Toronto Hard and Soft

How can a city this dysfunctional be so successful?

Two new academic books about Toronto, one about the history of its waterfront, the other its treatment in literature, help explain in very different ways both the cacophony of daily headlines in this impossible city and our endlessly conflicted emotions about its qualities. And perhaps they give part of an answer to the more fundamental problem any citizen of Toronto tussles with every day: how is it possible that such an ugly, discordant, rootless, dysfunctional, poorly governed, nationally disdained city can be such a delightfully intriguing and successful place to live in and arguably one of the last best hopes of modern urban life?

Let’s start on the waterfront. And with those headlines. Why does nothing ever happen? How can we cut through governmental gridlock? What should be done about shady land dealings? Who can rein in rogue quasi-public agencies? That is not just today’s Toronto Star but the consistent coverage in The Globe and The Telegram through the last half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront, edited by Gene Desfor and Jennefer Laidley, traces the remarkable consistency of issues facing the city’s relationship to and hopes for its lake edge from first colonial beginnings to the present day.

Simcoe’s preference for the capital of Upper Canada was the current site of London, Ontario, but he was overruled by Henry Dundas, Great Britain’s home secretary. When Simcoe established the modern lakefront city in 1793, he found both a highly functional military harbour and an earthly paradise of landscape, fish and wildlife. These three waterfront themes—who is in charge, what is it for and what to do about nature—are variously the subjects of the 13 essays in the book. The volume is a store of well-researched evidence of Toronto’s recurring struggle with its essential geographical fact.

Toronto’s 19th-century success as a port was the cause of its failures. The maritime development of the water’s edge resulted in an ever–extending shoreline, with no one seemingly in charge of its regulation. Development of the central port and Don River valley for industrial uses degraded water quality, caused endless siltation problems and turned the formerly pristine Ashbridge’s Bay marshes into a cesspit of miasmic proportion. The Toronto Harbour Trust, later Harbour Commission, had grand and unfundable visions; City Council railed with toothless incompetence; the Board of Trade called for a businesslike approach to harbour management; and the federal government, in various guises, descended and departed with lightning bolt–like initiatives. All the while port business came and went, the natural environment retreated behind concrete harbour walls and the city grew like Topsy. Does this all sound familiar? Several fine essays detail these conflicts. One on the establishment of the Toronto Harbour Commission in 1911 describes the role of the Dominion government in attempting to establish a national context for the activities of the Toronto port, resulting in the ambitious 1912 plan for the filling of the Ashbridge’s Bay marshes and the creation of a major new industrial district in the eastern port area. A new stretch of public parkland and beach would edge the lake. That plan essentially set in place the form of the harbour much as we see it today. Except neither the parkland nor the much–anticipated industrial development ever really took place, undermining the expensively funded business model established to create the new land area. The Toronto Harbour Commission hung on until 1997, but not before it had another large-scale, inconsequential idea, the plan for a massive new harbour and airport that we now know as the Leslie Street Spit, a functionless 5 kilometre-long stretch of landfill being steadily overtaken by “nature.” The commissioners were then replaced, following another Ottawa-sourced lightning bolt, by the Toronto Port Authority, which runs the island airport but precious little else.

Eliminating a natural area as large as the turn-of-the-century Ashbridge’s Bay with its unique land/lake ecology or landfilling far out into Lake Ontario would be inconceivable today given contemporary environmental attitudes and regulation. Other excellent essays attempt to describe the way in which nature, as represented by the Don River, that prodigal son of Toronto rivers, as well as by the cholera-inducing marshes of Ashbridge’s Bay and the form-changing, ever dissolute Toronto Islands, were conceptualized by decision makers and commentators at the time, although the essayists sometimes find it difficult not to look back with a 21st-century perspective on those earlier debates. Were those officials grandstanding, racist, malign or foolish when they saw the lower Don Valley and its marshes as a public health concern and a source of moral degradation? Or were they just genuinely confused? The causes of diseases such as cholera were not then fully understood and Toronto was a long way from the leading edge of medical research. Even in our own times the city’s medical establishment flapped around to similar mixed effect in the city’s recent experience with SARS and avian influenza.

The final essays in Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront deal with very recent history, although the under-lying issues remain remarkably the same. I have spent much of the past 20 years involved in the various attempts to chart a post-industrial future for the waterfront and these essays do a great service in beginning to document that new vision, setting out what happened, the social, economic and environmental context of its formulation and the ways in which it was to be implemented.

The city’s current vision for the waterfront was established early in the first decade of the new century in response to a new city-building paradigm increasingly embraced by global cities. The essence of that paradigm: it is no longer industrial development that is the key to Toronto’s future, but the creation of a competitive environment for footloose knowledge workers and a home for the cultural and creative infrastructure of the new economy. The old separation of urban and natural is to be eliminated under the banner of an ecological approach, fostering a sustainable environment that takes a comprehensive, integrated view of buildings, landscape, movement, energy and social relations. Yet echoes from those earlier waterfront campaigns can still be heard. The approach to delivery is to be inspired by best business practice, public and private sectors are to be fruitfully combined and, as before, the impetus for action is fuelled by unflattering comparisons with other urban competitors.

What is happening now, after an agonizingly slow start, is the construction of that brave new world of waterfront parks and mixed-use neighbourhoods, public art and energized ecology, which is rapidly establishing a new era in Toronto’s endlessly charged and changing meeting with the lake. Will it achieve the stated goals? Not entirely as planned, if the history set out in this volume is any guide.

Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront is written primarily by academics but is accessible to the general reader, although almost all the essayists feel obliged to make mandatory visitation to high theory, with its catechism of obscurantist concepts and hagiographic footnoting. And neoliberalism, whatever that might be, is clearly a bad thing.

We not only build our cities; we imagine them. The physical manifestation of Toronto is layered with our emotional experience, creating an entirely separate yet strangely parallel map. It is the geography of that imagination that Amy Lavender Harris sets out to capture in Imagining Toronto. This is an ambitious task; she attempts a comprehensive search of the literature set in Toronto to see how each of its different districts is treated. It is largely successful, and tremendously enjoyable, to tour Toronto’s neighbourhoods and landmarks through the words of the city’s novelists and poets and their characters.

Let’s start with the ravines. If the CN Tower is the city’s primary symbol to the world, the ravines are surely the locus of its inner life. Harris cautions us against making too much of the obvious urban sexual imagery of both places, but so much intimate literary activity occurs in the “damp gash” of the ravines that their primal charge is uncontestable. They feature in many of Margaret Atwood’s books, always with foreboding about life’s unknowns. The list of other novelists visiting the city’s upside-down mountains is long and significant—from a turn-of-the-century novel by Ernest Thompson Seton to more contemporary works by Michael Ondaatje, Barbara Gowdy, Paul Quarrington, Timothy Findley, Katherine Govier, Dionne Brand, Catherine Bush and many more. Clearly the ravines have the most powerful emotional geography of any place in Toronto.

And as for the once highest freestanding concrete erection? It plays a background role in many books but for the most part Harris finds its impact on the characters of Toronto’s novels more inscrutable than arousing.

The author has organized the book around each of the city’s distinct places; its neighbourhoods, such as the Annex, Parkdale, Rosedale and Kensington Market; its places, such as Union Station, City Hall and the Islands; and its communities, virtual and real, such as gay Toronto, multicultural Toronto and the suburbs. It is a tricky job to structure such a mass of writing in and about the city—and Harris leaves us in no doubt as to how prolific the written Toronto has become. The book, like any city, is best taken one walk at a time.

Harris opens with one of my favourite quotes about imaginary cities, from Jonathan Raban’s wonderful early book, Soft City:

the city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.

Harris brings that “soft city” to life in such a comprehensive way that after reading her book it seems as real as its physical shell. And what kind of a place is it, this city? She uses another fine quote, from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, to capture that distinct Toronto tone all of us know so well.

Underneath the flourish and ostentation is the old city, street after street of thick red brick houses, with their front porch pillars like the off-white stems of toadstools and their watchful, calculating windows. Malicious, grudging, vindictive, implacable.

Frankly I have always thought this quote as good an explanation as anything in the political science literature for why Toronto has never been able to undertake grands projets like the waterfront. Not that Harris herself is immune to that dark note of our city. She relentlessly roots out any claim we might have to “world class” pretentions or posing. Despite the long history of such aspirations they are illegitimate in the face of the city’s original sins against nature, aboriginals, the marginal and the poor. Indeed, it is the strange gap in Toronto’s literature that the great mass of its citizens—the middle class, along with business people, high officials, politicians and the waves of successful immigrants—are largely missing from its writing. Robertson Davies was perhaps the last novelist to write about such people, the “hard breathing, hard running” Torontonians with whom we spend most of our working lives.

Harris relaxes in her final chapter and a smile comes across the face of her sometimes overly grim city. In a few elegiac pages she captures the spirit of a place we all hope for, that so many of our writers imagine. She leads with a quote from Dionne Brand, now the city’s poet laureate and one of the most interesting contemporary writers about Toronto, a city

where nothing is simple,
nothing, in the city there is no simple love
or simple fidelity.

Harris continues:

In Toronto our fidelity is complicated by forgetfulness, by simultaneously destructive and aggrandizing urges, by cultural insularity, civic envy and a collective fear of failing to measure up to some external measure of what a city is supposed to represent. But it is fidelity all the same, and in it we discover our capacity for tolerance, accommodation and the hard love that foregrounds our narratives of life in this city.

She is right, of course: a place can only be what it is. But strangely, for all our misgivings, almost accidentally Toronto has become world class, in its own distinctive way. Yes, it has joined the list of the top dozen or so most economically important global cities in the world and is steadily rising in those rankings. But it is when you look at how life is lived in the other cities on those exclusive lists that its real character emerges. It has perhaps the best–functioning world-city public school system, the safest streets, the most used libraries, the smallest structural underclass, the most successful settlement of one of the highest rates of immigration in a context of greater civil peace and harmony than any global city I know. All this and a stable banking system.

Just to write such things can put a shiver up one’s spine, but they nonetheless are largely true. What is even more intriguing is that all this has happened in the absence of any coherent or competent plan by city or federal governments, with only intermittent inspiration from the province of Ontario and the complete lack of enthusiasm from its citizenry for such a project.

These two books chart the still short history of Toronto in two very different ways: the steps and missteps involved in the hard cityscape of Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront and the soft city of Imaging Toronto. It may be the latter is the more powerful.