Four mayors, little politics: no, this was not a dream

Shape of Suburbs cover

Four city mayors in the same room, with no politicking??

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

I may be exaggerating a bit: there were really only two mayors, one deputy mayor, and one former. And almost all they did was talk politics, but not in the usual “gotcha” sense. For a change, this was a genuine conversation, with very little sense that they were saying what they had to say just to get re-elected.

The occasion was the recent launch of former Toronto Mayor John Sewell’s new book, The Shape of the Suburbs: Understanding Toronto’s Sprawl, at another of Pages Books & Magazines’ This is Not a Reading Series events at the Gladstone Hotel. And in honour of the book, Sewell took part in a panel discussion with Mayors Rob Burton of Oakville and Steve Parish of Ajax, and Deputy Mayor Jack Heath of Markham, moderated by architect and urban designer Kim Story.

The evening provided an unusual chance to hear people at the top level of municipal government talking frankly about subjects like how to plan for water and sewage, how to manage population intensification, and what in the world to do about traffic. You felt less like you were listening to politicians and more like you were watching several intelligent people work away at some significant planning problems.

I swear I’ve never heard so much honest and thoughtful discussion from politicians in my entire life. These guys really think about these things. In fact, they worry about them. A lot.

And they were surprisingly critical of politicians doing things that we non-politicos think of as sheer manipulation for political gain. For example, Steve Parish spoke of the almost “incestuous” relationship between developers and politicians, which absolutely must be done away with. Rob Burton considers the urbanization of rural land to be a gigantic wealth-creation device. How do we discover who is behind these schemes? Burton says we merely need to ask, “Who got rich?” All the developers’ promises of low costs never produce cheaper houses; they just increase the profit margin for the developers.

Tough words from guys who we lay people tend to think of as being in bed with developers. Maybe we just didn’t have the “right” mayors in attendance that night.

Or maybe a shift is starting, as conscientious people take office and get a good look at what’s really been going on in these cities, with all the implications for a looming future. That became more and more evident, at least, when they got onto the subject of traffic and transit. In fact, everything kept coming back to that. With transit and roads all over Toronto and the satellite cities already stretched to full capacity, these mayors have to devise ways of increasing transit to prepare for the even greater population boom that’s now developing. It’s a subject constantly on their minds; everyone in the crowd could see that.

In the collegial and entertaining atmosphere, the only time any panelist got touchy was when some topics from Sewell’s book seemed too Toronto-centric. As Jack Heath reminded everyone, all 20 municipalities around the city are “also Torontonians.” Parish maintained that the real goal is to make a harmonious “Toronto region.” And in response to Sewell’s theory that the extra density in Toronto helps make people more courteous as people learn to live closely together, Burton remarked, “If density made you polite, nobody would ever complain about how they were treated in Paris.”

A panel discussion about sewage, population, and traffic — one of the best book-related evenings I’ve ever had? Yes, believe it or not. And do I want to read John Sewell’s book as a result? Certainly I do.

But even more, I’d like to spend another evening talking city planning with these guys.

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It’s all fun and games until someone does an interview

The huge Snakes & Ladders drop cloth

The huge Snakes & Ladders drop cloth

Stand on a snake, you get a tough question. Stand on a ladder, an easy one.

This may sound like some weird torture ritual from the Inquisition, but it was actually a simultaneous Interview and Snakes & Ladders game, at last night’s This is Not a Reading Series event at the Gladstone Hotel. Indeed, the whole evening was nothing but fun and games. Literally. Every table in the room was set up with bowls of chips, tacos, and dip, and bore at least two boxed games.

Our table had three: Monopoly, Pictionary, and Trivial Pursuit (the 80s version).

Shaun Smith autographs books

Shaun Smith autographs books

Author Shaun Smith, whose YA (i.e. Young Adult) novel Snakes & Ladders was featured at the event, experienced a bit of a homecoming. He was one of the two co-founders, five years ago, of This is Not a Reading Series itself (along with Mark Glassman of Pages Books & Magazines). He had left to do other things, but now returned to experience one of these evenings from the other side of the fence.

Nathan Whitlock, Books For Young People editor of Quill & Quire,¬†interviewed Smith as the two moved around an actual Snakes & Ladders drop cloth that covered most of the stage, their moves determined by the roll of a gigantic air-filled die (note to the unfamiliar: the singular form of “dice”). It was a fun concept, though the randomness of where they moved meant that the interview was a bit random too. Ah well, that’s how the dice roll, I guess.

Checkers

Checkers

The two main characters in Smith’s book, set in 1971, are a young girl and her younger brother, spending the summer at the family cottage in Ontario’s Muskoka region. They get involved in trying to help save a duck’s eggs from being eaten by a snake, and in trying to save the beloved tree where the sister has her private retreat. Several plot streams run through the book: that of eco-activism, family difficulties, and a lot of dark things that might make some adults wonder if young readers can handle this story.

But Smith maintained that kids can deal with deeper stories than we often give them credit for, when the tales are told carefully.

The purpose of this not-reading series is “to get to the roots of the creative process,” as Mark Glassman often states. Smith revealed that he only discovered he was doing a kids’ book as the story evolved during the writing and this discovery necessitated his editor helping to remove a few racy elements. Another thing he learned, once the book was finished, was that YA writers have great camaraderie, and are usually eager to help each other.

Scrabble

Scrabble

Before the rather sporadic interview ended, Smith left the audience with one important tidbit. When asked, knowing what he knows about the publishing industry, why he wrote a book at all, his answer was simple: “Real writers stick with it.” Serious writing is a vocation, and he’s in it for the long haul.

It should be encouraging to his future prospects that the entire room burst into applause at this pledge.

Wacky Stacky

Wacky Stacky

And then the “book part” was over, and the games began! One small group immediately launched into a Scrabble match at one table, while another set up a checkers board nearby. While several people headed for the bar to get refreshments, another duo built a small tower on their table with rectangular wooden blocks, and then began the game of trying to pull blocks out of the middle of the tower without the whole thing collapsing.

Did this event make me want to read Shaun Smith’s book? Perhaps. As I said, the interview was a little disjointed, so we got our information in random little chunks. But the atmosphere in the room was cheerful and playful enough that I would definitely approach the book with a positive feeling.

A remarkable woman, and her book about a remarkable woman

I’ve decided that I really want to read Marie-Anne: The Extraordinary Life of Louis Riel’s Grandmother.

Talk about an amazing, interesting woman! So many facets to her life, so many interesting pursuits!

Oh – did you think I was talking about Marie-Anne, the grandmother? Actually, I was thinking of the book’s author herself, Maggie Siggins. This past Monday, at Innis Town Hall, the University of Toronto¬†Reading Series presented her new book, and Ms. Siggins read from it for a bit, and then chatted about it with Canadian historian Christopher Moore.

Boy, does Maggie Siggins love western Canadian history! Sure, she’s just moved back to Toronto after 20+ years living in Regina, and considers Toronto her true home, but she expects she’s always going to write mostly about western Canada. She thinks people had to be “pretty eccentric” to go out into that wilderness and try to live there, and “Ontario history is so boring by comparison…the Family Compact and all that…”

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“The Sacred” – a Concrete or Abstract Matter?

What if someone asked you to put a pin on the map of your city or town, on the spot you consider your personal “sacred space”?

The different responses to such a suggestion might surprise you. For some, their “sacred space” could be the location of their first kiss. For others, perhaps a peaceful park nestled amongst downtown highrises. For me in Toronto, it’s probably the Distillery District – not the shops, galleries, restaurants, and theatres, but the ghost of the past distillery that lurks behind them all.

These places might not be traditionally “sacred,” but personal judgements may be all we can resort to, since Canada no longer has a single sacred tradition that encompasses the whole culture. That, at least, is the opinion of three authors – two architects and one philosopher – who presented their books last week at the Harbourfront Centre’s International Readings event entitled “Architecture and Sacred Space.”

The evening could almost have been two separate events: the presentation of the books themselves, and then a panel discussion. Because the actual books were not about sacred space, but about concrete. Yes, you heard right. And what does concrete have to do with sacred space? Good question.

The discussions of concrete architecture might have received more in-depth treatment if the books had been considered alone; it wasn’t always clear why they were presented in a meeting about sacred space. Yet as architects Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart presented short readings and slides from their co-edited book, Concrete Toronto: A Guidebook to Concrete Architecture from the fifties to the seventies, it gradually became obvious that Toronto’s concrete construction during those years had a spirit to it, a thrust not just toward size, but also toward beauty. This suggested a first tenuous connection between concrete buildings and sacred space.

University of Toronto philosophy professor Mark Kingwell, presenting his book, Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City, inched a little closer to “the sacred” as he discussed how a city is an organic manifestation of the consciousness of the citizens who build and move through it. He demonstrated, with slides, photos, and maps, how cities exist in a tension between the “planned” (as in the strict grid the original planners tried to impose on Manhattan) and the “inhabited” (where the grid had give way, in places, to Manhattan’s inherent geography, because the island “insisted on itself”).

But it wasn’t until the three authors participated in the panel, moderated by Lisa Rapoport of PLANT Architect Inc, that sacred space was addressed directly.

McClelland envisions the sacred as an ability to pull out of everyday life, in order to dream. He believes one responsibility of an architect is to help create a city’s dreamscape. Yet he, unlike Rapoport, doesn’t believe there is something inherent in any architectural form that promotes this. Rather, any building, even a “sacred” one, is invested with meaning by the beliefs of the culture in which it is created.

For Stewart, people can recast any space as sacred, on a personal or community level. He described an interesting life cycle of how we often view buildings: those of the recent past become “rejected” (e.g. our current view of concrete architecture from the 50’s and 60’s); buildings of the distant past become “canonical” (e.g. Toronto’s Old City Hall, which was once viewed with disdain); and architecture of the future becomes “exciting,” because anything is possible.

Kingwell, too, thinks of “profound possibilities” as being part of how we create sacred space; we cross a threshold into a space that allows us to perceive another mode of being. This can be a large community square, or even an intersection of streets.

The discussion ranged animatedly as the speakers tried to define the sacred and imagine how architecture can help foster this sensibility. But the odd bifurcation of the evening was never entirely overcome, and the relation of “concrete” to “sacred space” was never entirely established.

Do I want to read these books, following the evening’s activities? I don’t actually know. If the evening had only considered concrete buildings and their significance, perhaps yes. But we were left with only tantalizing glimpses of some quite beautiful concrete architecture as it sailed by in the slide presentations. Unable to decide, I remain suspended between the two: the concrete of the buildings and the abstract of “the sacred.”