"Tale of 2 Cities," blared the front page of a local tabloid the other day. "Is T.O. a boomtown or a hellhole?" The headline described two contradictory reports about the state of the economy, but it might just as well have summed the two wildly different views of the city that are being broadcast during the current election campaign.
On the one hand, there is the Rob Ford view of Toronto: a place that that has been going to hell in a handcart under the evil socialist regime of Mayor David Miller. In Ford World, the city is on its way to bankruptcy, motorists are the helpless victims of city hall's "war on the car" and city councillors are luxury-loving couch potatoes with gold-plated expense accounts. In Joe Pantalone's world, by contrast, Toronto is a leafy paradise of Pantalone-planted trees where caring, efficient civil servants deliver great services for reasonable taxes.
The truth, to trot out that tired old saw, lies in between. To describe city hall as a corrupt, wasteful basket case is wrong and unfair. City councillors get a healthy but hardly extravagant salary of about $100,000 a year and most of that supposedly lavish expense account goes for things like envelopes and photocopying toner. There has been no outbreak of true corruption at city hall since Mr. Miller took office in 2003. City hall may be inefficient and unresponsive, but that could be said of many municipal governments.
Far from being a hopeless hellhole, the city of Toronto is on the way up in all sorts of ways. In the downtown, new condo and office towers climb to the sky and two historic structures, Maple Leaf Gardens and Union Station, are undergoing dramatic renovations. Even the long-neglected waterfront is waking up. A 2009 survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit of the world's most livable cities rated Toronto fourth after Vancouver, Vienna and Melbourne. So it's not time to give up and turn out the lights just yet.
Discussing the U.S. education system in the New Yorker this week, Nicholas Lemann writes that "at this ill-tempered moment in American life" many people hold "the Noah's Ark view of life: a vast territory looks so impossibly corrupted that it must be washed away, so that we can begin its activities anew, on finer, higher, firmer principles." He concludes: "One should treat any perception that something so large is so completely awry with suspicion, and consider that it might not be true - especially before acting on it." Voters should bring that kind of skepticism to claims that Toronto is in a horrible mess that only a great Fordian flood can fix.
But equal suspicion should fall on the Pantalone view that we live on Eden by the lake. The Ford phenomenon does not come out of nowhere. Voters are fed up with the cost overruns, delays and mismanagement that seem to afflict most city-run projects, from the St. Clair streetcar line to the reconstruction of Bloor Street's Mink Mile to the over-budget Peter Street homeless shelter.
They are even more annoyed by the steady drip-drip of new taxes and fees, from the vehicle-registration tax and the land-transfer tax to higher water and garbage rates. To say, as Mr. Pantalone does, that the city is a delicate garden that needs nothing more than a little weeding and trimming from an expert gardener - namely, him - is to underestimate the city's thirst for change and need for reform.
Between Mr. Pantalone's garden shears and Mr. Ford's chainsaw, there is a happy medium.