Just the other day, a definitive Toronto image was making the rounds on Twitter. One of the turnstiles in the subway system had broken and no guards were around, so passengers had left their tickets and change in a small pile on the side. I live in an absurdly law-abiding, rule-following city. There’s one major exception: the mayor. He smokes crack. He said so on Tuesday. Twice.
The old cliches are beginning to fall away from the city where I live. What has happened to Toronto the Good? Where is “New York run by the Swiss”? Mayor Rob Ford’s crack smoking — “probably in one of my drunken stupors,” he admitted — is only the most extreme example of his recent illicit adventures. Perhaps the most telling anecdote from a police file that surfaced late last week involves Ford’s heading into the woods with his buddy Sandro Lisi, currently out on bail after being charged with extortion, and leaving the pathway strewn with bags of empty vodka bottles.
Ford’s mayoralty has been an experiment in what would happen if you had a feral 16-year-old boy for mayor.
So far, none of this has affected Ford’s popularity, which actually rose five points last week, to 44 percent. This was after the police chief confirmed the existence of a video “consistent with” reports that first surfaced in May that described the mayor smoking crack cocaine, evidence the mayor denied existed until Tuesday. That poll makes Ford roughly five times more popular than the current United States Congress.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the mayor has refeused to resign. He used his confession to smoking crack to announce his campaign for re-election next year. “We must keep the city of Toronto moving forward,” he said in a prepared statement. He could easily win, too.
After the mayor offered a pseudo-apology on his radio show this past Sunday, one caller compared him to John F. Kennedy. Another commentator noted that Winston Churchill was a “bottle-a-day man.” Ford is a populist, no doubt, but his popularity is real. He captures, better than anyone, the deep currents of outsider rage against the city’s institutions.
On the surface, Toronto looks better than ever. Because of our well-regulated banking system, we had an extremely mild recession. Toronto recently passed Chicago in population, and the quality of life is high, with good public schools, good free hospitals and a government that combines meaningful regulation with open markets. Toronto is basically the model of what a postindustrial city can be.
And yet the city is divided and angry. Ford has played off its fissures perfectly. City Hall is broken — a result of a disastrous amalgamation undertaken by provincial conservatives. And our failed system of government has had serious consequences. The subway system is frozen in time at approximately 1980, and a Torontonian’s average commute has recently surpassed that of an Angeleno.
Despite his racist slurs and his sister’s connection with the Ku Klux Klan, Ford’s support exists principally in the immigrant-heavy neighborhoods on the outer edges of the city, and he has built his support on the basis of their alienation. He speaks the language of thrift and outsider status to the powers that be — City Hall and the media. He has insisted on subways being built in those outlying neighborhoods rather than much more sensible light rail proposals. He insists they should get exactly what the fancy people get in the heart of the city. The rage against the old elites is evidently profound and resilient.
The values of the old elites also survive. It may be one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with over half of its residents born in another country, but Toronto retains a strong legacy of the British Empire. The literary theorist Northrop Frye once described Toronto as “a good place to mind your own business.” It is still that city, a city where you can buy spirits only at the Liquor Control Board, and where the possibility of a downtown casino prompted an enormous opposition campaign, a huge collective wrinkle-nosed sniff of disapproval.
In this light, Ford’s apology on his radio show reflected the old values: “I shouldn’t have got hammered down on the Danforth,” he said. “If you’re going to have a couple of drinks, you stay at home, and that’s it. You don’t make a public spectacle of yourself.”
The mayor’s mistake by his own lights, then, was that he acted like an alcoholic in public. He should have kept his drinking quiet, in the basement.
That city of quiet basement drinking (and crack smoking) is fading. The old Toronto is fading, the Toronto with responsible, bland civil servants who were invisibly effective, the city of the purse-lipped women who quietly judge, the city of The Globe and Mail and the worship of boredom, the city with the question from the old Alice Munro story always on its lips: Who do you think you are? Toronto the bland is going, if it isn’t already gone. It had dignity. Give it that.
Toronto is the city of Rob Ford now, an expanding hot mess, fueled by dark secrets, inarticulate desires and inchoate fury. Overcoming nearly 200 years of sensible decisions and ingrained humility, Toronto is starting to get interesting.
It has become a city making a spectacle of itself.
Stephen Marche is a novelist and a contributing editor for Esquire.