Sunday, October 01, 2006

Asked about his vision for the city, former Toronto mayor David Crombie said in today's Globe and Mail: "My wish is that people would get back their sense of confidence. Too many people are writing too many essays about how they're doing it so much better elsewhere." This is, of course, if you've ever spoken to me, one thing that angers me like no other. Discuss Toronto, especially its waterfront or its culture, and be regaled by stories of how much better things are in Chicago, Montreal, Cleveland, Biloxi, Gujranwala and so on. To construct an extreme straw man, Toronto is, I once read, nothing more than a provincial Rust Belt town masquerading as a city, propped up by government subsidies to the automotive industry (sic).

There are, of course, substantive criticisms. I have the same feeling on Toronto's eastern waterfront that I did when reading a ghost story as a kid. There is a ring of slums surrounding the downtown that can be surprisingly prominent at times. Public transportation seems to vanish at many vital locations near downtown. There are, however, many arbitrary criticisms: the city is "filthy", the public transportation is "crumbling" and the people are "dull". Sure, and I think New Yorkers are "charitable", Baltimore is a "cultural mecca" and the Backstreet Boys are the "greatest band since the Beatles"; all you have to say is "no, it's not so". To be hypercritical and uber-dismissive is not at all hard or demanding of intelligence. For proof, just read NOW Magazine or watch MuchMusic's Video on Trial.

Maybe the critics get fed up with those who tout this as the safest, most diverse city in the world. After all, safety and diversity don't make for great cities, they make for safe, diverse places to live. Similarly, what makes a great city is something nebulous. Every city has its dismissive critics, from Atlanta to Beijing to Washington to Yokohama. Part of being great, I'm sure, is to be so secure as to ignore the critics.

What I'm concerned about most not is that Toronto is suffering from an unusually large subset of dismissive hypercritics, but that we in Toronto (meaning the Greater Toronto Area) don't recognize just how great a city we are not simply on merits such as safety, but also on superlative terms. The example I'll use is the Toronto Waterfront Marathon that took place last week. Even those who ran it, serious or otherwise, might be shocked to learn that the winning time of 2:10:15 was the fourteenth fastest winning time in the world this year and (until New York and Chicago better it) the third fastest in North America this year.

Of course, what it takes to win the local marathon doesn't mean much. The point is that no one thinks that way about Toronto, the fifth largest city on the continent, instead focusing on some mundane fact such as the claim that the route is "ugly" (how do you make running 42 kilometres interesting?). Some might say that we are satisfied with mediocrity, which might be true, but Crombie is much more accurate in saying that we lack confidence. Our baseball team these days has long been the best metaphor for our city: a third place team that just doesn't believe it can contend for first. Or, returning to the marathon, Toronto is a gangly young man toeing the line with grizzled veterans, unable and even unwilling to believe that it can run with them. Maybe you've enjoyed High Park on a beautiful day or stared at the skyline from Riverdale Park and been flled with wonder, before quickly catching yourself and reinforcing the belief that Vancouver or Montreal are necessarily better. After all, you're here and they are not.

Confidence neither builds a city nor does it make it great, but an inferiority complex not only does neither, it erodes what the city had to begin with. Toronto needs to be aware of both, especially so in the current climate when there is so much attention directed toward taking a full step forward in the development of Toronto. The development of the waterfront, or at least the eradication of the industrial wasteland currently occupying the area, along with creation of a light rail system over hyrdo corridors, affordable housing for the poor and general beautification of the streetscape are all possible. These, among other things, are why Torontonians may one day remember these years the way we remember the 1950s and 60s as being instrumental to the creation the city as it is today.

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