Wednesday, October 27, 2010

To Brand T.O.

Forty years ago, Toronto had a problem. Back then, before the possibility of an independent Quebec sent Canada's captains of business and industry charging down the 401 to the shore of Lake Ontario, it had no pretensions of being a world city but was instead, as Unbuilt Toronto puts it, a "second-order metropolis" - occupying the same niche as, say, St. Louis or Cincinnati. It didn't have much to distinguish itself from its competitors. That's where Buckminster Fuller came in with his ambitious Project Toronto, which included a commercial district enclosed within a glass pyramid, a covered arcade parallelling University Avenue, and entire villages afloat on Lake Ontario.

Ultimately, of course, none of this got built. Politicians in the 1960s were no more willing to take leaps into the future than they are today. But the result is that Toronto has continued to flounder, and today is obsessed with whether or not it's really a "world city." Sure, it's got the CN Tower, but communications towers are not exactly uncommon. Even really tall ones. What Toronto really needs is a wide-spectrum campaign to establish itself.

It won't all have to come out of nowhere. I think Toronto already has the germ of part of such a campaign - its streetcars. Back in 1969, when popular wisdom saw streetcars as obsolete and the official TTC plan was for the last streetcar to have run by 1980, it wouldn't have been a consideration - and not particularly unique either, as at that time there would still be plenty of people who remembered streetcars on the streets of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Montreal, London... so on and so on. At that point, it's easy to conclude that they weren't anything special.

CLRV 4118 pushes toward the sun on King Street East

Forty years later, the pendulum has shifted. Now they _are_ something special, if only because they're the only transit streetcars, as opposed to heritage railways, left in all of Canada. Even expanding the view to all of North America, it's still not too common, and even then the exact types of streetcars the TTC uses are in service nowhere else in the world. They're part of Toronto, something it doesn't share with any city anywhere else. Torontoist has it the right way - the four silhouettes that site chose to represent its city were the CN Tower, City Hall, the otherworldly box-on-stilts of OCAD, and... a streetcar.

So it was with a sense of flickering hope that I saw an article on the Toronto Star late last night - "Ford won't ditch streetcars," the headline reads. Granted, none of the content comes from da mayor-elect himself, but from his campaign manager and brother Doug; I'd rather hear this from Rob. Considering that, according to Ford's transit plan, "Streetcars on downtown arterial streets will be replaced with clean buses that provide the same capacity on the same routes," and that much of the system can be considered to run on "downtown arterial" streets, something here is not telling the truth.

Nevertheless, this gives me reason to hope that a Rob Ford mayoralty will not detour wildly into the worst possible outcome. If he's willing to think and reconsider, he may do better in the mayor's chair than his opponents suggest - and if he's willing to really think about the opportunities they provide for Toronto beyond its borders, the streetcars just may come through the next few years unbowed and unbeaten.

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