Is Toronto being taken over by hucksters,
fauxhemians, and the “knowledge economy”?
We always entered the Globe building on Front Street by the back door, through the elevated parking lot, walking up the car ramp from Wellington Street. Using the back ramp was a sign of belonging; the front doors, with their heavy festooning of art deco ornament, were for official visitors and other outsiders. Richard Needham, the legendary columnist, who looked like a proto-grunge street person with his baggy dungarees and woodsman’s shirts, descended the ramp every noontime, smoking greedily, having filed his day’s quota of diary entries and caustic replies to readers’ letters. “There goes a living legend,” the city editor said to me one day. Barely living, I thought.
Inside the chaotic newsroom, not yet colonized by cubicles but instead a press of second-hand desks, we shared the boxy computer terminals, because there weren’t enough of them. We took rewrite by cradling the rotary phone’s heavy-spined handset on the shoulder. We would loiter outside in the parking lot, or on the ramp itself, to smoke or swap gossip. It was there that a writer colleague told me he had just received a six-figure advance for a book about a retail chain — something in those days I found hard to imagine, almost mythological.
The ramp was the portal to another world, or at least to the underbelly of the one I usually occupied. Each morning, I walked into a city of injustice, crime, death, and optimism. I worked at the Globe for five years during the 1980s, alternating with terms at graduate school in Britain and the US, and had the raw experiences every general-assignment city desk reporter has. It was always a shock to take up the job again after months of just sitting around and reading.
I saw my first dead body, a woman incinerated by a gas explosion. I walked up to male prostitutes on Church Street, fence-jumping Jamaican cricketers on the Upper Canada College grounds, gypsy fortune tellers in Yorkville, and illegal drag racers on the long-deserted lanes of industrial-park Markham, and asked them to tell me their stories. I called a grumpy staff sergeant at 52 Division every night for two weeks, trying to get him to tell me something I could print. I was threatened, in person and over the phone. I got kicked out of a corrupt landlord’s office in Regent Park. I did title searches at City Hall to find out who owned what. I sat in the harbourmaster’s office when it still had a view of the harbour and no steak house on the ground floor. I admired his Italian suit and bland charm.
I listened to a lot of politicians and lawyers lie. I talked to athletes, actors, cops, firefighters, burglars, junkies, and a guy who walked into the newsroom one day and claimed The Bridge on the River Kwai was a hoax. I missed the key line at a coroner’s inquest — a young girl, describing the accident that claimed her sister’s life, said “I felt myself drowning” — because I was distracted by a pretty reporter from another paper. I sat in the small bedroom of a man in Mississauga with my shoes off and my notepad out. His wife, daughter, two sons, and mother-in-law had all just died in the Air India explosion. I had knocked on his door and been admitted like an honoured guest instead of the intruder I was. He handed me photos of his family. “My whole world goes dark,” he said.
City desk reporting, at least in its ideal romantic form, is a kind of flânerie. Unlike their investigative colleagues, city reporters aspire to the status of purposeless walker and connoisseur of the city’s sights, smells, tastes, and textures. In the newspaper business, this is still called newsgathering, but it more often feels like loitering with intent.
The great forebears of the city man are Addison and Johnson, even Hemingway, not Woodward and Bernstein. This idealized city man floats through the streets with nothing but a notepad and his curiosity, taking down dialogue, overhearing gossip, noticing details. Like the flâneur, he makes his aimless desire a project — his very aimlessness providing the only necessary aim. A better scene, a bigger story lies ever around the next corner, and the next. I was twenty-two years old, and I had a business card and a laminated police ID, both of which said I was a newspaperman. I walked around my city with a new freedom and keenness. I saw it as grittier, uglier, and tougher than before — “before” being my confinement to that misleadingly porous enclave of self-absorption we call the university.
In truth, I was on specific assignments most of the time, and we drove more often than we walked. As well, flânerie’s devotion to the “totalizing male gaze” was already unpopular in the politically correct 1980s. Still, the notion of flânerie retains an important truth: we are all flâneurs.
Each one of us must negotiate the streets of our cities, mean or otherwise, every day. What is revealed by this is that the hardbitten corners are no more real than the clean and civil ones — but also no less. Toronto exists in more than one way at a time; it is many places at once. Its architecture and plan make this obvious over and over. Consider the mundane gift, not especially common in North American cities, of having its major university right in the middle of town, traffic and commerce flowing around and through it. Even at the time of my city man adventures, switching off bouts of study with days of bylines and interviews, I could not decide which site felt more natural.
I was studying theories of justice for half the year, wading through the muddy shallows of a great but unjust city the other half, and one side always called back to the other, making claims of greater reality. The passing years have found me returned to what people consider a cloister, but which is better seen as an incubator of ideas. The value of the urban university is undiminished, because, among many other things, it keeps asking us to define and refine what we mean by a just city.