator – doesn’t capture the essence of the 2000’s as we lived them.

David Miller was as much a product of his era as he was responsible for it. He presided over a time of intense interest in Toronto, by the people who live in it and who love it. Toronto in the 2000’s was as a place not just to be inhabited, but celebrated; a place not just to be managed, but an immense public work, a never-ending project of commerce and community.

A city that had survived decades of architectural self-immolation followed by political self-destruction had emerged into an era of celebrating itself. David Miller’s Toronto was a place where millions thronged the streets on a regular schedule of public festivals through the year. A place where people who wanted to work for progressive ideals weren’t tacking into the wind. A place where people who write about cities and think about cities and talk about cities flourish at small presses and business schools alike. Say what you will about Richard Florida; he’s here.

These are high-falutin’ ideas. They might not have had much resonance with those who just wanted to get to work and back with a minumum of traffic, taxes, and waste-management complications. But these citizens came out winners too, from their property values to the thriving city at their children’s feet.

There will always be a large and reasonable swath of the population for whom the municipality is a service-delivery organization, no matter how it fancies itself. And Miller’s administration, in asking Torontonians to adapt in the name of progress, managed to bungle the execution of its plans enough to overstep those bounds.

Does the 2010 election amount to a rejection of what came before? Rob Ford won his election fair and square. But he didn’t run against David Miller; he ran against two uninspired and inchoate politicians. He blew the horn for populists and small-c conservatives, he blew it exceedingly well, and his people followed him to the polls. (His opponents only managed a few forlorn blarts.)

You can fairly grouse that the garbage bin outside is one size too small; you might complain that the bike lanes are in shambles, which they most certainly are. You might have been hit with a tax on your car, a tax on your house. You might reasonably observe that St. Clair endured unending misery, and that the Bloor St. redo has turned into, if you’ll excuse me, a monsterous clusterfuck.

But that is to lose perspective. Toronto is a safe, prosperous, growing, and profoundly beautiful city. Since 2003, it has become more so. The past seven years have been in Toronto’s best tradition, not its worst. I cannot speak for 2.5 million people, but I know I speak for more than myself. Life in David Miller’s Toronto was good.

25 comments

  1. Regardless of what happens with the new administration and although he certainly had his faults, I will certainly miss Mayor Miller’s enlightened view and actions for Toronto’s future!

  2. Good article. Hits the truth on so many points. Miller was a good Mayor, kind of a champion hero type, but as with all heroes, in the best traditions of Greek tragedy, he had a few glaring flaws.
    Miller was great at vision and high end policy, but his implementation was greatly lacking. In his constant praising of the bureaucracy, he never connected with the average citizen who sees shoddy customer service on the TTC daily, is hit with constant tax grabs and chose to back some real bad choices, like Adam Giambrone.
    Still, wayyyyy better than Lastman and will be remembered as an optimistic city builder whose only fault was hoping for too much.

  3. Other Miller accomplishments include Tower Renewal, Streets to Homes, Priority Neighborhoods and yes, Transit City. The fact that these innovative programs have been largely ignored or viewed as downtown-centric conspiracies against suburbanites is perhaps Miller’s biggest failure.

    But who is to blame for this? Miller has repeatedly touted these programs, whose main beneficiaries live in the suburbs and not downtown. And he has always talked about class and equity issues, more often than things like Luminato or the ROM makeover. But the glamorous stuff gets more play in the media, and so many Torontonians see him as another latte-loving, out-of-touch elitist.

    I sometimes wish the CBC HQ was located in Winnipeg or Regina, so that other Canadians wouldn’t always hate on a city that seems to dominate their TV screens. Similarly, I think supposedly-progressive members of the Toronto media should spend more time north of Lawrence so they would better understand and communicate the significance of these programs, whose futures are now in doubt.

  4. A great article. What will be missed most of all will be the courage he showed with Transit City – taking rapid transit to the poorest neighbourhoods in Toronto to give people a chance at opportunity. Hopefully it won’t die. Goodbye Mayor Miller, you will be missed.

  5. “Toronto is a safe, prosperous, growing, and profoundly beautiful city.” – There must be a different Toronto somewhere.

    After reading your article I couldn’t disagree with you more. I think that the city was always fairly safe, but it is definitely not prosperous, it does grow only along the blighted waterfront and Chicago is beautiful, unfortunately Toronto is not.

    I wish I had your rose coloured glasses on too, but I think that Miller was a disaster for Toronto. I am happy to see him go and quite honestly wish he had only the one initial term. Traffic is now worse, the waterfront is absolutely horrible (littered with condos), people are more divided than ever, city unions are now entrenched costing us more, and as for property values, Toronto has always been undervalued on the world scene and still is.

    In the end I think you have credited Miller with things he did not bring to the table and I definitely think he is the reason Rob Ford is now in office.

  6. Have you ever been to Chicago Mesonto? And if so, did you get off Michigan Mile and see the mile-after-mile of the southside or the east side or or or…..??? Toronto has nothing like that.

  7. Chicago’s downtown core is absolutely stunning! Great public waterfront, wonderful parks and architecture. Toronto’s is not. BTW, I can name more than a few places in Toronto which are absolute disasters as well.

  8. Dear Mesonto,

    – Traffic is now worse because of years of neglect for public transit expansion. We had a plan to move forward but it now may be killed by Rob Ford.

    – Waterfront does have condos. its part of making the place vibrant year round, 24 hours a day. During the last eight years, we moved from nasty condos blocking our waterfront (see between Yonge & Bay along Queens Quay) to an intensive planning framework that guides development (through Waterfront Toronto). Not to mention key public spaces such as Sugar Beach, Sherbourne Common, HTO Park, and the wavedecks.

    – People are divided, but not as much as they will be after the next four years of Suburbs vs. Downtown. As a resident of Scarborough, even I see this as ridiculous. Why is there no downtown representation on the executive committee?

    – The Unions are entrenched, but that is also years in the making. It is also affected by provincial legislation, particularly with police and fire.

    – Property values and the international stage? what are you talking about? I’ll take a guess that you haven’t seen the Ritz, Shangri-la or Trump under construction.

    While i agree with you that Miller is probably somewhat responsible for the Ford-era (just like Lastman contributed to Miller’s victory, or Harris to McGuinty’s), you should be a bit more objective about what has happened over the last eight years.

    J

  9. “the waterfront is absolutely horrible (littered with condos)”

    If you seriously think that condos have been a bad thing for Toronto (not that they really have anything to do with politics), then I can’t take the rest of your comments at full value.  Any other city would kill, commit municipal homicide, to have seen the kind of condo boom that Toronto did over the last decade.  As for the actual waterfront, it has its flaws but more has happened under Miller than ever before — the long stagnation ended (remember Ataratiri?), and projects big and small things are moving forward.  The city’s condos and office towers are also filling in the gaps and beginning to stitch a fabric through the twin barriers of the rail corridor and Gardiner to join core and waterfront.    
    I moved away from Toronto in 2000, rather depressed about the state of a city that had sat on its many laurels through the 90s and was no longer a clear leader among its peers.  Now when I visit I am pleased and amazed at the vigour of the city and its many small successes, which this article nicely summarizes.   I like my leaders to be smart, thoughtful and cognizant of the outside world.  I will miss David Miller.

  10. Mesonto> You didn’t answer my question. Will you? Have you seen the rest of Chicago?

    At what price did Chicago’s glittering waterfront/core come at (which I agree, is stunning). Massive chunks of the rest of the city. Go see it next time you’re in Chicago.

  11. Very nicely put Ivor.

    Toronto’s robustness owes a lot to Mayor Miller and unfortunately I think this will become more and more apparent as the next few years unfold.

    At the risk of bleeding all over the comments board, I must say it hurts to hear people re-frame his tenure as being one over a broken or dysfunctional city. Toronto is so far from that, it really defies belief to hear it characterized as such.

    If there is a disconnect in this city, it is (as you note) between those who see the city as merely a depot of basic services and those who embrace it as a living breathing life-giving place. Is it being quixotic to work towards the latter? I don’t think so anymore than I think my own family is simply a delivery service of tasty meals and timely chores.

    Miller gave a lot to this city and it shows.

  12. I really must agree with Shawn and question Mesonto…

    Miller was in power for 7 years. Are you complaining that Toronto doesn’t have Chicago’s rich legacy of Art Deco buildings and sky-scrapers, and that this is Miller’s fault.

    I support Ford, but I missed his plan for a beautiful city.

    Also, as for traffic, I think Transit City was a good, affordable way to address it. Is there a solution that does not cost billions of dollars more to alleviate pressure on the public roadways? Or, Mesonto, are you in favour of massive property tax-hikes to finance these schemes.

    Really, Miller’s legacy is impressive. Now the pendulum swings slightly the other way, but a lot of what Miller gave us will remain.

    R.

  13. Only 311 is a reality. No Towers have been renewed. TC is not a reality. Priority neighbourhoods may have new basketball courts but remain in distress. I think the Star’s look at the United Way Losing Ground Report sums up David Miller’s term (and those before him)…..
    Since 2000, Toronto’s median family income after taxes and transfers of $41,100, the midpoint for all households raising children 17 and under, has remained relatively stagnant and is now $10,000 lower than the rest of Canada and almost $20,000 less than the rest of the GTA, the report says.

    Among two-parent families, nearly one in five now lives in poverty in the city compared with about one in 10 at the national, provincial and regional level, while more than half of single-parent households in Toronto are poor. The report defines poverty as a family whose after-tax income is 50 per cent below the median in their community, taking family size into consideration. In Toronto a two-parent family with two children living on less than $27,500 is considered poor.

    In short, the report says Toronto families are losing ground on every measure – in median incomes, the percentage of low-income families and the sheer number of families living in poverty. ………..

    Since 2000, the city has seen a net loss of jobs, many of them well-paying and unionized, while elsewhere job creation is on the rise. At the same time jobs have been replaced by temporary, part-time and contract work that offer no job security, benefits or eligibility for employment insurance.

    http://www.thestar.com/News/article/279839
    http://www.unitedwaytoronto.com/downloads/whatWeDo/reports/LosingGround-fullReport.pdf

  14. MESONTO – Toronto is not safe? You think Chicago is great?  We have 1/10th of the homicides.  Would you be willing to accept a 1000% increase in our homicide rate for a waterfront that attracts tourists?  Get a grip.  Toronto is one of the GREATEST cities to live in.

  15. I agree with you completely, Ivor! The (now) current mayor has zero or even negative vision. And @Mesonto, if Toronto so sucked under Mayor Miller, why are there 100 construction cranes on the skyline? Who wants to live here? A lot of people do, that’s who. I have just returned from several US states and seen boarded up buildings in the middle of downtowns. Shawn also has a point regarding large areas of Chicago being no-go zones. There is no way you can compare these to anywhere in Toronto. Really. And the waterfront is improving here…have you been recently? Glen, if TC is not built to service all neighbourhoods in Toronto, that’ll be Ford’s bungling, not Miller’s.

  16. True, Transit City is not a reality. It just has all the funding secured, and construction underway. How close to reality can you get for a major rail project in 7 years?

  17. @Glen

    Not to say that Toronto doesn’t have a poverty issue, but I don’t think this particular United Way report comments in any way on David Miller’s terms as mayor since their most recent data is from 2005 and Miller wasn’t the Mayor until Dec 1 of 2003.

    The finds in this report also shows that while the City of Toronto has had larger increases in family poverty levels compared to the National level, this isn’t something specific to Toronto – the “905” region has had poverty grow 2-3 times the rate of Toronto. Clearly, poverty is a regional issue that needs tackling at the provincial level, not just at the municipal.

  18. The only way that Miller comes out looking like a “good” mayor is on the basis of his “vision”. Unfortunately, a mayor is not just based on his/her “vision” but on what they were able to “implement” (i.e. move things forward)… On that score, Miller will found to be wanting in most assessments — with the exception of the types that tend to post on boards such as Spacing. Yes, Toronto was and is hobbled in terms of what senior levels of government have downloaded on to us … But many would say that the bottom line is that he had a great deal of political capital and he chose to blow it on things that were opposed or deemed inconsequential by large segments of the electorate. You can’t do that if you are interested in maintaining power. Neither can you be consistently insensitive to large segments (enough to vote you out of office) of the electorate. Yes, he his “vision” included many “progressive” iniatives, but maybe if he expended the effort required to actually engage with the public on these iniatives (rather than the sham consultations he was noted for), a greater portion of his “vision” would have actually been implemented. Mayor Miller… big on vision, inept at implementation. RIP.

  19. “SAMG” implies that Miller was bad enough to be voted out of office. Of course we can’t say what would have been the outcome had Miller run for a third term.

  20. Tried to seriously respond to everyone who replied. But as I am working (as you are probably) this will be my only response. Skewer me in absenteeism if you want to.

    Ryan: please reread, I didn’t say “Toronto is not safe”, I said “I think that the city was always fairly safe”, and I do love this city too. (was born here)

    Shawn Micallef: I have lived in Chicago, Montreal, San Francisco, New York City, Toronto and London (England). The city I liked best and spent the least amount of time in (2 years) was Montreal, out of interest the city I liked the least was San Francisco. I have seen much of Chicago and walked through it daily.

    iSkyscraper: Yes I seriously think that condos placed along the waterfront are a blight. We can still build condos but over half the development of this city is south of the QEW. You can take me seriously or not (don’t really care). I have moved back to Toronto in the last 2 years and find the type of developments a huge let down.

    Richard: Please read what I wrote, I never complained “that Toronto doesn’t have Chicago’s rich legacy of Art Deco buildings and sky-scrapers, and that this is Miller’s fault”, but the condos being built now are certainly less than stellar. It is too bad really, we had a chance to create a city that could compete with the best of them and unfortunately the developers won and the city lost. Also I never said anything about Transit City, I think you got ahead of yourself again. The next time you comment on something please read the post more carefully. (I know sometimes emotions carry people away, I guess you prove my statement that “people are more divided than ever”)

    J: I have seen the condos you are talking about and they are on track to be valued properly. But most of the city real estate is actually quite cheap compared to other major cities in the world. Condos do not necessarily make the area lively with people, just look at the condos on Richmond Street East… there isn’t anything there because the ground floors do not contain small shops for people to frequent. And certainly we didn’t need these condos on the waterfront; they could have been built in the core of the city not on our public beaches. And yes people are divided and now we fully realize one of the consequences of the amalgamation of the city.

    On a personal note: I hope that Ford does better than Miller, and the next mayor better than Ford. But only time will tell.

    Cheers everyone.

  21. I don’t think Miller gets much credit for spending his political capital on the macro financial issues Toronto needed to address. The main one that comes to mind, and hasn’t been mentioned here, is working with the province to re-balance the downloading that occurred during the Harris years. It wasn’t a silver bullet, but went a long way to putting Toronto back onto a stable financial footing. (The Toronto Act was the other side of that coin.)

    He negotiated very publicly, yet constructively, with the province, and once he got as good a deal as he thought possible, moved onto the next big thing. 

    These are hard achievements to sell because they are so complicated to explain, and don’t result in a single, momentous fix. But they were crucial, and, in my opinion, correct priorities.

  22. I think this article is terrific and I agree with nearly all of it. Would include the A la Carte program on any list of Miller disappointments! I’m embarrassed that Ford is our new mayor but we’re stuck with him and have to focus on minimizing the damage.

    I’ve been living in Toronto since 2007 and in those few years I’ve experienced a city that has only gotten more interesting, diverse and beautiful. I’m totally impressed with the number of people I’ve met who are actively working to make the city even better. Between the dozens of building cranes, the waterfront development, the exploding indie coffee culture, etc it feels to me like a city on the move and that’s exhilarating. Hands down, it’s my favourite city of those I’ve lived in (Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC and St Louis).I think we need to promote ourselves more as a tourist and conference destination! We’ve not nearly reached our potential!

  23. To Ed. … I didn’t imply that Miller was “bad enough” to be voted out of office… For me, being voted out of office or reelected are not necessarily indicators of whether one is “good” or “bad”… Plenty of “bad” politicians get elected and re-elected. But I will say he was unable to communicate his “vision” to the bulk of the electorate in a way that would have ensured continued support for him. Whether he would have been elected to a third term is a moot point but I think most of the evidence suggests that he had little chance of that happening. He had lost the crucial support of the bagmen and the backroom boys/girls. And contrary, to the poll that came out in summer suggesting he’d might get reelected, most internal polling (that rarely gets reported on) seemed to suggest that he had virtually no chance of being reelected (see results for his flagbearer, Pantalone). The anamoly of the summer poll is probably explained by the fact that people knew there was no way of him entering the race.

  24. I don’t get your comment that our downtown isn’t impressive or beautiful, Mesonto. There’s so much great architecture by Canadian and the best international architects, and it’s so vibrant and diverse in terms of neighbourhoods. We still have a lot of our heritage intact. Our most central waterfront has those dull massive high-rises that cut off waterfront access, but a leisurely five minute walk west reveals the beauty and culture of Harbourfront Centre and some other beautiful parks. Go east and see that Waterfront Toronto is doing some stunning work with Sugar Beach and Sherbourne Commons.

    The skyline is just stunning, with the CN Tower being a beautiful monument that makes it more unique and unusual than Chicago.

    It’s probably our public realm that creates mediocre impressions. Often, it’s hard to notice the beauty of our Victorian heritage, for instance, behind those clusters of overhead wires, big ugly poles, and yellow traffic lights. That’s simply what the eye is drawn too, and what people remember. Montreal and New York cleaned this up almost a century ago. Even Bay Street through the Financial District has nasty rusted poles and overhead wires, yet it’s easily the most prestigious street in all of Canada. It’s hard for people to notice Toronto’s beauty amidst a neglected public realm with poor attention to detail in terms of maintenance.

  25. Mesonto: “I have lived in Chicago, Montreal, San Francisco, New York City, Toronto and London (England)”…

    These are essentially identical cities. Whatever differences exist are superficial; a preference for one over another is akin to liking a Big Mac more than a Whopper. 

    You sound like this: “The food court I liked best and spent the least amount of time in (2 years) was Square One, out of interest the food court I liked the least was Dufferin Mall. I have seen much of Scarborough Town Centre and walked through it daily”. 

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