Edward Keenan did a lot of things before he started writing about politics and life in Toronto. He worked in a chemical factory. He worked as a cook. He cut the grass on the side of the highway. He sold shoes. He opened a restaurant, and lost his shirt. He was a carnival barker at the Canadian National Exhibition. Now, at age 39, he is a columnist at The Grid, a city weekly. His new book, Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto, looks at the evolution of the city since amalgamation.
We both cover city hall. How do you find it?
It sure beats working for a living. No, but I’ve had a lot less fun in jobs. There is great material every day. The characters are riveting to write about. I think you said it was the best political reporting gig in the country right now, and I think I agree with you about that. But as a citizen, I find it frustrating and depressing sometimes, when the clown show takes over.
So: bad for the city, good for you and me?
What do you think of the court decision granting Mr. Ford's appeal?
Politically, to his opponents, this is perhaps a gift to them even if it doesn’t look like it right now. All sides were going to be facing a chaotic situation. This is probably a healthier decision for the city politically and in the long run, even if it means another two years of bitter infighting and probably more sideshows.
Will this experience change Rob Ford?
There is not much I see from my time watching Rob Ford to show he can learn something, but there is always room for hope.
Benjamin Disraeli talked about every great city having a great idea. What is Toronto’s?
Toronto’s great idea is summed up in its motto: diversity is our strength. Not just meaning multiculturalism, but economic diversity and mixed-use buildings on the street, the things Jane Jacobs talked about.
If diversity is our strength, why has it left us so divided?
We can get caught up in a buzzword like diversity and misunderstand it to mean that it is like perfect harmony. Diversity is our strength because it allows differences to coexist, but at times that can lead to conflict and be very messy.
In what ways?
There doesn’t even seem to be a lot of ground for debate. Rob Ford and his fiercest opponents don’t even accept the same premises. Where somebody like John Tory and David Miller seemed to have a fairly vibrant debate about the city’s finances, somebody like Rob Ford and somebody like [left-leaning city councillor] Gord Perks can’t even agree on the meaning of words or the colour of the sky. So we wind up with a completely disjointed understanding of what Toronto is all about or where it is going and what its problems are, based on a sort of mutual blindness, mutual ignorance.
How do you see our recent mayors?
Mel Lastman was a big salesman. He really represented the old establishment of the city: the Metro backroom boys, the provincial-government fixers. He was their guy. And then David Miller was an uprising against that. He was celebrated by the people in the city who were growing in affluence but who were feeling shut out in Mel Lastman’s city hall, a kind of a new creative-class establishment. And then I think Rob Ford represents people who felt left out of David Miller’s city hall, people who live in neighbourhoods where incomes have been going down for a generation, and where life is getting harder.
Are we a dysfunctional family, a broken marriage? Should the suburbs and the downtown just get divorced and de-amalgamate?
I don’t think so. We have a lot of dysfunction, but I think we are still doing all right as a family. Divorce or de-amalgamation would be more destructive than helpful at this point.
So we should embrace the chaos?
I think so.
What are your views on Rob Ford? You are surprisingly sympathetic in the book.
I still think Rob Ford has good intentions. Most of the problems that I see with him – and there are many, obviously – result from his genuine lack of understanding of the bigger picture. That’s probably a condescending kind of empathy but it is the best I have. His convictions are genuinely held.
You say in your book he has a gift for retail politics. What sort of gift?
He feels for people. He wants to listen to exactly what their problems are and he wants to help them solve them. He visits people when they have too many cockroaches or are concerned about where the crossing guard is in their neighbourhood. And that engendered a lot of loyalty.
Where did he go wrong?
Part of the unfulfillable promise of Rob Ford was he said we’d cut the budget but he also promised that better customer service would be the result. He hasn’t been able to do that and it wasn’t reasonable to expect anyone could. He got into these very public battles with city council and he was unable to do the work involved in finding a majority that will allow you to govern.
Is he dumb? A lot of people think he is just dumb.
There is a simple-mindedness combined with a stubbornness there that has really handicapped him. He is not a sophisticated thinker and he is not book smart in any sense. He is smart in other ways. He is able to communicate with people who are alienated from the process and tap into that.
Is it true, as you say in the book, that you have been punched in the face in several different parts of Toronto?
Yeah, by complete strangers, actually. I used to drink a lot.
Despite being punched in the face a lot, do you have good feelings about the city?
I love the city. Everything I would want in a city is here.