A new book by longtime columnist Edward Keenan suggests diversity is Toronto's strength, and engagement its saviour.
What makes a city? What gives the vibe, the style, the attributes, the character that spring to mind when we speak of Paris, Vancouver, Hong Kong, New York, London? And what role does a mayor play in shaping its direction?
When all is going well, pondering these kinds of questions makes a lazy afternoon on a patio pass more pleasantly, or livens up a few late-night beers. When things are going badly, and it feels like the Sims have just elected Godzilla to come tear up your carefully crafted town, the issues they raise take on a new urgency. In Toronto, 15 years after ‘the old city’ and its inner suburbs were forced into a shotgun marriage, these questions feel more critical than ever.
Edward Keenan’s slim, engaging new book, Some Great Idea, tries to address them, drawing on a mix of personal history and professional observation. It’s a compelling, if perhaps a bit incomplete, account of how we wound up in the Toronto we have today.
The book looks at post-amalgamation Toronto and the three elected leaders that have reigned over its uneasy transformation: Mel Lastman, David Miller, and current mayor (this week, anyway) Rob Ford. Keenan has spent the last fifteen years watching and writing (for Spacing, Eye Weekly, the Grid, and others) as some smouldering discontent in caught fire near the end of David Miller’s second term. Voters throughout the city—and not just in the suburbs—pinned their hopes on Etobicoke’s perpetually ballistic Rob Ford, a mayoral candidate as outcast as themselves, who spoke about their frustrations in terms that they understood, and whose impossible promises nonetheless struck the right note at a time when they felt some privileged groups had benefited at their ever-increasing expense.
There is much that Keenan gets exactly right, and whole sections that should be cut and pasted directly into the councillor’s handbook that Ford has never read. His descriptions of the city’s previous can-do mayors, plus a few shockers who make Ford seem mild in comparison, include some fascinating examples of how far into the future a mayor’s decisions can reach. While a look at the records and achievements of some of the GTA’s mayors just prior to amalgamation might have added some helpful additional context, Keenan’s brief analyses of the merits and drawbacks of both Lastman’s and Miller’s terms in office are fair and forthright, including a good summary of Miller’s failure to strategically engage his detractors and opponents. If Keenan seems overfond of Miller overall, it’s understandable given their shared political leanings and perspectives on city-building. This is balanced, also, by Keenan’s account of making the rounds years ago with second-term city councillor Rob Ford, traveling door-to-door as he spoke to his constituents and helped them with their complaints. It is a generous and insightful profile that contextualizes all of Ford’s most popular talking points, and demonstrates how he connects with those who see themselves as taxpayers more than as citizens.
As one might expect, Some Great Idea tells a story whose ending is yet unwritten and far from certain. It is difficult to chart the course of history, especially local history, as it is unfolding all around you. Ford’s dysfunctional mayoralty, which at one point seemed like it might be truncated, has in fact just passed its halfway mark with no clear sign of stopping. Ford’s recent conflict of interest win, the possibility of a Supreme Court appeal, the soon-to-be-released results of Ford’s compliance audit, and even his intimation that he is aiming to win a second term, all suggest that Keenan’s book is necessarily incomplete and that many more twists and turns are just a few pages away.
Keenan’s theme—that Toronto’s diversity is both its ‘great idea’ and its Achilles’ heel—is compelling and persuasive, but is not fully explored. As befits his suggestion that “cities are just a collection of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves,” Keenan draws liberally from his own personal history, experiences, and milieu to illustrate various moments within the city’s rush and flow. They are evocative, but they position him squarely within the very ‘downtown elite’ that Ford’s election horrified. A more diverse range of perspectives would have been welcome, particularly from those living in the inner suburbs, those who voted for Ford and support him, those who work alongside him on council, and those who toil behind the scenes. Keenan makes a good guess at what motivated voters to turn a blind eye to Ford’s faults and cast their ballots in his favour, but their voices are largely absent from his narrative.
In spite of its few flaws, Some Great Idea is a cogent and illuminating look at a city that has risen to prominence over the last fifteen years, but has struggled to mature at the same time. If, as Keenan suggests, the diversity that is Toronto’s greatest virtue has led to the segmentation, insularity, and mutual alienation that is its greatest weakness, then all sides must build bridges to reach each other. All ears must open, all hands must extend. Our vision of Toronto, and our journey forward, must include us all.