Invoking Toronto’s recent history alongside its more distant past, political observer Edward Keenan, an editor at the city’s alt-weekly newspaper The Grid, has written a succinct, accessible book that brings some much needed context to the carnival-like atmosphere at Toronto City Hall under the tenure of Mayor Rob Ford.
Toronto, according to Keenan, evolved out of the ideas and approaches of the “Holy Trinity of Torontoism”: William Lyon Mackenzie, R.C. Harris, and Jane Jacobs. Looking at the radically different styles of its three post-amalgamation mayors – Mel Lastman, David Miller, and Ford – one could be forgiven for thinking the city has suffered an identity crisis in recent years. However, Keenan is persuasive in showing that the perceived discontinuity is in fact a logical outcome of rapidly changing economic circumstances and demographics. In a weak-mayor system like Toronto’s, the mayor is a reflection of the city’s psyche.
Ford’s candidacy was initially dismissed as a joke by educated, wealthy downtowners who revelled in his headline-making public antics as councillor for his suburban Etobicoke ward. When Ford became mayor in a landslide victory, many saw his pro-car, anti-tax agenda as an assault on their most deeply held values. And though the antics continued unabated, Ford’s popularity never seemed to suffer.
While agreeing with the criticism, Keenan also believes Ford’s ascendancy is symptomatic of insidious problems plaguing the city’s inner suburbs. Originally built for a car-dependent middle class, these areas now house the swelling ranks of the city’s working poor, many of whom feel disenfranchised and resentful of the service-rich downtown. Constituents in these areas responded overwhelmingly to Ford’s customer-service approach, something Keenan witnessed first-hand when he interviewed Ford years before he ran for mayor.
Though based on Keenan’s columns, Some Great Idea never feels cobbled together. There’s a whiff of self-congratulation in the introduction, but overall the book presents a coherent narrative that should bring perspective and hope even to Torontonians who have fallen into hand-wringing despair. After all, one of the marked characteristics of Ford’s mayoralty is the unprecedented level of civic engagement it has provoked. Keenan, who has lived both downtown and in “Ford Country,” argues passionately that diversity has been and will continue to be the most tangible source of Toronto’s strength.
A fascinating read and compelling snapshot of a city that, while arguably still in its pimply adolescence, appears to have its best days ahead of it.