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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More from Mark Kingwell:

From the August 2013 issue

Beyond the Book

From the July 2013 issue

Talking the Walk

A stroll through our cities

From the March 2012 issue

Retouching the void

The WTC memorial

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  • James

    A fellow Torontonian, cyclist, and latte drinker, I find myself similarly unimpressed with Ford’s aspirations for our city. So much so, in fact, I’m leaving. But I was not always thus, and before I leave, that older–now oddly conflicted–me would like to say a couple things about the Ford incident(s). Not even the incidents, really, but the character we Torontonians have come to associate with Ford and more importantly the disdain that has come to accompany that picture of the suburban-casual thug.

    I grew up in suburban projects not far from Ford’s stomping grounds (nice Canadian projects where no one gets shot, but special housing for the poor nonetheless). My neighborhood was rife with criminality and like most everyone else, I did not avoid a part in it. At the time, I didn’t care to. Who would? We weren’t criminals, we were a community criminalized by necessity and brought to it proudly by birth. I am a product of generations of criminality. I have relatives who have served time in Toronto going back more than a hundred years. We weren’t the kind to drop out of high school; we never went in the first place, Our world was the usual mix of substance abuse, violence, unstable families, and racial tension (one of the accusations against Rob Ford is that he knew a Clansmen in the eighties and when I read it I thought, who didn’t know a Nazi in the eighties?). As a teenager, a man from a wealthier neighborhood, that my friend and I happened to be passing through (on foot, of course) jogged by in his fabulously expensive sportswear, turning between heart rate checks and sneered, “scum,” before scampering off into the sunset. The last time I happened to be in earshot of someone describing Rob Ford–I think it was yesterday–they said the same thing, with the same sneer, and the same not-so-subtle classist implications,

    I’m a cyclist because I’ve never had the money to buy a car and eventually I just stopped wanting to. I drink Lattes because they are delicious, super-ridiculously delicious, and it’s a great tragedy that I was almost thirty before I had the chance to try one. But it could have been different. I could drive a car with determined vengeance, a symbol of everything scum-sayers have always wanted to deny me, and rejected the latte with well-earned spite–that snooty sweetener of trodding boot heels! It’s mostly dumb luck that I didn’t go that way. And of course, today I would argue in favour of bikes and yummy beverages, but while many Torontonians seem to think of Ford as a weight democracy has satirically cursed them with bearing, I’m more and more inclined to see him as a curse overdue, cast more by a pervasive pattern of disdain and indifference than by ballet.

    –James
    (general freak show and former student of Mark Kingwell–hey professor K!)

  • NYCBoy2305

    “He has conflict-of-interest charges pending”

    Actually NOT… Supreme Court let acquittal stand.

  • Ben Justice

    “in the one screen-grab image the press has so far obtained” – it’s not a screen grab from the video. It’s a photograph of Ford with two men, one of whom was later shot dead, and the other recently arrested in a police sweep.

  • Lindsay

    Your characterization of Toronto’s pedestrian-hating suburban dwellers is egregiously one-dimensional and totally unfair. People in “Ford Nation” don’t see themselves as too good to ride the bus. First off, many of them have no other choice due to economics. Secondly, decades of TTC underservice in those zones have done more to create a suburban car culture than a hundred Rob Fords ever could. Try getting to work ON TIME from the heart of Rexdale one morning in the middle of rush hour. Then try doing it every weekday for the foreseeable future. My guess is you’d be dreaming of 0% APR financing in very short order.

    People in the near-suburb rings aren’t angry because they’re jealous of your pleasant bohemian lifestyle, you idiot. They’re angry because years of poor city planning has left them literally out in the cold when it comes to accessible transit and kept them from enjoying the increased liveability that comes with strong transit corridors. So when Rob Ford came along with his patently ridiculous call of subways for everyone, can you really blame them for wanting access to the same thing you have?

  • Marisol D’Andrea

    Well said Prof. Kingwell! It pretty much summarizes Rob Ford’s spectacles…

  • Mistie Randall

    Nice article. Also S**t happens people. We all have different perspectives, but I am sure we can all agree Mr. Ford needs help. I won’t put blame on what he has done because it isn’t right coming from someone who lives in the United States which has its own problems. I think this was meant to be about being different despite the tide. Toronto is a great city, either way.

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