Greed, grit and the triumph of civilization at the corner of Yonge and Bloor 

If you were watching the news on Nov. 13, you may have caught the weirdness: a near riot outside the Yonge and Bloor sales centre of the condo tower to be built at 1 Bloor E., as a mob of roughly 300 people jockeyed for position. Scruffy-­looking young people stood on chairs chanting “Go by The List! Go by The List!” Police milled around looking to maintain order. Kathy Kalina and Nadine Robbins, two la-di-da real estate agents from central casting (Robbins even had a tiny dog in her purse) were defiant for the cameras about their right to jump the queue — which had formed eight days earlier in anticipation of the agents-only launch. And then the pièce de résistance: a worker for the 1 Bloor developers climbed a ladder amid the fray to unfurl a banner changing a sign that had read “From the $300,000s to over $2 million” so it now read “From $500,000 to over $8 million.”

All this in the shadow of a looming US recession spurned by a real-estate crisis — this fuss to pay $1,000 or more per square foot for teensy apartments in a tower that won’t be built until at least 2011, a tower that’s currently proposed to be 20 storeys taller than current city zoning will allow. The message was obvious: the Toronto real-estate market has gone batshit crazy.

Which may be true. But if you talk to those who’d been camping out for a week in the cold and rain to be at the front of the line, a different story emerges, a story about strangers bonding and getting along in odd circumstances. According to the soggy, groggy condo campers, the moral of that story is — ready for this? — the triumph of order over chaos and principle over greed. Now we’re talking crazy.

Exhibit A for the human angle is Monica Geiman, the young woman you may have seen on the news standing on a chair, pumping her fist and chanting. A between-jobs retail clerk who lives with her parents in Thornhill and is planning, at 23 years old, to go back to university in the fall, Geiman was one of the original crew of 15 who arrived more than a week earlier to occupy the first 11 spots in line on behalf of real estate agents Hersch Litvack and Anna Cass.

Geiman’s friends wouldn’t have guessed that she’d last out there — she isn’t the kind of girl who’s keen on going without showers or wearing the same clothes for days on end. By her own admission, bad as it sounds, she’s kind of spoiled.

But she’s pals with David James, whose mother works with Litvack, and James was the ringleader of the original crew, mostly old friends from high school and elementary school rounded up for extra cash and a bit of adventure. Geiman earned enough to go shopping in Buffalo, take her boyfriend on a cruise and make some car payments, and she had a once-in-a-lifetime experience to boot.
For her and the rest of Litvack’s crew, every comfort, under the circumstances, was extended: they had a hotel room across the street at the Marriott, where they took turns sleeping in shifts (there were 15 of them holding 11 spots — don’t ask about the state of the room after eight days), they had sleeping bags, propane heat lamps, a daily allowance for food and coffee, ponchos and tarps. All in addition to payment, which varied, but the going rate was $250 per day. You gotta figure Litvack and his people spent more than $40,000.

Which is not to say it was easy. In fact, on day three, Geiman broke down and cried and thought about quitting, but a bit of rest set her straight and, five days later, she was standing on a chair chanting “Go by The List!”

Geiman’s was to be the keeper of The List. On the first night, the people behind Litvack’s group in line — young agents Yoon Hyun Choi and Winston Mak from Homelife, out on their own behalf — started offering tips from their experience in the condo wars. Those at the front of the line, they said, had to create a system to maintain order for the group. By then there were 90 people there.
The List was born to allow for some order (and some rest): people had to show up for a roll call (every two hours between 8am and 6pm, every three hours till midnight, and then again at 4am) to maintain their spot on The List, and otherwise they could roam for coffee or naps or washroom breaks. And since David James was busy managing his crew — making schedules, handling complaints with a roll of his eyes, managing money and brokering supplies — Geiman kept The List.

Adam Szalai, a 26-year-old film production worker, meanwhile, did what he does, which is help manage the production. He talked to the media and helped people negotiate their spots on The List and generally worked to maintain order. And, according to Szalai, a whole system developed by collective consent. There were five rules that emerged from the line’s spontaneous democracy:
1. You cannot be late for roll call or you lose your spot.
2. One person in line represents one agent. No holding multiple spots.
3. You cannot sell your spot in line. (Szalai was offered $8,000 for his spot at one point.)
4. Agents can switch representatives, but a representative cannot give their spot in line to a new agent.
5. No agent, no holding a spot.

The last three rules are just different ways of saying the same thing, but they were making these up as they went along and crossing bridges as they came to them. Everyone knew there were millions of dollars at stake for the agents, and everyone was together in being out on the street putting up with crap, getting hassled by crack addicts and passing drunks at night and looked down upon by businesspeople during the day (“who thought we were skeevy, homeless glue sniffers,” Szalai says). So everyone respected the rules. Mostly.

There was the time when a homeless guy, reportedly getting paid only $80 a day (which Geiman says is sad and as Szalai points out, in protecting-your-investment terms, is just stupid) missed a roll call and got sent to the end of the line. The agent paying him rolled up and double-parked his Audi, and, a walking stereotype of sleaze — with an exposed hairy chest and gold chains and sharkskin shoes — started threatening the girl at the front of the line maintaining The List. The pay-duty cop stepped in and told the guy to step off. And there: the law was respecting the line’s authority to self-regulate.

There was at least one exception. Johnny was a paraplegic man representing an agent. No one’s saying for sure that Johnny was homeless, but he hadn’t caught a lot of breaks in his life, and you could see in his eyes that this money he was making was everything to him. He stood out there night and day and never missed a roll call. Until one 4am when Szalai was heading for Timmy’s for a coffee and saw — this was like 4:03 — Johnny running as fast as he could on his canes, trying to make the line, trembling with tears in his eyes at the thought that everything he had worked for was going to be lost because he’d drifted off trying to get warm over a coffee. Szalai turned and ran as fast as he could to get back to the line, to tell Monica and everyone else that Johnny was there and should be marked present. “I would have argued to the death with anyone in that line who challenged me that that guy didn’t have the right to be there,” Szalai says.  

And, of course, there were other sad stories. David Chesney was hired by some guy on craigslist and sat out there in the street for seven days. The agent he was supposedly representing turned out never to have heard of him. He got nothing — he’d been promised $2,000 — and is planning to file a lawsuit.

But see, for the overwhelming part, The List was respected and enforced by group consensus.

Until, that is, the morning of the day the sales office was to open. That’s when the builders said they didn’t know anything about any list and were planning to serve people first come, first served. And those two defiant women on the news, Kalina and Robbins, marched to the front of the line at 6am, hours before the scheduled roll call.

But here’s what happened while the TV news cameras and the police prepared for a riot: Litvack and Szalai and the police and building security had a meeting and, it was decided, The List would be respected. The builders agreed.

The crowd outside burst into applause at the news, and Geiman — in her car on her way home, under the impression The List had been tossed and her hard work calling names 10 times a day and helping enforce rules was to be for nothing — got a call on her cellphone to return to help put people in order. Even Kalina and Robbins, who’d had representatives in line for them the entire time got to keep their places in line. Democracy ruled the day.

“I loved it,” Szalai says, “I loved every minute of it. What’s so great about this story is that the good guys won. And the bad guys lost. All the way through.”

And, while the people of the line went home and rested and formed a Facebook group to keep in touch after this strange, momentous event — like kids after summer camp — the batshit craziness took over again. On Nov. 17, it was reported that the penthouse apartment had sold for $25 million to a foreign businessman, who, of course, never had to wait in line. It was the most expensive condo sale in Canadian history. 

Originally published November 21, 2007 in Eye Weekly.

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.

Recently, Spacing magazine and Live With Culture solicited submissions for a contest in which applicants were asked to shoot a 30-second video for the city, using the theme “My Toronto.” You can view the submissions they received and vote on your favourites at www.spacing.ca. Coincidentally, the CTV television network has launched its own “My Toronto is…” video contest, also soliciting videos from viewers. EYE WEEKLY city editor Edward Keenan is not very handy with a camera, but couldn’t resist gathering some notes for his own My Toronto video.

A rail network runs through my Toronto like the open road in a Kerouac novel – representing connection and freedom and possibility – so we’ll want to open with a shot of me in my Battlestar Galactica pyjamas, looking out my bedroom window onto Gerrard Street as the 506 car rumbles by at night. Then jump-cut to me on the same streetcar, lugging all my hockey equipment as an eight-year-old on my way to play on a Saturday morning at Ted Reeve arena. From there, cut to the view of the Don Valley Parkway from the Bloor subway travelling on the Prince Edward viaduct, as I try to spot two red cars (for good luck) before we re-enter the tunnel.

You can pull some footage from the archives of me as a Grade 9 in my Catholic school jacket and tie, sleeping on the subway surrounded by a school bag, hockey bag and stick and saxophone case as the crowd wedged in around me glares. And then get a shot of the building on Dupont where I lived with my wife in my early thirties as a freight train passes on the CNR tracks directly north. Zoom in through the window to find me and Rebecca in bed, sleeping contentedly, the passing train rattling the entire apartment.

And parks – we’ll need shots of parks. My Toronto is tobogganing on the giant hill at Riverdale Park as a 10-year-old, racing towards the valley and the highway across the track and beyond the fence. And my Toronto is going over the handlebars of my bike on that same hill and being knocked out cold as a 13-year-old. We’ll need a shot of teenagers drinking beer at Cudia Park on the Scarborough Bluffs by the light of a campfire, me sneaking a kiss with some girl I’ve just met in the bushes before flashlights flare through the trees and someone shouts “police!” and we run off in all directions.

You can cut to a shot of me in a cook’s apron as a 25-year-old, leaning back on the boulder in Yorkville Park with my eyes closed, trying to suppress the urge to go back into my restaurant and strangle a customer or a server or anyone else who expects me to continue cooking. And then maybe fade to a shot of me leaning over my year-old son in the surf at Hanlan’s Point as he tries to catch the rolling waves, our friends and all the naked people in the background.

We have sports in my Toronto, though most of them are hockey. You can jump rapidly from me scoring my first goal on the ice at Ted Reeve to the bunch of us in Grade 3 playing “foot hockey” with a tennis ball in the schoolyard to me and my brother playing table hockey in a wood-panelled basement in Scarborough to a shot of Doug Gilmour on TV, his faced bruised and cut, as the Leafs have just lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the 1993 playoffs. Pan out from there to find a room full of grown men in tears. Then cut to the same group of men playing road hockey in the middle of Danforth Avenue in 2004.

I suppose there’s some baseball in my Toronto, too, so you can show me dancing in the middle of Yonge Street in 1992 after the Blue Jays have won the World Series for the first time, a stranger approaching me in the crowded streets and handing me a giant Canadian flag that he’s apparently ripped off the side of a building. Then you can cut to me with my hair dyed platinum inside the Phoenix Concert Theatre in 1993, sitting with the rest of the crowd and watching on the big screen as Joe Carter hits a home run to win a second title.

My Toronto is dancing on in the early ’90s at the Phoenix and the Dance Cave and Catch 22; drinking beer and playing pool around the same time at Sneaky Dee’s; shooting the shit in the mid-’90s at the Only Café; talking with James O’Reilly, the playwright, who was a bartender at the Spotted Dick on Bloor in the late ’90s, and then we’ll want some footage of me wasting the early years after the millennium at the bar at Taro Grill on Queen. Somewhere we need a shot of me at the booze can in the alleyway behind Yonge Street, where some girl I kind of know shows me her tiny fake tits in the washroom before offering me a line of coke. And another shot of the booze can in the alley behind Queen Street, where everyone is playing dice games for money.

Politics – let’s get some politics in. Show me at a Citizens for Local Democracy rally in a completely packed church in 1997 as John Ralston Saul gives a speech. And drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with Jack Layton at the Only Café on the Danforth later that year, plotting his campaign (jump quickly to Marilyn Churley in tears at his party on election night). We can find a shot of the Trampoline Hall vs David Miller event at the Gladstone in 2003, with Jane Jacobs on stage holding a big horn up to her ear so she can hear questions from the audience. (That’s me there taking notes.) And then add some footage of that night in 2005 when a public-space activist showed me how to shut off the lights on a billboard.

How can we be at 30 seconds already? I need to add a shot of me and Rebecca eating a tasting menu at Accolade in 1999, and me proposing to her over “cold tea” at a Chinese restaurant on Spadina in 2000, and a shot of me and her – Rebecca in bare feet and her wedding dress – stumbling up Bay Street to our room at the Sutton Place, our honeymoon luggage slung over our backs, on the night we were married in 2002.

And then we need me holding my newborn son Colum in the delivery room at Mount Sinai Hospital in 2006, his mother sleeping beside us after three days of labour. And Colum at his favourite places: the High Park Zoo, the ferry to the Island, running around in the middle of the street at the Junction Arts Festival, on a pony ride at a fair in Scarborough.

Here’s a tagline: “My Toronto doesn’t fit into a 30-second commercial.” Then squeeze in shots of wandering the deserted financial district in the early morning waiting for the subway to start running, of teenagers fist fighting on Kingston Road, of kids playing on the Henry Moore sculptures in front of the ROM, of the staff of a literary magazine drinking wine in the park on McCaul, of grown men playing a burby tournament in a schoolyard….

Originally published in Eye Weekly, October 18, 2007.

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.