Wednesday, May 15, 2013

(Small Town) Politics As Usual

Objects in mirror are more close-minded than they appear.
A couple of months ago the City of Toronto proudly announced that we're now the fourth most populous city in North America, sitting behind Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles. Chicago was formerly in fourth, but I'm guessing the Windy City's prodigious murder rate bumped it down the list. There was the usual amount of civic chest-thumping over this news (any opportunity to one-up an American city can't pass by unnoticed), but I'm a bit surprised that the city's councillors and political commentators didn't hang out black crepe upon hearing about Hogtown's rise in the ranks. You see, Toronto is indeed a behemoth, but it's one with the brain and soul of a small, querulous village. We're the Whiny City. This quality has been very much on display in the last few months as the city has dealt simultaneously with three big issues: expansion of Toronto Island's Billy Bishop Airport, finding new revenues to pay for badly needed mass transit, and the question of whether the city should allow the province to put a casino in the city. The discussion on all three topics has revealed Toronto's small-minded, pettifogging, schoolmarmish view of urban life.

Let's begin with the airport, which has been there since 1939. Porter Airlines has been running passenger flights from the airport since 2006, and Air Canada was running flights for years prior to that. Porter now wants to lengthen the runway by 168 metres to allow for the use of regional jets. At present, Porter is restricted to using turboprop planes with a much shorter range than jets would offer. For those of you not from Toronto, Billy Bishop Airport is a downtown, waterfront airport, and planes landing at it do so against a backdrop of the city's office blocks and condo towers. The opponents of the proposed expansion object to the increased number of flights and the noise of jets. Porter says that the jets are no noisier than the current turboprops. It's clear that the NIMBY factor is key to this debate. What this also speaks to is the fear and distaste some Torontonians have for a big city being like, well, a big city. A city is supposed to be dense, active and noisy; that's what you get when you cram a few million people together in a small space, and those people are going to need/want all kinds of services that don't involve the hushed sound of a chai latte being made. Getting fretful over jets vs. turboprops shows a King Canute-like inability to realize that change is inevitable. If Toronto is going to keep growing like topsy (believe me, downtown T.O. is building upwards like a frosty version of Dubai), things like airports, the bones and muscles of a city, have to grow as well. And do we really want more traffic going back and forth from downtown to Pearson airport? It's also annoying that the anti-jet forces are speaking for an affluent demographic that shows little interest in noise issues elsewhere in the city; lots of Torontonians live adjacent to 400-series highways that are noisy 24/7, but  I don't hear anyone protesting on their behalf. And what might be most important about airport expansion is that it would create more blue collar jobs, something that the city's been losing for years now.

A couple of days ago city council voted down a package of tax and user-fee initiatives that would have raised part of the $2bn per year needed to pay for a laundry list of mass transit construction. This isn't a great surprise. The city is led by Mayor Rob Ford (my piece on him is here), a man so cartoonish it's entirely possible he's actually a hologram created by Hanna-Barbera. He's aided and abetted by a pack of right-wing councillors, all of whom who see taxes as a biblical plague. This cabal of dunces is challenged by any issue more complex than dog licencing, so imagine how they recoil in fear from dealing with Toronto's massive public transit problem. What was interesting about the proposals that were voted down is that there were no fees to be directed at businesses. The Toronto business community has been behind the push for more public transit, frequently citing the costs to the city's (and the province's) economy due to the gridlock on Toronto's roads and highways. Not surprisingly, no one in the business community, or in politics, has suggested that businesses pick up some or most of this $2bn cost, despite the fact that business derives a direct economic benefit from workers and trucks getting to where they're supposed to be on time. So city council, showing the intestinal fortitude of a flock of sheep downwind of a wolf, have fled from the issue, hoping that the province will manage to make the politically difficult decisions.

Finally, we get to the proposed casino for downtown Toronto. Casino operators from the U.S. are lined up to build a casino in Toronto, the province wants one in the city, but the left and centre of council are strongly, even bitterly, opposed to it. For once, and I hope the only time, I'm on the same side as Ford on this issue. The upside to a casino (according to its promoters) is that the city will receive a $100m per year fee for hosting it, in addition to thousands of full- and part-time jobs. I take both benefits with a grain of salt, but it's clear the city's coffers will benefit from a casino. The anti-casino forces sole objection, it seems, is a moral one: gambling isn't respectable, it's tawdry, and it creates problem gamblers who fall into debt and despair. This moral argument simply doesn't hold water. Alcohol produces as many or more problems, but no one's suggesting Prohibition should be brought back. Not every Torontonian defines a good time as a bike ride along the waterfront trail, followed by a stop at St. Lawrence Market to buy some artisanal cheese, and then home in time to watch Downton Abbey. Some Torontonians (quite a few, actually) like to get noisy and crazy and throw their money around of a Saturday night. Unfortunately for these sybaritic folk, a large number of people on city council don't feel this is a proper or respectable way for Torontonians to enjoy themselves. How nice that our Big Brothers and Sisters are looking out for us. This political distaste for gambling seems even more ludicrous when you consider that Toronto gamblers can already go to slots at Woodbine racetrack in Toronto or drive themselves to five major and minor casinos within 150km of the city. And for those citizens who've had to pawn their cars to pay off gambling debts, fleets of buses await to provide nearly free trips to these casinos. Whatever social ills are caused by casinos are already present in T.O., and it's hard to believe that a new casino will do anything other than cut down on vehicular traffic to outlying casinos. And even if Toronto city council does end up voting against a casino, it's a lock that the casino will then be built just over Toronto's borders in Markham, Vaughan or Mississauga. This means Toronto will get all the theoretical problems associated with gambling, but none of the economic benefits.The case against a Toronto casino isn't logical unless you make it part of a drive to eliminate all forms of gambling, including lotteries, but no one would dare suggest that. The anti-casino forces can talk social ills all they want, but at the end of the day they end up sounding like puritanical scolds.

The handling of these three issues shows that Toronto is still struggling with the concept of what a city is. Toronto politicians of every stripe seem trapped in the idea that a city is what happens when a village goes horribly wrong. It's a very North American view of cities. In Europe, cities have always been seen as the seat of culture, government and everything that's noble and brilliant. The country, on the other hand, is viewed as a wasteland of uncultured people following boring rustic pursuits. In North America that viewpoint has, historically speaking, been reversed. Whenever a politician's on the campaign trail and says he's delighted to be "here in the heartland" of Canada/America, you can be damn sure he's not standing in Times Square or anywhere on Yonge St. He will, however, be within spitting distance of a cow. European cities have long recognized that a city is made up of sometimes disparate elements that have to rub along together. Just think of red light districts such as the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, De Wallen in Amsterdam, or Soho in London; places like these would never be tolerated in North America, but Europeans sensibly realize that cities can't be built and ruled exclusively to please the tastes and morals of the bourgeoisie. And, yes, lots of European cities have downtown casinos that haven't done anything to dim the lustre of places like London, Berlin, Vienna, Stockholm and Venice, to name a very few. Toronto desperately, fervently, wishes to be regarded as a "world-class" city, but until it sheds its small town agoraphobia it's just going to be another self-loathing North America city.

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