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.

To Whom it May Concern: King Lear Rules!

I admit, given the very cold temperatures outside, I wasn’t sure how big a crowd there would be at last night’s This is Not a Reading Series event by Pages Books, promoting Priscilla Uppal’s new book, To Whom it May Concern. To my great pleasure, and I’m sure the author’s as well, the Gladstone Hotel ballroom was packed. With people carrying heavy coats.

It was King Lear’s fault. I’m sure of it. He’d been conscripted to help promote the book – it was built on the underlying motif of his own story, after all – and everyone was dying to see how he’d push it.

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Excuse me while I putter…

IDLER: “…He is not a man who slouches about with his hands in his pockets. On the contrary, his most startling characteristic is that he is always intensely busy…”

I had the rare privilege last week of attending a meeting of the Royal Society of the Indolent. The three full members in attendance – philosopher Mark Kingwell, journalist Joshua Glenn, and cartoonist Seth – expressed disappointment that so many of us had come to the meeting, while a lot of others had been properly indolent and stayed home on the rainy evening. Nevertheless the three of them languidly soldiered on, doing nothing on our behalf, sitting onstage, gazing into space, sipping at their drinks, crossing and uncrossing their legs…

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The Man Game – I still don’t know what it’s about

I was so looking forward to hearing about The Man Game by Lee Henderson, especially since the launch of this, his second book, was part of the first week of a new season of This is Not a Reading Series. I had such a great time last year at Pages Books’ not-readings that I positively bounced as I entered the Gladstone Hotel Ballroom.

The art of various kinds all over the walls really captured the attention, since the ballroom walls are usually bare for these events. But I’d heard two things about the upcoming evening, one being that art relating to the book would be featured. And the other…

Well, interviewer Nathan Whitlock (Books for Young People editor at Quill & Quire) put it best. He said that as a writer’s second book, the industry often looks for a “sprawling historical epic.” And perhaps they got it, in The Man Game, except “the sprawling has mainly to do with male nude wrestling.”

Yep. That was the other thing I’d heard: that the book was about a rough and tumble game dreamed up by a woman in late 1880s Vancouver, where men released their aggression by engaging in a strange naked dance/game in the streets. Naturally I wanted to learn more. Wouldn’t you?

The problem was…we didn’t, really.

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We can’t get where we’re going till we know where we are

We packed the Gladstone Hotel ballroom Monday night, several hundred of us at tables, in tight rows of chairs, or shoulder to shoulder along the walls, most of us there to do what Torontonians are very prone to do. We were there to talk about ourselves.

Not the way the rest of Canada imagines, though. Sure, we can’t figure out why other Canadians think Toronto is cold, unfriendly, and snobbish when it’s pretty much the exact opposite. So we’re always fretting about that, but not in a “we’re better than you and why don’t you agree” sort of way.

The topic preoccupied us for different reasons this time. At the latest event in Pages Books’ This is Not a Reading Series, Key Porter Books launched Toronto: A City Becoming, an anthology of essays by several prominent Torontonians, edited by David Mcfarlane. What we dearly wanted to know was — “becoming what, exactly?”

As five contributors to the book discussed their ideas about the city, moderated by CBC Radio One’s Jian Ghomeshi, there were as many separate conceptions of Toronto as there were panelists.

One idea that took some unexpected battering was the “city of neighbourhoods” characterization. It’s my most cherished Toronto label, yet Globe and Mail city columnist John Barber finds it meaningless. He asks what city isn’t a “city of neighbourhoods,” and fears the concept is being corrupted along ethnic lines lately. Meanwhile, architecture and urban design professor Michael Awad believes it’s a fragmenting, “adolescent” conception, meaning Toronto needs to grow up and be whole. And architect and urban planner John Van Nostrand points out that there are no “neighbourhoods” north of Eglinton anyway, in the sense most Torontonians mean when they use the word.

That “north of Eglinton/south of Bloor” divide entered the discussion frequently. Linda McQuaig, political author and Toronto Star columnist, decries the growing gap between the inner city rich, and the poor being shoved to the suburbs. Van Nostrand agrees this is a problem, though for structural rather than class-related reasons. Poorer people have always taken root at the more affordable edges, but the city then reached out with services (e.g. streetcar routes). Today, most municipal money goes inward, south of Bloor, and not outward to connect poorer citizens with the wider city.

The panelists concurred that there’s no single idea that sums up Toronto. Awad goes further, deriding the “branding” that the city repeatedly attempts. (What did the ad campaign of two years ago, “Toronto Unlimited,” actually mean?) If there’s any unifying aspect to the city, says Awad, it’s Toronto’s “history of failed Master Plans.” Which, incidentally, is a Good Thing. He agrees with Van Nostrand that we need less grandiose planning, allowing Toronto just to be itself.

What “really” goes on in Toronto, says David Mcfarlane, is barely connected to what visitors see; he views tourist attractions as “impostors.” Of tourists, he says you almost “want to invite them to your home so they don’t have to go to Casa Loma.” He means that the ongoing, day to day richness of Toronto life can’t be encompassed during a short stay. In fact, Mcfarlane reverses the old saying: this is a great place to live, but not to visit.

One moment stood out that perhaps belied the panelists’ belief that Toronto can’t be characterized by a single idea. A questioner from London, England, asked what Toronto contributes to the “human project” that can possibly compare to what London contributes. John Barber responded firmly that nothing like Toronto’s ethnic mix has ever happened in the world before. This is the one city on the planet where that is being worked out, and we will get it right (implication: because we have to, or else), and we will teach the rest of the world how to do it.

Perhaps, as Jian Ghomeshi suggested, Toronto should come to terms with not being and having everything, and recognize that that “cultural product” is what Toronto is ultimately known for. That alone would be a pretty spectacular legacy.

Do I want to read this book? Given the fact that these and many more fascinating perspectives await me in this volume — and given the fact that I’m a Torontonian, and like to read about myself — of course I do.

If we are what we eat, we’re in big, big trouble

Raj Patel is a man who has seen the worst that can be done to the world’s food system — yet retains hope that it’s not too late to rectify the atrocities. It’s a good thing he projects this optimism, because otherwise the information he conveys would be more likely to inspire despair than hope.

Patel spoke on Tuesday evening about his new book, Stuffed and Starved, at another of Pages Books’ “This is Not a Reading Series” events. And the incongruity between the examples he listed and his cheerful, upbeat demeanour, was surreal even while it was comforting.

A former employee of the World Bank, Patel really knows his stuff. And four years of touring the world to research the food situation first hand only deepened his understanding, and raised his level of urgency.

The facts are chilling. For example, a mere four super-corporations control 90% of the entire world’s food production and distribution. The World Bank is happy to lend money to poorer nations for food production — and then sets conditions (such as “liberalization” of the country’s economy) that put farmers directly in the sights of these corporations, which see to it that while the farmers are less and less able to survive on what they’re paid, the corporations become more and more staggeringly rich. The result is currently a veritable epidemic of farmer suicides, all over the world. As Patel puts it, a World Bank loan is “the gift that keeps on taking.”

Meanwhile, remember our mothers telling us, “Eat your dinner because there are children starving in Africa”? Well, because of the “liberalization” of the economy in India, there are now more children starving there than in the entire continent of Africa. India, in fact, is a textbook case for how the capitalist redesign of the food system has devastated the planet. Alongside the 20 million starving people, you have the highest concentration of Forbes millionaires in the world. You also now have the highest percentage of diabetics in the world.

It’s because this Brave New “Liberal” Economy is explicitly designed to make us dependent on “convenient,” unhealthy food. Convenience, says Patel, is “socially constructed.” Our food isn’t being made for us — we are being made for our food. And the corporations happily play both sides: the same company that owns Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream also owns Slim-Fast.

Patel pointed out that for every so-called “famine” in the 20th century, there was actually more than enough available food for everyone. Why the famine, then? No one could afford to pay for food.

The super-corporations and their satellites have more right to become engorged and wealthy than you have to live. Think about that.

But all is not yet lost! Patel is very optimistic, and sets out ten ways we can still redeem the situation, on his Stuffed and Starved website. But he gave his audience some general direction on Tuesday evening, his ideas including changing our own food tastes, frequenting farmers’ markets, joining local Community Supported Agriculture organizations, and affirming every worker’s right to dignity and fair treatment. (Even organic food organizations can exploit workers.) All of these things are linked. The most important thing is to promote “food sovereignty,” since every community has an absolute right to control its own food system.

Patel takes great heart from the workers’ and peasants’ movements that are now mobilizing all over the world. The iron grip of the corporations (and the western governments that support them) has broken in many places, with food riots breaking out and agro-workers organizing to help each other and local consumers. Ideally, Patel said, we would de-fund the devastating World Bank, and remove agriculture from the World Trade Organization.

How on earth can we justify people starving, just so long as the corporations create “shareholder value”??

We shouldn’t have to, and in fact, we must stop it from continuing. Raj Patel has now raised his knowledgeable voice with many others, and inspires hope that it is still possible to break the back of the monoliths and reclaim our own food.