The Divided City: to fix Toronto, we need a charismatic mayor with the vision to run a metropolis
Our history is one of many amalgamations. In 1967, Toronto swallowed Forest Hill and Swansea; Etobicoke swallowed Long Branch, Mimico and New Toronto; East York swallowed Leaside; and York swallowed Weston. There were hurt feelings: a candidate for the reeveship of Swansea admonished “Big Toronto” to “look after its antiquated sewers and the potholes in its roads instead of trying to look after little Swansea.” Forest Hillians faced the indignity of hauling their garbage to the curb instead of having it picked up from their back lanes.
But the mother of all amalgamations came in 1998, when Mike Harris eliminated the Metro level of government and bodged together the downtown and the suburbs despite massive opposition throughout the new city. And the scheme didn’t even do the main thing Harris said it would: save taxpayers money. Despite initial job cuts, by 2002 the megacity employed more people than before amalgamation. Metro had previously borne roughly 70 per cent of city services, and the centralization of the other 30 per cent did not provide the anticipated efficiencies. But before you sign one of the de-amalgamation petitions now circulating in light of the Ford mess, consider two basic facts:
1. Despite Toronto’s vehicular and political gridlock, it is a fantastically prosperous and successful city.
2. We’ve not yet had a mayor who truly believes in the megacity. In 1997, Mel Lastman wrote to Jean Chrétien claiming amalgamation could bring down the whole country’s economy. David Miller called it “offensive,” a “disaster” and a “sham.” In 2011, Rob Ford asked aloud, “Would I like to go back to the old Etobicoke? Sure.”
How do we know it can’t work when nobody has really tried in earnest?
Other large cities have successfully been able to encompass wildly different cultures, political outlooks and population densities. Take New York’s city council: Manhattan’s District 8, on the Upper East Side, is 17.5 times as densely populated as Staten Island’s District 2 (that’s triple the difference between Toronto’s least and most densely populated wards), many times more wealthy, and poles apart culturally. A key distinction: New York has had an extra 100 years to mature within its current geographical boundaries.
Toronto needs to grow up and think bigger, not smaller. Steeles Avenue is as meaningless a boundary to the GTA today as Victoria Park was in 1998. GO Transit’s 250,000 daily riders understand that the city of Toronto isn’t an island. Sooner or later, the rest of us need to come to grips with it: the GTA is a single economy, and it can’t achieve its potential with its citizens and politicians locked up in silos. The more connected the region—physically, economically, politically—the easier it will be for citizens and businesses to succeed within it.
It was 35 years after New York took its current shape that voters in all five boroughs chose Fiorello La Guardia, a Republican former congressman and fierce opponent of the city’s corrupt Democratic establishment. He served for 12 years, grabbing the municipal government by its throat, centralizing and streamlining city services and using his pull to strong-arm billions out of Washington for investments in housing and infrastructure; perhaps most notably, the city assumed total control of the subway system from private interests. La Guardia literally spoke to the city as a whole: when the newspaper deliverers went on strike in 1945, he read the funny pages to New Yorkers over the radio. To his opponents, he was a tyrant. To his supporters, he was one of them.
The GTA can’t simply spend its way to salvation, but nor can it save itself without spending staggering sums of money. In 2008, at the urging of L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, 67 per cent of gridlocked Los Angeles County residents voted to hike their sales tax by half a per cent! For 30 years! That will raise a projected $40 billion for a suite of infrastructure projects to serve the entire region. As with La Guardia, Villaraigosa’s opponents decried his authoritarian streak. But unlike any mayor Toronto has yet had, he is a coalition-builder. He aligned citizens and the business community squarely behind his tax hikes. And he is also a serious bigwig: in 2008, President Obama named him to his post-election Transition Economic Advisory Board.
A galvanizing mayor is almost as unimaginable here as a massively popular tax hike. But we’re young. In our 15 years of existence, we’ve only had one mayor who enjoyed spending money, David Miller, and he alienated non-downtowners like it was his job.
However they’re organized democratically, the world’s great cities are the hubs of regions. New York’s shadow extends everywhere from the cottage communities of the Hamptons to the industrial hellscapes of New Jersey. London’s commuter belt includes Chelmsford, in Essex, which is about as far from the city centre as Hamilton is from Toronto’s. On a weekday morning between 7 and 8 a.m., there are 10 trains from Chelmsford to Liverpool Street station; the trip takes an average of 38 minutes. Compare that to four trains from Hamilton to Toronto all day, taking an average of 70 minutes.
L.A. is not New York, and New York is not London. But they all have one thing in common: their citizens have spent scads of money to make them as great as they are. Rob Ford, of all people, found his way to supporting a property tax hike to build the Scarborough subway. We need a smarter politician to grab us all by the scruff of the neck and convince us that salvation is at hand.