What is the proper place of religion in society, and what limits should be placed on the discussion of it?

When Mark Steyn, the conservative columnist, writes in a book chapter reprinted in Maclean’s magazine that jihad is unnecessary because the fertility rates among Muslims mean they will soon achieve dominance through democratic means, is he engaging in “hate speech”? Even if — as the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) complains to various human rights commissions in BC, Ontario and the federal government — Steyn’s views are offensive to Muslims, should he be prevented from stating them publicly?

How about the view, expressed by CIC president Mohamed Elmasry on television in 2004, that all Israeli adults are legitimate targets for terror attacks? Is that hate speech? Should that be forbidden?

What about the Bible, one of the foundational texts for all three of the major religious groups in Canada, in which it says (with authority often claimed to be divine) that men who have sex with other men are “detestable” (or an “abomination,” depending on your translation) and should be put to death? Is this hate speech? Should anyone printing bibles or repeating the words of the Bible be charged with a crime?

Or, to look at it from another angle, what about vocal atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who claim in print — citing the Bible, among other things — that religions, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism, are murderous nonsense that inspire hatred and violence? Are they engaging in intolerant hate speech? Should they be forbidden to do so?

Or does the tolerance and freedom of religion that allow us to live together in peace actually require us to allow the expression of such divergent and often offensive beliefs?

Does American presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s recent speech on “Faith in America” shed any light? When he says “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom,” is he making the slightest bit of sense? When he claims that he believes that Jesus Christ is the saviour of mankind, and that the American government is inseparable from “the God who gives us liberty,” and then goes on to say that his Mormon religious beliefs are irrelevant and that asking questions about those beliefs is intolerant, is he trying to have his cake and eat it too? Doesn’t his intolerance of the irreligious “religion of secularism” actually lay the theoretical framework for intolerance of his religion of Mormonism, or intolerance of any other religion?

Would it be fair to say that a speech in 1960 by US presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, in which he said that his Catholicism was irrelevant because he believed that the separation of church and state was “absolute,” was more coherent? When he went on to say that the president’s “religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office,” is he actually sketching an entire ideology for governing?

Does a view that everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs —?or lack of them — actually require that the state itself remain agnostic? And does that freedom of religion actually require, for its very existence, the protection of speech that expresses contradictory beliefs about religion and its uses? And doesn’t that protection, by definition, require the tolerance of opinions that some of us will find offensive and hateful?

And is it going too far to point out examples from societies where this freedom was not protected — say in Sudan, where a British schoolteacher was jailed for allowing children to name a teddy bear after the Muslim prophet; or in Medieval Europe where Muslims were tortured and murdered; or in World War II Germany where genocide was attempted in response to a religion that was deemed dangerous and evil?

In the end, is it even possible to have freedom of religion at all if that freedom does not extend to all religions (and to the irreligious too)? And if not, what exactly do we mean by freedom?

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly on December 13.


The City’s preservation board investigates designating the entire subway sysem a heritage property — putting it on a collision course with the TTC 

“As the son of an architect, I was always amazed at the architecture of the subway. Once, it was breathtaking and beautiful,” recalls city councillor Adam Vaughan. “When those old trains came through the stations, the primary colours really played off the maroon of the subway cars in a way that was quite rich. The nostalgia around the TTC system was always pronounced with me… I have rich, vivid memories.”
So Vaughan was interested and concerned when he read a story I wrote for EYE WEEKLY (“Signs of dysfunction,” July 12) about Toronto typography expert and transit activist Joe Clark’s campaign to preserve the historically unique signage of the TTC, which has been neglected for decades and is currently threatened by a station modernization project. After visiting the website of Clark’s TTC Signs campaign (www.joeclark.org/TTC), Vaughan, as a member of the Toronto Preservation Board, felt he needed to act.

“It occurred to me that we needed to provide the TTC with a little directional kick in the pants to take care of a couple things,” says Vaughan. “One is the rich design history, which was part of their whole psyche in the early years but has left the station in ways that are really quite deplorable.… The fact that there’s a whole history to the type, a whole history to the station design, a whole history to the different lines and how they evolved and how they represent different periods in Toronto’s history needs to be honoured and recognized.”

He put my article on the agenda for discussion at the preservation board’s meeting Nov. 9 and, after hearing a presentation by Clark (and some brief remarks from me), the board voted unanimously to have staff report on the possibility of designating as Heritage Properties the entire Bloor-Danforth subway line and the Yonge-University line between St. George and Eglinton. Such a designation would require the TTC to consult with the board about any renovations or changes to the stations, and to ensure that such changes respect the historical character of the original design. The motion calls for staff to report first on designating the eight stations currently scheduled for modernization, which could put the board on a collision course with the TTC.

Clark’s campaign, begun this summer, calls on the TTC to respect and preserve the unique typeface and other characteristics — including colour patterns, tile work and original signs affixed to the walls. Stations including Pape, Victoria Park, Islington and Kipling are scheduled to be renovated in the immediate future and, at least in the case of Pape, plans call for a complete overhaul. Such a move would eliminate the design uniformity that currently exists across the entire Bloor-Danforth line, with consistent colours repeating in sequence, consistent tile patterns and one unique TTC-designed font inscribed on the walls. The renovations are part of a 35-year plan to modernize every station in the system at a rate of one per year.

“The trick is trying to prevent the destruction of the subway system as we know it,” Clark says. “What are these [TTC] commissioners doing, exactly? Through malign neglect, they are beginning a 35-year process of destruction. Because if they make over Pape station so that it doesn’t match any of the other stations, if they make it over in artificial stone — which has “fake” right there in the title — then the design uniformity of the Bloor-Danforth line is busted, and that gives future generations of commissioners authorization to make every station different.”

Clark is encouraged by the preservation board’s response to his campaign. “It’s a good sign, an excellent and necessary corrective to what the archaeologist who runs the TTC is doing,” he says, while cautioning that the wording of any designation must be specific to ensure the TTC does not simply preserve the typeface of station designations and disregard everything else.

The archaeologist mentioned derisively by Clark, TTC chair Adam Giambrone, says that he’s willing to work with the preservation board but that he thinks designating every station on entire lines is excessive.

“Usually we don’t expect to see every single station designated. Some of them certainly deserve designation … the system was built out over a number of years and I’d think you’d want examples of each of those stations.”

Giambrone says trying to preserve the look and feel of stations — which require renovation due to the need for wheelchair accessibility and general wear and tear — could be expensive, since the colour, size and shape of the original tiles are no longer produced.

“We could get special tiles, presumably someone could make them, because they do reproductions, but it’s going to be very expensive.”

Pointing to the multi-million dollar budget for each station’s renovation, Clark scoffs at this argument. “Let’s spend the money. Would you like me to chip in? I can set up a Paypal account if you want.”

Vaughan takes a similar view, characterizing the TTC’s recent bare-bones approach as being “too cheap to be special.” He says it’s the wrong way to approach infrastructure. “You can build a city off a budget sheet, but you end up with Tucson…. The reality is if you build Paris, you’ll have an economy. If you build an economy, you’ll have Houston. Or Calgary. The poet laureate [Pier Giorgio Di Cicco] has said it the best. He said ‘beauty has its own economy,’ and he’s right. The old subway stations were beautiful, and they found their own economy. It’s the roots of the wealthiest transit system in the world in terms of being able to generate passengers and off-peak passengers…. The Toronto Transit system is still one of the great transit systems in the world and it performs in a way that’s quite spectacular, despite its underfunding. That finds its roots in the attention to detail of the earlier generations who used to run it.”

While promising to work with the board, Giambrone claims it may be too late for Pape station, where, he says, an artificial-stone redesign is too far along to stop. “We’re going to have to figure this out. We’ll work with them — there are already some stations like Pape, where contracts are being issued. So those will go ahead, I suspect, before designation. We’re going to have to take a look at it.”

Clark thinks it is urgent that the “destruction” of Pape station be halted, and is considering taking the fight to city council.

Vaughan would also like to see the TTC slow down its plans there to wait for the preservation board’s advice. “If it’s too late for Pape, my apologies. But the reality is, we’re going to move to try to curb the way the TTC is approaching this and approach it from a perspective of heritage and not just of refreshing the subway system. We’re going to immediately get a handle on the eight [stations] that are most likely to change and get them to just be refreshments rather than renovations. And then, for the two heritage lines in particular, that have a really consistent set of design principles attached to them, to immediately establish what those principles are and make sure that all future conversions talk to that status.”

Vaughan claims the Bloor-Danforth line is a set and that, aesthetics aside, tells us something important about our history, something worth preserving. “When we built the subway, we built it as one big project. That in and of itself is what the design of the subway speaks to — [a time] when we had the confidence and the ability and the vision to build infrastructure the size and the scope of the Bloor subway line. That’s an amazing mindset compared to what we have today, where if we’re really lucky we could add a station and if we do, it should just be bare concrete because everyone will think we’re rich if we do it any other way. We didn’t just sort of go to a computer and print some signs, we designed a friggin’ typeface. That speaks to a level of design and a level of endeavour, which is, in fact, real city building. Now we just renovate.” 

Originally published November 14, 2007 in Eye Weekly.

Come Remembrance Day this week, Canadians will, as always, solemnly recite the verses of Canadian World War I soldier John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” including its stirring final stanza: “Take up our quarrel with the foe: / To you from failing hands we throw / the torch; be yours to hold it high. / If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.”

Written on the battlefield, McCrae’s words are powerful and beautiful, and they have been held up as a proud symbol of Canada (look, there they are on the $10 bill). But, in that it could easily serve as the text of a recruiting poster or, as it does for the Montreal Canadiens, the slogan of a sports team, that final stanza is not typical of the poetry of World War I soldiers.

Most soldiers shouted home a different message. English soldier Seigfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches” concludes in a manner closer to the general mood: “You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye / Who cheer when soldier lads march by, / Sneak home and pray you’ll never know / The hell where youth and laughter go.”

Wilfred Owen, the English soldier many consider the leading poet of the war, wrote “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” as a retelling of the familiar biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac. An angel appears to spare his son: “A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead. // But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

This Remembrance Day, Canadian soldiers are in combat in Afghanistan, and may be for decades to come, we’re told. War rages in Iraq and may soon in Iran and Pakistan. There is much to reflect on. We might well consider the lessons of those brave soldiers from what was to have been The War to End All Wars — this way lies madness, they say, a self-fuelling fireball that engulfs the bodies and souls of all who wage it or who have it waged on them. That has been the lesson of warfare since the beginning of humanity. It was understood by the Vikings, whose greatest saga, according to Lee Sandlin in his essay “Losing the War,” was about a pointless, unproductive battle that engulfs generations and destroys the innocent and guilty alike. “For the Vikings, this was the essence of war: it’s a mystery that comes out of nowhere and grows for reasons nobody can control, until it shakes the whole world apart.”

Even wars generally agreed to be humanity’s finest moments teach the same message: in the service of ending fascism and stopping genocide in World War II, more than 60 million died on all sides, many after surviving years of insane agony on the battlefield, many more as huge swaths of millennia-old civilizations were reduced to rubble. A great part of an entire generation on five continents lived in a waking nightmare of fear that the bombs and guns and death camps would return.

From the American Civil War through Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, history tells the same story, one nearly identical to that of the soldiers returning from Iraq: if war produces just ends, it is only by happenstance, for the logic of war leads inevitably towards carnage; towards the reduction of humanity to its most horrifying state of barbarism and of the world to an unendurable hell.

Yet we have become again a society in which the military is seen as a source of solutions — through the eyes of leaders who have never served in combat, war is a just hammer. To them, every terrorist attack, foreign-policy threat and humanitarian crisis begins to look like a nail. They point to those who warn that war must be a last resort and accuse them of failing to “support the troops.” But the troops are citizen servants of the highest order who go off and learn what soldiers past have tried to teach; they sacrifice their sanity, their lives and their humanity — and inflict untold terror on others —?on our instruction.

In an age when being “strong on terror” has been reduced to tying a yellow ribbon and solemnly swearing to send others to kill and die before sitting down to watch Dancing With the Stars, we might reflect on what our history of violence has been trying to tell us all along:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly November 7, 2007.

The City of Toronto has studied burning garbage — apparently candidate Stephen LeDrew has not
I’ve been on about this on the blog (check it out at eyeweekly.com/election2006) but the vast influence of my internet audience has not yet altered the terms of the election debate, so I figured I’d commit this to paper, too:

Stephen LeDrew, alongside many, many conservative-ish council candidates, keeps proposing that we should “investigate” or “take a look at” or “study” burning our garbage rather than buying the Green Lane landfill (or any other landfill). Here’s LeDrew, for example, in a press release from last week: “I will commit to diverting 80 per cent of waste from landfill and exploring clean and cost-effective waste-to-energy solutions for the remaining 20 per cent.”

(Nota bene: “waste to energy,” “advanced thermal technology” and “gasification” are all words that mean incineration, just so we all know what we’re talking about.)

It sounds so reasonable when they suggest we should study this option. Who wouldn’t want to investigate all the options? Why is David Miller such a closed-minded hard head that he’s against investigating possible solutions? Right?

Except that, as Geoff Rathbone, director of policy and planning with the city’s works department, confirms, we have already studied and explored waste-to-energy solutions, and in fact we’re continuing to do the groundwork required to build such a facility.

To wit: the city convened a committee made up of experts on waste management and local citizens and activists to study all available options for diverting waste from landfill way back in February 2003. That group (whose name is longer than a Rex Murphy adjective — the New and Emerging Technologies, Policies and Practices Advisory Group, for the record) met for nearly two years, at no small cost to the city, and studied all the new technologies on the market. Their final report is available online at http://www.tinyurl.com/y6lqnj.

As a result of their work, Toronto is conducting an Environmental Assessment on various technologies — including incineration — with an eye to building a test facility. Just this week, the city ran a bunch of
advertisements announcing public hearings as part of that EA process (see http://www.toronto.ca/ceat for hearing dates and a comments form). This is all work that is required before building a waste-to-energy facility.

In other words, not only have we studied incineration, but we’re taking the necessary steps to build incinerators.

Maybe some candidates haven’t explored all the options, but the city has. And if they want to build an incinerator, they shouldn’t hide behind words like “look into it.”

Taking a page from Spacing
Last week in this space, I had a bit of a laugh at Jane Pitfield’s blog. Over the weekend, the story got even weirder. Turns out her posting from Oct. 7 — taking the wind out of some Miller spending proposals — was plagiarized almost directly from a post by John Lorinc on Spacing magazine’s excellent election blog (www.spacing.ca/votes). Further investigation revealed that another post seemed to have been lifted from a story by Anthony Reinhart from The Globe and Mail.

Matt Blackett of Spacing writes, “‘There hasn’t always been a clear plan of what to do with my blog,’ [Pitfield] said. ‘I have a young man looking after it. But I will talk to someone at our office right away.'”

The entire blog has since been removed.

On a related technology note, one of the interesting developments in this campaign has been the emergence of the blog as a form of coverage. In addition to ours and Spacing’s, there’s also Rob Granatstein’s X Marks the T-dot from the Toronto Sun, where I found the LeDrew quote about garbage above (surf over to www. blog.canoe.ca/cityvote and praise the lord Sue-Ann Levy hasn’t figured out how to use the internet yet) and Marc Weisblott’s Campaign Bubble from The Globe and Mail (www.theglobeandmail.com/blogs/campaignbubble).

Meet the next mayor
Both Christopher Hume of the Toronto Star and John Barber of The Globe and Mail have very recently proposed the idea of introducing political parties to Toronto politics.

We suspect they mean party as in have-a-membership-card-and-toe-the-line. But Eye Weekly already has plans to introduce a
political party (as in pass-the-beer-and-hit-the-dancefloor) to this election, and it’s scheduled to take place one week before election day.

The Political Party, presented with our friends at Spacing magazine, will feature speeches and interviews with Jane Pitfield and David Miller and then give you an opportunity to talk to them yourself while the drinks flow and the live music plays.

It takes place at Revival (783 College) on Monday, Nov. 6. Musical guests announced Oct. 19 at http://www.eyeweekly.com/election2006. Admission is free.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on October 19, 2006. 

The TTC is the keeper of a one-of-a-kind typographic treasure: the font used on the walls and old signs of most subway stations. Created from scratch in the 1950s with the launch of the subway system by a now-forgotten designer, the distinctive, unnamed, all-caps typeface features, among other things, near-perfectly circular forms on the O, Q, C and G; sharp points on the A, M, N, W and V; and a cute, almost cartoon-like R with an oversized round and a stubby little leg. This typeface has been the object of some amount of public attention recently, alongside the generalized TTC appreciation that’s sprung up in the Spacing magazine-led activist community. Not that the transit commission has done anything to preserve this heritage or to encourage enthusiasts.

“The TTC had a unique typographic legacy and, by accident or design, destroyed it,” writes Joe Clark in “Inscribed in the living tile: Type in the Toronto subway,” a 50-page research paper he presented earlier this month to the Association Typographique International conference in Brighton, UK, the source of the above font history. The Toronto blogger, accessibility consultant and typographic expert has recently been leading a campaign to address problems with TTC signage, as I reported here on July 12 (“Signs of dysfunction,” City – full disclosure: my reporting on the campaign is cited in several places in Clark’s report). “Inscribed in the living tile,” now available on his website at www.joeclark.org/atypi-ttc, comes complete with photographs and pages of references to make his case comprehensively: the TTC’s slapdash approach to signage has disregarded history, accessibility, functionality and consistency.

Various approaches to way-finding have usually been implemented piecemeal with no formal testing, and when testing has been carried out, it has been disregarded (in the case of a way-finding system tested at St. George station in the early ’90s, Clark reports that the discarded tests cost almost $400,000). Along the way, Clark outlines the previously untold history of the TTC font and other great bits of subway miscellany.

For the TTC, the report should be an alarm to wake them from their signage sleepwalking. But for the general Torontonian, it is worth a read for its well-documented historical accounts of the TTC’s growth and expansion, its blow-by-blow recaps of bureaucratic bungles past and present and, not least, for Clark’s entertainingly deadpan prose (“The Sheppard arrow probably functions adequately. The Paul Arthur arrow might have been used instead had the TTC not forgotten it existed”) as he documents in excruciating detail the way-finding mess of today’s TTC.

Originally published in Eye Weekly, September 20, 2007.

One activist points out that when it comes to wayfinding, the TTC is lost

If you visit St. George subway station, you can see — on half of each of the north/south and east/west platforms — a 15-year-old experimental signage system developed for the TTC by British-born Canadian graphic designer Paul Arthur.

Arthur’s system had a different typeface than is used elsewhere in the TTC; used numbers, names and colours to identify lines (and contains redundancies that may appear frivolous to those without disabilities – having both the words “green line” and a graphic of a green line would be helpful to the colour blind or illiterate, however); and various other pictographs, arrow styles and such that don’t occur elsewhere. There’s even a dragon logo representing St. George station.

That signage system was subjected to testing by Generations Research Inc. in 1994, and proved to be more effective than the other systems in place in the TTC with every group of riders. At that point, having spent an estimated $400,000 on the prototype and testing, the transit commission declined to extend Arthur’s signage to the rest of the system (citing budgetary concerns) and simply left the half-implemented, completely unique signage in place where it was at St. George.

Today the test signage is at the centre – in various ways – of a campaign and website called TTC Signs run by Toronto typography expert, accessibility consultant and transit enthusiast Joe Clark.

On his website (www.joeclark.org/ttc), Clark makes a two-pronged plea to the TTC. First, he wants to save (at least for archival purposes) the experimental signage from St. George, which had been scheduled for removal later this summer, and vintage TTC signs from other stations such as Pape, Eglinton and Victoria Park that are also scheduled for overhaul.

“Under no circumstances should these old signs be taken down and simply destroyed,” Clark says. “The trick is to stop the TTC staff from barrelling ahead and destroying irreplaceable physical artifacts for no reason.”

Second, and perhaps more importantly if (less urgently), Clark aims to point out that the TTC’s signage is a wayfinding mess, and is demanding that the TTC begin testing across the system to define a standard that will be most functional for subway riders. (Addressing possible conflict-of-interest questions, Clark is eager to point out that he has proposed the TTC hire him to catalogue the signs it has in one third of the system and produce a report. The commission has thus far disregarded his proposal.)

As a recent stroll through Yonge/Bloor and Bathurst stations with Clark highlights, many of the problems with the existing system are not hard to find: there are handwritten signs ( “this door out of service,” “elevator not working”) in various degrees of illegibility, affixed by collectors looking to make up for oversights; ragged laser-printed paper signs indicating route diversions and service stoppages remain posted for months after the events they advise of are over; the permanent signs are a hodgepodge of fonts and type styles, riddled with confusing grammatical errors, often obscured from view by pillars, other signs or frames. (For a detailed account of that tour, see http://www.eyeweekly.com/daily.)

This is not about aesthetics, Clark points out. “It’s not centrally about selecting a font you like. It may not even be about selecting one font… a rational system might have many fonts. It might have at least two, you never know. Because it’s not about, ‘I really don’t like Helvetica.’ No, no, no – it has nothing to do with that. It’s all about rational choices based on performance, which an intelligent person can assess upfront, then you make prototypes, then you test the hell out of them. And it’s all about function, right?”

Indeed, wayfinding signs are not decorations, as you’d realize in an emergency if you needed the sign directing you to the exit, or if you had poor vision and needed to figure out which train goes eastbound. Right now, signage is a responsibility of the marketing department. “That means that the sign you need to get out of Donlands station when it’s on fire is equivalent to the station domination [advertising] campaign for Bud Light,” Clark says.

Of course, the TTC admits the signage needs work. To address the situation – at least on the permanent signage front – the TTC is gradually implementing a new standard, by extending the signage system in use on the Sheppard line to the rest of the system as stations are cleaned up and overhauled.

Clark says this is a significant problem, pointing out that the font in use on the Sheppard line, a “fake Helvetica” called Swiss 721, is not ideal for signage, as it blurs into illegibility under illumination (meaning the station name “Bessarion” looks like “Bessarlon” if it’s backlit, for example). The attempt on Sheppard to colour-code the subway and bus lines is not explained, meaning the colours look purely like decoration. There are other specific complaints, but as Clark points out, the key complaint is that the system was never tested, and so there’s no evidence that it works well for most people.

There is, however, some evidence that it does not work well. Though I was unable, in a series of missed phone calls, to interview Bob Brent, who was head of marketing when the Sheppard signs were approved, he says in a voice mail that, “I think Joe has an honourable cause,” pointing out that he approved the signs five years ago and now finds himself getting lost trying to navigate using them. This system, which confounds even the former TTC executive who oversaw its development, is now the TTC standard. Gary Webster, current general manager of the TTC, has publicly expressed confidence in the Sheppard standard.

TTC chair Adam Giambrone, responding to questions by email, referrs to a May 2007 report that responded to Clark’s concerns, reading, “The current TTC wayfinding signage standards were developed with consideration of what was successful in other systems (including the Paul Arthur test), and with regard to government regulated accessibility requirements and Ontario Building Code compliance.”

TTC staff confirmed that “Sheppard signage was not formally tested with the general public but special interest groups such as the CNIB, ACAT and a senior’s group were involved in an advisory capacity.”

Giambrone elaborates: “I think it’s fair to say that wayfinding signage is very important to the TTC, and not a ‘frill’ at all. They can keep testing every implementation of its standards, but I suspect that too much continual tweaking would compromise consistency, which in turn compromises the overall effectivess of the signage across the system. That said, I would be happy to support a review of the signage… if it is in fact determined to be somehow lacking. Other signage issues aside, I have not been advised that the current standard itself is a problem, except, of course, by Joe Clark.”

Giambrone points out that, despite their continuing prevalence, handwritten signs are forbidden, and he has commissioned a report on removing handwritten signs, to be delivered by the end of the year, and that report is to include examples of wayfinding signage from other transit systems.

On the preservation front, Clark’s campaign seems to have had a more immediate effect. “Direction has… been given to TTC staff to keep the St. George signage in place until it is scheduled for renovation under the TTC’s station modernization program. St. George is not yet in the schedule for this program, so there is no apparent or immediate threat to the signage,” Giambrone writes. “As an archaeologist, I have a personal interest in ensuring the preservation of historical artifacts. I’m eager to have the TTC re-establish a position for an archivist (which once existed) to work with the City archives to ensure that TTC items are properly preserved and catalogued. It makes sense to continue to use the City’s archives as the repository, but we could do a much better job of ensuring that TTC-specific articles are properly stored and identified.”

Originally published July 12, 2007 in Eye Weekly.

The poetry of the city

What we need are more poets and fewer businessmen involved in deciding how we are governed. Fewer businessmen and lawyers and economists and planners – who see the city as a series of cost-benefit analyses and balance sheets, as so many lines on a map representing problems to be managed – and more painters and philosophers and sculptors.

There’s an inherent danger in putting poets in charge of getting things done, I realize. But what’s almost always missing from the urban debate is an ability to see the city as a relationship we citizens are involved in with each other, both a physical and psychological place in which our hopes and dreams are played out, and where we work and grow prosperous, yes, but also where we screw and hurt and risk ourselves, where we experiment with ideas and identity and fall in and out of love with each other every day. To see the city as an essential part of the drama of life, as a player in the romances and comedies and epics and tragedies of its millions of citizen protagonists. To see the city through the eyes of an artist is to recognize that beauty and truth and soul are not qualities that can be conjured by planning. Rather they come from the citizenry, from the frictions – productive and destructive – caused by rubbing up against one another in the urban public sphere.

“Isn’t the city a poem in progress?” Toronto Poet Laureate Pier Giorgio Di Cicco asks in the introduction to his new book Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City, launched this week by Mansfield Press. “Aren’t the citizens the authors of the poem they will have to read to their children?”

Yes. The Poet — as my colleague Shawn Micallef simply calls Di Cicco — gets it. The author of 17 volumes of poetry, a Catholic priest and university professor who has lived in Arezzo, Montreal, Baltimore and Toronto, understands the poetry of the city.

This strange little volume — his prose is like a philosophical tract, long on logic and aphorism and shunning case studies — is more mediation than manual, laying out the principles that underlie the creative city. He believes that often the greatest thing a city can do is get out of the way of its citizenry; has insights into the trickiness of urban planning and design; and lays out the many and various ways that corporate imperatives and a culture of technological convenience have eroded the civic arena.

But perhaps his greatest and best-taken themes are that the great and metropolitan city exists to create intimacy — “The purpose of city living is to perfect and rediscover the city as a forum of unexpected intimacies” — and that the city exists not primarily in buildings and squares and traffic patterns and budgets and bylaws but in the hearts of its citizens. “Indeed: the soul of a city is antecedent to the construction of a city. The dream of civic communion precedes the construction of it. The civic dream stems from the desire for a city to be made happy by a common meditation on the good, enacted by literary grace, in a forum where the transaction of mutual delight results in prosperity.”

Yes. We may need fewer books on city planning, as Di Cicco writes in his introduction. But we’ll take more poets, please.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on June 28, 2007. 

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