Now that Torontonians have just elected a new mayor, it’s good time to look at the city’s past. Toronto: Biography of a City, a colourful, comprehensive cultural history of Canada’s largest metropolis was published last month by Douglas & McIntyre. In the same vein as Peter Ackroyd’s literary portrait of London, or Colin Jones’s remarkable study of Paris, author Allan Levine has penned an almost-novelistic account of the city’s rise (and some falls), tracing its history from early European explorers to the Upper Canada Rebellion to how it earned a reputation as “Toronto the Good,” while at the same time not shying away from less-than-proud moments in Hogtown history. Mayor-elect John Tory would be well served by reading Mr. Levine’s book to see what he’s in for. (It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Torontonians have been complaining about traffic since almost as soon as York was founded by John Graves Simcoe in 1793.) Mr. Levine spoke to Globe and Mail books editor Mark Medley from his home in, gasp, Winnipeg.
I love how it took a Winnipeg author and a B.C. publisher to produce a biography of Toronto.
I was asked many times, ‘Why would someone from Winnipeg write a book about Toronto?’ If I was writing a book about Venice or Paris I doubt I’d be asked the same question. Frankly, I like to think that I bring some outside perspective to the story. I have seen one line, in one review, [where] the entire paragraph was: ‘Levine is from Winnipeg, he’s not a Torontonian.’ Which I thought was highly amusing.
In a way it’s fitting – Torontonians are constantly looking for approval, and to be noticed, by people not from here.
Exactly. For many years it was Montreal that Toronto was looking over its shoulder at. Now there’s this need to compare itself to New York. My view is that Toronto is better than New York. The people who put down the city the most are people who live there. Not that I didn’t see there are many problems. I start off the book, for example, in a traffic jam, rather than peering down at the city, romantically, from the top of the CN Tower.
You point out that when Pierre Berton left Vancouver for Toronto, people like him were seen as traitors. Has this always been the case?
The first example of this kind of resentment of Toronto I found was in the 1790s, when Simcoe decided to keep the capital of Upper Canada at York. There were merchants who had bought homes in Kingston, and were certain that Kingston was going to be the capital, and now they had to move. Politicians, as well, had to now move back, or find places to live in York. So they were very angry, and some of them resented it. The people living in York had what I call “Toronto swagger” right from the beginning. And that has been maintained.
In part, you tell the city’s history through its mayors – a colourful cast, to say the least. How will history remember the Rob Ford administration?
If all that was left were these four years, if someone were to attempt to write a biography of the city 50, 75 years from now, I honestly don’t believe a massive amount of detail, or pages in the book, will be taken up by this. In the larger picture, hundreds and hundreds of years of history, Rob Ford is an anomaly. We tend to live in the moment, but I like looking at the big picture of history, and to me, what did he really do for the city?
Rob Ford has had his issues, but at least he didn’t try to kill his predecessor, like John Powell.
You name David Mirvish the ‘inspirational Torontonian of the past half century.’ Explain yourself.
He’s gone out of his way to enhance the cultural life of the city. He just struck me as someone who is continually trying to add to the dynamic of Toronto. Everything about him speaks to the positive aspect of living in the city. He doesn’t have to do any of this stuff, yet he spends his days trying to make this city a better place. He’s a remarkable personality.
You call us ‘one self-absorbed fishbowl’ and say our concerns ‘are often regarded as of the utmost national significance by the city’s political, media, academic, and cultural elites, which for the life of them cannot understand why the rest of the country does not want to hear their endless griping and problems.’ Are we that bad?
I think it has to do with the national media being in Toronto. They are living and breathing the same issues that anybody else in Toronto does, and therefore, in their minds, these things are important. To be fair, when, say, a snowstorm happens in Toronto and Pearson airport is shut down, that is a lot more consequential than if the Winnipeg or Regina airport are shut down, I will grant you that. But there is a tendency to regard issues in Toronto on a much greater scale. Listen, the worst people who have this attitude are former Winnipeggers I know, including members of my family, who are the haughtiest of Torontonians.
Why is the city so fun to hate? Is it just jealousy?
Everybody always hates the person on the top of the mountain. There’s a certain jealousy. Here you have this one dominant city larger than some provinces, and you can’t but help be jealous of the way it promotes itself, and believes itself to be slightly better. Toronto is not a humble place.
Do you envision a day when another city – say, Calgary – is considered the country’s most important city?
I can’t see that happening. I can’t see Calgary getting more people, population-wise, or that the business community would suddenly move all their head offices west. It’s never going to happen. Bay Street is going to be Canada’s premiere business centre for generations to come. The stock market is there, and the CBC and all the other national media. I just don’t see it.
So Canada is stuck with us?
I think so. It’s okay. I was supposed to live there. I’m not exactly sure what happened. Life intervened, I supposed, and I ended up staying in Winnipeg. I want to be around when the Leafs win the Stanley Cup. I was 11 the last time it happened, so I’m not sure how old I’ll be when it does happen again. If it ever does.
This interview has been condensed and edited.