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Toronto may be deeply divided, but there is still hope for a better city

The city is hopelessly, irretrievably divided. Throwing the suburbs and the core together into one big city was a disaster. The suburbs say toe-may-toe, the downtown says toe-mah-toe. Let's call the whole thing off.

You hear this kind of talk after every Toronto election, and no wonder. A glance at the map of ward-by-ward election returns shows an unmistakable divide. In the 2010 vote, most wards in the centre of the city went for George Smitherman while the suburbs went solidly for Rob Ford. Something similar happened this time around, with much of Etobicoke and most of Scarborough going for Doug Ford and most of the rest for John Tory.

Opinion maps put together by Vox Pop Labs, a Toronto research firm, confirm that people in the suburbs feel differently on many issues than people in the downtown. Downtowners want more bike lanes, suburbanites want a more car-friendly downtown. Suburbanites feel strongly that they are overtaxed by the city for the services they get, downtowners not so much.

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Suburbanites tend to feel the city should focus on improving its roads, downtowners its public transit.

Should we just accept that we will never really be one city? Should we reverse the amalgamation imposed on Toronto by Queen's Park in 1998 and return to a system of smaller confederated municipalities? The answer in both cases should be no.

Amalgamation is a done deal, in place for 16 years. Does anybody seriously argue that it would make sense to break into pieces again? Do we want to go back to having, say, a separate city of East York with its own mayor and city council?

The suburban/urban dividing line is real, but not indelible. It exists in part because politicians like the Ford brothers fanned suburban resentments to gain power, arguing that people in the suburbs were being shortchanged by a city government controlled by "downtown elites" (conveniently ignoring the hundreds of millions being spent, for example, on a suburban subway extension all the way to York region).

It persists because people in the suburbs tend to live a different lifestyle in a part of the city designed around the automobile. It's no mystery that they have different views on things like whether to pull down the Gardiner Expressway.

It does not mean they are a separate species. Lots of downtown dwellers own cars and care about congestion and disrepair on the roadways. Lots of suburban residents, especially in poorer, immigrant-heavy neighbourhoods, rely on public transit and wish it could be better.

Everyone across the city benefits from better roads, better transit, better community centres, cleaner parks, well-maintained infrastructure. A thriving, vital downtown is an asset to the whole city. So are green, orderly suburbs that don't become hollowed out as the city evolves.

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The man just elected mayor, John Tory, seems to understand that. He has been hearing a lot about that divided electoral map since winning Monday's election. He says he knows about the divisions and wants to heal them. The best way to do that, he argues, is to get results. If people see that sanity reigns at city hall and that things are getting done, he told reporters on Tuesday, "they are going to have more confidence in one city, in one Toronto."

That hit a welcome note of optimism about this difficult problem. Take another look at that election-results map, and the divisions aren't quite so dire as they look. Mr. Tory came out ahead in three wards in south Etobicoke and several in the north-central suburbs. That was a better suburban showing than Mr. Smitherman's in 2010.

The city's ongoing divisions are serious, yes; hopeless, no. In the end, wherever we live in this city, we are all from Toronto. The success of one part is the success of all, the failure of one part the failure of all. Instead of wringing our hands over that troubling map, we ought to be working together to build a better city for everyone.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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