uTOpia: Towards A New Toronto
edited by Jason McBride and Alana Wilcox
Coach House Books, 2005
Reviewed by Michael Bryson
In September 2005, I took part in a
meeting to assist my employer's workplace-fundraising campaign for the
United Way. The United Way of the Greater Toronto set a target
of raising $95 million. The charity shares its funds between 200 charities, all of whom are carefully audited and scrutinized and need to
fill out much paperwork in order to be included within the United Way's
umbrella of organizations in the first place.
Someone from the United Way's
headquarters was at the meeting I attended. She spoke about the
diversity of the United Way's agencies, the tremendous social needs that
exist in our city, and the 2005 campaign target -- "The highest
ever!" What she said that struck me the hardest, was that the United Way
tracks the way needs change in the city. For
example, she said, the United Way did a survey of poverty,
and they found that the patterns of poverty are changing in Toronto.
Most of the poor used to live downtown. Now, most of the poor live in the band of Toronto's inner-suburbs -- areas of
Scarborough, North York and East York.
Why is this significant? she asked.
Because those areas were initally developed for the middle class. Those
neighbourhoods were developed with the assumption that each family would
have a car. Public transit has not been built up in those areas,
recreation centres are not as common as they are downtown,
programs for addictions and food banks are not as common, or not easily
accessible. In other words, the infrastructure that had been built up in
the city to address the needs of the poor is inadequate to meeting the
needs of the poor in Toronto in the 21st century, because the poor have
moved; the poor have changed; the United Way was on top of these changes
and was changing strategies to address them.
This is the type of story I expected to
find in uTOpia: Towards A New Toronto. However, that type of
story is not in this book. The vision of a "New
Toronto" presented by the editors of uTOpia looks a lot like the City of Toronto circa 1995 (i.e.,
pre-amalgamation). uTOpia is accompanied by two maps of future
Torontos: One cuts off at Riverdale in the east, High Park in the west,
and just north of the Annex. The neighbourhood I live in is not on this
map. The neighbourhood I grew up in (East York) is not on this map.
Three-quarters of the present day City of Toronto is not on this map.
The New Poor Areas of Toronto are not on this map.
It's always dangerous to review a book
against ones assumptions of what the book was going to contain, ought to
contain, did or didn't contain. Should the reviewer measure the book
based on its own merits? based on what's between the pages? or should
the reviewer assess what the book could have been? what it's missing?
Generally, I tend towards the former. However, the editors of uTOpia: Towards A New Toronto
seem to expect that their book will help spark a conversation about
Toronto's future. It's in that spirit that I suggest that, while this
book has much of interest and much of value, it also perpetuates some
fundamental errors -- foremost among them the suggestion that the future
of Toronto will be decided with the geographic boundaries of the
pre-amalgamation City of Toronto (okay, let's just call it
Downtown Toronto is the symbolic heart
of the city, sure, but I would be surprised if it constituted more that
20 per cent of the city's land mass or a similar percentage of its
citizens. The United Way says the poor are now spread out in a band
around downtown, living in the inner-suburbs. Jane-Finch was a notorious
intersection in the 1970s -- yes, it has been a troubled community for a
long time -- but in 2005 gun-violence exploded in Toronto. I write this
on December 29th, three days after seven people were shot across the
street from Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street, just north of Dundas. A
15-year-old girl was hit by a bullet in the face and killed. She was
apparently a star student and athlete; she lived very close to the
neighbourhood where I went to public school, junior high, and high
school in the 1970s and 80s. She is dead.
One of the points the woman from the
United Way wanted to make was -- the problems in all areas of the city
affect everyone in the city. Gun violence has been an increasing part of
life in Toronto for a number of years. In 2005, it became everyone's
problem. Downtown is the symbolic heart of the city, but the future of
the city will be bleak indeed if its visionaries don't have place in
their imaginations for any one north of Davenport. It's only recently
sunk through my thick skull that the United Way's way is the united way.
"No man is an island," John Donne said, many, many years ago.
We're all in this together, or we're not in it at all.
January 21, 2006: There is more I
wanted to say about this book. Some rants I wanted to get out of my
system, but it's been nearly a month since I've written anything on this
What I wanted to say was Mark
Kingwell's contribution to uTOpia is, in my opinion, excellent.
Why? Because he more than any of the other contributors manages to be in
the city but not of the city; specifically, he notes rightly that many
noted Toronto "visionaries" are notable because they stop
things, not create them. His example is the sports stadium outside his
office at the University of Toronto that didn't get built.
I also wanted to note that John
Lornic's contribution was also fab. He actually manages to write about a
subject -- Toronto's retail plazas -- that takes the reader north of
There is also something in uTOpia
about the Toronto Public Space Committee: http://publicspace.ca/
(though now that I've gone looking for it, I can't find it). This is a
group of bright-minded individuals with great, creative ideas -- along
the lines of the visionaries that Mark Kingwell notes are something of a
Toronto tradition. Eagerly, the Committee promotes the idea that too
much advertising is a bad thing. Obviously, this is a bit of a reductive
summary, but what the heck. What I wanted to say about the Toronto
Public Space Committee is that here's an idea with great potential --
despite its Bolshevik branding strategy. Also: there seems to be some
elements of Bolshevism that goes beyond the name. For example, Sheila Heti wrote an
opinion piece in Eye Weekly (July 15, 2004),
criticizing Toronto mayor David Miller for supporting large sidewalk
garbage bins with advertising on the side:
Mayor Miller, next Monday, please
keep in mind the pedestrians. Keep in mind the vision that your
mentor, Jane Jacobs, has for a vibrant public life. A vibrant public
life needs vibrant public space -- not a public space occupied by
private interests -- no matter what it costs. Because I'll tell you
what this deal costs: the faith of the people of Toronto that the city
can be ours.
"No matter what it costs."
... Blistering barnacles, as the Captain in Tintin used to say.
This is not the voice of progressive, democratic -- dare I say it,
"utopian" -- Toronto: "Because I'll tell you
what...[to think]." This is not in
the spirit of the United Way. This is not, frankly, living in reality:
where the city has a $600 million deficit, expanding areas of poverty --
and rising gun violence. To pay for community centres and youth programs,
and stop teenage girls from getting shot, reverse the degradation of our
communities -- from Kennedy, to Jane-Finch, to Steeles -- I would happily
hang advertising banners over every street in the city .
are already too many people in Toronto who don't believe the city is
theirs -- this is the tragic truth uTOpia
misses. The United Way is tracking them, the hipsters on Queen Street
clearly are not.
See also: http://www.chbooks.com/cms/forums/utopia
Michael Bryson is the
publisher and editor of The Danforth Review. His story "Six Million
Million Miles" appeared in 05: Best Canadian Stories (Oberon