The opening of a new library is always an uplifting event, even more so in Rob Ford's Toronto. It was Mr. Ford, remember, who got into one of his first bits of hot water as mayor when his brother Doug mused about closing underused libraries to save money.
Heck, said Doug, there were more libraries than Tim Hortons in his Etobicoke ward (he was wrong). When asked what he thought about Margaret Atwood's opposition to library cuts, he made headlines by saying he wouldn't know her if he bumped into her in the street.
Three years later, the Toronto Public Library has just opened a new branch, its 99th. The Fort York library is an airy jewel box in the old railway lands south of Front Street, just off Bathurst. It is the most un-Ford place you can imagine. It has a green roof on top. It has streetcars running past on Bathurst. It was championed by Adam Vaughan.
Best of all, it is to have a public art installation on the outside wall featuring the poetry of, yes, Margaret Atwood. What a delicious irony, I said to Mr. Vaughan at the official opening on Thursday morning. Irony, nothing, said Mr. Vaughan. "We were making a statement that not only were we going to build libraries, we were going to honour the people that protected them as well."
But the new library is far more than a rebuke to the Fords.
At least 20 years in the making, it is the public hub of a vibrant new neighbourhood that is rising south of Front. When condo towers started going up in the district south of the railway tracks, it seemed cut off from the city and its life, with few public facilities for the thousands of new residents. That is changing. A new park designed by Douglas Coupland was finished in 2009. That other vital amenity, a Tim Hortons, just opened, which means that the area now has the same number of Tims and libraries. A school and a community centre are finally on the way. A theatre group just moved in.
The Fort York branch, says library-board chair Michael Foderick, is to be the cornerstone, "the beating heart," of the new community. It certainly felt that way on Thursday morning as dozens of visitors streamed through the glass doors to take in the new neighbourhood asset. A chamber group played and schoolchildren chattered as they explored the 16,000-square-foot building, with its Douglas fir ceiling and finished aluminum panelling.
It is a beautiful place to be. Towering windows offer spectacular views all around. Meeting spaces and computer rooms equipped with the latest screens and digital gizmos invite visitors to "learn, create and explore in a fun and welcoming environment." There are even books – a brand new collection.
With cars streaming by on the Gardiner Expressway to the south, trains passing to the north and streetcars to the west, the library has the feel of a truly urban space, an oasis in the bustle of the city.
Between the tracks and library, a new park is to rise, overlooked by the library terrace. It's just a patch of dirt at present. The developer complains that it should be built by now, as should the road link to Bathurst. The usual delays. When they are finished, though, people will be able to reach the library by road or by streetcar and walk under the Bathurst bridge to reach the Fort York lands.
Architect Shirley Blumberg says the building, whose angular shape mimics the ramparts of Fort York, is meant to celebrate "the vibrancy of shared public space and resources."
The $9-million cost of the library was covered entirely by fees charged to developers. No cost to the taxpayer. That part, at least, the Fords might like.