Jane Jacobs is dead. Pass it on
A few months ago, I squared off with Richard Florida when I ridiculed his syrupy fawning over Toronto in the pages of the Globe and Mail. Florida’s riposte went like so: “I have been wondering for some time now why people like Preville are so negative and insecure about what Jane Jacobs said is North America’s greatest city… People like Preville are all too ready to rip into this town at the drop of a hat.” Ever since that exchange, I have been wondering precisely the opposite: Why is it that people not like Preville are so insecure about Toronto that they need to be constantly reassured about its tremendous qualities?
Personally, I find it far easier to ignore people who, like Richard Florida, pull all their punches by couching their criticism with of-course-I-love-this-city hymns of praise to the status quo. Effective criticism never softens its sting. Heaven knows Jane Jacobs never softened hers, yet her name has largely become synonymous with sickly I-love-Toronto sentimentality. If this has become her legacy—her name invoked reverently so that people can display their urban correctness—then we ought to do her a favour and leave her out of it. She has earned her rest.
Here’s another urban riddle for you: Why doesn’t Toronto have a better sense of humour about itself? Wit, pun, snark, cheek and parody are the only sensible responses to Rob Ford, the TTC’s union, the new black hole–size recycling bins, the CN Tower’s transformation into a glow stick, the coming real estate meltdown, Richard-Florida-mania-o-rama, and so much more. They are also the only coping mechanisms that will get us through the coming 40 years during which the Maple Leafs will surely fail to win the Stanley Cup. Humour is a great way to celebrate, and also to shake off collective embarrassment. It’s also the most enjoyable means of prodding public figures into action.
City State—like its sibling blog, Spectator, by the chronically mocking (and self-mocking) Doug Bell—will try to take some of the piss out of this town. City State will chronicle the foibles of the city’s bickering political class at all levels of government. It will gossip about them, too. It will also venture out into the streets to talk about architecture, urban form, transit, sprawl, crime and social behaviour—the odd set of unwritten rules that governs Torontonians’ public conduct.
It is often said that Toronto is on the cusp of a transformation. To me, it’s as though the city sits atop a normalized bell curve—slightly better than average!—and it’s about to roll down. But which way? Will it speed along the slope that leads to greatness, or recede into has-been-ness? Or will it continue to hover up there at mediocrity’s pinnacle, where it has been since the recession of the early ’90s?
The latter would be the dreariest outcome, yet it is also the most likely. Unremarkable, self-effacing competence is Toronto’s comfort zone. That’s why we call it Toronto the Good rather than Toronto the Great, or The City That Works instead of The City That Conquered Facebook While Screwing Around at Work (which would be more true, and also more ambitious). But it’s not my comfort zone. I know which path I want this city to take, and I intend to give it a crisp shove from behind with a shit-eating grin on my face.
Welcome to City State.