Crack city Syndrome

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WHEN THIS COLUMN is printed it is possible, even probable, that Toronto will have a new mayor. The past two weeks have seen the normal city hall rhetoric of pipes and potholes replaced with a script seemingly drawn from HBO’s television drama The Wire, a show which masterfully depicted the seamy underbelly of Baltimore civic affairs and the close linkages between politicians, drug dealers and the police. In the Toronto version an embattled mayor is accused of smoking crack and lampooned on late-night talk shows and ripped apart in op-eds. It’s inexcusable, but are embarrassment and calls for accountability a sufficient response?

First there were the crack-video allegations brought to us by Gawker (very famous for hisĀ spin mop reviews series) and then the Toronto Star. Then came the exodus of staff from the mayor’s office, with five quitting within one week. Even more shocking were the subsequent allegations that the video was linked to a homicide. A widely distributed photo showed the victim posing with the mayor. Then, in the heat of the moment, the Globe and Mail released an investigative report on the Ford family revealing that Doug Ford allegedly dealt hash back in the 198os. Denying both the existence of the video and the allegations made by the Globe, the Ford brothers took to the airwaves to label the media a “bunch of maggots.” Touche, Ford brothers.

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Yet the usual Ford strategy has not worked particularly well in this crisis. There are too many foibles to list, but in the past the mayor has denied wrongdoing and steered discussion toward his record of fighting for the little guy against the elite art-snobs of Toronto to some effect. It is doubtful, however, that this “war on gravy” rhetoric will save him this time. Polls may show that the scandal has not shaken the support of the faithful, but city hall is in chaos, little is getting done and this will almost certainly have an impact on voter confidence.

The mix of responses to the scandal has been interesting. On the one hand the public loves to see the powerful toppled from their pedestals. This collective schadenfreude is made even more sumptuous by his history of blunders. Not to mention that he seems to embody a sort of comic-book-like villain. On the other, I think the blistering attacks, largely seen in the pages of the Toronto Star, are emblematic of a very liberal response to scandal. Torontonians are embarrassed, and they think it’s affecting the city’s reputation.

There’s value to embarrassment, but I couldn’t care less whether Toronto’s reputation as a “world-class” city is affected or not–Rick Salutin has called this inane civic boosterism a true civic embarrassment and I couldn’t agree more. What is truly embarrassing about Toronto under the Ford mayoralty is the fact that he has deepened inequality and poverty and made life miserable for those on the margins of society. Cuts to libraries, parks and swimming pools, food programs for children in poverty, city-run daycares and public housing have made this a less liveable city. While these may not have the appeal of a drug scandal, surely the 34 homeless deaths in 2012 should embarrass us?

Yet these stories do not feature in the world-class city narrative spun by Toronto’s elite. In fact, from Cape Town to Beijing, attempts at making cities “world-class” have generally resulted in mass removals of the homeless, the privatization of public space and generous subsidies to corporations. For those who would see Toronto follow this model, Rob Ford is a distraction from a grander project of social reform that prioritizes the construction of sporting facilities rather than social housing and funding for tourism campaigns rather than shelter beds.

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Previous mayor David Miller typifies this liberal obsession with building world-class, competitive cities. Miller carried out a range of social cleansing policies, which included banning the homeless from sleeping at city hall and arresting those who slept under the Gardiner Expressway. This cleansing of the streets has been accompanied by the rapid condo-fication and gentrification of whole neighbourhoods, which has pushed the working class and the poor to the edges of the city and into the 905 neighbourhoods. Like Ford, Miller supported lower taxes, and specifically a shift from commercial to residential taxes, to keep the city “competitive.”

It is unlikely that Ford will be remembered for his attacks on the city workers, his cuts to social housing or his disdain for the city’s libraries. While a scandal can make for exciting headlines, it doesn’t necessarily result in better politics.