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Exterior of Igor Kenk's bike shop (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Exterior of Igor Kenk's bike shop (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Globe T.O.

Have we become Toronto the Too Good? Add to ...

Is Toronto the Good in danger of becoming Toronto the Too Good and Squeaky Clean?

Consider: The area of downtown formerly known as "the club district" seems to be turning into some kind of giant, family-friendly rec-room.

So now, instead of dropping ecstasy, waving a glow stick around, and dancing until dawn, you can go bowling with your family at The Ballroom while noshing on quinoa salad and hot dogs made of "artisanal beef" or see a foreign film at the TIFF Lightbox, or (come summer) play a wholesome game of table-tennis at Spin, a spanking new ping-pong boutique.

Meanwhile, Mayor Rob Ford has declared a vendetta on graffiti, vowing the downtown will be "spotless" by the time he's through. First salvo: A summons to the Brickworks, demanding they clean the murals and tags off their historically significant walls.

City Councillor Adam Vaughan is spearheading a campaign to curtail the Animal House antics of several downtown fraternities, saying "We don't want to stop their parties, we just don't want them waking up the neighbours."

The coup de grâce: legendary booze can The Matador is being turned into a "wellness centre," a mixed-use space devoted to "fitness, food, lifestyle, and education," including a spa where, new owner Paul McCaughey says, people will be encouraged to come experience "the waters."

Water? Never touch the stuff. At The Matador, the only drink they served, I hazily recall, was rye and cola, served in plastic cups.

And "wellness" was the opposite of what you felt the next day.

But damn, those were some fun nights.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not some club kid (any more). I'm a family guy, now, with three kids - more likely to bowl than dance. My wife is excited about Spin, and to be honest, I'd kind of like to try one of those artisanal weenies.

I'm just wondering if it's possible to take things too far. If we aren't, by golly-gee-whilliker-whiskers, embarking on the Ned Flandersification of my beloved city, turning it into a vast grit-, graffiti- and grime-free "wellness village."



These thoughts first occurred to me sitting in Inigo, the churrasqueria that used to be "notorious bike thief" Igor Kenk's Bike Clinic.

What a transformation! Inside, where there were once greasy frames and wheels stacked to the ceiling, now there are gleaming pipes, spotless counters and a see-through fridge stocked with "artisanal" sodas at $2.50 a pop.

(Everything's "artisanal" now: I'm thinking of calling myself an "artisanal" writer and charging triple my normal rates.)

Outside, where there was once Igor, shirtless and threatening, music blaring out of a ghetto blaster, parts and tools strewn everywhere, now there's just … sidewalk.

"So," I suppose most people would say. "A clear improvement."

And yet … I miss Igor. I, better than anyone, knew he was a (low-level) villain. He was my bike mechanic, and, I suppose, my bike thief. I retrieved no less than four of my stolen bikes from him over the years (always slipping him a few bucks: "Igor tax").

The thing is: low-level villains add colour, energy to a place. They say you can measure a man by the calibre of his enemies. Perhaps it is also possible to measure the cosmopolitanism of a city by the vigour of its (low-level) villains, and the naughtiness of its night life.

To me, dirt, dinginess, and dereliction, graffiti-tagged walls, booze cans, and parties that wake up the neighbours are all part of the definition of the word "urban." If I wanted to avoid these things, I'd go live in, uh, Belleville.

Now, I understand mine might be a minority position - the opposite of "the broken-window theory" of municipal stewardship.

The "broken-window theory," first introduced by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, states that if you have a building with a few broken windows, vandals are likely to break more; likewise, if there's garbage on the street, people are likely to throw more garbage on the street.

But if you fix the windows, and clean up the garbage, people are less likely to break windows and litter - in fact, well-maintained and cared-for neighbourhoods tend to beget a better citizenry in general.

Or, as Mr. Vaughan said to me in a telephone interview: "Beauty begets beauty, civility begets civility" in a city.

He used as an example a "delicate" wicker bicycle statue at Queen and McCaul that stood unvandalized for two years, and seemed to have the effect of lifting the spirits of everyone who passed it, causing them to rise above themselves and not kick it over or do whatever they'd normally be tempted to do.

The thing is: if it were any other city we were talking about, I'd agree. I'd say, let's strew wicker bicycle statues everywhere.

But Torontonians have always had to fight against being too good - against Hogtown's tendency to be too prudish, priggish, and paternalistic towards its citizens.

In the 19th century, "Toronto the Good" was a bastion of 19th-century high-collared, starched-shirt Victorian morality. In the 1930s constables stood at the rear of the Royal Alexandra Theatre with stopwatches, ready to shut down a performance if an onstage embrace went on more than 20 seconds. In the 1950s, police patrolled the Maple Leaf Gardens (a grocery store now, incidentally) during rock concerts, pushing patrons back in their seats when they tried to jump up and dance.

This city's a better place when it loosens its collar-stays and cummerbunds and relaxes.

Or, as Mr. Vaughan puts it: "Whenever Toronto has been accepting of other cultures, or people's civil rights, as it did with the slaves and the underground railroad, with multiculturalism - it's no accident Toronto was one of the first cities to adopt gay marriage - then it rises head and shoulders above other cities."

Ron Stagg, a professor of history at Ryerson University, specializing in the history of Toronto, agrees, but feels that right now we're entering into a slightly stodgy phase.

"Toronto has always trod the line between a fun place, and a place that's annoying," he says, citing the "blue laws" and the Lord's Day Act of the mid 20th century, when you couldn't go to a play, or even a restaurant in Toronto on a Sunday; and how hard it was for Italian immigrants back then to convince Presbyterian Toronto to loosen up and let them have outdoor patios.

And right now, he says, the pendulum might be swinging a little too far in the latter direction.

And you know: It is possible to overdo the cleanup of a city. Take Manhattan. I remember they laughed at Rudolph Giuliani's all-too-literal interpretation of the "broken window" theory: He had crews put these stick-on pictures of unbroken windows over the broken ones in Harlem and elsewhere.

But it worked - all too well, to my way of thinking. Yes, New York used to be dirty, dangerous, and scary in spots - like Times Square, where as you walked by shadowy dudes would mutter: "Hash-acid-speed-grass-uppers-downers-fake I.D."

But it was fascinating - a never-ending three-ring circus of street theatre, best city in the world to walk around. Now Times Square has been Nike-sized, Disneyfied, and Manhattan's just a moneyworld - not even an interesting place to visit.

But is that happening, or could that ever happen here?

No, according to Hamutal Dotan, editor in chief of the website Torontoist.

"Manhattan is a special case, because it's an island," she says. "In Toronto, there will always be some neighbourhoods that go up, some that go down. Just because you and I might not go to them doesn't mean they're not out there."

Good points. Maybe I'm extrapolating. Maybe all this really is a lament for my neighbourhood.

When I first moved here, there were hookers and syringes everywhere. There were abandoned buildings, and dingy diners with three-egg breakfast specials for $3.95 (they've hung on tenaciously, thank God.) Second day I lived here, as I walked along the street, a guy muttered: "Poindexter."

Now it's all swish, strip-light boutiques, fruity juice bars, and faux-Parisian patisseries. And everyone is a hipster/"Poindexter."

There used to be a goth/biker bar down the street called Sanctuary. It was cavernous, dark, gloomy. Everyone in there looked like a vampire, or a Hell's Angel. Behind the bar was a sign: "No nice sweaters." I always felt kind of intimidated when I went in (especially if I was wearing a sweater). But I liked the frisson - or maybe I should just say the friction - the edge, the subtle crackle of hostility in the air.

Now it's a Starbucks. The smell of fresh-brewed espresso wafts into the street every time the door opens. Inside people sip their ventis and tap away on their laptops.

And they're all wearing nice sweaters.

 

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