AS I WRITE this it is impossible to say whether the drama surrounding Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s alleged new high constitutes an actual new low, but drama does seem to be the word of the moment. Exactly one year ago I moved to this city, and in the time since I have witnessed the restless strut and fret of local municipal politics, the principal player of the stage forever availing himself to fresh tales full of sound and fury.
We too-clever elitist downtowners have a word for all of this, and that word is “structural.” Allow me to explain. I grew up in a small-town niche of the 905, long before that was its designation. In that time and place, loathing of Toronto could be taken as granted. In my college years, it was a youthful declaration of a sort to flee the sleepy small-mindedness of the town for the anarchic indulgences of the city. No one then, on either side of the cultural ledger, failed to note the differences between the city and the suburbs. Nor do we fail to notice them now.
Until the Harris years, this acrimony manifested chiefly in novels and film, or was reflected in clever formulations like “the town versus the gown.” The suburbs existed precisely to offer divestment from the downtown failings of crime, squalor, over-crowdedness, and the prohibitive cost of a semi-detached house with a decent lawn and a two-car garage. Urbanites in the meanwhile learned to mock these attitudes and attainments, judging the exchange of lebensraum for culture in every sense a superior bargain. For most of my own life this was, roughly put, the settled character of the two solitudes.
Then, in the late 1990s, the solitudes were unceremoniously fadged by Mr. Harris’ absurdly designated Common Sense Revolution. A mostly mock-hatred, upon which little of substance depended, yielded to bitter play-for-keeps municipal contests. I was living in Kingston when the megacity arrived, and so I know something of town and gown warfare. From the Limestone City I moved to Ottawa, where current-day Toronto politics was having an eerie dress rehearsal in the person of Larry O’Brien. Déjà vu all over again. In three communities now I’ve been an up-close observer as the Harris era megacity has pitted the irreconcilable material needs and interests of suburban commuters and even rural farmers against the material needs and interests of downtown dwellers across Ontario.
From this it follows that the uptight Yale-educated effeminate chardonnay sipping liberal and the redneck steak-eating SUV-driving common sense conservative are not that different. They are together pursuing their self-interest, within a political arrangement that in theory fosters efficiency and accommodates competing interests but which in practice entrenches class and demographically based interests. Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. Of the many cities in which I’ve lived and worked, Toronto is among the best, and perhaps even itself the best. It is civilized and safe and well managed and vital. This may not be the most convenient of weeks in which to say this, but it’s a useful message nonetheless.
The preceding however subtracts not one ounce from my conviction that Rob Ford is at best a distracting figure on the municipal stage. He arrived to the office with definite but now apparently derailed goals. The casino proposal, on which he had pinned so much, is now dead. Transit plans creep at their petty pace. In the absence of detailed and credible plans, he now proposes to renew the quest for “efficiencies,” which is a sonorous but indefinite proposal. The blame for the mess can not be assigned only to Rob Ford, who as I’ve argued thus far is an effect more than he is a cause, but neither can he go on forever charging to others the zero-sum stalemate of Toronto politics.
The now diminished Rob Ford is less a mayor than just another vote on the council — not infrequently, as in the recent casino proposal, a minority vote. But to end where I began, I must observe that he is to a good degree the author of his own political story. All that remains to sort out is the taxonomy of the thing. Is the Rob Ford narrative a tragedy, in which personal flaws play the decisive part, or a history in which he rallies to reveal a fuller depth of character. The answer to this will be revealed in the days and weeks and months ahead, and whatever the outcome, Toronto will be fine.