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The Boy Who Always Cries Wolf

***

You might not know who Dave Meslin
is. That's understandable, if only because the public profile of the self-described
"professional rabble rouser" has yet to extend beyond Toronto's free
weeklies and an assortment of e-zines, websites, and other digital rewraps of
traditional word-of-mouth. In a
condescending but friendly Toronto
Life
profile a few months ago, Ryan
Bigge observed that "the neo-Jacobites have pitched a tent big enough to house
an assemblage of like-minded but previously unconnected groups, including bike
nuts, artists, musicians, writers, photographers, civic activists, community
gardeners, local musicians and energy conservationists. And Meslin is at the
centre of it all."

I've met Dave Meslin a few times,
and I've witnessed nothing that indicates that he's anything other than a nice
guy with genuinely good motives. He'll give more back to the city of Toronto than most of us do, and he'll do
it without expecting anything in return. That's rare these days, and rarer still in the
political circles in which he travels. But as a friend of mine once observed,
it's virtually impossible to walk the walk if you're talking the talk loud
enough for anyone other than yourself to hear it. Meslin often sounds as
though he's got a megaphone stuck in his throat.

That's excellent
for attracting attention and it has served him well as the
leader of the Toronto Public Space Committee, a group of activists who describe
themselves as "a grassroots non-profit organisation run completely by volunteers."  Since Meslin founded the
TPSC, which he left in 2006, it garnered more attention, more hard
news coverage, and more attention from the city's elected officials than any
other community organization in Toronto that isn't obsessed with the
airport on Toronto Island.

But shouting is less helpful when it comes to changing people's minds. The diminishing returns of this strategy
were evident in the recent battle between public space activists and the City of Toronto over public street furniture. The April 23rd
announcement that Astral Media was being awarded a twenty-year contract to
outfit Toronto's streets angered the public space activists, Meslin
among them. The street furniture contract
will provide the city with an assortment of benches, bike stands, and other public
facilities at no cost to the taxpayer, and thus was presented as a win/win kind of deal. It could, according to the deal-makers, net the city as much as $900
million over the course of the contract in advertising contracts, not a small matter given the City's depleted financial reserves.

But Meslin and his colleagues, true to
their mandate, are troubled by the fact that program may threaten Toronto's public spaces. Their concern is
focused on a clause in the contract that caps the number of advertisements
rather than the total square footage, the unit of measure used by the
advertising industry. Under the new arrangement, while the total number of ads
on Toronto's streets will decrease by 14%, the
total amount of advertising – measured in square footage – that our eyeballs
are exposed to will actually increase by 11%. Meslin and his friends were also concerned about the willingness of the two primary bidders to stay in compliance
with the contract considering that they're already in breach of a number
of the city's advertising bylaws relating to the size, shape, and placement of
advertisements.

Unfortunately, these very
legitimate concerns, as well as a justified dissatisfaction with the too-brief
public consultation process, weren't really listened to by anyone outside Meslin's
own constituency.  Nobody was listening because like
Aesop's little boy who cried wolf, Meslin has sounded the alarm bell one too
many times. In describing the street furniture contract, Meslin argued
that "what we're doing here is legalizing bribery….give us $400 million and
we'll completely ignore our own bylaws."
The bluster in that statement gave Meslin the media attention he was clearly
after, but it also closed the minds of the people who were making the decision
on which he wanted to be heard. Hinting at corruption isn't a
very good strategy when your objective to influence the thinking of the people
that are supposedly being corrupted. Jonathan Goldsbie, a 3rd year
anthropology student and Meslin's de-facto successor at the Toronto Public
Space Committee and a man apparently animated by the same political calculus, took
Meslin's strategy one step further when he told reporters that "we'll do our
best to embarrass the city and stop the contract."  Unsurprisingly, it was the TPSC that got embarrassed.

This isn't the first time that
Meslin's tendency to overplay his hand has gotten the better of him. In the
recent municipal election he clashed repeatedly with Adam Vaughan, a
then-candidate for city council who shares many of the same values as Meslin
and who gave Meslin some of his earliest mainstream media exposure on his City
TV public affairs show "Hour Town." During the campaign he attacked
Vaughan twice, first for suggesting that public laneways, like the
crack-infested ones in Kensington Market, be gated off to deter drug dealing
and other street crime, and later for wondering whether it might be a good idea
to require parental consent for children under the age of 18 seeking to
purchase spray paint. In a NOW Magazine article
written by Glen Wheeler about Vaughan's campaign, Meslin was quoted
describing the first as a "bad idea" and the second as "the worst stuff I've
seen in this entire election." Meslin's response was predictable both in its
hysterical tone and its disconnection from the reality of the situation. After all, hasn't Meslin ever listened to the stuff that comes out of Rob
Ford's mouth?

 Meslin's preference for rhetoric over
results has torpedoed guerilla gardening in Toronto. Guerilla gardening is
premised on the perfectly sensible notion that while public spaces in wealthy
neighbourhood frequently feature city-funded gardens, those in poorer
neighourhoods are more likely to feature a mixture of garbage, concrete, and
brown space. Gardening requires some expertise and some fairly hard labour.   Gardening in neglected spaces may brighten the
neighbourhood, improve public space, and inspire others to do the same, but
it's still hard work that has be done right. If the basic work doesn't get done properly, none of the other benefits are going to survive beyond the moment of planting. 

At the
planting I attended two years ago, at an abandoned half-lot behind a Toronto
Dominion bank on Queen Street near Euclid Avenue, the plants were tossed into a
hole scraped into the rocky clay dirt with plastic spoons and then spritzed
with someone's water bottle. This wasn't an accidental and isolated failure
either, as the TPSC's website on guerilla gardening encourages the use of
seeds, plastic spoons, and water bottles, even featuring a photo of two young
women using their Nalgene bottles to ineffectively water a plant. As a result, most guerilla planting withers and dies before the informational leaflets
about the program that are distributed near each planting – "Guerilla
Gardening: Graffiti with Nature" – have made it to the recycling depot.  Guerilla
gardener Carly Stasko told Eye Magazine's
Nicole Cohen that gardening according to the TPSC's principles was a
"political act" and a form of "organic culture-jamming." Lovely rhetoric, but when the plants all die within 36 hours, what have you really given the community but a deeper sense of futility and hopelessness.   

During Meslin's
presentation about the street furniture program – shortly after describing the
bidding process as "the worst attack on public space I have ever seen," – he
noted that "it would be so nice if people were listening to me."

 I agree. It would be nice if people listened to Meslin, because along with the hundreds of other young activists that he's inspired, he has more
good ideas on any given day than the political bodies he'd like to have listening to him. But if nobody's listening,
it doesn't matter how good his ideas are, nor how creative his approach to
spreading the ideas, nor how many friends and neighbors he can rally in their
support. If the people who make the important decisions on the issues he cares
about have decided to tune him out, then he won't be able to make the kind of difference
to his city that he wants, and that his city needs.  

Toronto, May 30,
2007 –
1,384 w.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Max Fawcett

Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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