Another tale of two cities : Toronto and San Francisco — in the wake of Rob Ford

Nov 18th, 2013 | By | Category: In Brief

The question many are asking in Toronto these days, of course, is just how much harm is the growing “international” notoriety of Mayor Rob Ford doing to the city’s reputation?

(I put “international” in quotation marks because most of the notorious attention Torontonians and even some other Canadians are half-gloating over has come from the Yankees to the south of us, who “must south of us remain.” And for the latest notorious cases in point see, eg: “Transcript of Rob Ford’s controversial comments” ; “Did Rob Ford’s brother appear on CNN with a vodka bottle in plain sight?”; “Rob Ford lawyer says council motions ‘can be undone‘” ; and “Why the premier hasn’t sacked Rob Ford.”)

Personally, as clearly reprehensible as Mayor Ford’s behaviour has been (see here, eg, “Rob Ford scandal ‘truly disturbing’ Wynne says”), I take refuge in Stephen Marche’s thought that : “Overcoming nearly 200 years of sensible decisions and ingrained humility, Toronto is starting to get interesting. It has become a city making a spectacle of itself.”

I also hold out some hope that Toronto in the wake of Rob Ford will be more honest about how it fits in to the wider North American region. Some still stress Peter Ustinov’s quip of the 1980s, that Toronto is “New York run by the Swiss.” But Rob Ford has shown that this is an illusion.

The BART system in the San FRancisco Bay Area. .

For something closer to the truth you have to go back to Ontario Premier William Davis in the 1970s — who claimed that the best US analogue for Toronto, Canada (and the surrounding GTA) is San Francisco, wild heart of the Bay Area in Northern California.

Having recently broached this same subject with a learned colleague in Toronto’s finest “jazz and blues” bar, I have now looked up a few related sources on the world wide web.

To start with, making all due allowances for the sometimes dodgy nature of the species, the two Wikipedia entries for “Greater Toronto Area” and “San Francisco Bay Area” at least provide a point of departure for comparative analysis.  On this reading the Bay Area is some two and a half times larger than the GTA geographically, and currently has some 7.15 million people. The considerably smaller GTA geographic region has somewhat more than 6 million people.

The GO system in ther Toronto region.

At the same time, it is a similarity of the two metropolitan regions that they each have their own regional public transit systems — Bay Area Rapid Transit or BART in the San Francisco region, and GO (originally Government of Ontario) transit in the GTA.  Both BART and GO have their practical origins in the 1960s. But BART was off the drawing board a few years earlier (and may even have served as an inspiration for the Toronto region’s GO system).

San Francisco municipal politician Harvey Milk (left) shakes hands with Jimmy Carter.

At the same time again, it could reasonably enough be said that GO transit more or less “covers” the current GTA.  But BART only covers the more north-and-east-central part of what Wikipedia calls the Bay Area. Without stooping to serious calculations just yet, it does seem that BART’s more condensed version of the Bay Area is more similar in geographic extent to the GTA. On the other hand, the GO Transit version of the GTA (or GTHA to add just Hamilton) may approach the Wikipedia Bay Area in geographic extent, and population — especially if you add Niagara, Cambridge, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Peterborough to the equation.

I could go on and on, but the editors have insisted that I keep things short and sweet. I’ll just try to sum up quickly by arguing that something real about Rob Ford which remains elusive might be captured by comparing him to Harvey Milk — the gay rights pioneer in San Francisco municipal politics, who was assassinated by a rival, exactly 35 years ago this coming Wednesday, November 27.

Anthony Smith (left) and Muhammad Khattak (right) pose with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. This past March 28 both men were shot at in a downtown Toronto incident that, as even the Toronto Star has reported, had nothing to do with Mayor Ford. Muhammad Khattak survived. Anthony Smith did not.

Of course Rob Ford in Toronto is closer to a US tea-party conservative than a gay rights progressive. And Toronto is almost certainly still too Canadian for any one of his enemies to assassinate him. Yet Anthony Smith, who appeared beside Mayor Ford in a widely circulated photo outside what has at least been called a crack house in the Toronto suburbs, actually was “shot and killed on March 28” this past spring.

There are many other ways in which it can be easily enough argued that Toronto is no San Francisco — and vice-versa. But it still seems to me that Bland Bill Davis from Brampton was on to something when he talked about some kind of spiritual communion between the two cities back in the 1970s. And that is just another strange thing that the increasingly notorious Mayor Rob Ford reminds me of today.

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