Toronto: Justice Denied

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.

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15 comment(s)

QuinnDecember 13, 2007 11:57 EST

Kingwell is clearly in command of the literature, writing in a style of "I am so smart I don't need to explain all these details". No doubt, I buy the argument—-it's persuasive and interesting. The story could go other ways though. The (obvious) story arc of the flâneur relies on Veblen, who relies on Whitehead's processes philosophy. I could see Deleuze's assemblages retaining the vitalism of the flânerie, but without the homogeneity that Kingwell inevitably espouses. What if we are only flâneur's in our own backyard—-that shit ghetto which results from hard work and systematic oppression?

IfLDecember 15, 2007 09:23 EST

What's that, Mark Kingwell? I can't quite hear you from the top of your ivory tower.

RGCBDecember 19, 2007 12:41 EST

Dear Dr. Kingwell,
I'm having trouble with the section of your essay that begins with "Well, who cares?". What question is never easy to answer? Is it 'what impact does the bohemian vs. bobo conflict have on a city's level of justice?' or is it 'are we all better off living in a Big Fusion city?'?
Also, I feel that in this section you've misinterpreted Jacobs' work. First, what she mocks (as Radiant Garden City Beautiful) is NOT suburban growth, but urban redevelopment. Secondly, she does NOT argue against urban planning (prescriptive, top-down, or otherwise) per se. Rather, she argues that the urban planning of the time (and I would argue still today) was dangerously wrong-headed, fundamentally misunderstanding 'the kind of problem a city is'.
Finally, I feel that you have not credited Jacobs for the idea that urban success can self-destruct due to its very success - that the rising rents due to the economic vibrancy created by urban diversity eventually kill-off much of the very diversity that sustained that vibrancy. Please re-read Chapter 13 (The self-destruction of diversity) of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in it she suggests that the fundamental problem is not so much that 'success breeds success, then failure', but that there are so few successful areas at any one time; you should also note that in that chapter she describes the 'annexation by "inauthentic" moneyed-types' already occurring in the West Village when she was writing.

StaffDecember 20, 2007 09:42 EST

cpf - your comment was deleted at our editorial discretion; you are welcome to post again minus the personal attacks

SBDecember 28, 2007 18:25 EST

the last few sentences of the second-last paragraph look like they got garbled in the uploading stage.

SBDecember 29, 2007 13:47 EST

sorry — the fourth-to-last is the one that's garbled at the end, starting after the Chesterton quote.

Mark BourrieJanuary 07, 2008 17:18 EST

Kingwell's argument is beautifully written but self-defeating. Toronto may have more writers, artists and other deep thinkers than it had in 1980, but it has no Innis, Frye or McLuhan. What was once a centre of great quality is now swamped in quantity. The city is twice as large as it was in 1980, but the Globe is only half as good and that's sort of the norm for its institutions. Toronto has very much that's pseudo and very little that's authentic. It reminds me of some punk who has come into easy money, bought a 6,000 square foot monster house and stuffed its library with 5,000 beautiful hardcover books, all un-cracked. People in Toronto try hard to pretend they are more than money-grubbers and high-end wage serfs, but few truly good books come out of the place these days — certainly no grand ideas of the caliber of Innis, Frye or even McLuhan, its artists are still pushing the boho schtick they had in the late 1970s, and even its museum can no longer connect with any sort of real intellectual purpose.

AnonymousJanuary 08, 2008 06:04 EST

but isn't it refreshing—like a mint drink on a summer Sunday—to have somebody inspire the idea of a Just City?

I look forward to the book.

FloneJanuary 10, 2008 17:50 EST

Toronto culture. Really interesting to Torontonians, who go on about it at inordinate length. Not at all interesting to anyone else. This article is 4 pages too long.

AnonymousJanuary 10, 2008 18:59 EST

Yawn. Toronto is such an incredibly boring city, which makes its self-importance so utterly amusing. I moved away from Toronto (gasp! Leave a World Class City?) and haven't looked back since. The only people who think that Toronto is indeed a World Class City are the trapped residents who wished they lived in New York or London. This article is 5 pages too long.

Vancouver JaneJanuary 10, 2008 23:08 EST

The disease of disinterest is not unique to Toronto, or Canada. I moved west from Hamilton years ago, in part expecting to find a more dynamic exciting place where I could part of a new community and culture. What I found is an apple skin shallow identity of "west" built from pictures of mountains and big tex cowboy hats. Out here, we drive SUVs made in Ontario, eat food invented in Halifax, attend plays written in Winnipeg, listen to music from Montreal, and watch movies from the states.

Ken HuntJanuary 11, 2008 01:58 EST

A wonderfully written article, worthy of any great magazine in the world. Erudite, funny, hip. I despair for the day, and it will surely come, that we lose Mr. Kingwell to The New Yorker. Gladwell, Gopnik, Kingwell... man, that would be a murderers row of magazine writers.

Glen StoneJanuary 11, 2008 10:27 EST

So, let's see —

- The most diverse city on Earth with more than 200 ethnic groups and 180 languages
- The third largest theatre city on Earth, behind only New York and London
- Home to the best-educated workforce in the G-8 (some 57% of workers with a post-secondary degree)
- The safest large city in North America, despite the GTA being the fourth-largest urban region
- More than 100,000 immigrants a year from all over the world
- More major business clusters than you can shake a stick at ... 2nd largest in NA for automotive and financial, 3rd for IT and advanced manufacturing, etc.
- Regularly in the top handful of global cities in studies on the best places to live, work and do business

Gosh, what are we doing wrong?

Okay, so I work for the Toronto Board of Trade and we have Richard Florida speaking at our Annual Dinner January 28, so you can call me biased.

But the above facts are facts. Toronto IS a great global city. Yes, we have challenges and our economy and quality of life can always be improved, but we should be proud of this great city.

AnonymousJanuary 13, 2008 20:58 EST

So... is the injustice that Richard Florida is more influential? Is that what we're talking about here?

I'll never understand why anyone would want to suck on a sour grape!

cwApril 04, 2008 17:36 EST

what is your cliché, though, of gazing into the stranger's eyes? acknowledge the windows to the soul, etc. not only a tired prescription but a lousy assumption in the first place—we keep our heads bowed, blah, we're so callous, blah. do we actually, are we actually? on queen street? in richmond hill? at yonge/bloor station? come now, it's petty. you betray your own complexity: first you give us—quite beautifully—your tellingly fragmented experience as a journalist then you recede into the apparently homogeneous and removed perspective of the professor. awe and multiplicity turns into pure judgement, into the singular thesis. which is itself a cliché. now this is a shame, and does us no justice.

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