My Toronto is 16 years old, not 180

Toronto officially celebrates its 180th birthday Mar. 6, 2014. (c)2014 Brendan Crosskerry

Happy Birthday,
Toronto is 180 years old today.  Well, a few square blocks of Old Toronto is 180.  But, the Modern Toronto I live in is not celebrating a birthday today.

The Modern Toronto I live in, turned 16 this year – not 180.  Modern Toronto is a young, fresh, sometimes audacious, often precocious and always great place to live.  We’re equal parts procrastination over committing to adult choices and impatience to grow up.

The fact City Hall is cutting a big cake with 180 candles today is quaint.  It’s also somewhat symptomatic of what ails our city.

In 1834, the Town of York on the shores of Lake Ontario became the “City of Toronto.”  As Toronto grew, and bumped into the hamlets, towns and bergs that surrounded it, it swallowed them up into a new, expanded municipality keeping the Toronto name.

Most recently, this happened on January 1, 1998, when the former municipalities of Etobicoke, York, East York, North York and Scarborough were merged, along with an overarching level of government called Metro Toronto, with the old City of Toronto.  Modern Toronto was born.

I live in Modern Toronto – a city of  2.8 million that was created in 1998.  Our next mayor will be our fourth – not our 65th

Modern Toronto is the city I live in.  Modern Toronto is 16 years old, not 180.  It has had three mayors, not 64.  It has a population of 2.8 million, not mere tens or hundreds of thousands.  Its population lives in densely packed high-rise towers; and in detached bungalows with front and back yards; and in mid-rise red brick walk-up apartments; and in century-old duplexes jam-packed on narrow streets with almost no breathing room between them; and in basement apartments; and in large multi-family residences, etc.

Modern Toronto residents who live in Yonge Street high rises with underground parking, may not really understand why parked cars are allowed to clog narrow residential streets.  Those who fight for street parking near their duplexes that occupy every square inch of the narrow lots they’re built on, may scoff at tax dollars spent on “leaf pickup” services in Etobicoke and Scarborough.  Residents in Etobicoke, who live under tens of thousands of city-owned trees and routinely spend 20+ hours each Fall raking up to a ton of city-owned leaves off each of their yards, may wonder why everyone doesn’t get this service.

Some in Modern Toronto may cringe when they have to walk more than four or five blocks to a library.  They may be aghast at the thought of swimming pools and “community centres” that are not city-owned, union-operated and free to use.  At the same time, residents in other parts of the same city may just wonder what all these amenities look like.

Some residents of Modern Toronto need a second subway built to relieve pressure on the two lines currently serving the parts of our city they live and work in.  Other residents of our city want the roads they depend on to be kept in working order before we build more infrastructure they will never see.

Sadly, it’s almost impossible to have a civil political conversation in Modern Toronto that recognizes our city is vast and the needs of our residents are not always the same.  There are common interests across this city.  But there is also a diverse array of priorities, depending on where one lives and where one works.  Be very careful before publicly acknowledging this reality, however.

Any talk of differences between the priorities of residents in one part of the city compared to another is regularly attacked as “divisive” – often, perversely,  by the very same community leaders who, rightly, embrace and champion diversity of ethnic origin, language, culture or sexual preference.

These same civic leaders regularly attack the discussion of differences between what bedevils people in Sunnylea and what concerns people in Riverdale.  “Politics of Division!” they scream.  They’re wrong.

Recognizing these differences is not divisive.  It’s inclusive.  Modern Toronto should serve everyone, regardless of where they live, as best it can.

That said, Modern Toronto cannot be all things to all people.  Like every other government, every business and every family, it must prioritize.  I argue, its first priority should be services that benefit all residents – not just a few.  Then, it should recognize one solution will not fit all concerns across this diverse city – while allocating resources to diverse services as fairly as possible across the city.  Finally, it should recognize that solutions that worked in Old Toronto may simply not stand up to the realities of Modern Toronto.

There is a great desire to look at Toronto’s past for solutions to today’s problems.  Rarely, do we look to Scarborough’s past or Leaside’s experience.  Especially during election years, we often turn to former Toronto mayors for their sage advice and opinions on what ails our city.  Very rarely, do we seek out former York or Etobicoke mayors.  I think it’s important to remember that there have been only three mayors of Modern Toronto so far.

While I respect the former mayors of Old Toronto, or of any of the former amalgamated municipalities, the reality is that none of them ever led Modern Toronto.  Their cities – including the one that turned 180 today – were each a fraction the size of Modern Toronto, much less complex and far less diverse.

Modern Toronto is a new city and it needs new solutions.  It’s OK to learn from our history, but it’s a sin to waste our future trying to perpetuate the past.