SOCIETY

IT’S GOOD TO HATE T.O.

Its struggles reveal Toronto’s true value: it unites us in loathing

NOAH RICHLER November 19 2007
SOCIETY

IT’S GOOD TO HATE T.O.

Its struggles reveal Toronto’s true value: it unites us in loathing

NOAH RICHLER November 19 2007

IT’S GOOD TO HATE T.O.

SOCIETY

Its struggles reveal Toronto’s true value: it unites us in loathing

NOAH RICHLER

It is dismaying to be a Torontonian these days, the city in desperate need of a champion who knows how to do something other than tax. Someone who can address the city’s deterioration, its budget shortfalls, but also the city’s curious want of vision, and pride. (Say, Danny Williams, can you hear me out there on the Rock? What about some freelance work on the side?) A minor point on the city’s agenda, perhaps, but how is it that in Toronto, the biggest city in Canada’s wintry climate, Union Station has no parking and spews out train passengers into rain, sleet and blizzards to an unprotected taxi rank that holds up one of the city’s busy arteries every rush hour, because the sheltered lane that travellers used to use has been handed over to car rental companies? And how is it, that even during the nine years that I have lived here, scores of condominium towers have sprouted up downtown and along the Gardiner Expressway with absolutely no improvement to the public transport that might, conceivably, have served these new residents?

Of course, the idea that developers should contribute more than the paltry fees they have been allowed to pay (a third, in Toronto, of what they are in Aurora), or that the Toronto Transit Commission might succeed were it a decent alternative to the car, and not a punishment, is beyond the imagining of the city’s current leadership crop. In Cabbagetown, my beleaguered neighbourhood, public transport is a less and less interesting adventure. This morning, a day like any other, a swaying young drunk bellowed loudly at a woman standing at the streetcar stop as she gently tried to assuage the bum. A TTC officer waited with a crowbar for the streetcar to pass and to give the ties a jolt—this, the TTC’s bold technology for the 21st century.

The streetcar, when it did arrive, was awash with trash, no surprise, as litter bins are too complicated a task for the lumbering service to contemplate. A dopey kid sat down in his

idiot costume of exclusion—the baseball cap turned backwards and his oversized white Tshirt and ridiculous baggy jeans—and ended up half on my lap because the size of the seat the TTC management continues to provide is designed to fit the backside of an anorexic, though certainly not one wearing a winter coat. In Switzerland, famously, the politicians take the metro, and in London, England, now spending $32 billion for improvements to its public transport, the financial workers of the City do. What I’d give for our politicos, at

city hall and Queen’s Park, to be compelled to do the same. Then we might see some improvements.

What a sham. What we settle for. McGuinty, the weasel, sitting on his own $3-billion surplus, actually deigned to write a letter asking Prime Minister Harper for that damn penny from the GST that—even before Jim Flaherty flipped it to the masses—no Torontonian in his right mind ever expected to see. I’d give my land transfer tax to see just how much Harper laughed at McGuinty’s self-serving entreaty that day.

And so the city slouches toward mediocrity even as we continue to sing tired myths about the place—that it is green, multicultural, a

city of districts and so on—and it is not enough to blame former premier Mike Harris for the debilitation anymore. The city’s crisis is McGuinty’s hypocritical exercise, and it is Harper’s windfall—but, to be fair, it is the city’s mayor, David Miller (and not John Tory), who let Torontonians down most of all during the recent provincial election. Why, then, could Miller not find it in himself to urge his constituents to vote for the candidate who, publicly and emphatically, promised to settle the debt? That was the oppor-

tunity of an election missed. During the whole campaign, the city’s increasingly sullen mayor was mute, at one point even commiserating with McGuinty’s failure to offer any relief because, said Miller, support for Toronto can be an unpopular move outside the city. Wha'f This is our mayor speaking, for God’s sake.

Except that the mayor had a point, conceding one of the nagging truths about the city that Albert Nerenberg, the Montrealborn director who brought you Stupidity (2003), compiles in his new and very funny feature, Let’s All Hate Toronto. Toronto, the uptight and hellish place that doesn’t know itself, is the city that everybody, including Torontonians, hates.

Nerenberg, when he appears in the movie, plays the straight man to his co-director and lead Robert Spence—here a young, white Bay Street suit with a patch over one eye, presumably because a lot of this movie is about not

seeing things as they are. Spence, baffled at just how much his compatriots do not like Toronto, bravely ventures out into the rest of the country in support of his beloved city. (Canada, in the pseudo-documentary’s digital map, radiates out from Toronto, at its centre, the nation’s other cities like satellites at its outer perimeter.)

Spence, a Candide for our times, is an optimistic, if not outright foolish, sort. He carries a banner with him into the dangerous hinterlands—St. John’s, Montreal, Calgary, the Yukon, Vancouver, Peggy’s Cove and Halifax, etc. It reads, unfurled, “TORONTO APPRECIATION DAY.” And so it is not surprising that Spence encounters, in Nerenberg’s spoof of our national pastime, just how true it is that Canadians are united by the three H’s—

health care, a love of hockey and a hatred of Toronto—but the last, most of all.

Early on, Spence, in booster mode, tells viewers that Toronto is home to the tallest free-standing building on the planet, to Canada’s “national” hockey team—the Maple Leafs—and that, as Torontonians always remind themselves, UNESCO said that it is “the most multiculturally diverse city on the planet.” Torontonians, Spence discovers on his comic book travels, are construed by other Canadians as “soft-headed office wimps,” that they have never been forgiven for Mel Lastman calling in the army to clear the snow from city streets back in 1999, that Toronto is the New York of Canada, but “on dial-up.” More disconcertingly, although Canadians categorically hate Toronto, most don’t know why. As a consequence, Spence, the good citizen, in one of the program’s many witty turns, undertakes his own “Semi-Royal Commission on Canadian Unity and Inter-Regional

Tension in Relation to Alleged Toronto Suckitude.” His researches hearken back to the time of Bishop Strachan, one of the more odious members of the Family Compact, who, in signing documents as “John Toronto,” started the ball rolling on the city’s reputation as a place that was both quasi-colonially arrogant—and boring. Of course Strachan’s Toronto was insufferably straitlaced and Presbyterian but hardly today’s exciting, multitudinous place—one that trendsetters would now describe as “glocal”—i.e., a city in which the cultural variety of the globe is represented

substantially, at the local level. Only what the increasingly distraught Spence then discovers is that the myths on which the reputation of his city depends are not true. The CN Tower is no longer the world’s tallest building, and no one at UNESCO ever actually said that Toronto is the most diverse city on the planet, and that this bit of the city’s wishful thinking is actually cited by Wikipedia as an example of a “factoid.”

And then, the cruellest blow, the redoubtable Spence visits Edmonton. In the throes of the 2006 Stanley Cup final, Spence takes to the streets and to radio stations and to sports bars with his banner and his megaphone but also (the nerve!) a Maple Leafs jersey with the name Wayne Gretzky stencilled on the back. His hubris can only be admired, really, though suitably, punishment follows as Spence discovers that Edmonton, not Toronto, is Canada’s “national” team.

It is an epiphany of sorts. Back home, in the city hated for being both prissy and too louche (all those gay parades and porn conventions), the city that other Canadians deride for being too clean and yet too polluted, too white but also too damn multicultural, Spence finally understands that Toronto’s problems are also what makes the city great. Toronto, he realizes, is the city that carries the nation, if only because it is the one part of the country that cannot blame any other. Its problems are the nation’s, in extremis, but the city has no choice but to get on with it. Toronto is the country’s most interesting and dynamic city exactly because no one who lives in it really is expecting a penny of the GST—or anybody else’s love, for that matter. Torontonians, actually a hard-working, dynamic and responsible (but no longer dull) lot—are the country’s defacto guardians. Being unpopular comes with the territory. So yes, let’s all hate Toronto, where citizens know that no one will help Toronto without the city coming to its own aid— though, come to think of it, Toronto could start loving itself a little more. Hell, no one else is going to. Perhaps that’s why, in the film’s amusing denouement, Spence finds, during Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, the all-night arts festival of late September, that the cold city can, occasionally, be an empathetic place—was that really David Miller giving Spence a hug? M