Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Mayors of Jane Jacobs' Toronto

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs, a book which influenced generations of urban planners and municipal leaders and forever changed the way we think of cities. So what better way to celebrate than in the company of four former mayors of Toronto, the city Jacobs called home for nearly half her life.

David Crombie, John Sewell, Art Eggleton, and Barbara Hall were all on hand for "Jane Jacobs' Toronto", a panel discussion moderated by TVO's Steve Paikin and presented by the Centre for City Ecology. Tickets were free, and were snapped up so quickly that organizers moved the event to a larger venue at OISE - and even then they were left with a waiting list of over 150.

Given the overwhelming interest in recent goings on at Toronto City Hall, it's not hard to guess why.

All four mayors had known and worked with Jacobs after she moved to Toronto from the U.S. in the late '60s (she passed away in 2006). They shared memories of her as not only a great thinker but a consummate organizer and strategist who spent her years in Toronto in vigorous battle against what she saw as city-destroying projects such as the Spadina Expressway (which she helped to stop) and amalgamation (which she couldn't).

Sewell and Jacobs had a shared background as activists and community organizers, and they worked closely together even before Sewell was elected Mayor. He told a memorable story of the two trying to stop a developer from demolishing a group of houses near Dundas and Sherbourne to make way for two thirty story towers.

"A hoarding went up around the site, and I decide, my goodness, we've got to do some organizing! So we got a whole bunch of people out there on a Monday and a Tuesday and a Wednesday and a Thursday - we actually had about a hundred people out there on the street at about six-thirty in the morning so we confronted those workmen when they came, and in fact every day they went away.

"And then on Friday we again were out there, strong as ever - Jane was there, every day. And all of a sudden we look over the fence on that Friday, and we saw that in fact the workmen were beginning to tear down the porch on a house... And I turned to Jane and I said, "Jane, what do we do now, they're starting to tear down that house!"

"Well", she said, "if you're going to tear down a property in Toronto, you have to have a hoarding around it. So if we want to stop the demolition, we've got to tear down the hoarding." And I said, "Aw, Jane, now wait... now that's starting to break laws."

"Look, John" she says, "you want to stop the demolition? Tear down the hoarding."

"So I got everybody together and said, "Ok folks, were going to tear down the hoarding." We tore down the hoarding, the workmen went away, I called David in the Mayor's office who at that point was negotiating with the province to see if we could buy the site. We bought the site from the province, and that became CityCorp's very first non-profit housing project."

David Crombie also worked closely with Jacobs in the early days of Toronto's urban reform movement, but more as a city-builder than an activist. His most successful effort to turn her concepts into reality was the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, which has been lauded as a model of pedestrian and community-friendly planning.

Paikin asked the panelists what they thought Jacobs would like best about what Toronto has become, and what she would hate about it. The latter question generated the longest responses of course, and provided an excellent opportunity for the former mayors to comment on the performance of the current mayor. Interestingly, it was Eggleton - arguably the most conservative of the group - who was the most pointed in his criticism of the Ford administration. He believes that Jacobs would be "horrified" by Ford's plan for the Port Lands.

But Sewell made the best Ford joke. After the fifth or sixth subway train rumbled loudly beneath the hall, Sewell grabbed the mic and said that there was one good thing that might come out of Ford's tenure: the subways would run far less often.

As for what Jacobs would have liked, the panelists cited Toronto's cultural diversity, the local food movement, and the large numbers of people walking and cycling to work. John Sewell was unconvinced, however, maintaining that much of Toronto's development has ignored the basic principles which Jacobs espoused, especially since amalgamation.

One issue that kept coming up was the increasing hostility between downtown and suburban Toronto residents. Crombie in particular was greatly concerned that things were developing into a full blown "culture war". All four mentioned a need for public spaces and forums where people from all areas of the city can engage in dialogue beyond their local neighbourhoods. To illustrate, Barbara Hall asked how many members of the audience lived outside of the old City of Toronto - it was about 25% - and pointed out that having a more equal representation of all regions of the city at public meetings and deputations would lend them greater legitimacy.

When the time came for questions from the audience, I asked the panel if they thought that Jane Jacobs' ideas could be scaled to fit smaller exurban communities Like Milton or Oshawa, or whether (as she wrote at one point) they can only really apply to large cities. They all felt that her ideas of diversity, mixed-use, walkability, etc. would work perfectly in a mid-to-large town context - and in most cases already do.

While I had the mic, I also had to thank John Sewell for inspiring me to get involved with municipal politics, telling him about how I had been on 'Team Sewell' in our grade 9 mock election. Steve Paikin and the panelists seemed particularly interested when I told them that I had run for Milton Town Council last year, which is probably why I was approached by the organizers after the session to speak on camera for some follow-up video. I was happy to do it, although I was really wishing I'd brought a hairbrush.

While I was waiting for my close-up, I had the opportunity to speak to both Sewell and Crombie. Sewell seemed a bit standoffish - perhaps because of my earlier fan-girlish ebullience - but David Crombie was absolutely delightful, especially after I told him that my mother had attended Earl Haig at about the same time he did. We had a lovely chat about growing up in North York, municipal politics, and what was going on in Milton, and he encouraged me to run again.

Given what Toronto's current mayor has been up to, I would encourage Crombie to do the same.

NOTE: Full video of the event is available on the YouTube page of HiMY SYeD. SYeD was a Toronto mayoral candidate in last years election, and actually cornered Steve Paikin after the panel discussion to ask him why his producers refused to cover any but the top five or six candidates.


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