Thursday, March 28, 2013

Some Great Idea

I work in news, so it's possible I just feel like certain stories are always running, but I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Toronto's mayor, Rob Ford, is in the news way more than he ought to be. For ridiculous things. I've only lived in Toronto for four and half years. It is, if I'm honest, a city I never wanted to live in. Toronto always seemed so big and impenetrable and busy, but it turns out that once you get out of the car and start walking around (and get yourself a home base) it's a great place to live. I've lived in three distinct neighbourhoods since moving here and my job means commuting from downtown to the north part of the city – part of the city formerly known as North York. The more time I spend here, getting to know different neighbourhoods and learning to better navigate the transit system, the more I love this city. Edward Keenan, author of Some Great Idea also loves this city, and he turned his relationship with Toronto in a book that should be on every nightstand in the city.

Some Great Idea is an analysis of post-amalgamation Toronto – just the past 15 years, plus a few important influencers from the city's history. To describe it broadly, Keenan's book gives a rundown of what happened when the City of Toronto was amalgamated with its neighbouring municipalities (Etobicoke, York, North York, East York, and Scarborough) and then looks at the work and legacies of the three post-amalgamation mayors: Mel Lastman, David Miller, and Rob Ford, who is still in office. Each one brought his own brand of urbanism to bear and, says Keenan, each one mobilized a core of people, exciting his followers and infuriating his opponents and thus drawing an increasing number of voices into city politics. Of course, you can't talk about the city now without talking about its past, and Keenan folds the stories of historically important Torontonians into his narrative, as well as looking at how the various pieces of the new city had been planned and developed. It is, for someone who didn't grow up in Toronto, and incredibly edifying view of the city.

Keenan has been a journalist in Toronto for over a decade (and grew up here to boot), and while I wouldn't say he's unbiased, I would say that he's fair. His personal stories, whether from reporting or his personal life, are illustrative of both how the city works and how it doesn't, and that dichotomy is often jarring. Take, for example, Keenan's story of moving from one ward to its neighbour across the tracks. His family moved only a couple of blocks – easy walking distance from their old apartment – and found themselves in an entirely different version of the city. I see these changes every day on my way to and from work. I get on the subway in a dense, walkable city neighbourhood and get off in a neighbourhood of busy four-lane roads and a whole lot of cars. In my case, both of these neighbourhoods are middle class, but they demonstrate very different planning philosophies.

But these differences – this diversity – are Toronto's strength, Keenan says. Diversity of income, race, urban landscape, age, gender, background, etc. is what makes Toronto such a liveable city. In recent years, however, that diversity has become increasingly divided. The city as whole remains diverse, but its neighbourhoods less so, as development downtown pushes up prices and low income residents are pushed farther out, where there are lower levels of the services they would most benefit from. It's a problem Keenan says, but not one without solutions (and, to his credit, he offers numerous workable ideas as starting points).

In the last few years, it has been easy to get caught up in the antics of Rob Ford and forget how great Toronto is. Keenan's book ends with Rob Ford being found guilty of conflict of interest and ordered removed from office, which leaves Keenan to speculate and what will happen in city hall and where the city will go from there. Of course, Ford won his appeal and remains the mayor, but just to read a book about the city that goes almost right up to the present day is amazing. So often these kinds of recent-history books end somewhere safe, a year or two before the time of writing, say, after which point the writer knows what happens and can structure his/her book accordingly. That Keenan goes right out on a still-growing limb and stops without knowing whether that limb will keep growing is, in a way, the perfect attitude for a book about Toronto. This is a city that is still evolving and changing, that doesn't have a way we've always done things and that by itself is a great idea, because it means we can nudge it in the direction we want to see it go.

Some Great Idea: Good neighbourhoods, crazy politics and the invention of Toronto
by Edward Keenan
Published in 2013 (Coach House Books)

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