Saturday, July 30, 2011

My Toronto Has Everything

When I ride my bike around the city, there are two things I notice about downtown Toronto: the transit system and the nice-ass cars. My hometown of Stratford has three bus lines and most of the cars are homegrown Dodges and Chevrolets; it's middle-ground transportation for a small, mostly middle-class city. There are a few Audis parked in front of the large homes, and the buses are packed during the high-school commute rush hour, but most of the time, the transit system runs empty routes and the cars are mid-range sedans.

In Toronto, there are tons of fancy, high-end cars: Mercedes, Audis, Porches, and even a few Lambos here and there. I live downtown, in a wealthier part of the city, but this isn't unique to the Annex. At the same time, the subways, buses and streetcars are usually pretty full. Not just rush-hour, either. Last week, during the heat wave, I rode the subway all day (what? It was air-conditioned. Don't be judgey) and was never alone in the car.

This week marked the longest municipal city council meeting ever held in Toronto, as literally hundreds of Torontonians came out to speak out against Rob Ford's proposed funding cuts to almost every area of city operations. Libraries? Pools? Parks? Housing? Day cares? Elder care? Transit? Nothing was safe. Ford's council has frozen taxes, and has to make up the difference by cutting spending elsewhere. In a way, I feel for Ford - his campaign promised no taxes/no service cuts, and he's delivered half of that and then gotten stuck. His council has said that everything is on the table, and people have come out of the woodwork to put their name on record to say they feel squiffy about this.

Rob Ford was voted in on a platform that appealed to the suburbs - giving people a break when they buy houses and drive, which lots of people in the 905 do. The downtown core was firmly against Ford, but in a sprawling, amalgamated city, Ford's conservative vision was popular. Now, however, Ford's popularity is faltering. He's had a series of missteps, like blowing off Pride and allegedly flipping the bird to a woman driving alongside him. This review of core services was a disaster; instead of pledging to bring better service to Torontonians, he raised the specter of privatizing some services, hacking away at others, and shutting some down completely. Almost every city citizen would be affected in some way by the proposed cuts: less police funding means less of a presence on the street and more bureaucracy; library costs might go up, putting its poorer user groups at risk; transit fares might be hiked through the roof; and so on, and so on.

Which brings me back to the transit/Audi thing. In Stratford, a small city, we don't have very many amenities. The pool is run by the YMCA, and there's one undercover cop car (bristling with antennae and driven by a uniformed officer, natch). Almost everyone exists on the same playing field: white, middle-aged, doing well enough to have a car, but not a really nice car. In Toronto, folks diverge wildly. Some get a bus pass and use the library for internet access, while others live in Forest Hill and hire live-in nannies as their child care. The distance between the haves and the haves-not is greater.

People come and live in this city because they don't have to be ultra-rich - hell, they don't even have to be middle-class - to get by and feel comfortable. They have access to amenities that help align them with folks who Have It, and those amenities are often provided by the city. Those amenities help newcomers integrate into Canadian society, help green the city, help folks recycle, help people find jobs, housing, and medical help, help people feel safe, help children get to school, and basically give almost everyone a reason to live in Toronto. If you start carving away at that, what do you get? Empty transit, hordes of same-same people, and people who move away to cities who can offer vibrancy, community, and accessibility.

Rob Ford, you're on notice. Threaten my Toronto, and you'll get a ranty blog post. But threaten everyone's Toronto, and you'll be in real trouble.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Canoe You

I'm going camping next week, so my life has been reduced to a series of lists. Things to do before I go. Things to bring. Stuff to buy. Stuff to make sure I put in the freezer lest I come home to a sludgy mass of what used to be bananas on my kitchen counter. Stuff like that.

I've never really done the whole camping thing; I like activities that allow me to sleep on a mattress at the end of the day. Two summers ago, we did a bike trip to Guelph which, while challenging, started in the 416 and ended in the 519 a few hours later. This is an 8-day canoe trip - which means we're canoeing from site to site nearly every day. No convenient stops at a Best Buy or a Bulk Barn along the way for more water and Freezie Pops. Most people on the trip are bringing one change of clothes. I'm, of course, bringing a dress.

When I was a kid, I used to pore over nature-survival guides, fantasizing about being a pioneer and living off the land. I think this carried over into my young adulthood, where I've spent hours debating various urban siege tactics and zombie survival methods. (The recent realization that, even if I survived hand-to-hand combat with the undead, I would be dead within a month because I have no gardening skills, was demoralizing.) I don't have a lot of experience with that whole "living off the land" thing because, like I said: I read about it. I didn't actually put any of those knot-tying, fruit-drying and bird-call-identifying tips to any use.

I like the idea of the wilderness living. Something about that level of self-sufficiency is so attractive to me, where someone - not me, obviously, but some virile young man or bonneted young woman - could construct a shelter, catch their dinner, and birth a litter of babies all before the crops come in. Margaret Atwood has had a field day with the Canadian fascination with the wilderness; in her eyes, it's a thing we're usually cowed by. Canadians! Such victims! Snooze. The wilderness can be a scary place, I'll give her that much (begrudgingly, but still), but I doubt that most Canadians have had a really meaningful interaction with the Great Forest Spirit. We're an urban nation now, struggling to move past our white settler roots into a more cosmopolitan existence. This is my chance to reconnect with what would have been my Canadian roots if, 70 years ago, my grandparents weren't going AWOL from the Russian Army and being indentured servants on Ontario farms. As it is, it'll just be a trip into the wild. Just.

This is my chance. I've got my list of stuff to bring (on which I've written the word "book," not an actual title), and one of those enormous European camping backpacks with more straps that I have hairs on my head. I now own things like a headlamp, and a carabiner looped with cutlery, and a drybag. I've never owned these things before, because frankly my idea of wilderness is a horrible bog filled with spiders, man-eating coyotes and tents that collapse in the middle of the night and give their inhabitants a coronary. But 2011 is the year of trying new things, being brave, being on my own side, and getting past what I - or Margaret Atwood - assume about a thing before I actually do it. Plus, as a Canadian, I'm obligated to tip a canoe at some point in my life, so it might as well be soon, right?