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Death of a city

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1989. Death of a city. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, December:10–12.

Undoubtedly, one of the easiest ways to go broke is betting on the future. We remember the more infamous prophets such as Nostradamus not because they were particularly successful at making predictions, but because, out of the thousands of other prophets, these particular individuals managed to strike a responsive chord in their audience. In particular, Nostradamus phrased his predictions in such remarkably vague terms or made such obvious predictions that he couldn't possibly have been wrong. Take, for example, such risky bets as "there will be a terrible war, followed by devastating plagues". Since such incidents have occurred about every 50 years over the last two millennia, such a prophecy could be made without losing too much sleep.

The unknown prophets, most of whom weren't as smart as Nostradamus, were forgotten largely because their prophecies were both too specific and too wrong to be remembered. In this group one can include the vast majority of astrologers, past and present. One summer, as a small experiment, I decided to test the predictions of the astrologer in our Montreal newspaper. Each day for 2 months, I carefully read the previous day's horoscope and tried to apply it to the current day's events. I consider myself to be a fairly creative individual, but despite this, I was unable to find more than one or two horoscopes that could even remotely be made to fit what actually happened. (I could have prophesied this at the start of the experiment, but then, it's not fair to prejudge.)

If prophets are either charlatans or masters of the art of generality, what then would possess me to attempt my own prophecies? (The cynic might say that prophecy is a fool's game and that I'm simply reverting to type. As the Christmas season is supposed to be a time of charity, we won't belabor the point.) As the end of a decade is upon us and this seems to tempt otherwise sane mortals to attempt prophecies of what lies ahead, I thought it would be appropriate to join in. Besides, as with Nostradamus, some things are so obvious that they make a safe bet. Take, for example, the near future of the city of Toronto.

Toronto has, for many years now, had the fantasy that it was Canada's version of New York city, but without the slums and rats. Recently, I've seen some pretty hard evidence that Toronto has nearly achieved its desire, and this is one reason why I left Toronto. A little thought will show that New York isn't the sort of city that most of us would like to live in, and when a city is no longer livable, I consider it well on its way towards death. Toronto, at last check, was still living, but that situation may not hold for much longer; after all, the city still seems hell-bent on transforming itself into New York and its citizens into New Yorkers.

Here, I am using the word "dead" in a psychological rather than a biological sense, although the latter may also apply. The Don River in Toronto is indeed biologically dead, in the sense that the only living things in it are various noxious forms of bacteria. Near the city, Lake Ontario is almost dead, in the sense that it is no longer safe to swim at most beaches near Toronto for much of the year. On the other hand, the healthy populations of roaches and rats suggest that there is still plenty of life left in Toronto. Of course, not everyone considers this sort of life desirable.

Let's look at the other things that make a living city. Here in the Sault [Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario], we consider travelling 30 minutes to get to work to be extreme, unless one lives outside of town or is forced to rely on the buses. This is a consequence of the natural revulsion we experience at wasting more than this amount of time simply moving from one point to another. By contrast, a 2-hour commute is not considered extraordinary in Toronto and is becoming increasingly common. A friend of mine in New York told me that some people fly to work every day or take the train from places as far away as Philadelphia (i.e., they spend a horrifying portion of their lives simply travelling to and from work). Why is this? In large part, this is because the city (whether New York or Toronto) has become too expensive for most people to live in, and too large for everyone to live close to where they work. (More on the former in a moment.)

It's also unfortunate that the infrastructure that supports the city (e.g., the airports, the roads, the power supply) is increasingly less able to support the loads placed on it. In fact, last summer Toronto experienced its first brown-outs (in which the power grid became overloaded, causing a temporary power failure), despite being located within spitting distance of the Pickering and Darlington nuclear generating plants. The problems with Pearson airport are not yet even close to being resolved, and there will be a bitter struggle when the city tries to find a location for the intended airport expansion. More such problems lie ahead, such as the proposed expansion of the subway system. All part of the price of wanting to be New York.

The second aspect of the commuter problem involves housing prices. Two years ago, when I left Toronto, a bachelor apartment down the street from where I lived (in heavily subsidized University-owned housing) was going for $700 per month plus utilities! Housing prices are even worse, with a recent estimate placing the average price of a small house at more than $250,000. [A note to American readers: At the time, these were obscenely high prices by Canadian standards.—GH] Of course, Toronto is now Canada's most expensive city to live in, so these prices aren't really surprising. But if one wants to have a New York lifestyle, I suppose one has to be prepared to pay the price. The common worker, who moved to Toronto while the city was still a nice place to live, is increasingly feeling the price squeeze. Witness, for example, recent strikes by various groups of public employees (such as transit workers) who demanded—and got—wage concessions that took into account the cost of living in our self-appointed premier city. This situation will not get any better over the next few years, and you can expect New York–style labor problems to become a persistent feature of Toronto. But the high cost of living has other, much less pleasant effects.

Toronto was recently Canada's hottest condominium market, and according to several analysts, more condominium developments were built than the market could really support. Most of the condos were purchased as investment properties rather than places to live, with the result that when it was discovered that there were too many condos and not enough people to live in them, the condos were converted into high-rent luxury apartments. At the same time, the former high-rent apartments, which were tightly rent-controlled, were being rented at rates similar to those of the condos, despite greatly inferior facilities—putting downward pressure on prices, since many of their wealthier tenants opted for condos at the same price and less-wealthy tenants could not afford condo prices. Of course, along with increased property values and labor costs for maintenance of the city infrastructure, taxes on landowners were on the rise. The outrageous apartment prices could be charged only because Toronto had a vacancy rate of less than 0.1%, which means that you take whatever you can get, even if it's not where you'd prefer to live. However, with rent controls, the apartment owners could no longer afford to charge rents that would enable them to maintain their buildings. The situation is much worse for most of the lower-rent places. This is a tailor-made recipe for forming slums, as this is the sort of thing that happened in parts of New York. Toronto will begin to experience the same problem.

There's an even worse side to this. Toronto has the nation's lowest unemployment rate, but this hides an ugly truth. If you happen to be a university-trained worker with a good grasp of English, you can probably find a pretty good job in Toronto. But there are a large number of recent immigrants in Toronto who lack this training, and these are the people who end up working at McDonald's for minimum wage. Ask yourself what sort of apartment you could afford if you earned $200 per week before taxes, then apply this to the apartment prices I just described. (Case in point: with a pre-tax income of ca. $900 per month, how could you even afford the $700 apartment I mentioned earlier and still be able to eat, raise a family, etc.?) The obvious solution is subsidized housing, but the government has been quite slow in locating or developing such housing, not to mention funding it.

The result is the evolution of a two-tier class system in Toronto. There are the wealthy, who can afford to live in fairly nice parts of the city and are perhaps even able to put aside some money after paying the rent. On the other hand, there are the members of a growing immigrant underclass who earn subsistence wages (if they are fortunate enough to find work) and have little or no hope of rising above this level. This is a recipe for racial tension, and it is not surprising that racial tension is exactly what is developing, as it did in New York. In Toronto, this is particularly true along the Jane–Finch corridor, where many immigrant blacks are living in subsidized housing. Just before I left Toronto, a friend of mine laughingly told me of the time when he climbed aboard the last subway train at 2AM and discovered as the door closed that the car was filled with black teenagers. As it happened, he had a pretty good party with them before he reached his stop. In New York, they might never have found his corpse, and from what other friends have told me, the situation is becoming that bad in Toronto today.

Another fairly recent phenomenon in Toronto is the rise in street violence. A few years ago, it was perfectly safe to walk alone at night in most parts of the city, even for women. This is no longer the case. In recent months, "swarmings", in which gangs of violent youths attack innocent bystanders for no apparent reason and occasionally kill them, have begun to occur. The number of rapes and murders is on the rise too. It used to be said that the annual murder rate in Detroit alone exceeded that for all of Canada. Toronto is now working on reducing the gap.

A final, related problem is that of drugs and the criminal gangs that control their distribution. While I attended the University of Toronto, it was comparitively easy to come across drugs. When I walked on Yonge Street on a Saturday, I was approached with offers of marijuana every two or three blocks. (Of course, my long hair, shaggy beard, and faded blue jeans made me an obvious target.) Now, the comparable situation is that crack dealers are everywhere, and you're just as likely to be offered cocaine as given the time of day on Yonge Street. This should shatter any illusion you may have had that drugs are largely an American problem. Add to this the first wars for territory between the Tong (Chinese mafia), their Vietnamese equivalents, and the more traditional Italian mafia and Colombian drug cartels and you have a deteriorating situation.

Not quite as bad as New York yet, but getting there fast. What disturbs me is that the mayor and other administrators of Toronto don't see why and how this is happening, and are taking purely cosmetic measures to control it. My prediction that you are watching the death of what used to be an extremely pleasant city is being confirmed in the news every day. Bet on it. Toronto wanted to be just like the "Big Apple" to the south (New York), and is well on the way to getting its wish; someone seems to have forgotten that the biggest apples attract the most worms and hold the most Alar.

[A look back from 2005: Were I less ethical, I could quit my day job and hang up a shingle as a prophet. Toronto still clings tenaciously to life, but it's a much less pleasant city than it used to be, and most of the problems I described nearly 20 years ago have persisted and grown worse.—GH]

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved