In the summer of 2004, a University of Toronto researcher was following a bylaw-enforcement officer on his daily rounds. Toronto was in the midst of a West Nile scare at the time and the officer was supposed to be spending most of his time checking for stagnant water and telling residents to clean up places where mosquitoes might breed. Instead, he was called in to help settle a petty dispute between neighbours.
A plumber doing basement work had caused a messy oil leak, leaving a crater in the front yard. The neighbours were not pleased.
When the officer and researcher arrived, there were eight people gathered to dispute the matter: the property owner and his lawyer, a neighbour and his lawyer, an engineer, a building inspector, the contractor and an environmental-assessment expert. "Presiding over the driveway courtroom," writes University of Toronto criminology professor Mariana Valverde, "was the local city councillor, whom we shall call 'Mr. Chevy,' an old-fashioned local leader known for his fiscal conservative outbursts on the city council and his blue-collar, even redneck style."
Sound like anyone you know? Valverde, who hired the researcher to study bylaw enforcement, describes what happened next. "The two lawyers then started to argue – until Councillor Chevy, who has an imposing physical presence, spoke up, at which point everyone else became silent. 'I don't care about your private issues,' he said." He ordered the hole in the ground filled in. Pointing to a nearby lawn, he said: "I want to see grass just like that on top of the hole in two weeks! If it's not done, everyone will start to get fined."
Valverde tells the story to make a point not about Toronto's mayor, who was then a city councillor famous for his Mr. Fix-it approach to constituent complaints, but about how our regime of municipal law works – or doesn't.
Toronto has only about 150 bylaw officers to cover a city of more than 2.5 million people, she writes. (By contrast, it has 5,000 police.)
Instead of spending their time on any systematic enforcement of the laws, the author says, they often find themselves dashing around the city to handle complaints by enraged citizens and ingratiating city councillors.
Squeaky wheels like "Mr. Chevy" get the oil. Educated, well-heeled residents get action while poorer, less confident ones are overlooked.
"Politicians look only after the needs of those constituents who speak up; bureaucrats enforce outdated and irrational rules because neither politicians nor the public trusts them to use their brains and suggest new, better rules; and civic activism focuses almost completely on single issues at the local level … while the citywide gap between rich and poor, and between old-timers and immigrants, yawns ever wider."
She blames – wait for it – Jane Jacobs. The "front-stoop" neighbourhood organizing fostered by the sainted urban thinker gave communities their voice, but "it is dangerous to assume that those who show up (or phone their councillors) are those whose voices should matter the most."
It's a fair point. No one who watches city politics can fail to notice that some wheels out-squeak others, at the expense of fairness and the common good. And there is no question that "Mr. Chevy's" practice of pulling city officials away from other work to deal with a constituent's front-yard crater can be a gross waste of time and resources.
But Valverde has an agenda here: to prove that Toronto is shot through with inequality, even when it comes to applying the law. At one point, she says that by banning messy front yards and excessive noise, municipal law tilts to "the cultural preferences of middle-aged, middle-class married folks who own and lovingly tend a piece of urban property …" – as if the young, the poor and the single like being kept awake by raucous next-door parties. At another, she argues with a straight face that beautifying the streets at the University of Toronto signalled that "the underclass is not welcome." In her conclusion, she argues that "marginalized" people such as blue-collar workers and new immigrants "are ignored by those promoting a neoliberal vision of gentrified urban diversity." You get the drift.
This could have been a fascinating study of how the most local form of law is applied "on the street." The book, which will be of interest mainly to urban-policy nerds, is at its best when it explores corners of city governance like street-food and taxi licensing. But even the passage on taxis ends with a moan about the "hidden Eurocentric cultural dynamics" of the legal process. Sigh.
Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for The Globe and Mail.