Frontier City. Toronto on the Verge of Greatness
Shawn Micallef, 2016
Signal $29.95 hard cover
Frontier City is about political events in Toronto mid decade and its author’s mission to understand his massive city.
By political events, of course we mean Rob Ford and his train wreck of a mayoralty.
Micallef is a writer, academic and walker. He’s a believer in seeing for himself. Starting with a Ford Nation barbecue (where lots of people were apparently perfectly nice!) he then goes off into the Los Angeles-scaled sprawl from where Ford drew so much of his resentful strength. It took a couple of years of this direct experience, getting around to the far flung wards of Toronto and walking them in the company of twelve political underdogs from the 2014 election, to get the job done. A worthy effort, indeed. If you want the real thing as to how political and social reality work together in the super-sprawl of the GTA nowadays you won’t do better than Frontier CIty.
Of course, this blog would like life to be simpler than Micalleff’s findings. We admit our emotions would be more satisfied by a deeper hatred of Big Rich Rob and his whack job performance as ‘mayor’. Frontier City is why we have (and need) public intellectuals. Bloggers can do only so much of the heavy lifting. Micallef sorts through a huge number of things within the realms of history, planning, economics to create a picture of where Toronto is at.
The picture is disturbing and tough to balance. After decades of looking to the future many of us can be forgiven for wondering why the present is so crap.
Consider the 3-billion dollar single-stop subway for Scarborough. That’s just one self-inflicted thing driving us crazy and showing us our faults as we try to realize our potential. Things ought to be so good here that electing a fucked up slob like Rob Ford ought to have been the last thing on anybody’s mind. That guy cancelled Transit City at the cost of $65m dollars. And his thing, apparently, was saving money? We really may be on the edge of a dark age and a vast nobody-to-blame-but-ourselves wastage.
Public transit issues appear again and again in Frontier City. All the really cheerful things that suburban-poverty.com trades in are found, too, from bed bugs to tower blocks. Anyone looking into the recent history of Canada’s biggest community will find this book a worthy read. I would have liked an index, maybe a further reading list as well and a map. These handy things don’t cost much and they up the value and relevance of hardcover books – objects that typically now cost several hours pay at minimum wage.
Even more, I’d have liked at least one chapter on solutions going forward. A more direct consideration of neoliberalism, the grand grinding ideology of our inequitable times might have helped as well. The passage about infrastructure and storytelling was great, powerful and could be a book someone ought to write.
Frontier CIty isn’t quite angry enough for us but we really liked this one and think you will, too.
Subdivided. City Building In An Age of Hyper-Diversity
Jay Pitter & John Lorinc, editors
2016. Coach House Books, Toronto
279 pages. $20.95 CAN
This collection of essays was much tougher reading than we expected. After nearly six years blogging about social difficulty in the suburbs we don’t expect to be unnerved by our topic. Subdivided unnerved us.
The good old days of multiculturalism, in which eastern and southern Europeans (and maybe a few other groups), found Toronto adjusting to, and eventually welcoming, them are long gone. In its place, we now see an ever bigger and richer Toronto home to newcomers in a living arrangement of hyper-diversity. This infinitely more complex Toronto is by turns depressing, ugly, unjust and unequal despite recurrent commentary about its peacefulness, high socio-cultural potential and general awesomeness.
Subdivided delivers unto us many a less-than-comfortable truth. There’s too many people here in isolated lives centred on a combination of shit jobs and lacklustre housing. Reading Subdivided made us feel like Toronto’s diversity is the stuff of an Adam Curtis documentary, another nightmarish expression of the global economic machine and its operating system, neoliberalism.
Toughness of presentation is what makes this collection of essays so amazing, …so real. It’s hard to think of any other such wellspring of direct, sustained observation of what it is really like to live here. A chapter on Brampton, for example, brings forth a wave of nausea faster than a jar of expired mayonnaise. ‘Browntown’ is next door to suburban-poverty.com’s backyard, we can attest to the truth of what is said about Brampton. Same for another entry on Mississauga, which is literally our backyard. You’d almost wonder why Canada bothers attracting new residents to its Sprawlvilles. Except perhaps as a cynical ploy to increase domestic markets and the tax base and to fulfill some corporate/ideological role in the global economy.
What to do? Good transit, a strong social safety net, higher wages, police reform, and affordable housing would help us toward a healthy, cross-connected society according to the essays in Subdivided. None of these things will be achieved quickly or cheaply, though.
We better get busy before something really awful comes of the present lame and indifferent regime of city building in greater Toronto. Stress is not good for the indivdual or the community. Stress and reaction brought us Rob Ford, the scale model mock up of Donald Trump. Who knows what the stresses of race and class we are leaving in place will inflict on us? We aren’t Milwaukee yet but how much longer will we sleepwalk into this?
We suggest future editions of Subdivided include a stamped, pre-addressed thank younote readers can mail to the one percent.
Buy Subdivided for your unnerved urban affairs shelf.
Evicted. Poverty and Profit in the American City
Crown Publishers, NY
CAN $37.00 hardcover
What a knockout. The more we think about this book the more we have to admire it. Matthew Desmond took on his subject in a way that very few authors can: by going and living it bodily for an extended period of time.
Ethnography is a discipline within anthropology and sociology that involves direct observation of social interaction from within, or very close to, that interaction. Milwaukee’s slum apartments and a large, dumpy (yet lucrative) trailer park are the settings at hand. They are representative ones, unfortunately, in an America still longing for recovery.
Evicted reads often like a novel. Desmond’s presentation of a brace of poor people, and those who make a living off of them, with historical background and socioeconomic data is nearly seamless. Without this phenomenon Evicted would have been pretty tough going. There’s a lot of serious bullshit and misery in America these days.
Indeed, the constant churn of misfortune in this book is awful. Bouncing from one crap apartment in some bad neighbourhood to the next, the individuals Desmond lived beside are constantly stretched, fighting to stay ahead of total disaster. Eviction is something of a new force acting on the lives of America’s poor, falling particularly hard on top of African American lives. Desmond describes eviction as a handmaiden to mass incarceration. The worst part of it all is just how lucrative the poor are for landlords, property owners, moving-and-storage companies.
Eviction’s depressing panorama is contemporary America for a lot of people. Desmond tells us that nearly one third of Milwaukee’s evicted population are black females even though they are only nine percent of the general population (page 98). Stuff like this is crazy. It makes for quite depressing reading.
To be truthful, we nearly gave up a couple of times on all the rough apartments and dodgy building owners that are encountered here. What do you think having your personal effects piled on the curb feels like because you fell behind on the rent? Evicted is important, though. Much of its reality remains unstudied, undocumented and ignored by society at large. This is not good, Americans deserve better.
As optimistic Canadians we would have liked it if half of Evicted had been like the twenty-page epilogue: stronger on solutions and positive statements rather than the narrative of bad luck and systemic grief. We could urge the proactive adoption of specific policies to protect Canada’s post-industrial communities.
Desmond believes an expanded housing voucher program would liberate people like those he wrote about. If such a program were large enough and well-funded it would probably function almost like a universal basic income, helping to reinforce a socio-economic level that nobody need fall below.
Hard reading on an important topic for anyone interested in contemporary American life. Almost made easy by the author’s level of commitment and writing skills. Buy this book.
evictedbook.com for the book trailer, photos, links and other features
Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America by Tim Wise
City Lights Books Open Media Series
San Francisco, CA
Writing about poverty isn’t the easiest task. We know from our own modest efforts around here that the topic can leave you feeling wound up and put down at the same time. Scale that to the level of social difficulty in the United States right now and you get an idea of the challenge before Tim Wise when he set out to produce Under the Affluence.
What this book unpacks is a layered and ridiculously well entrenched set of social conditions. A damaging racialization of US poverty is one of several really nasty things emanating from a set of mainstream social values that serve to uphold a very troubling level of inequality described and analyzed in detail. Much of the book is about the beat down job done on the behaviour of poor Americans and the adoration bestowed on the winners in the world’s largest economy for their behaviour.
Yes, the so-called one percent and their privileges appear early and often in Under the Affluence. So does the so-called culture of poverty which has given so much mileage to right-wing economics from the late seventies right through to the crash of 2008. It is nothing less than crazy, the levels of righteousness, resentment and sheer magic thinking that accompany that new class of super elites shaping our neighbour’s life. Wise looks for the reality and documents his positions like a scholar. Wise’s book is a lucid and commendable piece of work on the topic of social conditions and social attitudes. It’s powerful, as good a work as any reader in this area could wish for or humble blogger like ourselves hope to emulate.
Like we say when we find quality of thought and effort in a piece of writing on poverty and social difficulty: buy this book!
Have you been thinking that a post-Rob Ford Toronto is ready for sane voices in dialogue on the difficult issues of the day? Voices for reform?
We certainly have been. That made our discovery of The New Urban Agenda: The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area such a nice thing we knew we had to share it. Bill Freeman is looking to construct a reasonable vision of a well-managed city moving forward with democratic, humane, reasonable responses to popular needs. Freeman is a sociologist with a long record of publishing on urban and other issues. The voice of a calm and rational adult considering complex socio-economic and socio-political issues of place without resort to a crack pipe, and from a bicycle or bus rather than a Cadillac Escalade, ought to be the preferred manner of discussion. So much is at stake for Toronto in an unbalanced world that the failure to be grown up about our city is to ask for disaster.
For obvious reasons, suburban-poverty.com went ahead to the second chapter, devoted to inequality. Chapter seven came next, the one dealing with Toronto’s affordability, or rather its big-and-increasing lack thereof. The GTHA cannot continue to let things slide on either file. The author fully recognizes suburban poverty as one of the GTHA’s issues, distinguishing between the older inner suburbs and the sprawling outer suburbs. Transit, politics, the environment, and the planning process make up the rest of the book’s content. Freeman mixes solutions and positive examples into his descriptions of problematic situations. All of it is well handled.
Freeman obviously cares. He made his way to the company of a series of experts for insight when writing the book. More in the way of maps and infographics would have been nice. These things lend themselves so well to the topics at hand, even if they add to the cost of the book, that they are really obligatory. The jacket on this book, with its map that chops off part of Hamilton is kinda ugly, giving zero encouragement to bookstore browsers to think there might be a topic of enormous material importance between its covers.
Millions are directly affected by the problems and potentialities described in The New Urban Agenda. After the twisted and depressing Ford years with their lies, anger and general sickness there is a big need for Freeman’s brand of brainy yet warmhearted good sense. Professionals, elected officials, journalists and interested citizens as well as teachers and students in this broad area can journey into this book and find many things of interest. Hopefully that will happen to good effect for Canada’s biggest urban area.
As we say when we like one: “buy this book.”
We finished up reading Jarrett Walker’s manual of transit common sense while taking Mississauga Transit’s 42 bus on a Sunday. The new blue bus took a while to arrive at our stop because the route serves industrial and commercial areas on the edge of Mississauga near Pearson airport and the Brampton border. Luckily, the roads were quiet so the bus verily wailed along and we caught our transfers right away. Couldn’t have asked for a better Edge City demo of the basic tensions in transit geometry. Frequency versus coverage is a major issue, so is connectivity and routing and stop placement and span and headway.
These things, and more, make up the content of Human Transit, released in 2011 and again this spring as an e-book. If you read the introduction HERE you’ll see why this volume needs to be required reading for anybody going anywhere near the transit file. If only Toronto, struggling with a rotating set of election-time transit schemes, all compromises when compared to what the city actually needs, could find the clarity Mr. Walker has earned on the job from Portland to Sydney as a transit consultant.
Clearly thought out, appropriate public transit helps protect us against poverty, suburban or otherwise. Again and again on suburban-poverty.com we come across the tyranny of time and distance. The very essence of public life in the sprawl is about this difficulty too often. Human Transit is the way out.
Quality of thought badly needs to be applied to how we get around our cities and suburbs. Pressure for this elusive commodity seems only to grow by the hour as gasoline prices move upward with the excuse of recent new fighting in Iraq. The time is now. Our recommendation “read this book” has almost never been so easy to apply.
Sure, this stuff is kinda technical but the outcome of clarified thinking about public transit is better living for nearly all of us. We like the ease with which the author’s good sense approach wraps around the technical matters of how to do transit geometry. Almost any political decision maker, planner or activist should come away from a reading of this book with greater strength in what they are doing. It all comes down to a set of surprisingly simple things: once we pull our heads together, that is.
Transit really can enrich our lives and communities. General readers who use transit could find this book insightful if they are willing to embrace the details. Transit enthusiasts are probably already on this book. If Human Transit could make one reader’s bus ride across a big corner of Mississauga more exciting and empowering ( in a down-to-Earth kind of way ) imagine what that might mean at the scale of millions…
One of the delightful things about bicycling is the way that as a body of knowledge it feathers into almost any other topic so easily. This power to cross connect bikes to other realms, namely macro- and microeconomics, community design, human health and well-being, environmental change, political and personal development is well demonstrated by Portland, Oregon resident Elly Blue in Bikenomics. This is a book we urge suburban-poverty.com readers to buy, read and talk widely about. Blue is onto something powerful and she backs up her standpoint with a strong array of arguments supported by citations and lived experience. This is a fine book from a fine mind about a fine thing: that bikes might just save us.
Getting around is a huge topic on this blog and the propositions of suburban poverty are acknowledged and addressed in Blue’s book. Bicycle economics could ease a lot of the strain on nearly all North Americans by improving their health, bolstering local economies, easing the external costs of fossil fuel use and just making us feel good.
A little more encouragement in the form of modest levels of public investment and we could be pedalling past some of the most serious dangers of economic systems based on oil, real estate bubbles, easy credit, debt mechanisms, fiat currencies and global conflict. And why not? Central bankers and their fellow travellers in high finance and government have had their turn at directing things under neoconservative and neoliberal thought regimes for a while now, with rather mixed results.
Blue establishes a pretty sound case for bicycle economics while working through the real and imagined difficulties that hold things back. At family and individual level the costs of automobility are simply getting to be too much. At community and national level the costs are mind boggling: from ugly wars in Central Asia to lethal air pollution, accidents, and public debt. Public health issues from obesity to diabetes and too much sitting in cars and at desks can also be amended by bikenomic approaches.
Bikenomics reflects US experience in several cities and cites a couple of Canadian examples. The latter included this Toronto study supporting the idea that bike infrastructure boosts human health. Also close to Blue’s heart is the remarkably efficient way bike infrastructure lifts local entrepreneurs, especially smaller independent ones linked to each other instead of to corporate systems. While we have a long way to go in Canada and the United States until we see the level of normalization of cycling accepted in the Netherlands or Denmark it looks like we are poised for something of a bicycle renaissance.
Elly Blue’s Bikenomics is almost impossible to argue against given North American reality in 2014; though no doubt those entrenched in the status quo will give it the old college try. Bikenomics is ahead of the curve, yes, but we hope an alignment between the content of this little blue book and lived reality comes about quickly.
It kinda has to!
Elly Blue’s blog is here: takingthelane.com
Cycling Economies torontocycling.org report on bike lanes & local business
14-page .pdf file
See also: (327) Cyclonomics
If poverty in the USA is a machine then we now have the requisite manual for understanding how that machine works. And what a devilish device American poverty is in 2013: one in six Americans is below established poverty lines.
The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives witnesses the catastrophe in its first part. To read it is to follow a visceral route through the deindustrialized zones, crapped out suburbs, food pantries, homeless shelters, trailer parks and other depressing sights of poor America. Wages are shit, benefits few. Government programs are weak. Morale and health is stalling out for millions.
Sasha Abramsky’s newest book on hard times America grew from an ongoing project called Voices of Poverty. That was a gathering up of mini biographies of social difficulty intended as a counterweight to conservative narratives of poor people as responsible for their own misery and unworthy of meaningful public help. Starting with lived experience like this makes great sense when trying to understand the complexity and stubbornness of deprivation. Part two is about policy responses to this reality. Reportage attached to intellectual analysis makes The American Way of Poverty powerful and should help it be attractive to many types of readers.
Suburban poverty is not named as a specific ill. It needn’t be since it is simply a part of the furniture of the book. Underwater mortgages and pitifully low wages abound here.
What to do? Abramsky says Americans need a better social compact. While acknowledging the difficulty of the political moment in America he calls for a“fairness agenda.” His smart, hopeful ticket of repair tools includes:
- better measurements for describing poverty
- pension reform
- a major funding mechanism for higher education
- public works and regional development especially for high-unemployment areas
- excess profit taxes particularly on energy and financial industries
- estate and consumption tax increases
- higher income taxes on the wealthiest Americans
- more progressive tax policies for middle/low income earners
- reform and innovation in government service delivery – including 211 systems & cross platform benefit applications
- reductions in defence spending
- a changed approach to drug addiction & mental health care
- criminal justice system reform – especially sentencing reform
- reduced rates of incarceration
- Medicaid, SNAP, TANF reform – especially to access requirements
A mighty agenda this is, one requiring grass roots action and concerted federal effort. Many of the programs suggested will have high start up costs and require support from tax revenue. It’s fascinating to read what Abramsky has pulled together. Common sense shines out of his book all the time easing the dark aspects of the subject.
Sadly, many good ideas have to be accompanied by passages describing how they can be spun, for lack of a better word, to make them more appealling in a polarized environment that includes deeply internalized neoconservative and neoliberal values. Poverty in twenty-first century America cannot just be approached with a view to its elimination by the best possible technical means. The possibility of a technocratic approach modelled on the 1960s War on Poverty or the space program is not possible in America right now. Abramsky has to belabour himself early on in three ways because of the condition the national psychology is in. First, just to establish that America’s poverty is real, large in scale and worthy of everybody’s attention. Secondly, that it is a scandal not a tragedy. And thirdly, that there are multiple incentives for carefully applying well thought out correctives to poverty that will benefit all of American society.
Readers might have expected more comparisons to Canada along the way. Cultural expectations in both countries are still comparable for many people. Touchy Americans usually respond with contempt or disinterest to comparisons between the United States and say Sweden or Iceland, no matter the content of the comparison. Canada may have been a more useful object of comparison for the author. Canadians can also still be thankful that their poverty is modified by publically funded health care – something Americans have yet to fully get around to and which Abramsky advocates.
North of the border this book makes for alarming reading. Is this Canada’s future? Maybe our ailing neighbour will surprise us and the world. The country that was spending $5,000 a second at the height of the Iraq war might yet lift up its poor and discover it likes doing so along the way. What an example to the world that would be. In the meantime America’s poor can be thankful someone is out there recording their words and drawing together the best ideas on the topic of what is to be done.
Read this book.
The author is featured in this Democracy Now! segment:
“This sucker could go down.” George W. Bush, 2008.
Dmitry Orlov, writer and collapsatarian social critic has been travelling up this intellectual trail for so long now he is nearly out of sight of most North Americans. As his readership already knows he got to observe the failure of the Soviet Union fairly closely. His family were émigrés to the United States from Russia. Insider/outsider status in both worlds got Orlov thinking that the West was probably next into the garbage can of history. That thinking led to his 2008 book Reinventing Collapse: Soviet Experience and American Prospects. For this new book, Orlov describes the phenomenon of collapse in greater detail and at a wider scale.
It’s gonna be a doozy, folks.
You see, resource depletion has already fatally undermined industrial complexity. Where we are headed will only result in collapse, there isn’t going to be a slow deflation, soft landing, an energy-technology miracle. We could make some better decisions along the way but there will be a global, societal collapse by mid-century at the latest. Collapse is built into industrial society, and it is completely indifferent to your sucky feelings, good intentions, daydreams, denials and entitlements.
Casual observation, statistical analysis and computer modelling alike demonstrate there is simply not enough of anything left at the quantities and price needed by the machine to keep it fed. The financial systems supporting our reality require indefinite future growth so that debt can be repaid and new debt issued. Without a positive resource trend, especially for energy resources, the financial system no longer can remain the operating system for commerce.
The built forms and human behaviours related to suburban sprawl are the primary complex of North American economic life. It’s over for the whole enchilada, according to Orlov. Five Stages of Collapse is a well-argued, moderately priced opus and through it we can see the suburban poverty we look at here as an early stage of collapse, an unavoidable, terminal, and ever growing deviation from the original intention of suburbia as an expression of prosperity.
Expect five stages:
1. Financial collapse
2. Commercial collapse
3. Political collapse
4. Social collapse
5. Cultural collapse
The first two stages are about the end of money. That’s expected because lending at interest, usury, only works under a scheme of perpetual growth, otherwise it’s cyanide to everyone imbibing. Orlov feels we are already past this stage. For example, on page 32 he tells us blithely that “…the main use of the old industrial-era infrastructure will be as a plentiful source of scrap”.
To a great many people, his shtick is shocking, anti-social, unpatriotic, science-fictional, it might even seem like it’s the product of a poorly-adjusted mind, maybe even an ill one. Certainly Orlov is a remarkably critical man with little in our present approach to life not overdue for evisceration. “And now that most of the easy, cheap, plentiful reservoirs of these fossil fuels have been used up and what remains is difficult, risky, expensive to extract and rather small in size, we are due for another collapse. The difference that this collapse will be on a completely unprecedented scale, and global in scope,” he says.
Yikes! What will happen to our regional shopping malls, the condominium towers that seem to reproduce all over the landscape while we sleep?
The third element, political collapse, is when things start to get sticky. In fact, the shit truly hits the fan as the system dimly recognizes the terminal danger it is in and flails and claws angrily about in self-defence. Instead of naturalistic “new rules” developing from the ground up we see an official desperation that blends all too easily into serious violence, repression, corporate power and abuse and other heavy forms of control.
Plentiful precedent and our imagination indicate to us that the first three stages of collapse can get dicey fast. Weimar Germany comes to mind as an example of just how unhinged an advanced society can become. At the same time though, such collapses might offer humanity the opportunity to start anew with simpler, clearer goals, something often sought within the life of the individual so why not for our communities? Orlov also indicates via his own manner of living (on a box-hulled sailboat and as a writer) that a reasonably equipped individual with a supportive community, tribe or network could actually ignore a good part of the first three types of collapse. You know what, he’s actually a pretty optimistic end-of-the-world kind of guy …in a depressing way. His writerly acquaintances mention Orlov’s charm and wit very often.
It’s in the latter two stages of collapse that the potential for creativity and decency becomes exterminated and human society fails at the level of its most basic behaviours and relationships, passing down through levels of tragedy to a state of barbarism that would have to be described as sub-animal. Orlov has a grim deftness with the topic, asking questions most of us are schooled to pretend don’t exist.
What is to be done, then? Well, not much colleagues, cousins and neighbours, you see “…the sort of community that stands a chance post-collapse is simply unacceptable pre-collapse: it is illegal, it is uncomfortable and it is unsafe. No reasonable person would want any part of it,” Orlov says on page 200. What can emerge from collapse, and the system’s doomed-to-fail responses to collapse, are new tribes suited to immediate realities and providing for their members according to new behavioural codes and relationships. This is where a rough kind of hope lies.
The case studies Orlov uses to illustrate what will be possible are deeply off-putting ones. Except for post-2008 Iceland perhaps, this is certainly the case for the remaining four, which are the Pashtun tribesmen of Afghanistan, the now-dispersed Ik people of Uganda (about as messed up a story of any human grouping as you will ever find), the post-1991 Russian Mafia, and the Roma.
The Five Stages of Collapse contains a great deal of wisdom about human behaviour and social relations. It’s well informed by history but is about us in the here and now. Each stage of collapse has its own chapter with a case study following it to add depth. Orlov’s comfort with science and engineering is evident. There’s a mini rant here and there including a memorable one about the inherent flaws of the English language. State religion gets a spanking, as it should, though the social benefit of local religious association is to be welcomed.
Whatever stands out for you in particular about The Five Stages of Collapse, you will need to go for a long walk in the woods by yourself after reading it. Or have a stiff drink, …or both.
Either way, when you come back, you’ll be thinking about getting ready for it all.
Suburban-poverty.com says “read this book!”