Thursday, January 14, 2010

What I'm Standing On: A Cultured City

On October 25, Torontonians will go to the polls to elect the sixty-fourth mayor of the City of Toronto. Andrew Barton is one of many candidates running for that office. Over the course of the campaign, What I'm Standing On will reflect his platform, and provide an insight into his opinions of what course the city should chart to 2014, and beyond.

As I understand it, one of the more powerful insults in the Russian language is nekulturny - which, despite its connotations, essentially means "uncultured." It's appropriate, I think, that such a term became a pejorative. Culture is a powerful force in human existence, the product of all our art, literature, entertainment, music, architecture, and all the other wellsprings of creativity. It's one of the basic bedrocks of any group's identity.

Toronto's no slouch when it comes to culture. In 2008, it was ranked by Foreign Policy magazine as the fourth-best city in the world for cultural experiences - the second-best in North America, behind only New York. Though the Big Apple wouldn't be knocked easily from its tree, that's no reason we shouldn't strive to make Toronto an even greater center of culture in the years ahead. On the face of it, I think it's absolutely appropriate - this is the most cosmopolitan city in the world. If any city should be a cultural center, a crossroads of ideas from across the world, it should be this one.

There are plenty of directions in which Toronto could go in pursuit of the cultural ideal - one possibility is inspired by Chicago's experience. Six years ago that city opened Millennium Park, a sprawling outdoor civic center and public park, in the heart of its downtown on former railway land. I was there in October and found it one of the highlights of my visit to Chicago. It includes a Frank Gehry-designed bandshell, two outdoor art galleries, and sculptures such as Cloud Gate - something which may, in the near future, become just as recognizable a Chicago symbol as Willis (formerly Sears) Tower.

Cloud Gate, on a cloudy October day

Millennium Park was financed both by the City of Chicago and numerous private sponsors and investors, and though it ultimately cost more than triple the initial estimates, it's difficult to put a price tag on the value Chicago has drawn and will continue to draw from the park. Building culture in a city is an inherently iterative process - one cannot simply speak Broadway, say, or the British Museum into existence. Toronto would do well with a project like Millennium Park, a project with no grander reason than to help bring the city together. Moreover, it would be another tourist draw for a city that's always looking to attract tourists - and if only the city was allowed to charge hotel taxes, it would help close our current and future budget gaps.

Granted, you can't just take sand from the beach and produce a Millennium Park, either. I know that the present budget situation means that at least the next four years will have to be ones of moderation and careful spending. It may be that Toronto won't be able to do anything on this scale for a long while - but just because it's not feasible to start laying down bricks, there's no reason we shouldn't at least plan out the foundations. Building for culture is, in its own way, building for the future - and a city cannot be successful, I think, without keeping one foot in the future.

In my opinion, a city without a real cultural foundation is missing something vital. For me, Toronto has always had that sense of vitality. It's something that needs to be preserved and made stronger if we want the Toronto of 2020 or 2060 or 2110 to be a city worthy of all our aspirations.

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