09 November 2013

Is Any Toronto Conversation Better Than None?

As the Rob Ford freak show mayoralty has reached unimaginably surreal heights of late, I wonder, is there anything positive that can be found in the nadir of municipal politics that we’re in? Can someone like me, whose love for Toronto is truly unconditional, somehow sift through the debris of our civic morale to find even a small trace of figurative fool’s gold? 

Ford’s scandal marathon has made Toronto politics a ubiquitous topic that often eclipses all else. I just realized that I haven’t written a post here, on my journal of Toronto thoughts, since the summer of 2012! My terrible lapse in productivity can be at least partly attributed to how busy I am now in graphic design school, though Ford’s antics have me writing this until 4 a.m. When I check my Twitter feed lately, which consists almost completely of local, Toronto-obsessed voices, it’s amazing to see the few famous Americans that I follow tweeting about Ford along with everyone else.

This past Tuesday, one of my graphic design teachers finally raised the topic of Ford in a class. She said it’s so depressing to hear that our mayor is partaking in such activities, which began a brief municipal dialogue with students. Later, as we were supposed to be working on group projects, I couldn’t concentrate because Ford was about to hold a press conference (which would have finally marked Ford’s resignation if he was a decent human being). As a group, we perfunctorily worked on our assignment between snippets of Ford discussion. At one point I was even arguing about bike lanes with a guy I had never spoken to (which, due to my shyness, is usually impossible).

Tonight, as Pamela and I walked home from our friends’ apartment just past 2 a.m., having had a night that, despite our intention to watch X-Files episodes, mostly consisted of us talking about Ford news and watching the new Fifth Estate feature on him, a woman (who was clearly in a drunken stupor) in the passenger seat of a passing car screamed at us, “Hey! I was with Rob Ford tonight. We had sexual relations. I sucked his albino ----. Have a good night!”

Can the fact that newspapers all over the world and giant American television shows are discussing Ford almost as much as we locals are be a good thing for Toronto? Beyond the obvious shame of being discussed on the world stage only for having a mayor that’s unprecedentedly ridiculous, could it also be beneficial to be talked about nonetheless, regardless of the reason? Maybe an essential ingredient missing in Toronto’s reputation—or lack thereof, since it is famously unappreciated and disproportionately inconspicuous in our North American imaginations—is simply a freakish incident such as this one that propels it into a bizarre new light, from which it will hopefully emerge healed from the Ford years and slightly more a part of our psychological urban landscape. When the topic of the mayor even arises in passing drunken harassment, maybe we’ve reached a point where the civic conversation is so broad and socially cohesive that the mayor’s scandals have done some good. Maybe having stories to tell about Toronto is just what the world needs.

11 July 2012

My New York Problem

My love affair with Toronto began when I moved here for university in 2003, enjoying it as an endlessly refreshing counterpoint to my suburban past in Pickering. I saw it as the big city, not just a city among many cities in the world; as far as I was concerned, there was Pickering at one end of the urban spectrum, and Toronto on the other, representing a metropolitan wonderland in which I could feel at home forever. Because my standards of urbanism were painfully low due to where I came from, it was very easy, when I discovered Spacing Magazine, Torontopia, and this whole inchoate movement of Toronto appreciation, to love Toronto monogamously, and for itself, not as a mere stepping stone to other, better cities, as had hitherto been tradition. There was no temptation to temper my enjoyment of the city in light of other cities putatively being more worthy of praise.

I developed a fierce loyalty to this city based in a conscious refusal to even allow for the possibility of anywhere else being better, due not only to my genuine love for it, but also to its need for unconditional love in lieu of historic neglect. As I read over and over again, Toronto is a city that everyone loves (loved?) to hate, and its lack of civic celebration had rendered it a cultural vacuum in popular culture. It almost never played itself in movies, for instance, more often taking the role of New York, and tended not to be seen as a destination valuable in itself but merely a place one lived in instrumentally, due to necessity, or as a geographic compromise. I thus came to the belief that claiming undying allegiance to one’s local major city is an important political act as it would lead to the improvement of “underdog” cities which need the most help, rather than concentrating all care on culturally-dominant and popularly-acclaimed continental giants like New York. I wanted (and want) to “spread the wealth” in civic appreciation. Thus I wasn’t interested in New York or London or Paris not only because it seemed Toronto can provide all I will ever need, but because, even if it can’t, it's my duty to act as such so that, with the combined care of other Toronto loyalists, it can concomitantly improve. Surrendering to typical Torontonian insecurity would simply perpetuate the historical vicious circle of urban apathy and geographic infidelity.

But then one Ms Pamela Clark took me on a trip to New York and I’ve yet to recover. Although I explored this behemoth with a healthy sense of guilt, constantly aware of all the dangers in exposure to this quintessential source of Torontonian civic insecurity, traversing its streets carefully as though I risked betraying my true love, and maintaining a vigilant Torontonian-till-death perspective, it was impossible to deny its overwhelming charms. Many of my favourite manifestations of Toronto’s urban form – the unapologetic density and historical grandeur of buildings around Bay & Adelaide, the vibrancy and diversity of retail on Bloor in the Annex, etc. – seemed to be multiplied tenfold in New York, except, to make matters worse, with even greater historical depth, architectural splendour, diversity of retail, abundant civic pride, and better transit, pedestrian, and cyclist accessibility. The sort of exceptional building that I would see once in a while in downtown Toronto, that would make me stop in my tracks due to its architectural and historical magnificence, would stretch into infinite in Manhattan. I found myself literally surrounded by such masterpieces, with endless street walls in all directions comprised of what seemed like ancient skyscraper palaces forming urban canyons into the horizon. I felt like every New York subway station I went to was a blow to my TTC love, each amazing restaurant a stain on my enjoyment of Toronto restaurants. It was almost painful to behold New York’s beauty. My visit caused irreparable damage to my appreciation of Toronto by raising the bar so spectacularly high in so many respects.

While I still will never claim allegiance to nor live in any city other than Toronto, since my trip (and two subsequent trips since), it has became much harder to think of as the city. Even if my belief that Toronto remains the best city with which I’m familiar is completely intact, its supremacy is now more difficult to justify. New York has become, regrettably, an insidious elephant in the room in my extant unconditional love for Toronto, my oppressive awareness of its existence lying not far beneath my every acclamation of Toronto’s qualities, forever gnawing at my civic satisfaction.

03 July 2012

“Cycle Toronto”

I just received an e-mail requesting that I renew my membership to the cyclist advocacy group formerly known as the Toronto Cyclists Union, but I am very ambivalent as to whether I should do so. Changing the name to eschew the word “union” is so regressive and offensive to progressives that I honestly wonder if I want to support and be associated with such a group. On the other hand, of course, maybe the name change is of relatively minor harm considering the benefit of having a widely supported advocacy group for cycling, and maybe abstaining from membership would be an overreaction and puerile. However, the fact that I (and so many people I know) am questioning the validity of the entire organization due to such a small change really makes me wonder (once again) why on earth this change was made. Whose stupid idea was this? Why would such a controversial change to such a fundamental aspect of the group – its name being the primary face of the organization to the public – even be raised in a serious way, let alone put to a vote? It seems so needlessly divisive and obstructive.

Of course, the advocatory function of the organization is important to me and I want to support good bicycle advocacy. However, the reason that I question supporting this specific organization is that I care about the public perception of unions even more than cycling advocacy. It is obviously ridiculous to suggest that advocating for the welfare of cyclists requires disassociation with progressive labour, as this group has unfortunately done, but if I had to choose one cause I’d choose the latter. Improving the welfare of cyclists in this city is not worth the public denouncement of unions, and the surrender to endlessly-destructive right-wing discourse inherent thereto. The name change seems to demonstrate that the organization pursues the welfare of cyclists whatever the cost, no matter who or what is harmed in the process. A century of labour history be damned; we want more members!  

Further, what is most maddening about this decision is that rejecting the word union will probably offend progressives more than attract regressives to the cause. Does anyone really think that people who hate unions so much that they are completely repulsed by the word’s appearance in a group’s name comprise such a large proportion of the group’s potential supporters? It’s like if Obama started appealing to Republican voters by hiring Glenn Beck as his chief advisor, losing countless more Democrats’ support in the process. Moreover, the expression “scraping the bottom of the barrel” comes to mind; do we really want to attract such ardently regressive right-wingers to the group? I, for one, would much rather the group have fewer members than have right-wing extremists marching for the cause.

So far, as you can see, I think I am leaning towards not renewing my membership.

25 June 2012

Precedent Over Progress?

A recent decision by the city to reject a development proposal on College near Spadina again has me wondering: Why should new buildings conform to the old context? There seems to be a popular notion that, without any further explanation, a new building should be subservient to its context; period. When I ask why, I tend to only hear vague aesthetic preferences supporting this view, like claims that the structure is “oppressive,” rather than any solid reasoning that such a development would actually hurt people.

Why is the status quo taken to be the gold standard of architecture and urban planning? Is it so inconceivable that a new building could do better than its surroundings? Maybe we should be setting a new, better precedent in some contexts, such as suggesting that highly transit-accessible areas should be composed of buildings taller than bungalows. Some contexts aren’t good enough, in which cases we should make a new context. Why should we presume that the existing urban fabric is always a better urban model than anything else imaginable? In most cases in which height is controversial in Toronto, the surroundings are two, three, or four-storey buildings, and the anti-tall building mindset implies that we should keep such parts of the city at their current low height. Continuing to build neighbourhoods at their current height simply because they currently are that height seems ridiculous. It’s not as though there was a master plan that determined the average heights of different parts of the city when it was first conceived, the disruption of which would cause the city to cave in on itself. The ideal urban form is not set in stone; it changes depending on how many people want to live in an area, how much space we have left, etc.

Further, how does the first tall building ever get built in a city, if tall buildings should only be built alongside others? Should tall buildings only ever be built in cities that already have them (which would restrict  such development enormously)? Should a spacially-wasteful suburb, for instance, never build a tall building because it never has before? Is vertical precedent restricted to the past? To take my bewilderment of this anti-height position to an extreme, I’d like to ask: What would happen even if a 100-storey building was built next to a suburban home in Pickering? Would the world explode? I honestly don’t know why such a thing should be avoided. If anything, it seems it would greatly improve the area by moving it in the direction of a more sustainable, vibrant, and dense community. If the demands of its residents are too high for the low-density context, such as the sidewalks being too small or the public transit insufficient, can’t the context change to suit the development? Why not build the ideal building in an area - no matter the height - and then update the area accordingly?

The benefits of adding a tall building to urban areas are numerous and seem relatively easy to explain: More people get to live in a sustainable, vibrant neighbourhood, which comprises urban rather than suburban growth, it adds cultural and economic activity to the area, better use is made of space that is otherwise a parking lot or merely a two or three-storey building, etc. To me, in general, it seems that more is better when it comes to development. Others, especially NIMBYs, seem to think the opposite.

18 June 2012


Having come from the sprawling suburb of Pickering, I often wonder, considering how much denser Toronto is, how much space in Toronto would it take to contain the population of Pickering? That is, just how spatially wasteful is Pickering versus Toronto? With the former exemplifying suburban sprawl and the latter urban density, here is a brief examination I did using the populations, areas, and population densities of Pickering, Old Toronto, and, for a particularly dramatic comparison, Manhattan. Initial statistics perfunctorily acquired from Wikipedia and (at least mostly) from 2011 data.

Population: 89,000
Area: 232 km²
Density: 383/km²

Population: 737,000
Area: 97 km²
Density: 7,584/km²

Population: 1,586,000
Area: 60 km²
Density: 27,400/km²

-20 times as many people live in 1 km² in Old Toronto than in Pickering
-8 Pickerings’ worth of people live in Old Toronto’s area, occupying only 42% as much space as Pickering
-12 km² could house Pickering’s population if it lived as densely as Old Toronto’s, instead of 232 km², or 5% as much space
-1,763,000 people could live in Pickering if it was as dense as Old Toronto
-32,211 people would live in Old Toronto if it was as dense as Pickering, or only 5% as many people; 704,789 people would be displaced

-72 times as many people live in 1 km² in Manhattan than in Pickering
-18 Pickerings’ worth of people live in Manhattan’s area, occupying only 26% as much space as Pickering
-3.25 km² could house Pickering’s population if it lived as densely as Manhattan’s, instead of 232 km², or 1.4% as much space
-6,133,000 people could live in Pickering if it was as dense as Manhattan
-23,017 people would live in Manhattan if it was as dense as Pickering, or only 1.5% as many people; 1,562,983 people would be displaced

03 February 2012

My First Kouvalis Attack

Tonight (technically morning) I got a taste of the infamous (Nick) Kouvalis venom, which has been making its way around Twitter more than usual lately. It’s funny because it’s juvenile machismo in response to my criticism of his juvenile machismo. Together with Doug Ford’s recent bullying comments directed at an assiduous local activist, the Ford team is really resorting to schoolyard tactics.

25 January 2012

Victims of Privilege

I recently realised that progressives aren’t the only ones who think they are striving for the welfare of the oppressed and vulnerable. Upon speaking to a Ford supporter for the first time, I was struck by how the right-wing strain of thought on which his political tastes were based painted himself – a white, middle-class, forty-something years-old, car-driving, Toronto home-owning man – as a victim in need of support from local government.

He complained of the entitlement of “lefty pinkos” that caused the current financial situation in Greece and of the increase in property taxes that he has to pay after having renovated his house recently. At one point, after emphasizing the excessive taxes he has to pay, he told my (young and non-home-owning, like myself) friend and I, “Wait, you guys aren’t even in this,” declaring the illegitimacy of the political opinions of such non-home-owning (and thus [supposedly] non-property tax-paying) Torontonians as myself. People like me, he implied, have no stake in Ford’s absence or presence in mayoral office, since we putatively don’t reap the benefits of tax cuts. I only realized after our brief conversation how spectacularly he had managed to spin a home-owning, materially-more-than-comfortable, always-driver as a victim of tax oppression, and young men like myself who rent tiny (shared) apartments and need to take TTC, cycle, or walk everywhere as invulnerable princes, with no care in the world. Despite his taxes being a product of having way more than us, he thinks of himself – at least in speaking of municipal political concerns – as more vulnerable and deserving of politicians’ support.

I have hitherto seen the progressive narrative as having a sort of monopoly on concern for the less privileged, seeing ourselves as countering powerful societal bullies and using government to make society less unfair for those that are most vulnerable. Recently, however, I’ve begun to realize that the right-wing perspective somehow has cast a similar oppressed-oppressor narrative on its own belief system. Through a sort of extreme meritocratic mindset and work indignation, people like Mayor Ford have come to see tax paying (being indicative of hard work) as the ultimate sacrifice, which magically renders the most economically comfortable as the most socially oppressed. This taxation-as-oppression mentality completely reverses traditional ideas of privilege, casting the poor as individualistic hedonists and the rich as exploited by a gluttonous collective. Amazingly, it seems that Ford genuinely believes mini-van-driving, huge suburban house-owning, comfortably-employed people like himself are the victims since such privileges (theoretically) amount to more of their dollars going to taxes. Essentially, the right have deluded themselves into seeing privilege upside-down.