The Summer the Morons Took Over Town

Toronto native Glenn Gould, who was both a grand musician and, irrefutably, an all-out whack-job, used to say that the area of his home town where he felt most at home was Don Mills, and that comment was taken by many as proof of his eccentricity. He explained that he felt completely at peace driving alone in his automobile, amid the anonymity and featurelessness, the order and hollowness of the place, which was developed at a post-war planned community. My public school geography textbooks, and possibly yours, contained lithographed photos of the Don Mills Center, an outdoor shopping mall that epitomized the Atomic Age. The soundtrack to that low-slung, artfully treed architectural vision was Gould massaging the ivories, letting loose the Goldberg Variations.

Don Mills: A mid-century urban paradise
Don Mills: A mid-century urban paradise

By the time I scored a big-time publishing job and went to work in Don Mills, in the 1980s, the Center had been enclosed, like most of its counterparts among suburban retailing complexes. A couple of parts of the original plaza that had not been covered became satellites of the indoor mall, such as the government-run liquor store, and the Dominion supermarket. Further outposts had been opened, including the pizza stand where our company’s hard-charging CEO sometimes could be observed scoring his bag of cocaine after a long day of boardroom strategizing. Safe and warm inside the mall, there was a second-story bar that I happened to like. It was patterned after the standard-issue airport cocktail lounges of 15 years earlier. The fellows who brought you beer and peanuts wore old-timey cocktail-waiter jackets, and the sound system offered up Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, during this period when Cyndi Lauper reigned on the airwaves.

As will happen over time, the mall became rundown and seedy. The anchor tenant, an Eaton’s department store, famously closed and spiralled downmarket as an ever-grubbier succession of flea markets took over the space. The swank bar was replaced by an unswank fitness club. The landlord had seen these signs occurring in other retail centers, and went back to the drawing board. Boom went the wrecking balls.

The reborn Don Mills Center opened late this Spring, returned to its Modernist roots as an outdoor plaza. The new old center opened to generally good reviews, if not throngs of customers dying to spend their money on designer gee-gaws.

Post-modern Don Mills: Back to the nearly stench-free future

I wandered over yesterday, and liked what I saw. It`s little different from those new post-modern retail recreations of small-town Main Street that are popping up all over the continent. It reminded me a little of Kierland Commons, in the Phoenix suburbs — but right now that isn’t the main selling point.

First and foremost, the center is just about the only place in Toronto that doesn’t currently carry an offensive stench, or reward the sightseer with vistas of refuse, stemming from the disruption of garbage-collection services by unionized workers. The strike is now into its second month, and there is no end in sight.

The mayor of Toronto, a moron co-incidentally named Miller, but not Don Miller, went on CNN the other week to deny that his practice of dumping household waste in public parks and gardens detracts in any way from the city’s appeal as a tourist destination this summer. Reaching out to the blue-collar U.S. tourists who used to pack picnic hampers and sit in minivans for a couple of hours to enjoy Toronto’s theme parks, baseball stadium and shopping drags, he urged viewers to come see our new opera house, with its ‘world class’ acoustics — like it would occur to Mr. and Mrs. Hamtramck that it’s time to put on their Tigers caps, and visit Toronto to catch the fat broad warbling through Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Lest you think this mayoral nincompoop has lost his judgment as a stress-induced consequence of prolonged negotiations with intransigent unions, be assured that he was widely regarded as an idiot long before any of this unpleasantness started.

Looks appealing, but will it pass the smell-test?
Looks appealing, certainly, but will it pass the smell-test?

There’s a tourist attraction not far from my house that is a popular spot for summer weddings. It faces the Humber River and adjacent parkland and jogging trails. The park, named for the explorer Etienne Brule, is a wonderful garden that has been converted into a temporary garbage dump for the duration of the strike. You should see how unhappy the wedding parties seem, when the stink begins to waft over. A couple of dozen strikers hang around all day, standing by an oil-drum fire, providing added atmosphere by haranguing area residents who wish to dump their garbage. One of the elements key to their dispute is that the workers felt entitled to bank their unused ‘sick days’ and accumulate them to apply toward early retirement. I heard a proponent of this fanciful  notion on the radio, explaining that it was only fair, because in the private sector, employees receive big bonuses just for showing up for work on time. Evidently, this demand has been dropped, but the two sides remain far apart.

God, we used to be smug in Toronto. Back when Peter Ustinov wittily described the city as ‘New York run by the Swiss,’ we bragged about our litter-free streets, our inspiring parks, our reliable public transportation, our upright coppers, our dependable civic government.

I’m no chauvinist, but I remember urging friends from New York to try out the graffiti-free subway system, as a novel experience. We were so insufferably superior, in yapping about our egalitarian streets, schools, and systems.

Now, just look at the place. Every visitor who had to listen to any Torontocentric creep condescendingly explain about how we don’t have the private gated residential communities you-all have in the states must be laughing like Ricky Ricardo. If I had out-of-towners coming in this summer, I’d be embarrassed to have them set foot in most parts of this trashy burg. Instead, I’d run them over to the Don Mills Center, for an antiseptic, hollow,  pleasant, stench-free evening of drinks, dinner, and bookstore-browsing.  “This,” I would tell them, “this is what things used to be like here, before that half-wit Miller and those brain-damaged unions ruined the city forever.”

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