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January 20, 2013

Some Great Idea by Edward Keenan

some-great-ideaFor the sake of full disclosure, I’ll inform you that I actually appear as a character in Edward Keenan’s new book Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto.  Keenan, a Senior Editor at The Grid, writes in his book about how the Rob Ford spectacle has galvinized a whole segment of the population to take an interest in city politics, of this effect on his own career: “…before, my regular readership consisted largely of insiders at city hall, and political activists. Since Ford was elected, tens of thousands of readers click through online to soak up anything I write about the mayor.” And that’s me, one of tens of thousands. (I’m the one waving.) I didn’t even vote in the 2006 municipal election, the only election I’ve ever sat out since I came of age, but I remember being busy that day, not seeing the point. That election result seemed inevitable, but since Rob Ford took office in October 2010, nothing is inevitable anymore. It suddenly seems worth paying attention to what’s going on around us.

I think I’d be compelled to pick up any book whose author acknowledges that his thinking about Toronto has been influenced by Amy Lavender Harris’s Imagining Toronto. Amy has since become a dear friend, but we’d only met in passing when I fell in love with her book back in 2010, marvelling at how markedly she demonstrates that a city is constructed of stories as much as concrete and steel. Keenan takes this as the premise for his book, whose opening line is, “I have this notion that cities are just a collection of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” Near to the end of the book, he writes, “The answers, then, are in the process, just as the themes and lessons of any story lie not in its conclusion but in the unfolding of the plot.” So there you have it: plot. This is not some dry polemic. There is movement here; we get somewhere. Which is exactly what you would expect from a book with a subway on its cover.

Some Great Idea is the history of Toronto since amalgamation in 1998, the story of mayors Lastman, Miller and Ford. Though Keenan emphasizes that Toronto has always resisted being defined by its leadership, so the story goes beyond these three figures. Which isn’t to say that the city hasn’t been marked by personalities, and Keenan selects William Lyon Mackenzie, RC Harris (who was apparently very different from the figure Ondaatje portrayed him as), and Jane Jacobs as three individuals who resisted convention, rebelled against the system and helped to shape the city we live in today.

It’s also the story of Keenan’s own engagement with civic life, in the last ten years in particular (and in this way, Some Great Idea is a nice companion to Samantha Bernstein’s memoir Here We Are Among the Living which documents this same period in Toronto). He’s been in a privileged place, telling urban stories at a time when an awareness of urbanism had taken hold of the city like never before: this was the birth of Trampoline Hall,  Spacing magazine, Richard Florida, the Dufferin Grove Park pizza oven, and Keenan ties these factors all together as the story of this place. It’s his place, where he lived in an industrial loft with the woman who is now his wife, where his children were born, where he and his wife became homeowners. It’s a story too that is more complicated than the personas of the men in power suggest–there was a great deal of progressiveness in the city under Mel Lastman thanks to figures on council like Jack Layton; David Miller’s legacy was far more positive than most of us remember; Rob Ford’s “leadership” has engaged Torontonians like nothing before.

Keenan shows that Toronto too is a much larger place than the downtown core highlighted in most civic discussions. He gives the example of Woburn, a neighbourhood within this supposed “city of neighbourhoods”. Except that Woburn isn’t a neighbourhood at all, but it’s the name given to the area where Keenan spent his teen years, near Markham and Lawrence in Scarborough. He has it stand for the inner-suburbs in general. It’s an area that grew up entirely differently than the downtown neighbourhoods, with different interests and priorities, whose populations no longer live the lifestyles the area was so rigidly planned for. You have to understand a neighbourhood like this, its strengths and weaknesses, in order to understand how Rob Ford was elected into office, to understand why someone who lives in that part of the city might see themselves as as taxpayer before citizen, if they even define as citizen at all.

The book’s title is taken from a quotation by Benjamin Disraeli: “A great city whose image dwells in the memory of man, is the type of some great idea.” The peculiarity of this diction, the vagueness of “some” great idea unspecified points to the book’s one weakness, a kind of muddled conception of itself and its purpose. I longed for Keenan to grasp his narrative with more confidence, for less journalistic objectivity. It wasn’t always clear where the story was going, but then Keenan himself was the one who wrote that unfolding not conclusion is the very point. And I will take it.

Because I learned so much about Toronto from this book, its history and its present. Keenan posits diversity as the city’s great strength, and goes on to define a city’s “diversity” as being about so much more than the ethnic backgrounds of its people. He closes with his theory of a city as something ever in the process of being born–“Inventing Toronto”, then, in addition to imagining it. The city as a story each of us is telling every time we stroll, cycle or drive down one of its streets.

Other Toronto links:

Harriet’s Big City Alphabet

-My review of Rosemary Aubert’s Firebrand, “Loving the mayor is a bit like that.”

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