The Divided City: a letter from the editor on Toronto’s urban-suburban smackdown
Rishabh Kumar, a Grade 12 student at Earl Haig, is one of those geeky 17-year-olds who love to
wear ties and live to participate in Model UN conferences; he’s already done one at McGill and another at Harvard. This year, he’s the chair of the City Youth Council of Toronto, an association of overachieving students elected from the city’s 44 wards. His Facebook photo is from a meeting with the provincial finance minister, Charles Sousa, displayed as though it were a souvenir of an encounter with a Hollywood celebrity.
Recently, he launched a contest to generate a new name for the proposed downtown relief line, because he thought the word “downtown” made the idea of the subway line unpalatable to suburbanites. Kumar believes Toronto is in big trouble if we can’t get moving on a transit strategy and that a downtown relief line would be good for the whole city. He sees how hard it is to put the best interests of the city forward when Toronto is divided into hostile regional camps. I’m not sure I share the faith he has put in the rebranding effort, but I admire him for trying. Someone has to do something.
In the wake of Crackgate, pundits everywhere have been attempting to explain why Ford’s loyal supporters, despite everything we have learned, still think he’s a swell mayor. The conclusion from many academics, journalists and urban affairs gurus (a.k.a. the downtown elites) is that Toronto’s economic boom has not spread to the poorer parts of the city and that Ford-love is an expression of economic disparity. I think the truth is more complicated and also more sinister.
The groundwork for the factionalism goes back to David Miller, whose leadership obviously resonated more in the core than in the inner suburbs. The tragedy is that Miller, like many other well-meaning, pro-union progressives, saw himself as a champion of the working poor. He was the number one crusader for tower renewal, the effort to fix the crumbling apartment buildings in Scarborough and Etobicoke—the very same towers that now house so many Ford enthusiasts. But Miller made some bad moves, most notably around the garbage strike, and didn’t have the populist touch.
Ford has rather ingeniously exploited the divisions in the city, as this February’s cover story, “The Great Divide,” suggests. Even though there are plenty of poor people downtown and plenty of rich people in the suburbs, he paints suburbanites as marginalized victims; naturally, he’s the only person who can deliver prosperity, fix the transit problem and call you back about your potholes. He has pitted the suburbs against the downtown. Motorists against cyclists. Blue collar workers against professionals. Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book, and we’re falling for it.
There are, of course, many things that unite all Torontonians. Overwhelmingly, we share the same values. We have enormous respect for each other’s different beliefs and practices. We use the same public institutions—schools, hospitals, libraries, community centres—which aren’t perfect, but they’re designed for equal access, with resources spread across the system, and they’re better than almost anywhere else in the world. This is mostly a city of people who have chosen to be here, are glad to be here, and have similar reasons for loving Toronto. We could be reunified in the hands of a charismatic, visionary leader. Let’s hope one emerges in time for the October election. Because Rishabh Kumar is too young to run.