I’m supporting Adam Vaughan’s attempt to gain a seat on Toronto City Council. He’s running in Ward 20, a downtown constituency that runs between Bathhurst and University Avenues from Dupont Avenue at the north end down to the waterfront. It includes Chinatown, Kensington Market, most of the Annex and the tonier parts of Queen Street West . It was held until recently by Olivia Chow, Federal NDP leader Jack Layton’s significant other.
Vaughan, who is 45, is the Australian-born son of the late Colin Vaughan, who preceded him both as City-TV’s civic reporter and in most of the deeper fundamental values he’s campaigning on. Vaughan the elder, a political ally and friend of Jane Jacobs, was an astute and passionate advocate of downtown Toronto’s unique civic amenities—small, immigrant-filled neighbourhoods, locally-owned retail and service industries, all of it at human scale. It’s that scale, and the social and cultural dynamics it breeds, that has so far protected this part of the city from big-box virus and the social and cultural flattening that now characterizes Toronto’s suburbs, along with most of the country’s hinterland communities. In Vaughan the younger, the bloodlines have clearly run true. He understands the values and traditions of Toronto’s downtown west, pursued them relentlessly as a journalist and his entry into civic politics is probably an inevitability. He’s consciously running as an independent, and that, as much as I like his values and his platform, is why I’m behind him.
Let’s look at the Vaughan platform first. It’s grounded in a “simple” ABC: Affordability, Beauty, Creativity. Vaughan rightfully argues that downtown neighbourhoods have to be affordable to live in, something that market value property tax assessment is making difficult, particularly for older homeowners, who are seeing their tax-bills skyrocket as suburbanites have recognized the superior liveability of downtown, and in their efforts to get in on the fun, have caused the local housing market to overheat. Similarly elevating commercial tax bills, meanwhile, are driving out vulnerable small businesses and opening neighbourhoods to the commercial and cultural predations of franchise retail, which drives out both character and vitality by turning what was once local into an approximation of Everytown, USA —not, these days, a place where any sane person really wants to be.
Beauty, a term not normally applied to downtown Toronto, is usually a subjective notion. But in Vaughan’s terms it has a specific meaning: “the modest scale of our main streets and dwellings, the leafy sunny sidewalks, the schools and parks and space we create for our children, the crazy-quilt of people and one-of-a-kind enterprises who call our downtown home.”
That’s his poetry, not mine, but it is close to the Toronto I see. As a long-time resident of Vancouver, which for all its scenic splendour has little of this kind of beauty, I know exactly what Vaughan is talking about, and how fragile the balance that creates and nurtures this kind of beauty is. Part of downtown Toronto’s beauty resides in the scale of its neighbourhoods and streetscapes, which make them appear, from a plane, to be a forest. But at street level, it is the interrelational smoothness of its micro-neighbourhoods that allows you to be on a first name basis with your butcher, baker, tailor and sometimes even your banker. My now nine-year-old daughter has never, since she learned to talk, walked two blocks on College street without saying hi to a half dozen people. It is socially and culturally beautiful, the economics work, and I’d trade all the big-box retail ops on the planet to keep things this way.
What Vaughan means by “Creativity” is the complicated fusion of human enterprise that runs all the way from the neighbourhood plumber who’ll show up on 20 minutes notice, through the inclusive backyard tomato-sauce groups that abound, through to the most off-the-wall-but-productive visual and performance artists, all of whom can be discovered at table together at a thousand locations. There’s a degree of socio-economic engagement in the neighbourhoods that recalls the small towns of this country a half-century ago, except that in downtown Toronto, the art is better, the food and drink are better still, and violence isn’t a factor. Toronto’s micro-neighbourhoods are safe because people know one another, and some, as Michael Moore discovered a few years ago, don’t even look their front doors.
Vaughan’s political campaign wedge is that careless development and a planning process that privileges bureaucrats and their developer clients threatens all this, and given his occupational experience over the last decade, he’s probably as intimate with the gory details as anyone in the city. He wants to renew “the public interest” in Toronto, and for him, that isn’t even slightly abstract. It means the local, non-NIMBY interest, and there’s more of it in this city than in most.
That’s why his political independence is, for me, a prime factor. His political values are centrist, which is to say, focused on the local and public interest, and have been since I’ve known him. That means, in Toronto civic terms, that he’s generally more to the left on most issues than the NDP, including his main competition, Helen Kennedy, who was Chow’s executive assistant and presumably in charge of not answering constituents’ queries over the last several years. It is revealing that the NDP, once they got wind of Vaughan’s intention to run, tried to court him to run with their support outside Ward 20, and then, when he made it clear he didn’t want any political party’s support, tacit or logistical, reputedly threatened to “bury him” if he tried to take Olivia Chow’s old turf. We’ll see about that, because Ward 20 is also Jane Jacobs’ old turf, whose notions of civic polity and urban development are so close to Adam Vaughan’s that it’s fairly difficult to distinguish any differences.
Party politics are supposed to be suspended at the civic level in Canada , but everyone understands that they’re not—the right side of the political spectrum has practiced them for years. Toronto’s mayor, David Miller, was elected on a “reform” platform, but got most of his support from the various NDP machines across the city and to a lesser extent, from the Liberal party’s beleaguered left side. Miller is a nice guy with the values of a left wing liberal and the instincts of a conciliator, but he’s gotten nearly as much grief from his own supporters as he has from the right wingers from the 905 and other suburban wards. That’s because the social democrats on city council have been engaged in “party-building”, the current euphemism for sacrificing the locals and their aspirations in order to screw the globally and nationally ascendant right-wingers on council and to privilege their ideological clients: the unions, the disabled and the disgruntled visibles. (You can look up “Party Building ” in the dooneyscafe.com dictionary for its larger meaning. It comes in different guises, but it always involves screwing the public interest.)
In Ward 20, Olivia Chow had been acting like a federal MP since well before her husband became the party’s national leader, and her responsiveness to local constituents concerned with local issues was pretty dismal well before she won the federal seat in January. This isn’t always the case in other NDP-controlled Wards. In Ward 19, where I actually live, Joe Pantalone’s crew has remained much more responsive and locally alert. I’m voting for Joe again, but my active energies, this time, will go to Vaughan.
There are good reasons, meanwhile, why civic politics shouldn’t be party-based, particularly in a city with a Ward system deliberately structured to allow city council members to respond to the interests of their Ward constituents first, and secondarily to coordinate those often-competing local concerns as best they can in the larger forum of Council without the distraction of party discipline and/or ideology. There are times when the interests of the local neighbourhoods are in conflict with City-wide issues, and that’s why we have 44 council members to work out the compromises.
In Toronto, there’s another, more specific reason to want the non-partisan side of the Ward system to work properly. When the six municipalities of Metro Toronto were amalgamated in 1997 by the Harris government, the new “megacity” inherited six separate bureaucracies, and the civic imaginations of each one of them. Much of that bureaucracy had to be grandfathered, whether it was admitted openly or not, and among the results has been the creation of a development and planning bureaucracy top heavy with bureaucratic visionaries—the people Jane Jacobs hated most—with little to do except the one thing they’re occupationally incapable of: listening to, and trusting the judgment of, the unwashed, un-expert general public. The result of this Darwinian nightmare inside City Hall has been what Vaughan calls “the worst menace”: a delocalized and insensitive planning process that partisan political council members have let run out of control. For sure, neither of the ideologically-committed groups on council can solve this. The right wing has the developers and the corporations squeezing them. The NDP has the unions squeezing them. That’s a political nexus made in hell.
I’m not sure that this is a greater menace than the de facto presence of party politics in Council—policies and practice are one thing, structure is another—but I’ll defer to Vaughan’s better informed judgment. I’ve noticed that a large portion of the enlightened left within Ward 20 has endorsed Vaughan despite their party loyalties, and that’s likely because he’s making more civic sense than the Federal and Provincial NDP machines trying to pass the ward onto the unresponsive Helen Kennedy.
That Adam Vaughan is determinedly political independent and that he has the moral vision and the intelligence to maintain his independence ensures that he’s likely to be able to deal effectively with both menaces. He’ll probably also give Miller the kind of substantive aid he desperately needs on larger civic issues. He’ll do both by serving the interests he believes in: you and me, and the plumber down the block.
July 4, 2006 1650 words .