Movie Mayor Bert Xanadu provides some answers.
Bert Xanadu is Toronto’s not-so-serious fictional movie mayor.
They don’t call them the bowels of the earth for nothing.
Our city’s particular portion of the global bowel is located 17 stories below City Hall, an ancient archive of pre-Toronto that is so foul in its facts, so off-putting in the historic horror it documents, so twisted in its undermining of our pleasant civic myths, that it wears its bowel-esque nature honestly. Only I, as your mayor, and Thad Itchington, the city’s ur-archivist and warden of all the swans, have keys to this vault of truth-terror.
It contains, on parchment both fetid and lovely to touch, the true purpose of Toronto—the dark secret as to why it exists at all. I feel I can share it with you now, as I say fortnightly to Mrs. Xanadu, if you will but endure some context…
Urban citizens, mired as they are in the muck of their thoughts, and in actual muck, can muster little energy to question the very foundations of the civic landscape beneath their dainty feet. They take for granted the existence of their city, without considering it could just as easily be, say, a turnip patch, perhaps the world’s largest.
Nary a day went by, as I would amble down Yonge Street—or on alternate Thursdays, up Yonge Street—passing the potato chip advertising agencies, hairnet clubs, ukulele pawnshops, doorstop rental kiosks, bingo caller night schools, and underwear incinerators, that I wouldn’t think, “Surely there is a better, more moral and productive use for this space?”
I speak not as a cornpone advocate of the bucolic village, the misty-eyed hamlet, or the sexually-repressed rural assemblage of one to two people per square mile, but as a lover of cities and a lover in general.
My enthusiasm for big cities (e.g. the ready access a city like Toronto offers one to sample 140 varieties of gin, show off garish cummerbunds, or snub blowhards like Pierre Berton) leads me not to question their being, but to advocate for a deeper understanding of their purpose and origins. Only with knowledge of the urbanic past can we, as citizens and civic leaders, build the city of tomorrow, using the taxes of tomorrow and the union agreements of yesteryear.
Let’s take Paris, France, for example. Mostly thought of as home to world’s finest lapels, lapins, and inviting laps, it was first conceived of by a wealthy medieval baron merely as a source of raw materials for the manufacture and adornment of his many gaudy codpieces. But, with this codpiece compulsion came an array of craft guilds, crotch measurers, mud amelioration consultants, caterers, and hangers-on, and hey, presto, a city was born.
Or, in more recent times, the licentious and frequently driven-past city of Reno, Nevada was first constructed, mostly out of cardboard, as the set for the Eadweard Muybridge zoopraxinoscope production of Harken Unto My Cuffs, a 19th century soft-porn head-scratcher.
Its addled cast of actors lingered, as did their aromas, long after production ceased, and their presence spawned a dump, a pudding viaduct, and a pet shop—three of the crucial building blocks of any city.
What of other great metropolises? From what dusty purpose did they spring?
Miami? Intended to be the world’s largest towel-drying tarmac.
Barcelona? It was meant to be a farm used to develop onions that don’t cause people to cry.
Düsseldorf? Its intended destiny can be discerned from its very name, formed from the ancient Greek words “dussel” for “duffel bag” and “dorf” for “locker.”
And, so, what of our own beloved Toronto?
John Graves Simcoe, the city’s founder (and if all had gone according to plan, its assassin), intended (according to the parchment document, written in his own cake-stained hand) for Toronto, then called York, to be completely denuded of its fertile soil.
Its fragrant mud would have been stripped from its innocent surface and shipped back to Simcoe’s native England where he planned to make a fortune supplying the then-burgeoning market in mud-based dandruff treatments, so beloved by the scrofulous aristocrats of the town of Budleigh Salterton, known then as the experimental shampoo capital of Devon.
But his dastardly plans went awry, thanks to the dermatological innovations of the enlightened Head and Shoulders families. And in the centuries that followed, Toronto developed into the shredder of dreams we all are distractedly fond of.
And so, when we curse Toronto’s persistent soup smell, its dingy Parcheesi parlours, its flame-sputtering escalators, and its general pastiness, we might be best advised to pause and consider the alternatives.
Follow Bert Xanadu on Twitter @moviemayor.