uTOpia

Jason McBride accepts a Toronto Book Award for co-editing uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto.

uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto was published in 2005, two years after David Miller’s election as mayor of Toronto, and he even wrote the forward. In this brief post, it’s not entirely possible to do justice to the dozens of ideas, visions, and histories in uTOpia, but the book is optimistic and imaginative about the city’s future. That was the point. While some of the more wishful visions (tubular bicycle highways, a new neighbourhood on Billy Bishop Airport) are hopeless today, uTOpia also deals with the same themes and civic issues (like subways) that are still current in the Rob Ford era.

The more trenchant criticisms in this book have to do with a madness for redevelopment, from the small scale of yet-another-bar on Queen West to the whole new city they seem to be building between the Gardiner and Lake Ontario. Not all transformations are bad, as Nicole Cohen’s “The Zeidler Effect” about the Zeidler family argues. The Zeidlers, from patriarch Eberhard, responsible for the Eaton Centre, etc., to daughters Margaret and Christina, responsible for, among other things, the renovation of the Gladstone Hotel and 401 Richmond Street. Cohen’s article begs the question, what’s the difference between gentrification and redevelopment? It’s not an easy question to answer, and these days just about any time anyone invests anywhere but the most overdeveloped neighbourhoods it’s condemned. However, the Eaton Centre came at a time when Fairview-Cadillac was busy guaranteeing that all the money made in downtowns across the country wound up getting spent in places like Markham and Mississauga. The Gladstone might be a bit more ambiguous, but in its defense, it is a restoration.

Deanne Taylor’s “Between uTOpias” helps provide a line between inevitable change and urban class remodeling, i.e. systematic and state-sponsored gentrification, from using the local culture industry as a sales tactic to the wholesale private redevelopment of entire sections of the city. Taylor writes that, “To live in Toronto is to live in two cities at once: one real, one virtual.” The real Toronto is a composite of the places you live, work, and play, based largely in one’s neighbourhood. The virtual Toronto is the marketable Toronto, “Hollywood North” or “The City That Goes Ka-Ching.” The virtual Toronto is the city of mega-projects and profit. The problem with utopia, as Taylor begins, is that if you want the picture to look perfect, you have to erase a whole lot of things that don’t fit. If utopia is a whole lot of expensive, glossy towers, it’s the neighbourhood that has to be bulldozed to make way. When we talk about “gentrification,” it’s often small-scale entrepreneurs and creative types who take all the heat.  These are people with their own dreams for their city and for their own lives, although with enough access to investment capital to make their presence in the city known. The real villains in large-scale urban displacement narratives are major economic players like the state and Concord Pacific Developments.

uTOpia’s first article, by Erik Rutherford, compares life in Paris to life in Toronto. His point is that Paris resists the individuals who live there, and transforms them into parts of itself. Toronto, on the other hand “is a bricolage of atomized privacies, that we have few obligations to…and little guidance from.” Paris is a fait accompli. In fact, it’s so complete that it completes the people who live there, whereas Rutherford is of the opinion that to really belong in a city, it’s the individual who has to fill in the city’s gaps.

Eight years after uTOpia was published, the backlog of transit priorities in Toronto grows faster than council can vote against funding them. It’s difficult to imagine making any kind of headway with any of our municipal problems, not to mention approaching the inventiveness of fictional Torontos such as the one on this map. As uTOpia points out, however, most of this city’s really good ideas have come from its citizens, not its mayors. Not even David Miller.

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