Perspective — June 24, 2013, 8:00 am

On Bad Mayors and Good Cities

The real problem with Toronto mayor Rob Ford isn’t that he’s a venal, possibly crack-smoking bully; it’s that he’s not the kind of venal, possibly crack-smoking bully who makes his city better

Photograph by TheAlphaNerd (Reddit)

Photograph by TheAlphaNerd (Reddit)

I just returned from a short trip to Washington, D.C., and I’m pleased to say that my American friends and relations are well versed in news about Toronto. They know that our portly and pugnacious mayor, Rob Ford, may appear in a video of a suburban drug party, possibly smoking a crack pipe. The week before I left, police raided several apartments and houses in the neighborhood, including the house that appears in the video — appears, at least, in the one screen-grab image the press has so far obtained. Huge caches of drugs and guns were seized; several dozen people were arrested. The video itself continues to be missing, despite the success of Gawker’s “Crackstarter” campaign to raise the $200,000 demanded by the drug lords for its sale. Over the weekend, Ford appeared at a downtown street festival; one irate citizen threw a cup of juice at him.

As Torontonians know well, Ford was already a walking, talking symbol of the divisions in this sprawling, scruffy city. Or, more accurately, he was a driving, blustering symbol of those divisions, because he hails from the ring of suburbs that horseshoe around the affluent and liberal downtown core of the city. This swath of residential infill, connected by multi-lane highways and wide, sidewalk-free streets, has gathered unto itself most of the small towns and villages that once existed outside the city proper.

These areas are varied in terms of race and income level, but seem — at least to downtowners saddled with Ford as their mayor — to be united in hating core-dwellers and their latte-sipping ways. They are Ford’s electoral base, the Toronto equivalent of the bridge-and-tunnel boroughs of New York City. They like cars, not bikes. They think walking is for suckers, and waiting for the bus a sad waste of the day. This divide reflects the current state of urban politics in many cities across North America. When cities manage to retain or revitalize their cores, cultivating walkable neighborhoods and the kinds of streets where you can indeed sip a latte, suburban and exurban hostility often results. That hostility may be rooted in differences of race or income, but often it seems to cut across those familiar cultural lines: cars versus bikes, roads versus transit, and (to use a peculiar Canadian example) Tim Horton’s versus Starbucks. 

I live and work in downtown Toronto. I walk or bike to work most days of the year. I don’t own a car, and never have, though my wife has one. I am a university professor with left-leaning political views, an atheist, a writer, an occasional Starbucks drinker, and a semi-enthusiastic frequenter of farmers’ markets — everything Rob Ford’s Toronto is not. I had thought, in keeping with my review of books on walking in this month’s issue of Harper’s, to write a blog post about the joys of urban flânerie, especially my favorite walk in Toronto: from the Annex, where I have an office, past the house where Jane Jacobs used to live; through the University of Toronto campus, with its beautiful scattering of neo-Gothic, Romanesque, and Modernist buildings; across the long grubby ribbon of Yonge Street, our main artery dividing east from west; and into the half-gentrified quirkiness of Cabbagetown, to the narrow red-brick semi-detached house where my wife was living when I met her ten years ago.

It’s a nice walk, full of leafy streets and parks but also enough human activity to feel lively for most of its length. I do it most days of the year, if I’m not on my bike or taking the subway. But I know it is walk full of privilege: an ironic reversal of the received wisdom that the pedestrian is the lowest form of urban life, car-deprived sidewalk scum.

Ford has yet to be arrested or charged over the alleged crack video, which puts him on the right side of a line that has confounded a few other prominent municipal politicians in Canada this year. The interim mayor of Montreal, Michael Applebaum, was arrested this week on corruption charges. Joe Fontana, the mayor of London, Ontario, currently faces criminal charges that he skimmed public funds to pay for his son’s wedding.

The pettiness of that last detail is particularly depressing. In Washington, one of my relatives told me about Buddy Cianci, the notorious ex-mayor of her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, who was arrested twice while in office, once on assault charge that seemed mostly personal and, later, on a series of racketeering, fraud, and extortion charges that showed his administration to be one of the most corrupt in American history. During his time in office, though, Cianci managed to transform Providence from an urban identity crisis with a major highway cutting across its face into one of the nicest small cities in America — and one of the most walkable. 

It’s one of democracy’s hardest bargains that you sometimes need to elect dodgy people in order to accomplish good things. Walking along my daily downtown route, thinking about what our city could be like, I half-wish our mayor had that kind of vision and ambition, crack-smoker or not. But then again, the crack story dovetails with his erratic, suburban-bred vision of what a city should be, and with his comportment as mayor to date.

Ford’s biggest idea so far, if you can call it that, has been support for an ill-judged proposal to build a casino on the city’s waterfront. (The plan was eventually defeated.) If we want to send Toronto into the league of truly great cities, we need a lot more than that. The crumbling Gardiner Expressway, which cuts the city off from its lakefront expanse, ought to scrapped, maybe sent underground, the way Boston managed to level the stretch between Faneuil Hall and the North End. A London-style car toll would reduce downtown congestion even as it raised revenue for more subway lines — maybe even one to the airport. More trees, sidewalks, and bike trails in what has quickly become a glass jungle of condo towers near the lake would make for street-level life at all hours, not just before and after baseball or hockey games. All of this might require getting your hands a bit dirty, but it doesn’t have to be criminal.

Meanwhile, our guy is driving his big car (sometimes while reading), getting into altercations with streetcar drivers, hockey fans, festival-goers, his wife. He is denouncing cyclists, tearing up bike lanes, and opposing transit expansion. He has conflict-of-interest charges pending, and has lost staff at a rate that would alarm the commander of a suicide mission. With him, Torontonians get all the costs of a paranoid, uncooperative, self-justifying, and venal personality — but none of the benefits.

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