David Miller’s Toronto

David Miller did not found Luminato, or Nuit Blanche. He did not spark a “cultural rennaissance” by funding the rebuilding of the ROM and the AGO and OCAD. He did not give Toronto its banks that withstood a global meltdown unscathed. He did not create a condo boom that’s pushed the city into the skies.

He didn’t rebuild the Distillery, or build the opera house, or plan Dundas Square and fill it with tens of thousands of revellers over and over again. He didn’t even start Spacing Magazine, even though he kept showing up at their parties.

In fact, the list of things that David Miller didn’t personally do is really very long. (Also: founding Rome; colonizing Australia; writing Dan Brown’s novels.) Yet when one thinks of David Miller’s Toronto, these are the things that come to mind: A city bigger, a city fairer, a city covered in the tokens of prosperity and the evidence of enthusiasm.

We’ve just come through an election campaign that was fought on the premise that Toronto is broken, its leaders on the wrong track, its citizens divided by class. But the fact that Rob Ford won, and won big, doesn’t necessarily make that an immutable truth. Because the contradictory fact remains that, between 2003 and 2010, Toronto flowered.

Of course, anything would look like a blossom next to the atomic winter of the late Lastman years, when Toronto’s post-amalgamation governance was giving gong shows a good name. Mel Lastman was at the height of his weirdness. The police were bouncing from one corruption scandal to the next. Millions of tax dollars had been bilked in a computer-leasing intrigue that unravelled with the saddest-sack love affair ever to have its cell-phone records read in court. The city was littered with the decaying corpses of fiberglass moose.

It seemed, at the time, that the only power driving the city was its unweildy system itself. The city belonged to neither downtowners or suburbanites back then, but rather to opportunists who had stepped up to take advantage of it.

This was why the bridge to the island airport, of all the parochial squabbles, became an winning issue for Miller in 2003. The public imagination was not ignited by an airport few cared about, on an island full of uppity cottagers even fewer had much sympathy for. But a candidate willing to halt a bridge being rammed through by an unpleasant agency on behalf of a private company – well, now you’re cooking with gas.

So we stepped into the Miller era, an era that abandoned rudderless damage-control in favour of earnest city-building. We know what David Miller did do: Re-equip the TTC and rebuild the waterfront, fix the city’s waste fiasco and preside over bold new plans to revitalize the city’s low-income, high-risk neighborhoods. He installed a police board and chief that – until the heartbreak of 2010 – restored public trust in the force.

He set up a 311 service to provide better (yes) customer service to Torontonians. He won us the Pan-Am games. He rewrote the City of Toronto act, and used his new powers to plug the city’s budget gap with taxes that – surprise! – turned out to be less than crowd-pleasers.

He established an integrity commissioner, and ran his office with integrity. Million-dollar scandals became a thing of the past. By 2010, Kyle Rae’s $12,000 cash bar seemed a ripe target (and fair enough). It is not too much to say that David Miller cleaned up City Hall. But this laundry list – obscured as it often was by Miller’s oftentimes furrowed, droning performance as a communicator – doesn’t capture the essence of the 2000’s as we lived them.

David Miller was as much a product of his era as he was responsible for it. He presided over a time of intense interest in Toronto, by the people who live in it and who love it. Toronto in the 2000’s was a place not just to be inhabited, but celebrated; a place not just to be managed, but an immense public work, a never-ending project of commerce and community.

A city that had survived decades of architectural self-immolation followed by political self-destruction had emerged into an era of celebrating itself. David Miller’s Toronto was a place where millions thronged the streets on a regular schedule of public festivals through the year. A place where people who wanted to work for progressive ideals weren’t tacking into the wind. A place where people who write about cities and think about cities and talk about cities flourished at small presses and business schools alike. Say what you will about Richard Florida; he’s here.

These were high-falutin’ ideas. They might not have had much resonance with those who just wanted to get to work and back with a minumum of traffic, taxes, and waste-management complications. But these citizens came out winners too, from their property values to the thriving city at their children’s feet.

There will always be a large and reasonable swath of the population for whom the municipality is a service-delivery organization, no matter how it fancies itself. And Miller’s administration, in asking Torontonians to adapt in the name of progress, managed to bungle the execution of its plans enough to overstep those bounds.

Does the 2010 election amount to a rejection of what came before? Rob Ford won his election fair and square. But he didn’t run against David Miller; he ran against two uninspired and inchoate politicians. He blew the horn for populists and small-c conservatives, he blew it exceedingly well, and his people followed him to the polls. (His opponents only managed a few forlorn blarts.)

You can fairly grouse that the garbage bin outside is one size too small; you might complain that the bike lanes are in shambles, which they most certainly are. You might have been hit with a tax on your car, a tax on your house. You might reasonably observe that St. Clair endured unending misery, and that the Bloor St. redo has turned into, if you’ll excuse me, a monsterous clusterfuck.

But that is to lose perspective. Toronto is a safe, prosperous, growing, and profoundly beautiful city. Since 2003, it has become more so. The past seven years have been in Toronto’s best tradition, not its worst. I cannot speak for 2.5 million people, but I know I speak for more than myself. Life in David Miller’s Toronto was good.

16 Comments

  1. Amazing piece, Ivor. I think I’m going to throw this on Toronto’s Reddit page.

  2. Great piece. I just hope the city doesn’t revert to Melville under Ford.

  3. Nicely done, Ivor. The best recounting of what Miller has meant to the city that I’ve read so far.

  4. Amen. I love living in a city where urban planning is a common topic of conversation. Hopefully this energy doesn’t fade with this regime change…

  5. I would beg to differ on the uppity cottagers. The island was home to regional airlines previously, the air ambulance, had a thriving pilot school. Porter is proving that there was a demand for a business regional airline that is now filled with customers. In hindsight the bridge battle was quaint. David Miller did a lot of great things and he is a friend, his failing was that he was a poor communicator to the north of Bloor folks and that doomed him.

  6. This is superbly done, Ivor – thank you. The finest eulogy to the Miller years I’ve read yet.

  7. Excellent commentary – right on the mark. Looking forward to seeing how Rob Ford’s Toronto pans out, although his plans to kill Transit City are extremely disappointing.

  8. um, correct me if i’m wrong, but your list of mayor miller’s achievements is presenting with pink-hued glasses; for example;

    1. pan am games are by all accounts going to be a giant sinkhole of $$ for taxpayers. Almost no informed opinion believes securing these games is a good idea; except of course for those folks obsessed with the optics of such things. and perhaps the optics are relevant but…

    2. “re-equip” the TTC? you refer to the bombardier contract i assume? because it certainly couldn’t be the sorry fiasco that is the TTC these days. dirty, grungy, frequent breakdowns and delays, scornful unionized staff, ever rising user fees…

    3. um “fix the city’s waste fiasco”… you mean the pitched battle that Miller lost and filled our parks with rat-infested refuse?

    4. festivals. hmm… festivals. ok, i like a party as much as the next guy, but is that why my property taxes have soared? to pay for parties?

    look, i think mayor miller was certainly a feel-good, intelligent and vision-oriented leader. I liked him. But i think your claims here are inflated and more than a little romantic.

    still, your points are well taken. but let’s not get carried away here.

    please and thank you.

  9. oh dear, “cb”, you didn’t quite make any of your points, which almost serves to strengthen Ivor’s case. but being open to opposing viewpoints –and i certainly hope people who prospered under Miller can stay open-minded under this new administration– i welcome you to try again to make your case.

  10. Hey cb –

    So, as to your points: We’ll see about the Pan Am games; I wasn’t aware of the consensus about it you cite. (Which isn’t to say it doesn’t exist.)

    2. As for the TTC, I’m referring first to the new fleet of buses that cover the city, second to the new fleet of subway trains that are just starting to roll out, and third (and most tentatively) to the infamous Bombardier contract for streetcars, whose fulfilment is not assured.

    And speaking as a rider, I’m not convinced that the TTC is as bad as the Toronto Sun would have you to believe. (The Sun, today, would have us believe that Miller road out of a downtown left in smouldering ruins. They’re good with cartoons.) This is a case of manufactured consensus.

    3. Waste fiasco: When Miller took power, the city was trucking waste to Michigan, a previous plan to fill up a mine in Northern Ontario having fallen through. The strike was an imbroglio though, you’re right about that.

    4. Festivals: Scotiabank Nuit Blanche is (perhaps regrettably) named Scotiabank Nuit Blanche for a reason. While the city does subsidize some events – especially ones, like Pride, that generate a strong economic return – a lot of the momentum has come from the private and not-for-profit sector, working in partnership with the city. These aren’t things Miller did himself, but they’re tokens of his era.

    Also, property taxes have not exactly soared. After a spike following Mel Lastman’s ill-advised tax freeze, they’ve roughly kept pace with inflation.

    All that said – perhaps the glasses were slightly rosey all the same. End-of-an-era sentiment. Appreciate you taking the time to read and respond.

  11. […] as Ford took office, he was met with hundreds of protestors. Some genuinely lamented the loss of David Miller, while others seemed only to foam at the mouth at the words “Mayor Rob Ford.” I don’t […]

  12. Excellent piece of work. The Miller years where great for the city.

  13. Excellent piece of work. The Miller years where great for the city.

  14. I am glad we have someone such as you, Ivor, this is brilliant!

    I have recently thought about Mr.Miller and he deserves the praise he’s getting! He’s done so much for the city!

    Elli

  15. oh to read this now, 1.5 years later, with that bumpkin ford at the helm…bring back miller.

  16. I’d say they were both equally bad in their own way. Miller gave into the unions too much and expanded government, Ford seems to lack vision causing his own type of damage.

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