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We're off to see the new terminal Add to ...

The road west is still rough and potholed, lined with rusty chainlink fences and shabby industrial buildings, for a long way before it breaks into the charmed realm of Toronto's glamorous new airport terminal. But everything inside is smooth and new, from the asphalt below to the fresh shrubs that dot every green embankment, each wrapped neatly in its own burlap sweater. At the end of Highway 409 travellers leave Toronto and enter Oz, where the road sweeps them up into the sky and delivers them to the gates of a glittering palace.

A denizen of rough and potholed Toronto can only gape at the stupendousness of this new land, which is now no more a simple airport than Manhattan is a wooded isle. The new airport is not only the largest public work undertaken in the history of Canada, but probably the most complicated, as well -- and surely the most expeditiously achieved. Its grandeur, its complexity, its globe-spanning reach and, most of all, its enormous symbolic importance, are all so foreign to us.

It is a world unto itself where everything works, every gear meshes and cost is no object. Avant-garde art enlivens each cathedral-sized corridor and even the baggage claim is an architectural event. Despite some pale attempts at local colour, the new terminal doesn't feel like Toronto at all. It feels like a fantasy.

And it is. As Frances Lankin of the United Way demonstrated yesterday with the release of the charity's latest report on the "astounding expansion and deepening of highly concentrated poverty in the city," the symbolism of the new airport is problematic. It symbolizes our aspirations brilliantly while ignoring the reality of life on the potholed streets behind the rusty fences, where nothing seems to work and nobody knows how to fix it.

In its way, the United Way report dramatizes Toronto every bit as effectively as the new airport does. The two visions may seem contradictory, but they are both equally new and equally foreign to the city as it existed 20 years ago. Both are real. The challenge is to understand them as visions of a single place.

In the view from the potholed streets, the increasing impoverishment of Toronto outside the privileged bubbles -- the central city, the outer suburbs, the airport -- is indeed astounding. Toronto had the same poverty rate as Canada as a whole in 1981, according to the United Way report. But as the national poverty rate declined slightly in the intervening years, Toronto's soared. Today, one in five Toronto families lives in poverty, according to Statistics Canada data.

Even more dramatic is the extent to which poverty is concentrating into what appear to be permanently impoverished neighbourhoods -- "ghettos," as we now nonchalantly refer to them. The transformation of the city's inner suburbs over a single generation has been stunning. There are now six times as many "high-poverty" neighbourhoods in the inner suburbs as there were in 1981, according to the United Way. Unlike the old mixed-income "city of neighbourhoods," Toronto is now a sharply polarized city of privilege and poverty.

And increasingly, the map of poverty is racialized. The visible-minority population in Toronto's poor neighbourhoods was 41,600 in 1981, according to the United Way; today it is 333,500, eight times greater. Visible minorities now make up more than three-quarters of the population in the city's poorest neighbourhoods, up from slightly more than a third in 1981.

Just as the magnificence of the new airport terminal challenges us to recognize humble Hogtown, the city's deteriorating social climate demands its own reappraisal. But that only makes it more difficult to recognize the "real" Toronto. How is it possible to build such tremendous monuments in a city undergoing such obvious decay? Why is it easier to raise more than $4-billion for a new airport than it is to replace a missing basketball hoop in Rexdale -- just across the road, behind the fences?

I wish I could write the answers as easily as the questions, but I don't know them. I'm a stranger here myself.

jbarber@globeandmail.ca

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