Cities

Toronto: Justice Denied

Is Toronto being taken over by hucksters,
fauxhemians, and the “knowledge economy”?

by
• 5,589 words

We always entered the Globe building on Front Street by the back door, through the elevated parking lot, walking up the car ramp from Wellington Street. Using the back ramp was a sign of belonging; the front doors, with their heavy festooning of art deco ornament, were for official visitors and other outsiders. Richard Needham, the legendary columnist, who looked like a proto-grunge street person with his baggy dungarees and woodsman’s shirts, descended the ramp every noontime, smoking greedily, having filed his day’s quota of diary entries and caustic replies to readers’ letters. “There goes a living legend,” the city editor said to me one day. Barely living, I thought.

Inside the chaotic newsroom, not yet colonized by cubicles but instead a press of second-hand desks, we shared the boxy computer terminals, because there weren’t enough of them. We took rewrite by cradling the rotary phone’s heavy-spined handset on the shoulder. We would loiter outside in the parking lot, or on the ramp itself, to smoke or swap gossip. It was there that a writer colleague told me he had just received a six-figure advance for a book about a retail chain — something in those days I found hard to imagine, almost mythological.

The ramp was the portal to another world, or at least to the underbelly of the one I usually occupied. Each morning, I walked into a city of injustice, crime, death, and optimism. I worked at the Globe for five years during the 1980s, alternating with terms at graduate school in Britain and the US, and had the raw experiences every general-assignment city desk reporter has. It was always a shock to take up the job again after months of just sitting around and reading.

I saw my first dead body, a woman incinerated by a gas explosion. I walked up to male prostitutes on Church Street, fence-jumping Jamaican cricketers on the Upper Canada College grounds, gypsy fortune tellers in Yorkville, and illegal drag racers on the long-deserted lanes of industrial-park Markham, and asked them to tell me their stories. I called a grumpy staff sergeant at 52 Division every night for two weeks, trying to get him to tell me something I could print. I was threatened, in person and over the phone. I got kicked out of a corrupt landlord’s office in Regent Park. I did title searches at City Hall to find out who owned what. I sat in the harbourmaster’s office when it still had a view of the harbour and no steak house on the ground floor. I admired his Italian suit and bland charm.

I listened to a lot of politicians and lawyers lie. I talked to athletes, actors, cops, firefighters, burglars, junkies, and a guy who walked into the newsroom one day and claimed The Bridge on the River Kwai was a hoax. I missed the key line at a coroner’s inquest — a young girl, describing the accident that claimed her sister’s life, said “I felt myself drowning” — because I was distracted by a pretty reporter from another paper. I sat in the small bedroom of a man in Mississauga with my shoes off and my notepad out. His wife, daughter, two sons, and mother-in-law had all just died in the Air India explosion. I had knocked on his door and been admitted like an honoured guest instead of the intruder I was. He handed me photos of his family. “My whole world goes dark,” he said.

City desk reporting, at least in its ideal romantic form, is a kind of flânerie. Unlike their investigative colleagues, city reporters aspire to the status of purposeless walker and connoisseur of the city’s sights, smells, tastes, and textures. In the newspaper business, this is still called newsgathering, but it more often feels like loitering with intent.

The great forebears of the city man are Addison and Johnson, even Hemingway, not Woodward and Bernstein. This idealized city man floats through the streets with nothing but a notepad and his curiosity, taking down dialogue, overhearing gossip, noticing details. Like the flâneur, he makes his aimless desire a project — his very aimlessness providing the only necessary aim. A better scene, a bigger story lies ever around the next corner, and the next. I was twenty-two years old, and I had a business card and a laminated police ID, both of which said I was a newspaperman. I walked around my city with a new freedom and keenness. I saw it as grittier, uglier, and tougher than before — “before” being my confinement to that misleadingly porous enclave of self-absorption we call the university.

In truth, I was on specific assignments most of the time, and we drove more often than we walked. As well, flânerie’s devotion to the “totalizing male gaze” was already unpopular in the politically correct 1980s. Still, the notion of flânerie retains an important truth: we are all flâneurs.

Each one of us must negotiate the streets of our cities, mean or otherwise, every day. What is revealed by this is that the hardbitten corners are no more real than the clean and civil ones — but also no less. Toronto exists in more than one way at a time; it is many places at once. Its architecture and plan make this obvious over and over. Consider the mundane gift, not especially common in North American cities, of having its major university right in the middle of town, traffic and commerce flowing around and through it. Even at the time of my city man adventures, switching off bouts of study with days of bylines and interviews, I could not decide which site felt more natural.

I was studying theories of justice for half the year, wading through the muddy shallows of a great but unjust city the other half, and one side always called back to the other, making claims of greater reality. The passing years have found me returned to what people consider a cloister, but which is better seen as an incubator of ideas. The value of the urban university is undiminished, because, among many other things, it keeps asking us to define and refine what we mean by a just city.

The hucksters and tourism shills tell us that Toronto is an intellectual city, a city of ideas. Even as I write, its expansive creative class is busy racking up the social capital we’re told is essential to postmodern civic success. In one sense, this is hardly news. The year I arrived at the University of Toronto, 1980, Marshall McLuhan died. His influence was so pervasive that his physical existence had been rendered almost superfluous, a development he would have appreciated. Harold Innis, less well known but arguably more brilliant, had tracked the change, already well under way, of Canada from being a resource basket to a linked series of communications nodes held together by thought. Northrop Frye was still lecturing and would last another decade. All of them had long since put Toronto on any map of ideas worth consulting, long before newsmagazine polls and website ratings. None of us who studied here, living in big shared houses in Kensington or the then less-gentrified Annex, had any doubt about that.

That fact has not changed. But the economic and social conditions of ideas have changed, here as much as elsewhere, putting the city on the brink of a certain kind of identity, and a certain kind of success: a creative-class boom town. My suggestion is that we are thinking about this possibility in exactly the wrong way. The question for Toronto now is not whether ideas can flourish in this place, because demonstrably they do, but what consequences in justice that flourishing will entail. On the edge of new identities and possibilities, what is our idea of justice?

Most recent discussion of “idea cities” has betrayed a strange lack of political awareness. The talk has largely revolved around first the fact and then the consequences of what Richard Florida breathlessly called “the Big Morph.” In The Rise of the Creative Class, his oddly hucksterish 2002 work of bestselling urban geography, Florida noted more than just his central thesis: that a city’s economic success could be accurately correlated with its “Bohemian Index” — the number of “writers, designers, musicians, actors and directors, painters and sculptors, photographers and dancers” to be found in its urban population. He also argued that this group was increasingly indistinguishable from the business leaders and entrepreneurs that a pre-postmodern picture would have seen as the creatives’ natural opponents. Instead of opposing, they were blending. “Highbrow and lowbrow, alternative and mainstream, work and play, ceo and hipster are all morphing together today,” he wrote. “At the heart of the Big Morph is a new resolution of the centuries-old tension between two value systems: the Protestant work ethic and the bohemian ethic.”

The point had already been illustrated at length in 2000 by the journalist David Brooks in his sometimes wry work of amateur social theory (Brooks called it “comic sociology”) Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. The fusion of bourgeois and bohemian — hence the unfortunate bobo, deliberately reminiscent of clowns and monkeys — resulted as a natural consequence of the information age, creating a new upper class, to quote the book’s subtitle. The postmodern information economy, which McLuhan (and Innis before him) had so deftly analyzed, has created, for the first time in history, a situation where ideas are as “vital to economic success as natural resources or finance capital.” Bobos are the natural aristocrats of an idea-based world. If twenty-first-century Toronto, perhaps Canada tout court, was trending away from material resources and toward non-material ones — a think nation, a concept incubator — this was all very good news indeed.

“These Bobos define our age,” Brooks claimed. “They are the new establishment. Their hybrid culture is the atmosphere we all breathe. Their status codes now govern social life.” The images of bobo work and play are now stock-in-trade, if not mere cliché, cultural description: suv-driving, npr-listening, Adorno-quoting upper-middles who live for expensive fair trade coffee and organic baby arugula, and hang a Free Tibet flag over the three-car garage of the house in Berkeley with a three-bridge view (or in Toronto, a lake view, proximity to Starbucks, a radio tuned to cbc, and access to Cumbrae Farms organic beef ).

Such images naturally generate absurdity, especially since cultural habits are always also ethical ones. “The visitor to Fresh Fields is confronted with a big sign that says ‘Organic Items today: 130,’” Brooks wrote. “This is like a barometer of virtue. If you came in on a day when only 60 items were organic, you’d feel cheated. But when the number hits the three figures, you can walk through the aisles with moral confidence.”

Brooks was even more enthusiastic than Florida about the possibilities of the new reality. The bobos, he argued, are an “elite based on brainpower” rather than family ties. In an especially hilarious riff, he dismantles the presuppositions of the New York Times wedding announcement page by arguing that intelligence has replaced pedigree as the basic sign of social distinction. “On the Times weddings page, you can almost feel the force of the mingling sat scores,” he says. “It’s Dartmouth marries Berkeley, mba weds Ph.D., and summa cum laude embraces summa cum laude (you rarely see a summa settling for a magna — the tension in such a marriage would be too great).” And so “dumb good-looking people with great parents have been displaced by smart, ambitious, educated, and antiestablishment people with scuffed shoes.” The resulting smugness and apparent cultural contradictions are, he suggests, like a $5 latte, actually worth the price. “Today the culture war is over, at least in the realm of the affluent,” the book concluded. “The centuries-old conflict has been reconciled.”

Despite the upbeat, almost triumphant tone of these claims, and the swift popularity of the Big Morph thesis, the reality was, as usual, a lot more complex and depressing. Brooks and Florida were both writing before the events of September 11, 2001, changed the political and cultural landscape of the United States. The red and blue zones of the stolen 2004 election — comically rendered by a cartoonist as “Jesusland” and “the United States of Canada” — revealed a nation just as riven as ever, if no longer along the yuppie/hippie lines that had been reliably firm since the time when the yuppies were captains of industry and the hippies were the poets and philosophers of the Concord school. There was no Big Morph, just a redrawing of lines and a shifting of cultural weight: multiple mini-morphs.

Structural injustices, meanwhile, remained as devastating as ever, disparities in wealth growing even more obscene under cover of this cultural-critical sophistication. One critic called Brooks “the idiot savant of social analysis” — great at discerning the telling detail, but wholly unable to see the political meaning of anything. Brooks had it both ways, mocking the bobos even as he celebrated them, laying down pseudo-intellectual cover for the cheerful complacency at their heart. The happy claims for bobo meritocracy, meanwhile, are, over and over, revealed as just a new version of the old lie called the American Dream, which functions mutatis mutandis among the privileged on both sides of the border. Ivy League universities — surely an essential bobo gateway — still support legacy admissions, alumni giving, and private investment: all facts guaranteed to ensure success by lineage rather than talent.

Even in the places where a bobo fusion is arguably real, such as turn-of-the-millennium Toronto, with its Queen Street mix of money and art, its Spoke Club social porousness of media, finance, and the arts, the development was, as many critics pointed out, actually very bad news for the creative types. The bobo fusion, such as it was, deprived them of their natural enemies, not to mention the source of much of their self-image, namely that sacrificing worldly success for creative fulfillment demonstrated moral superiority. Erase that shift in value — project all value on a single scale that blends creativity and wealth — and many formerly successful bohemians are revealed as mere losers. As significantly, the single-value scale eliminated the possibility of satire, something already noted as a casualty of a celebrity culture in which no outrage or indignity is more imaginable than the nightly reality.

The Toronto-based critic Ryan Bigge noted that the idea of the artist or writer as an entrepreneur used to be a joke, an essential piece of the healthy overall opposition between bourgeois and bohemian. In his novel Babbitt (1922), Sinclair Lewis uses the eponymous character, a witless champion of civic boosterism, to make the point. Speaking at the Annual Get-Together Fest of the Zenith Real Estate Board, quintessential zippy go-getter G. F. Babbitt notes one of the great prizes of America’s dedication to progress. “In other countries,” he says, “art and literature are left to a lot of shabby bums living in attics and feeding on booze and spaghetti, but in America the successful writer or picture-painter is indistinguishable from any other decent business man.”

The natural but unfortunate reaction to the collapse of a value distinction is a rear-guard action. As fauxhemians move in to gentrify an area, generating Starbucks franchises and Pottery Barn outlets, driving property values up and grotty art galleries down, the “real” bohemians, about to lose their studios, lofts, and self-image, rise up in protest. Claims of authenticity are made, ever more emphatically and frantically, in an attempt to ward off the threat by force of magic. Justin Davidson, on the blog of the New Yorker’s Alex Ross, wrote with some dismay about the new concert hall planned for Hamburg, Germany, designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, which adds a complex billowing of glass sails to an existing harbourfront warehouse. This latest example of repurposing industrial buildings as cultural venues joins the Tate Modern reconstruction in London (also by Herzog & de Meuron) to the creepy extermination camp vibe of Toronto’s own Distillery District project.

Davidson summed up the central point this way: “I have to admit to some queasiness about the current enthusiasm for fitting out power plants, factories and warehouses as post-industrial pleasure domes. Isn’t there something inherently decadent about taking the means of production and transforming [it] into the means of consumption for the bourgeoisie?” These repurposed downtown workhorses, while clearly a good idea in an age of unbridled sprawl, rubbed the authenticity types the wrong way, stirring a vague unease.

This reaction is of course foredoomed to incoherence, a fact indicated not least by Davidson’s use of that telltale nostalgic adjective decadent. Decadent! In an age that celebrates decadence as its baseline assumption, in our always-already-sold-out culture, this is a charge without purchase, a holdover from a distant age of political belief. Consumption is what is produced by a post-industrial economy. In fact, we could go further. We no longer merely produce consumption; in an experiential economy — a post-post-industrial one — the main product is ourselves as consumers, under the sign of consumption. And we consume that spectral product even as we produce it, cannibalizing our shopaholic identities with every entertainment choice or shopping district purchase. The process may be given a name: endocolonization.

The simplest reason the boho reaction cannot succeed, however, is that bohemian authenticity, like coolness more generally, is part of a spectral economy. In Thorstein Veblen’s terms, it is a positional good; that is, it depends for its value on the ability to differentiate one person from another. Like all positional goods, absent the relevant other person — otherwise known as social context — a good loses value. In the case of boho authenticity, as with cool, a good itself is not even a thing, so when the context shifts you are left with nothing except a disgruntled memory. Music that, once cool, is rendered uncool by mainstream success — the ever-familiar cycle — is still music. You can still listen to it, maybe even enjoy it “ironically,” possibly phase it back into cool somewhere down the fashion line. But authenticity is nothing without the inauthentic comparator.

When aesthetically inclined people with money choose to look and act, live and talk just like poor artists, the poor artists cannot win, because the rules of the game have changed. Indeed, the game is over; there is no game. And authenticity, together with its identity-defining properties, disappears in a puff of self-referential smoke.

A respondent to Davidson, musicologist Phil Ford, noted that he used to think of the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis — a converted brick warehouse — as “a rec center for bobos.” He counselled a sort of uneasy, or maybe defeated, acceptance of the value collapse. “The unpalatable truth of the arts world in America is that you have to learn to love bobos,” Ford said. “Or at least not long to see them hanging from the lampposts of some post-revolutionary Artsylvania. Because, let’s face it, if you’re working in the arts, you’re not too different from the clientele. Hate on the bobos and you’re just hating on yourself. And middle-class self-loathing is so cliché.”

Well, who cares? What impact, if any, does all this have on a city’s life, let alone its level of justice?

For many people, none at all. This is a tempest in an artsy teapot. The rearguard actions will run their futile course, creating lots of unhappy bohemians, but the rest of the town has no stake, hence no interest, in the endgame. To them, this is indeed two kinds of privileged types having a pointless struggle over their narcissistic identities. But the Florida/Brooks idea — also, in fact, the more humane Jane Jacobs idea that precedes both — is that creative-class success has a trickle-down effect on a city’s prosperity, not just its appeal. Mixed-use neighbourhoods and human-scale buildings create street life, lower crime rates, and encourage civility. The more art galleries, restaurants, jazz clubs, theatre companies, and great architecture a city can boast, the thicker its tax base and the livelier its economic growth. Given the background presupposition that a rising tide floats all boats, or merely that tax wealth translates into redistributed benefits, the bottom-line claim is that we’re all better off living in a Big Fusion city. But are we?

This question is never easy to answer. Jacobs’ own optimism about neighbourhoods is predicated on a specific normative position, derived negatively as an objection to what she mocks as the Radiant Garden City Beautiful school of suburban growth. The inner-city alternative she proposes is just as top-down, however — a fact that makes her argument against “prescriptive” urban planning prima facie contradictory. For Jacobites, prescriptive planning is fine, as long as they get to do the prescribing: thou shalt not build tall; thou shalt not make condos available to shallow wealthy people.

At the same time, through no fault of her own, the neighbourhoods Jacobs celebrates as exemplary in The Death and Life of Great American Cities — the West Village in New York, the North End in Boston — have been annexed by “inauthentic” moneyed types as surely as our own King Street West, or, indeed, the Bloor Street Annex, where Jacobs spent the last years of her life. This is probably inevitable. The very things that make these good places to live make them targeted places for the super-rich to live. The West Village, for all its charm, might as well be a gated community when it comes to housing costs. Success breeds success, and then failure.

Behind these charges lurk some bigger questions. Is a vibrant city even available to all those who live there? Who benefits from, for example, Daniel Libeskind’s vaunted renovation of the Royal Ontario Museum? Who gets value from the art world makeovers of the Drake and Gladstone hotels? In one obvious sense, merely the few thousand (or even hundred) people who regularly visit and enjoy those amenities. In a subtler assessment of urban value, though, we all derive benefit from these changes in our urban fabric. The museum is a monument as well as a house of artifacts, there to feast the eyes. The culture centre is a destination we need not visit in order to like the fact that it is there in case we want to. Toronto has, in the two decades since I was on the city beat, finally become a city where, as E. B. White said of New York, one has the freedom not to attend.

In addition to these subtleties, which only partly mitigate objections to creative-class prosperity, the notion of an idea city is afflicted by a peculiar conceptual blind spot. Suppose we are an idea city. Suppose being so means everyone is somehow better off. We could go on chasing our own tails as a leading creative city, but where would that get us? Where, in all the so-called creativity, is our idea of the idea that matters most in an idea economy? Again I ask, where is our idea of justice?

Surprisingly, given otherwise good intentions, we don’t talk about this. We talk about growth, about wealth, about real estate. We talk about sprawl, that great destroyer of common civic feeling, that anti-glue. From a combination of policy and economics, 5 million of us are now flung, barely coherent, across nearly 6,000 square kilometres of territory. We talk about cultural diversity and its challenges, whipsawing from self-congratulation to recrimination. We talk, sometimes, about beauty, or the sore lack of it on almost every corner of this vast, disorganized place. We talk about activism now and then, our utopian ideals aired in jaunty collections of optimistic diy culture. We even talk about a subject close to justice, namely civility. This is, we might say, the symptomatic presentation of a deeper disease. How, despite a reputation for politeness, we are getting ruder and rougher by the day. How we never look at one another on the street. How we are all wrapped up in ourselves, 5 million small packages shunting along, back and forth, in the vast spiderweb of highways, subway lines, streetcar routes, and sidewalks. Symptom noticed. But what then?

Toronto is not a city in the modern sense of a unified whole. I suspect it never will be, and probably need not try. Toronto is, instead, a linked series of towns loosely held together by the gravitational force of its downtown core and the pinned-in-place effect of the surveillance rod we call the CN Tower. Like Canada in general, that triumph of communications technology in defiance of all nationalist sense, Toronto is postmodern in both its geography and its psychogeography. There is a physical centre, in the sense of a summing of vectors like a centre of gravity, but there is no normative or mythic one, no single agora or narrative. This much is obvious, and often said. But we continue to fail in grasping its political significance. The modern justice idea, to paraphrase liberal eminence John Rawls, is that in a given population everyone should enjoy as much liberty as possible, consistent with the least well off being as well off as possible. You are free to exploit your talents and advantages to your benefit, as long as doing so generates no deficit, and ideally a benefit, for those less talented or advantaged. (Rawls says we would all favour this idea, if we did not know which talents or advantages we might have — the so-called “veil of ignorance.”) Thus, for example, your increases in wealth may be taxed, and the resulting revenue channelled back to those who share the social space with you, your fellow citizens.

The crippling fiction of modern justice is not so much that of the veil of ignorance, which is more a device of representation than the background assumption of a coherent population. Nations offer such stable populations, at least to a greater degree than cities, and that is one reason why important tax bases are typically national, not civic. But cities are characterized by movement, not only internal — the essential hustle of the city’s life, its coursing blood, moving at every speed from languorous flânerie to harried commute — but also over its thresholds. Even if we attempted a sort of rationalist solution to the problem, such as a general justice rule that all those affected by a decision must be party to it, we are still left with a fistful of prior unsolved questions. Who is part of a city’s population? Who are my fellow citizens? What do I owe them — not in distribution of goods and services, but in distributions of care and, especially, power?

For a threshold city, on the brink of something that might be greatness, here is an appropriately liminal suggestion: justice in the city means a radical openness to the other. Not just an appreciation of the other as a fellow-traveller, or worse a competitor for scarce goods and prizes; but a sense of the other as capable of prompting a displacement of self, a loosening of the stable ropes of identity.

Modern distributive models of justice rightly place emphasis on the fate of the least well off; in a non-distributive idea of justice, we can update and expand this idea: a city, like a people, shall be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. These may not necessarily be the poorest: consider the systematic disadvantage, in an idea economy, of truncated education, learning disability, and low access to the technologies of success. Torontonians talk about the value of otherness, celebrating cultural diversity in word, but they do not walk that walk. The smug inwardness of our de facto stealth neighbourhoods, the vertical gated communities of condo developments, the lifetime preoccupation with the averted gaze — all this shows city not confident enough to engage with itself. The gravity of downtown is reduced, as so often, to the cash nexus of shopping, democracy soured into a form of narcissistic pathology and sense of entitlement for a few, invisibility for the many. Race and class, poverty and hatred cannot find a point of intervention when the discursive space of the city is limited to surfaces.

The desires of the city’s existing life are real. We all want a chance at identity, at joy even. But those desires are too often deflected, or perverted. We have spectacle without engagement, growth without hope. Busy trying to convince ourselves we are trending in the right direction, we don’t stop to ask of ourselves, what is a city for? The oldest answer we know is also the best: a city is an opportunity for justice, for realizing something greater than the sum of individual desires, where we judge ourselves by how we treat the least well off. Because justice is not a static condition, but instead an ongoing achievement, it concerns not just the present and proximate but also the distant and future. Cities, like persons, are neither entirely material nor entirely spectral; they are reducible neither to their built forms nor their inhabitants at any given time. They are self-replicating entities, layered systems of movement and intercourse that never settle, even for a moment, creating what Hannah Arendt calls the political “space of appearances,” which both predates and outlasts you or me. Libeskind himself has said, with truth, that cities exist not only in space but also in time. In the built-environment city, inhabited by citizens, space becomes time, and vice versa. The justice of a city can never be confined to the interests of the “small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about,” as G. K. Chesterton labelled it. It is always guided by the Such a city starts with you, on the street, lifting your gaze and looking, for once, into the face of that person passing. 65 oppressions of the past as well as the interests of the future.

Justice is thus the constant pursuit of the possible, the idea of what is to come. It is not a steady state, nor a fixed outcome; still less a institutionalized plan or centrally directed program. This last point merits special emphasis, because the idea of a just city is often misunderstood as the vision of a Just City, a City on the Hill. Here, for example, is Kingsley Amis weighing in on the point with typical bullying pseudo-logic. Defending his opposition to communism and decline into conservative complacency, Amis noted that he had “seen how many of the evils of life — failure, loneliness, fear, boredom, inability to communicate — are ineradicable by political means, and that attempts so to eradicate them are disastrous.” He continued: “The ideal of the brotherhood of man, the building of the Just City is one that cannot be discarded without lifelong feelings of disappointment and loss. But if we are to live in the real world, discard it we must.” The telltale false dichotomy of “real world” and something else — the world of theory, perhaps, or Theory — gives away the fallacy in play. Failure, loneliness, boredom, and the rest may well be ineradicable, simply because they are part of the human condition, but political means must be among the ways we address them. I don’t say they are the only way, and we can agree that some attempts at authoritarian eradication have proven dangerous. But what is equally true, in the one and only world there is, is that all those conditions are, among other things, political. We don’t seek a Just City where they are absent, only a just city where we can.

Contrary to the standard Machiavellian objection, justice of this sort is not antithetical to civic glory. Though a city in pursuit of glory may neglect justice, the opposite does not hold: a truly just city is always a glorious one, because it allows greatness even as it looks to the conditions of strangeness posed by the other. It does not oppose development, including grandiose development, for the sake of some cramped sense of its own modesty; but it does demand, over and over, that all development be, at some level, in the service of everyone. Such a city starts with you, on the street, lifting your gaze and looking, for once, into the face of that person passing. This urban gaze is not male, or female; it is not casual or demeaning; it is not totalizing; it is liberating. It’s the gaze that recognizes, in the other, a fellow citizen, which is to say one who has vulnerabilities, desires, and ideas, just as you do.

These thoughts have been themselves a deliberate exercise in conceptual flânerie. Sometimes you have to walk before you can run. Sometimes, too, walking, not getting there, is the real point. We have a choice before us. We can continue to congratulate ourselves on how interesting and vibrant and creative we — some of us — are. Or we can bend some of that intellectual energy to the hard task of asking what we — all of us — could be. The just city is a process, an emergent property of complexity, not a steady state or final outcome. Like the elusive object of the flâneur’s desire, it is always slipping around the next corner. Toronto, like any potentially great city, is always on the verge of it. That’s why we keep walking, looking, glancing, noticing — and talking, to one another, about what matters to us.

Mark Kingwell teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto.