Toronto is frequently referred to as a “World Class” city, by the sort of people who have never gotten around to visiting any other city, but who recall from childhood having heard that other places don’t seem to measure up. This lasting impression may have been delivered by an aunt who once traveled by Grey Coach to Guelph with her bowling group.
One emphatic source of the World Class conjecture is the mayor of our fair city, the controversial Robert Bruce Ford. His Worship still lives a block or so away from the house where he grew up. This is where most of his family and all of his underemployed friends live. Do not blame the man for never wanting to pull up stakes. He and all his kin are ensconced in a nice-enough part of town, judging from the police surveillance footage of the mayor out running private errands at midnight, looking to score Creamsicles. Or whatever form of monkeyshines it may have been.
I still hold out hope for the mayor and his political crusade, but I wish he’d kept his private business private, and I cringe whenever I hear him say “World Class.” The man has never been anywhere that might qualify him to make the assessment. He confesses that he has never so much as set foot on Manhattan Island, although he allows that he’s seen a lot of football games in Orchard Park, in upstate New York — a mere 600 km west and north of Broadway. Well, surely as Flatbush ain’t Flushing, and as much as I happen to love every snowy arpent of Erie County, there is no comparing the City That Never Sleeps with the Kingdom of Wing-dom, and no mistaking the vicinity of Ralph Wilson Stadium for anything that would make a Parisian or Venetian or Athenian jealous.
But, again, you hardly can condemn the man for parroting the phrase each of his mayoral predecessors used when they tried promoting tourism for our cold, smug, self-absorbed burgh. Perhaps the take-away message is simply that one should never make a big thing out of being cosmopolitan, when one has no clue what the word means.
By now you will have caught Mayor Ford’s sweat-drenched appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel TV program in Los Angeles. In Toronto, Ford’s detractors responded to the show with theatrical hand-wringing and expressions of fear that our World Classiness had been diminished by the lout, or his accompanying brothers, who go by the names of Daryl and Daryl. This continues the repeated warnings issued by a local scandal-sheet that Ford’s very existence is injurious to townsfolk, and a significant threat to regional prosperity.
Such overwrought declarations are in vain, judging from the affectionate response the mayor received in El Lay, which even precipitated a sudden rise in the value of the Canadian currency on global markets, in the wake of his visit.
How do you begin to make sense of this pronounced disparity of attitudes, across 39 longitudinal degrees?
Loved by the little people in Vancouver and Los Angeles, reviled by the taste-makers of his hometown: Is Rob Ford sui generis in the annals of democracy?
Land’s sakes, no. Along the continent’s west coast, in California, as in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and British Columbia, there has been a longstanding tradition of the public embracing their eccentric politicians and public figures. These leaders have ranged from the somewhat loopy, to the batshit crazy.
Consider Amor de Cosmos (born William Alexander Smith), wing-nut, ardent secularist, founder of the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper, and Premier of British Columbia for slightly more than a year. He was the zany forefather to political figures such as Premier W.A.C. Bennett, whose popular nickname was “Wacky,” and his supporter, the tightly wound Vancouver mayor, Thomas J. Campbell, derisively known as “Tom Terrific.”
And then you had the earlier example of self-crowned Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I (born Joshua Abraham Norton), a beloved, if delusional, figure in San Francisco in the 1800s. Emperor Norton, a man not tethered to reality, was humored, and often encouraged, by the citizenry. Among other visionary acts, by his royal decree, he abolished the United States Congress in 1859. Talk about having foresight.
Even the current 39th Governor of California, Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown, Jr., was previously awarded the sobriquet “Moonbeam” for his non-conformist ideas and lifestyle. Gov. Moonbeam’s predecessor was Gov. Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger, “The Governator,” a self-admitted abuser of anabolic steroids who had previously been photographed enjoying a spliff. Arnold famously fathered a child with Mildred Baena, the housekeeper who was employed in the mansion of the Gov and his wife, the newscaster Maria Shriver.
There is a pattern here. You might conclude that the political and personal behavior that resulted in Mayor Ford being judged dysfunctional by some factions in Toronto doesn’t come within a straitjacket’s clasp of qualifying as kooky, out west.
And that is instructive. Because, Toronto’s ongoing need to be regarded as World Class is in many ways comparable to Emperor Norton’s insistence on being held to be regal. The people of San Francisco, more than a century ago, were confident enough in their global standing that they could embrace the whimsy and humanity of having someone atypical and offbeat as a civic figure.
That quality of bigheartedness, I will argue, is one of the things that defines a community’s status among cities. You can easily connect the dots from Norton, to the Beat Poets, to the Summer of Love, all the way to Silicon Valley in the 21st Century.
Mayor Ford’s detractors, constantly fretting and squealing to each other about the city’s reputation, fail to qualify as admirable on just about every count. They are heirs of the pinch-featured moralists who exemplified the place formerly known mockingly as Toronto the Good, a pleasure-free zone of rigid formality, soul-crushing blue laws, and a level of condescending social stratification that seems out of step with this century, or the last.
Western locales pride themselves on maintaining the principles of laissez-faire reasonableness, while the east remains under the sway of a social reform movement that insists on telling other people how to behave, what to think, how to live. You tell me: Which do you think is World Class?