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Shawn Micallef's Frontier City, reviewed: Can Toronto fulfill its potential?

Author Shawn Micallef.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Title
Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness
Author
Shawn Micallef
Publisher
Signal
Pages
261
Price
$29.95

For many residents of Toronto, the 2010 election of Rob Ford shattered their comfortable self-image of the city. Who voted for him? Why? How did the city end up so apparently divided, so bitter, battle lines drawn across not just the political spectrum but the literal map of the city? Shawn Micallef set out to answer these questions. The result is his new book, Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness, a complex reading of the city that defies many of the easy clichés and stereotypes. The book offers both a sobering postmortem examination of the Ford administration and a warning that the underlying conditions that drove the "taxpayer revolt," and inspired rants against the "gravy train" stationed at city hall, are still with us, while at the same time delivering a more hopeful exhortation that Toronto can fulfill its vast potential – that the city will not simply remain on the verge, but actually achieve greatness.

Micallef's method is that of an on-the-ground observer. He constructs his arguments empirically, taking the temperature of the city, listening to the rhythms of change. In the lead-up to the 2010 election, for instance, he attended "Ford Nation" rallies, where he met and mingled with supporters of the soon-to-be-elected mayor, developing a first-hand, unfiltered understanding of their motivations. Additionally, he walked the city with aspiring candidates for city council and the Toronto District School Board, seeing how they were received by constituents as they canvassed, getting an up-close-and-personal view of some of the often-ignored parts of Toronto, where Ford's unabashed populism found such fertile ground. (His walking companions were, largely, young and progressive underdogs whose efforts against the entrenched incumbents proved unsuccessful; their names alone – Burale, Abukar, Olawoye, Boutros, Bravo, Fox, Henry-Mathieu, Hynes, Wong, Bocking and Kandavel – tell an interesting story about how the heterogeneity of our population is beginning to assert itself in the political arena.)

Through his various walks – from the pleasures of an outing to the Toronto Islands to the daily challenges of living in the inner suburbs – we see at a very fine grain how Toronto is experienced from multiple vantage points, getting a sense of residents' everyday struggles and joys. Very big issues, and very important questions, are raised in a very understated way. How do we deal with the effects of gentrification? How do we move beyond NIMBYism and the "village mentality" gripping older, established neighbourhoods fearful of change? Why is the area around Pearson Airport – which rivals downtown when it comes to employment – still largely unacknowledged? What is it like to be car-less in a world designed for automobiles? Why do we long for a city that we don't allow ourselves to have?

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In Toronto, as with many cities across the continent, the story is one of rapid transformation that passed relatively unnoticed until it had already happened. Several things took place simultaneously. The profound economic shift that decimated middle-class employment through a combination of automation and globalization, coupled with the emergence of an economy based on young knowledge workers, created both entrenched poverty and great wealth. The benefits of urban living were rediscovered – the convenience of public transit, local shopping and walkable neighbourhoods led to a renewed interest in downtown, which brought a new-found vitality to older neighbourhoods but, eventually, priced it out of the reach of most residents. In the process, the landing place for most new arrivals became postwar suburbs. In the throes of this seismic shift we parsimoniously and self-destructively failed to invest in the social and physical infrastructure necessary to keep up with massive growth. All of which has contributed to a sizeable part of Toronto's population feeling underserved and left behind, not sharing in the prosperity and success of the city.

As Micallef rightly points out, here is where the competing narratives are starkly drawn. We can either invest in infrastructure, social services and shared public amenities with some faith in the public sector to deliver, or to vehemently reject such projects and instead retreat into a delusionary self-reliance, attacking any public expenditure on the very things that would help level the playing field. This means lower taxes, and less capacity to make investments, exacerbating the polarization. This is what drove the wedge politics that gripped the city in 2010. The "downtown elites" were not to be trusted; the public sector was a "gravy train" that had to be derailed. Yet one of the things that comes across most in Frontier City is that these binary labels are deceiving; we may really be more similar than we think in "city" and "suburb," just dealt different cards.

While it was written well before the recent U.S. election, Frontier City foreshadows the rise of Donald Trump and the ugly season of hate and division his presidency has unleashed. What Toronto experienced, on a municipal level, is now being played out, dramatically and dangerously, on the world stage. The impulses and dynamics are eerily similar. This makes Frontier City an important book not only for local self-understanding, but also to get a better handle on the allure of the demagogic populism sweeping the world. The increasingly stark differences between what is happening on a seemingly daily basis south of the border and in Canada might lead to a sense of relief or even complacency. But Frontier City suggests there are still serious challenges. We are at a crossroads.

Ultimately, Toronto has to overcome the wounds of amalgamation and become one city. We need a broader inclusive vision and some bold initiatives that go beyond just "service delivery" and move into the realm of creative city building. We desperately need the resources to deal with infrastructure deficits and help make the shift to more sustainable (and economical) ways of living. This is essential "investment" in the future for a rapidly growing city with the most diverse population in the world. We need to solidify the ties that bind us and address otherwise growing disparities. We require solutions, not symbolic, stop-gap measures such as the one-stop Scarborough subway. We have to view our city as an increasingly seamless continuum, not an uncomfortable juxtaposition of opposing "nations." We must call on an engaged civil society, and a range of city builders – including avowedly city-building mayors and councillors and great civil servants – to successfully create complete communities in both older and newer neighbourhoods, acknowledging that one size does not fit all in our vast and diverse geography. We need to stop squirming over taxes and forthrightly acknowledge what it costs to become the city we aspire to be, and how to share that burden equitably. (Tragically, when we do summon the will to avail ourselves of revenue tools such as road tolls, we get slapped down by the province.) If we are truly to be a city for everyone, "stable neighbourhoods" cannot pull up the drawbridge and deny newcomers the right to come in – San Francisco provides the great object lesson in how such defensive rigidity exacerbates polarization.

Frontier City signals that we are teetering on the edge. As Jane Jacobs presciently observed, addressing these very tensions in her final book, Dark Age Ahead, nothing is inevitable. The choice is ours.

Ken Greenberg is former director of urban design and architecture for the City of Toronto and is principal of Greenberg Consultants. He is the author of Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder.

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