Q&A with Doug Saunders, City Slicker

Q&A with Doug Saunders, City Slicker

Why Doug Saunders, a foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail, could have called his new book The Torontoification of the World

(Image: Jonathan Worth) 

The title of your new book, Arrival City, refers to the urban neighbourhoods that poor villagers settle in when they immigrate. You’ve said that the book might’ve been called The Torontoification of the World. Why is that? Anyone who lives in Little Italy, Kensington Market or at Broadview and Gerrard knows that most immigrants are from villages, not big cities, and they’re not living as villagers here, but they’re not living as core Torontonians, either. They’re creating a culture that keeps one hand in the village and one hand in the city, while trying to raise the standards of their kids. This has been happening in Toronto for some time; now it’s happening all over the world.

That dual way of life can result in culture clashes, like the riots that occurred in the Paris suburbs back in 2005, but Toronto hasn’t experienced that kind of violence. What are we doing right? We’re giving people on the fringes physical access to the city via public transit, it’s relatively easy for newcomers to borrow money and start businesses, they have access to real and de facto citizenship, and, for the most part, they’re not treated like alien outsiders on the job market. That said, we need to do better on all those counts. Until now, we’ve been lucky. Flemingdon Park could become Clichy-Sous-Bois if Toronto doesn’t put some money and effort into it.

To what degree do you think people from other cultures should assimilate? What aspects of their old lives should they hang on to? New arrivals need to find ways to integrate into the economy and the daily life of the core city, through education and work and housing. Culture follows from that—it’s an effect rather than a cause. Assimilation works both ways—they become a bit like us, and we become a bit like them. The unpleasant aspects of village cultures, like arranged marriages and religious orthodoxy, come to the fore during moments of transition. They’re products of insecurity, and they’re disappearing around the world. Urban life is a powerful solvent.

To research your book, you travelled to some of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the world. Were you ever scared? Rio de Janeiro was dangerous. Teenagers who work for the reigning drug lords confront you with firearms before you can enter their turf, and then, when you get past them, there are more kids with guns guarding bricks of cocaine. They’re not professional soldiers, and they’ve got weapons. That’s scary.

You started out with the Globe and Mail as a pop culture reporter in Toronto and Los Angeles. When you’re faced with a machine gun–toting teen, do you long for the safety of your old beat? There’s overlap between the two jobs. Those gun-toting kids are making some of the best music in the world, and both the music and the guns offer clues to the way such places succeed and fail. Working in L.A. taught me that “dangerous” slums are never what they seem.

When you’re not thinking about poverty and policy, what do you do for fun? I live a nerdy version of a quiet domestic life with Elizabeth Renzetti, my wife, and our two children in London. We have one cat, nine computers, a big backyard and a collection of antique lab equipment. Lately we’ve been exploring England’s villages, so our lives aren’t entirely urban.

You also keep a house at Bloor and Ossington and visit a few times a year. How does Toronto stack up to London? There’s so much invention happening in London, but there’s still an undertone of English culture, like the city doesn’t belong to everyone. In Toronto, it feels like everyone is building the city. The most dramatic parts of London’s history are in the past, but in Toronto, the next 100 years will be the city’s most exciting.