canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

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").

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 subject.

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 Bloor Street.

There is also something in uTOpia about the Toronto Public Space Committee: (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 . 

There 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: 

Michael Bryson is the publisher and editor of The Danforth Review. His story "Six Million Million Miles" appeared in 05: Best Canadian Stories (Oberon Press).







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