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Tag Archive: toronto

Beyond the Pale

A librarian recalls the War of 1812’s invasion of York, and US soldiers’ looting of the first-ever Toronto Library
Elmsley HouseToronto Public LibraryOriginally built in 1798, Elmsley House served as Upper Canada’s Government House from 1815 to 1841. (Photograph of photo-mechanical reproduction of a drawing by Jane Harris.)

Throughout human history, libraries have been targeted in seemingly personal attacks by invading forces. The immense Library of Alexandria was burned in 48 BCE — whether by accident or on purpose is not entirely clear; the Japanese army destroyed many Chinese university libraries during WWII; the Khmer Rouge burned most of the National Library of Cambodia in the 1970s; and Iraq lost huge portions of its national archives during the 2003 war, perpetrator unclear.

The invasion of York during the War of 1812 contained a touch of “comic opera” quality, as historian and former University of Toronto professor George Glazebrook called it in his 1971 book, The Story of Toronto, that was especially evident in the looting of the first-ever Toronto Library. As a long-time librarian, I often think that libraries are special; this part of the war’s history suggests that they may indeed be considered sacrosanct in the conduct of warfare.

The fifteen-ship American fleet first appeared in the York harbour on April 27, 1813. According to Glazebrook, York was “defended by a few obsolete cannons and 300 regulars, with the shaky support of an equal number of inexperienced militia against an invading army of 1,700 supported by powerful guns on a ship that moved at will.” Despite the weak defensive line, Canadian and British casualties in the invasion were less than half those of the Americans.  (more…)

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Posted in History  •  3 Comments

Dear Fellow Torontonians

A lament for the student protests of Montreal — which could never happen here
Montreal street protestYanik CrépeauScene from an earlier (March 22, 2012) street protest in Montreal.

Dear fellow Torontonians:

I went to Montreal last weekend, one of the few times I’ve returned since graduating from McGill, and as I stood outside Mont Royal station with my bag, peering through the rain for the restaurant where my friends were waiting, I heard loud dance beats echoing against the boulangeries and bike shops. Immediately thereafter — they must have turned a corner and I didn’t notice — a crowd of boisterous Montrealers marched toward me. They came down the street, pots banging, their red felt squares prominently dividing me from them. The mood was festive and determined — placards calling for the end of the Charest era and the freezing of tuition fees left no doubt this was a protest — but whole families took part: small children, elderly couples, and mothers (some of whom identified themselves as “mères en colère“) mixed in with young people: students, I assumed. And while marchers blared their long, rainbow-coloured horns toward surrounding buildings, residents came out onto balconies to wave and cheer, including a small group of blue-robed nuns, who in turn were greeted with raucous whooping from the crowd.

And as I stood on the sidelines with my Toronto bus ticket still in my back pocket, I felt dejected, and wished we were so brave. What kind of city is ours that this scene would never play itself out here? Imagine King Street office workers heading up to Bloor and joining U of T students’ protests against raising tuition fees. Can’t do it? Me neither.

I immigrated to Canada at six years old, and as a child in grey suburban Toronto, always felt disconnected from the city’s political life. Like somehow people were engaged, and involved, somewhere I couldn’t see. But I wonder now if maybe the political community I had imagined doesn’t exist. I give Toronto the benefit of the doubt, but it is tough to stomach its political apathy. St. James Park never had more than a few hundred people for Occupy Toronto, and a few thousand joined in early day marches. The G20 protests, surrounding a homegrown event, had some 10,000 participants — less impressive in light of the damage, much of it done by mask-wearing young people, that shamed so many of us. Milder protests failed to draw the same keynote attention, and the legacy of that day is empty. Our recent half-hearted attempts at protests in solidarity with Montreal barely crawl into our newspapers, the nation’s largest. (more…)

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Posted in Open Letters  •  20 Comments

Something to Remember

On scene at the Trillium Winner Author Readings
Trillium Award 25The Trillium Book Award celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year

The Trillium Book Award for Poetry, according to Karen Solie, who won in 2010 for her collection Pigeon, gives poets something to “hang on to and remember, when in the throes of all that self doubt.” The Ontario Media Development Corporation created the annual award specifically for new and emerging poets ten years ago. Last week in Toronto, the Trillium Winner Author Readings reiterated the province’s appreciation for its literary artists.

People started trickling in to the Gladstone Hotel’s ballroom after 6 pm; soon, the place was bustling with past winners and their fans, friends, family, and publishers. Inside, bordered by exposed brick walls and velvet drapery, winning poets Jeramy Dodds (Crabwise to the Hounds, 2008), Maureen Scott Harris (Drowning Lessons, 2004), Jeff Latosik (Tiny, Frantic, Stronger, 2010), Adam Sol (Crowd of Sounds, 2003), and Solie (Pigeon, 2009) read excerpts from their award-winning books, as well as new poetry. (more…)

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Posted in Chapter and Verse  •  No Comments

The 100-Mile Dollar

What is a community currency and why would anybody want to use one?
Community currenciesCommunity currencies from Calgary, Salt Spring Island, and Toronto

Hundreds of communities around the world have created new currencies over the last few decades, trading millions of dollars’ worth each year. In Canada, at least Calgary, Toronto, and BC’s Salt Spring Island are taking part. While only the Bank of Canada can print paper to serve as legal tender, it’s perfectly lawful for any Canadian community to make its own alternative currency as long as it records transactions and files taxes — which means this currency needs to be exchangeable with the national dollar.

By their design, community currencies force people to spend locally, and usually quickly. They often stand as pillars of community-led attempts to rejuvenate depressed economies, such as  Totnes and Brixton Pounds in the UK’s Transition Towns, and Argentina’s wide adoption of the Crédito during its 1999 economic crisis. Most are managed by nonprofit organizations, who sell them in exchange for legal tender (one Canadian dollar buys one Calgary Dollar, for instance). The managing NPOs frequently have a surplus of funds (often from business participation fees or expired non-redeemed notes) that are funnelled into community projects or customer discounts. For example, 10 percent of all spent Toronto Dollars is donated to local charities, while the German chiemgauer, which started as a school project, has raised €100,000 for charities. (more…)

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Posted in Ask The Walrus  •  3 Comments

A Necessity of Virtue

Saving Toronto by thinking, doing, and being well

According to a new survey, Toronto is the country’s least-liked city. This comes as no surprise. In The Walrus’s November cover story, “How Toronto Lost Its Groove,” John Lorinc shows Canada that its most mega metropolis indeed has a problem, but it ain’t Rob Ford. Lorinc wisely avoids the reductive “blame the mayor” argument by which many Torontonians (myself included) have been so easily seduced. Toronto’s plight comes from decades of narrow vision, relapses in policy tragedy, and the mass mediation of misinformation. So who’s to blame? Well, everyone. Lorinc reveals that what lies behind Toronto’s curtain is not a man but a mirror. That is, Torontonians past and present, urban and suburban, are responsible for the city’s current state. This is not a point of despair: if we have the power to hurt Toronto, we have the power to nurture it as well.

Implicit in Lorinc’s piece is that there exists a morally Good way to run this city, one guided by empathy, reason, and foresight, or as I call it, virtue. Intuitively, we know the city can be better; if we fostered and internalized this virtue, then Toronto would take care of itself. However, although we are bound by the knowledge that civic virtues exist, we rarely comport ourselves accordingly.

Frank Cunningham is the former director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics and a senior advisor at the school’s Cities Centre, a multi-disciplinary research institute with the mandate to network and embolden cities of the world; promoting civic virtues is his life. I met Cunningham as a second-year U of T student enrolled in his introductory philosophy course. The professor was forward: “If you don’t read any of the material,” he said, “you can still come out of this class with a solid B!” I later realized that this joke was an inverted lesson about reflection, the day-to-day thinking that drives us to do meaningful things. (“Reflection involves the always incomplete attempt to make sense of who we are, trying all the while to live better,” committed Torontonian Mark Kingwell has argued.) During the course’s last lecture, Cunningham encouraged us to visit him should we want to continue the discussion about virtue. Four years later, I took up his offer.  (more…)

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Posted in Cities  •  10 Comments

Graff and the Beanstalk

A vertical farming architect explains why his towering SkyFarm will never happen
SkyFarmGordon Graff’s planned SkyFarm

Gordon Graff’s SkyFarm, a fifty-eight-floor behemoth priced at $1.5 billion, was to be Toronto’s ticket to the future of urban agriculture. In 2007, the vertical farm was envisioned to occupy a block of downtown Toronto that has since become home to the Toronto International Film Festival. Even before the global food crisis hit in 2008 and the locavore movement picked up steam, the idea of urban farming was a provocative one. Science fiction and environmental geeks gushed. For green-aholics, the idea appealed to both the inner consumer (“raspberries in February!”) and the environmental conscience (“local, organic raspberries in February!”). The media ate it up. ”Sometimes,” the Huffington Post wrote, “the answer to a complex problem is so simple, so elegant that you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself.” But four years later, Graff, who is now an intern architect at Toronto’s DIALOG, admits that his SkyFarm will never be built, and many in the media have begun rubbing the stars out of their eyes. The apparent retreat of the ivory-green tower raises the question: is vertical farming still the promised evolution of agriculture, or a case of the life and death of an idea?

Graff became interested in vertical farming at the University of Waterloo, where he wrote a master’s thesis on sustainable urban architecture. He began communicating with Dickson Despommier, a Columbia University professor of environmental health sciences and microbiology who is vertical farming’s biggest cheerleader. With urban population densities and a slew of attendant environmental problems increasing around the globe, the answer, Despommier and his students thought, was to grow farms up, instead of out. “All the water is recycled,” Despommier raves in this publicity video for his 2010 book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. “All the nutrients are recycled. And the only thing that actually leaves the building is the produce.”  (more…)

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Posted in Food  •  4 Comments

Kingston: The Metropolis That Didn’t Happen

A Trudeau aide recalls the never-built high-speed train that would have reshaped Central Canada
Related LinkJohn Lorinc’s cover story for our November 2011 issueNovember 2011How Toronto Lost Its Groove
And why the rest of Canada should resist the temptation to cheer

In the wake of Pierre Trudeau’s landslide 1969 majority, several ambitious, activist policymakers began thinking about the relationship between Canada’s cities and the federal government. At the time, recounts Daniel Coates, then an advisor to Trudeau cabinet minister Robert Andras, a handful of influential federal bureaucrats had become increasingly preoccupied by urban growth, traffic, and housing. As they delved into the policy issues, they began to see that federal policy had a huge but largely uncoordinated impact on Canadian cities. “Nobody was thinking about it or talking about it,” Coates says. “But the dollar figures were stupendous. That was the compelling reason for [establishing] the Minister of State for Urban Affairs.”

With American cities facing dramatic upheavals, Coates recalls that his team began researching deeply, consulting prominent thinkers like Jay Forrester, a professor of computer engineering at MIT’s Sloan School of Management who had applied his work on dynamic systems to urban development. Inspired, Coates says his group started investigating the economic linkages between Canadian cities.

The bureaucrats pulled together an analysis and presented it to Trudeau’s cabinet. Their prediction: that Canada’s largest cities, especially Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, would soak up population growth, eventually becoming too large and too congested. Coates recalls showing the cabinet a map of Canada circa 2000, with “big red balls” indicating the population concentration in the large urban centres. The country, they predicted, would change dramatically. Time has proven them to be correct. (more…)

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Posted in Cities  •  No Comments

Better Living Through Collective Leadership

Prepared remarks for Imagining Toronto: A City-Builders’ Symposium
The Weston TowersMark PeckmezianThe Weston Towers

I’d like to spend my five minutes sharing a few stories that have influenced the vision I want to put forward. One of the stories relates to a picture included in John Lorinc’s piece in this month’s Walrus. It begins inside the middle of the Weston Towers, the three monolithic buildings that are shown on page 28, where for ten years, my family built a home on the twenty-fourth floor after arriving from Ghana to Toronto in 1979. We joined a small but growing community of Ghanaians living there. It was an amazing childhood, and my brother, who is here today, will attest to that. At the time, whether we were part of the 25 percent of poor high-rise dwellers was certainly not a concern to me. My top priority was peering over our balcony to see if the neighbourhood kids were starting a game of soccer-baseball in the valley behind our buildings.

A decade later, something of a panic struck our community. All of a sudden, we were hearing about one family after another moving out of the building and into houses. Home ownership quickly became the line separating those who had “made it” and those who did not. And the pressure was not just local. We began receiving phone calls from family back home asking if we had made it, like so and so’s family had made it.

My family, though not entirely prepared to do so, succumbed to the pressure and bought a house in North Etobicoke, Rexdale. I began the seventh grade in Elmbank Middle School, located near Jamestown Crescent, a neighbourhood that had been in the media often because of violence and drug-related activities. In the summer before high school began, I secured my first job working in Jamestown’s community garden, part of an effort initiated by the Thistletown Community Services Unit. Pierrette Forgie, the executive director of The Unit, as it was known then, had been a mainstay of the Jamestown community for more than twenty years by that point. She had seen waves of immigrants settle and eventually leave the neighbourhood. I’ll never forget her orientation session with me. She walked me around Jamestown Crescent, and every few steps she would tell me the story of a community and leaders within that community who worked together to address a need. I remember her telling me about the Somali women who were working to get a portable trailer in the area where they could share food and information about employment opportunities and the like. That memory brings me to my vision for Toronto as a model of city-building that comes from collective leadership. (more…)

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Posted in Cities  •  7 Comments

We Are Potential

Prepared remarks for Imagining Toronto: A City-Builders’ Symposium

I’d like to start by naming three of my favorite things that are happening in Toronto right now: The Gibraltar Point art centre on Toronto Island, the new Feminist Art Gallery built and run by Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue, and the West Toronto Railpath. These are three things that perfectly embody the potential for excellence when stultifying bureaucracy is outwitted, community is fostered, and public spaces are made with vision and radical hope. These are “yes” places.

Imagine if Toronto was so proud and smart about promoting and celebrating its artists that people from Berlin got excited about our amazing scene and started moving here. Imagine if every wealthy educated person in this city found making the decision to spend money on art as easy as deciding to buy designer shoes. Imagine all new condos being legislated to not only include a percentage of subsidized units but also a few dedicated affordable artist studios — instead of commissioning a single, one-off public sculpture. Imagine a downtown art college with such a fantastic international reputation, facilities, and faculty that it was the first Canadian choice of application if you were an ambitious young artist. Imagine that the Toronto Now gallery off of the AGO’s Frank restaurant was turned into a space for grad students, and the serious artists of Toronto could always be found in major shows in the main spaces of the museum all months of the year. Imagine there were line-ups to see these local artists’ work at the AGO like there were during those first heady days of Frank Gehry’s redesign. Imagine Torontonians with so much confidence that instead of travelling internationally to buy culture, they stayed here, trusted their own judgment, and invested in something they decided for themselves was excellent.

As long as I have lived in Toronto I’ve had a push-pull relationship with it, constantly leaving and searching for a place I felt I truly belonged but always returning for pragmatic reasons. For many artists and creative people I know this is a common story. We want to be here — there are excellent people and resources, it makes a solid base to travel from, our friends and families are here, and compared to other cities in Canada, we have a better chance of creating and finding opportunity. Best of all, there is an old and strong culture of do-it-yourself here, pockets of radical thinkers and makers that keep a fire lit even when the politics of safety and small-think capitalism threaten to smother all those who live to take creative risks.  (more…)

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Posted in Cities  •  9 Comments

Toronto the Ordinary

The author’s opening statement from The Walrus Toronto Project Debate at the AGO

In supporting the motion “Be it resolved that Toronto will never be beautiful,” I want to make clear that we are not talking about its livability, but its beauty, or rather, its lack thereof. An old pair of worn slippers may be comfortable, but hardly beautiful. In many respects Toronto is a wonderful city in which to live, but it cannot be called beautiful.

So, let’s begin by defining “beautiful” as it applies to cities. There is, I believe, general consensus that Paris, Venice, St. Petersburg, and perhaps Dublin are among the most beautiful cities in the world. What characterizes their beauty is:

First, their man-made forms. Streets and avenues, parks and squares, that are planned and designed together with the buildings that define them; that terminate or provide gateways to attractive, sometimes dramatic vistas; that enhance the monuments contained by them; and that are embellished by the landscapes that are an intrinsic part of the whole.

Second, they not only have a relationship to their major geographical features, but they celebrate them, whether canals, rivers or oceans. (more…)

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Posted in Cities  •  2 Comments

Toronto: The Worst Sports City in the World

Where “the teams lose because they don’t have to win”

This past summer, ESPN The Magazine, in its annual ranking of sports franchises, identified Toronto as the worst city for sports in North America. Inevitably, the assessment provoked a fury of denial. Brian Burke, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ president and general manager (and probably the best executive in the NHL) called the ranking, “absurd and offensive” and went on to claim, “I don’t think ESPN knows squat about Canada. I don’t think they know squat about hockey.” I suppose Burke had to say that, being GM and all, but it was still an embarrassing comment. No sane person could disagree with that ranking. As Burke must know, the only problem with ESPN’s analysis is that it focused almost exclusively on quantitative matters, the “bang for the buck,” meaning the money gathered from tickets, concessions, and parking compared against the team’s wins. Being a Toronto fan is so much worse than any algorithm could ever express. A merely numerical measurement fails to capture the daily spiritual trauma of following sports in Toronto.

Related LinkIllustration by Peter RyanThe Meaning of Hockey
by Stephen Marche

It’s a given that the true fan goes to games not for the necessarily occasional thrill of winning, but for the quotidian experience of losing — a truth articulated originally and beautifully by Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch. Losing in Toronto, however, is an unremitting condition. The CFL team, the Argonauts, is so bad that when I recently found a friend of mine betting on it, I immediately wondered if it was time for an intervention about his gambling addiction. As it stands, the Argonauts are 2 and 6 3 and 9 3 and 11. The Blue Jays this year aren’t completely terrible, but when you’ve said that, you’ve said everything. They may be a rising power in the East, as many claim, but they sure haven’t risen yet. The Raptors are still in their post-Bosh wilderness (not that the Bosh period was a golden age), and Toronto FC currently rests at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. The Leafs, who matter to Torontonians more than all the other teams combined, have not won the Stanley Cup since 1967, and they haven’t made the playoffs in a franchise-record six seasons. The only team with a longer dry spell is the Florida Panthers. The Leafs’ major source of hope seems to be Brian Burke himself, but when the major source of your dreams is a front-office guy, you are in a dark place. Cheering a GM, to me, is hitting rock bottom. (more…)

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Posted in Cities  •  2 Comments

On the Waterfront

New hope for Toronto’s Portlands

Dear Toronto,

I would like to take a moment today to say thanks.

I’ve spent most days this week in a sad state. At my job, I get a lot of news exposure, and as you can imagine, the world is often less than rosy. This particular week has been a hard test for my bounce-back personality. Between the underreported famine in Somalia, alarming information about income polarization in the US, and my new fascination with the revealing patterns of Google Trends, I’ve been walking around feeling somewhat bleak-eyed, as though someone painted everything greige.

Wednesday’s morning papers jolted the colour back into my world. As soon as I picked up the Globe and read the first headline, a little breeze kicked up, a little sun shone down, and I immediately felt better. Our mayor, Rob Ford, abandoned his alternate proposal for the local waterfront, and the Portlands revitalization project still belongs to Waterfront Toronto. (We can now breathe more easily knowing that the original, public space–friendly, triple-government-approved plan — nearly pushed aside by Rob and brother Doug Ford — will move forward without the ominous threat of waterfront megamalls, ferris wheels, or the “firesale” of public property to developers.) I gleefully snipped the article out of the paper, put a huge smiley face on a post-it note, and left both on my senior editor’s desk. I may have done a jig around the copy machine.  (more…)

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Posted in Cities  •  3 Comments
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