Gridlocked

A walking tour straddles Toronto’s urban-suburban divide

My first glimpse of Toronto was from an airplane window. My family had made the bold decision to leave Mother England to make a new start and we chose Toronto for our fresh beginning. Even at the tender age of seven, I could see stark differences between my newly adopted home and the city of London, where I had lived my first few tender years. Toronto did not seem like a real city. In the 1960s it was a sprawling low-density smear of detached houses, vacant fields and the occasional tall building. As we descended to an altitude where I could read the signs, I thought it curious that the country that I had learned in primary school to call the Dominion of Canada had big neon reminders of its political state (I had yet to learn of the then ubiquitous Dominion’s grocery store chain). One might argue that my early misconception was apocryphal: Toronto, perhaps more than any other city I have known or lived in, has had a long obsession with its status on the world stage of cities and is still sometimes mocked by those who live in the rest of Canada for its preoccupation with the struggle to achieve “world class” status.

Growing up in Toronto, I experienced all of its goodness and simplicity in the 1970s and ’80s. Internationally, we seemed to be most renowned for our cleanliness, conservatism and order. I remember, as a teenager, thinking that if the first remark a tourist made about our city was praise for the pristine state of our sidewalks, urban greatness was clearly an aspiration rather than an accomplishment. For me, buried in the stultifying recesses of east Scarborough (Scarberia, we called it), living among swaths of large homes in affluent white-bread suburbs, the only excitement the city offered was a weekly subway trip to Yonge Street to walk around in the seedy chaos with the boys from my ’hood, all clearly identified as suburban outsiders if not by our gawking then by the windbreakers we carried under our arms in case of rain.

In Shawn Micallef’s new book, Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness, one can still make out the traces of the old Toronto—its obsessive desire to push onto the world stage, its patchwork quilt of neighbourhoods, still amusingly referred to as “villages,” although many fewer of them offer the sleepy, boring, monocultural experiences of my youth. But, as Micallef makes clear, important things have changed. In his book the backdrop is the political scene that catapulted the city into the headlines, the talk shows and the Twittersphere, for all the wrong reasons. Toronto finally climbed to the front of the world stage, even though many of its citizens met this new infamy with a recoil of embarrassment. Rob Ford’s ascendance to power and then his Shakespearean downfall left the rest of the spectating world in a state of slack-jawed wonder. As Ford waged a very public battle with his personal demons, few of us were able to look away from the train wreck. The staid old city of Toronto appeared to have been taken over by a populist clown who might also be a dangerous madman. How?

Although I could have done without some of the rehashing of the tragi-comic events in the latter part of Ford’s reign with which Micallef begins his story (others have covered this territory with greater detail and depth), it is very much to his credit that he nudges the reader to look beyond the scandals themselves to their meaning for the city, and to remain circumspect about the dumbed-down view that it was really all about the power of the 905 belt and the fractious urban-suburban divide. Micallef leads us to this conclusion by means of a series of walks through different Toronto neighbourhoods, each one led by a municipal politician running in the 2014 election and each one an underdog (in the end, ten of the twelve politicians lost their bid for election). The motif of the walking interview is very much in keeping with Micallef’s emphasis in previous writings with a psychogeographic approach to deciphering a city, although there is much less psychogeography and more straight-up local politics here than in his earlier work.

Except in the early going, where tidbits from the Ford saga are interwoven with the stories from Toronto’s streets, the book’s chapters could be read in any order. There is a rough overall geographic sense to the whole of the story, but this might be hidden from a reader not intimately versed in the structure of the city as a whole. A peculiarity of the book, but perhaps in keeping with Micallef’s deconstruction of the myth of the urban-suburban divide, is that there is little discussion of neighbourhoods in Toronto’s downtown core. It might have been a useful contrast to spend at least a chapter or two on the traditional downtown core. Each chapter provides a vignette of a small part of a single ward within the city and each highlights some of the ward’s election issues. A few particulars are given about the candidate who leads the walk (most of them would-be councillors but with a couple of school board trustee contenders thrown into the mix), but we seldom learn quite enough about the book’s characters to make their stories truly interesting. Except for the career politicians, we learn that most municipal contenders enter the race motivated either by a single issue or by a small set of concerns, often with little financial backing, no real campaign infrastructure and hardly any realistic prospect of success. If nothing else, though, getting a glimpse of the motivations of these also-rans who are in the race mostly out of a passionate concern for their city reminds one of the selflessness of true public service.

Certain themes ring throughout the entire book. For example, Micallef argues that to see the city as a dense core of Hipsterville neighbourhoods surrounded by an endless sea of suburban McMansions would be a gross oversimplification both of the nature of the city and of the root causes of Toronto’s political disruptions of recent years. Rather, lurking inside the city’s seemingly banal grid is an endlessly fascinating matrix of neighbourhoods, a crazy quilt mix of quiet, hidden streets, vexing urban design problems and reams of fascinating local culture. Divisions—cultural, racial, economic and even philosophical—can be found everywhere.

The book’s better moments come from Micallef’s finely tuned descriptions of lines drawn clearly between decisions made by municipal politicians, their concrete effects on the fabric of the city, and from there the knock-on effects on the well-being of Toronto’s citizenry. A good example of this comes in Micaleff’s description of the closing of the gates of Rowntree Mills Park in 2009 by controversial city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, ostensibly to reduce crime and disorder or some such thing but actually having the effect of emptying the park and thereby rendering it both devoid of value and more in danger than would otherwise have been the case. Here we can see in action the fascinating interplay between the layout of streets and spaces in Toronto, the weird peccadilloes of local politicians and the resultant human effects.

Micallef makes the interesting case that Toronto’s ravines can be seen as an ancient, skeletal underpinning of the modern city. This is one of the clearest examples of another of Micallef’s main messages in the book: that places come to be defined over time—and sometimes very long periods of time—by a combination of immutable geographic features, which can form natural borders acting as the syntax that frames human activity. Here, though, it may be that Micallef has overplayed his hand a little. Although Toronto’s storied ravines are perhaps the hidden geographic gems of an otherwise ho-hum flat of land, they are still exactly that—hidden, and by most, I think, not considered prominent features of the city’s terrain. But overlaid on the raw natural features—ravines, rivers, the lake’s edge, the Scarborough Bluffs—are the accrued actions of people, the uses they have made of spaces and the efforts they have made to bend the city’s natural features to their needs. Although the mostly regular grid of main thoroughfares might suggest otherwise, Toronto did not begin as a blank palette. It came to the city’s builders both ancient and modern with the seeds of form already in place that would shape borders, transitions and zones. The most obvious of these is perhaps Toronto’s occupation of a waterfront site on one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. Here, Micallef goes into some detail on the history of Toronto’s magnificent water treatment plants, but also alludes to the peculiar love-hate relationship with its precious geography, perhaps most piquantly illustrated by the disastrous Gardiner Expressway and the recent travails of city builders to remodel part of the waterfront by paring down or eliminating large swaths of asphalt that divides precious waterfront land from the rest of the city.

The book will be of most interests to Torontonians, or at least those who come to the book with a good knowledge of the city. But interested others, even those who love to hate the city may find stories to engage them. At the very least, they will have pause to think about how the incipient divisiveness of Toronto’s political scene opened a crack in the door for a strong populist politician like Rob Ford. One of Micallef’s main reasons for writing the book, I presume, was the fear that even though Ford may be gone, the fractures in Toronto’s social fabric that made his career possible remain and may even have widened. One need only look south of the border or to Europe to realize that this is not a Toronto problem or even a North American one. I am being inundated daily with news stories describing the descent of our powerful neighbour into a frightening inferno of civil rights abuses, families ripped apart, and rising tides of hate and division. One would not think that staid old Toronto could fall under the spell of a populist politician with the power to reshape the city in his own image except that, for a while, that is exactly what happened.