Can Toronto the Good become Toronto the Great?

The city is increasingly unaffordable and the child-poverty capital of the country — here’s why it could still be on the verge of greatness
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on August 7, 2018
In “Frontier City,” Shawn Micallef writes, “Toronto looks like it’s destined to be a leader — all those cranes in the sky, with growth levels the envy of many, if not, most, cities.” (iStock.com/ValeStock)

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When Premier Doug Ford announced that he would be cutting the number of city councillors in Toronto ahead of the upcoming October municipal elections, many Torontonians felt that the city was under attack from the new provincial government. Former city planner Jennifer Keesmaat tweeted that the city should secede, although she later retracted the suggestion after she signed up to run for mayor. Roughly 200 people turned up at an NDP-organized rally at Queen’s Park on August 2 to protest the premier’s actions. The message in all of this? You don’t mess with Toronto.

I moved to the city when I was 17. At the time, I felt I was escaping the confines of the small homogenous city in southwestern Ontario that had been my home since I came to Canada when I was around nine years old. In Toronto, I blended in. I didn’t stand out. I saw people who looked like me. I could find restaurants that made the food I’d grown up eating in East Africa. I was able to find part-time work. The job opportunities seemed limitless. This was a place where I could make a name for myself, where I could create the kind of life I’d never dreamed possible.

Athletes haven’t always wanted to play in Toronto. But former Raptors franchise player DeMar DeRozan — who joined the team in 2009 — claimed the city, saying, “I am Toronto,” and was heartbroken when he was traded. That would never have happened during the Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady era.

The city is in the global spotlight for a number of reasons. Before Toronto was rocked by two recent attacks, it was considered one of the safest cities in the world — and its murder rate continues to be below the national average. But an Ipsos poll indicates that of 800 residents who were polled, 50 per cent said that they now avoid being in crowded places.

Toronto has some 150 neighbourhoods — it’s celebrated worldwide for its multiculturalism. More than half of its residents were born outside of Canada. But the city has its contradictions: it’s an economic hub, but it’s also the child-poverty capital of the country. In a city where half the residents rent, those that own are protective of their neighbourhoods, and NIMBYism seems to be on the rise.

In Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness, Shawn Micallef writes, “Toronto looks like it’s destined to be a leader — all those cranes in the sky, with growth levels the envy of many, if not, most, cities … The relatively wealthy part of the city is big, so big that it’s easy for its residents to live out their entire days in a bubble of relative affluence, seduced into the idea that, as the late former mayor of Toronto Rob Ford often said, ‘Everything is fine.’ But it isn’t fine.”

Micallef makes the case that while Toronto may be a utopia for some — particularly those who live in the downtown core and have access to reliable transit — life is very different for many who live in the suburbs, and they feel left out and ignored.

In the book, Micallef explores the city and tours different wards, spending time with some of the young political hopefuls who faced off against incumbents in the 2014 municipal elections. He follows them as they campaign and knock on doors in their communities.

They view themselves as Torontonians, but they’re often viewed as surburbanites. So who is Toronto for? Is it only for those who can afford to live in certain neighbourhoods?

I moved to Toronto in the late 1990s and then left in the mid-2000s. I’ve lived in many Toronto neighbourhoods; when I was trying to make ends meet as a student, I lived with multiple roommates in North York; I shared a basement apartment in Scarborough; after graduation, I moved downtown to a place near the Eaton Centre. I started my young family in the west end.

But when I came back, in 2011, I couldn’t afford to buy a home in the city. I eventually had to accept that I could no longer afford to live in Toronto, so I moved last year.

In Toronto, $500,000 is considered mad money — and that’s only half of what you would need to buy a house.

Ontarians will be going to the polls in October, and a recent poll shows that affordability will be a significant election issue. But there’s a risk that as the battle between city councillors and the province continues, the issues that affect the daily lives of Torontonians will get lost.

Imagine if Torontonians banded together and mobilized around those issues — what would the city look like then?

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