Strangers And The City
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Strangers And The City

It’s often refreshing to hear an outsider’s point of view of your city. Sometimes they offer a new perspective on something so commonplace that you take it for granted. Or they can simply offer the expected platitudes. One writer, Olga Bonfiglio, who visited Toronto for the first time this holiday season, recently offered her take. She painted a very glowing picture of our city “as both a model and an inspiration for cities,” and offered the usual outsider praise for our diversity and tolerance; the cleanliness of the streets; the low crime rate; and the “clean, safe, and efficient” transit system.
For all Toronto’s faults––and the author does admit her enthusiasm may be “starry-eyed”––much of Bonfiglio’s praise does ring true. But to avoid the temptation to smugly congratulate ourselves on the status quo, Mark Kingwell’s essay on the current state of the city in the most recent issue of The Walrus is essential reading.
Many of the positives mentioned by Bonfiglio are seen, in Kingwell’s writing, to be valued by Torontonians in word, but not in action. For all our talk about real estate, urban sprawl, economic growth, and cultural diversity, Kingwell argues, we rarely contemplate our city’s concept of justice. Is the city more than the sum of individual desires, in which development occurs in the service of everyone?
In one section of his essay, Kingwell links what he perceives as a lack of justice––in terms of what we owe each other as fellow citizens “not in distribution of goods and services, but in distributions of care and, especially, power”––to a general decline in civility. It’s not just about how we treat the least fortunate in society, but also how we treat strangers. And Torontonians, in Kingwell’s view, are becoming more and more rude to each other.
This directly contradicts Bonfiglio, who focussed much of her commentary on the politeness of Torontonians. She cites our willingness to put litter in its place, to comply with anti-smoking legislation, and to refrain from yelling, honking car horns, or playing loud music on the street. And she concludes: “The most significant impression I had of Toronto is that its people are so civilized.”
The visitor certainly captures the surface perception of the city. Toronto is a very polite city, to be sure, but for many newcomers it is not a friendly city. Toronto has a well-earned reputation as a cold and cliquish place. We hold a door open for a stranger, but do not engage in genuine conversation with them. We shuffle to make room for fellow commuters on crammed streetcars, buses, or subways every day, but avert our gazes and remain wrapped up in ourselves. Politeness can welcome warmly, but it can also distance individuals with the chill of formality. Tolerance is an acknowledgement of diversity, but does not necessitate real engagement between communities.
If lack of civility is the symptom, Kingwell does offer a solution to start us on the road to becoming a just city:

Such a city starts with you, on the street, lifting your gaze and looking, for once, into the face of that person passing. This urban gaze is not male, or female; it is not casual or demeaning ; it is not totalizing; it is liberating. It’s the gaze that recognizes, in the other, a fellow citizen, which is to say one who has vulnerabilities, desires, and ideas, just as you do.

It’s difficult to reconcile these two versions of the city. Are we, as Bonfiglio says, a model for other cities? Or are we a mass of strangers hardened by urban life, who share physical space but little else?
Photo by alexindigo from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.