"Residents split over who to believe in Ford controversy," read a recent headline. Too true. The Ford affair has exposed the rifts in this city as never before.
To explore them, I decided to take a little trip from his house to my house.
The mayor lives in Etobicoke in a modest bungalow on a winding suburban street. I live downtown in a 16-foot-wide semi-detached Victorian on a street with postage-stamp front yards.
One day this week, I drove out to his place, then turned around and drove back to mine, stopping along the way to talk to people about how they are feeling about the mayor. The route took me from the big lawns and sprawling apartment plazas of Etobicoke to the cafés, art galleries and Portuguese sports bars of my own neighbourhood. It takes no more than 20 minutes in light midday traffic, but it can feel like a journey between separate worlds.
A look at the demographic profile of Mr. Ford's city electoral district, Ward 4, shows that 50 per cent of residents live in houses, compared with 23 per cent in my Ward 18 (and 37 per cent citywide). The average age in his ward is 44, in mine 37 (and in the city as a whole, 39). The population density is 9,490 persons per square kilometre in my ward, 3,230 in his.
Where you live can influence how you feel about civic issues, and that is especially true when it comes to the polarizing Mr. Ford. An Ipsos Reid poll for CP24 and CTV News showed that Torontonians are evenly divided on the question of the alleged drug video, with half asserting that they believe him when he insists he does not smoke crack cocaine and half saying they don't.
And, as Ipsos Reid puts it, the fault line is "largely a function of the downtown vs. suburbs dichotomy that has existed throughout Mr. Ford's tenure." Forty per cent of residents in the downtown believe Mr. Ford, 48 per cent in Scarborough, 48 per cent in York/East York, 54 per cent in North York and 61 per cent in his native Etobicoke.
To get from his Etobicoke driveway to his city hall parking space, Mr. Ford often avoids the clogged highways and heads east along Dundas Street. En route, his black Cadillac Escalade passes within 100 feet of my place just south of Dundas near Dufferin.
Dundas, an old colonial road that was intended to connect Toronto to the town of Dundas near today's Hamilton, takes an irregular route. Most of Toronto is laid out on a simple grid pattern, with some streets running roughly north-south and others east-west. Dundas curves and swoops from Mr. Ford's neighbourhood to the heart of the city, carrying the mayor to within a block of the entrance to city hall.
It can be a frustrating drive at rush hour, and Mr. Ford has complained on his weekly radio show about getting stuck behind the trundling Dundas 505 streetcar. His loathing for "these damned streetcars" may spring partly from his commute. But the Dundas route is more direct than boxing the city via the 401, 427, QEW and Gardiner.
I started my return trip at a gas bar, a block from Mr. Ford's modest bungalow, where he sometimes stops for coffee on the way in to work. This is the heart of Ford Nation, and not surprisingly, most people I talked to said the mayor was a great guy who was being hounded by a hostile press.
Carol Demmitt, 47, who sells cosmetics, says she suspects someone faked the tape. "I do feel there is that much of a hatred for him, that they would go out of their way to create something like that just to stick it to this guy."
Martin McCarnan, 44, who drives a produce delivery truck and was wearing an NYPD ball cap, says he voted for Mr. Ford in 2010 and would do it again. He likes the fact that Mr. Ford is "human," not a plastic politician. "As far as the crack thing, if you can't prove it, leave him alone. Put up or shut up."
Jeff, 47, a forklift operator who preferred not to give his surname, said he has heard the drug-video story but he is "not buying it for a second." The way he sees it, "there is someone out there who has got something against him and wants him out."
My next stop was the Messina Bakery, a family-run Italian business famous for its cannoli that stands near the intersection of Dundas and Scarlett Road right on the route from Mr. Ford's place. Lisa Woroniuk, 44, was ambling by in a bright green summer dress and sandals, a puppy cradled on her arm. "I think it's a load of crap," she says of the crack-video story. "I don't believe it's Ford in the video. I don't believe he does drugs. I don't believe he made any racial slurs."
Like Mr. Ford himself, she argues that he is being attacked by powerful forces trying to derail his agenda. "It is the Ford haters that don't like him. The corporates don't like him because he doesn't do anything for them. He is helping people with no money and that pisses people off."
Heading east past malls and car dealerships, I reach the Junction, a gentrifying neighbourhood where young couples are flocking because (at least for this week) you can still get a decent house for under $700,000. Here, judging by my brief and highly unscientific survey, opinion on the mayor is more mixed.
Kim LeBlanc, a self-confessed "tree-hugger" who works in the restaurant business who stopped to talk when I got out of the car to stroll along Dundas, says she can't say whether the drug allegation is true but wishes there was some way – any way – to get the mayor out of office.
"Does he have any idea what it is to live in this city? I mean, where does he even live? He lives probably out in some suburb in some big gigantic house. That's the only reason he's the mayor, because of his rich friends out in suburbia, as far as I'm concerned."
But jewellery-store owner Tony Prezio, 62, says he likes Mr. Ford for his attempts to control spending and build subways. He is not too bothered by the video affair. "Whether he is guilty of it or not, I don't think it matters to me. We all have our things that we do that are not proper in front of other people's eyes. The guy is doing a good job in there. It's the end result we all look at, right?"
Five minutes' drive further east, past Bloor Street and over the railway tracks, I reach my own changing neighbourhood. When I moved in 20 years ago, the strip of Dundas between Ossington and Lansdowne was run down and mainly Portuguese, with barrels of salt cod outside the grocery stores. Many of those Portuguese businesses remain – butchers, bars, barber shops, travel agents – but alongside them have come the galleries, coffee shops and clubs that have made this hipster heaven.
At the Wallflower bar, bartender Simon Maerov, 33, calls the video affair "the cherry on top of the sundae that is Rob Ford – the final touch on a messed-up, dysfunctional situation. When he was voted in it was a mistake and the fact that he is still in power is a mistake."
Down the street at the Henhouse bar, proprietor Bobby Beckett, 32, says that even "before the crack thing came up I was thinking he had to get the heck out of office. This is the icing on the cake. It's mind-boggling that this man is still in office."
Her colleague Leah Wahl adds: "We have an embarrassing mayor that hates the city and loves the suburbs." Like quite a few Ford critics, she thinks it was a huge mistake to throw the two together through amalgamation in 1998. "A city needs different things than a suburb needs. Everyone drives in the suburbs."
Now, sometimes we exaggerate the urban-suburban divide. Lots of people in the downtown voted for Mr. Ford; lots in the suburbs are perfectly willing to believe in the crack video. "I think it's real, I really do," says Kyle Hancott, 25, who is helping dig a trench for pipes near the mayor's house. "He's just mad or upset that he got caught and now he's all bent out of shape."
Downtown and suburbs have more in common than they sometimes think. Both have an interest in better transit. Even suburban motorists would find traffic lighter if more people could leave their cars at home. Both have an interest in better controls on spending at city hall. Even downtowners might find more money freed up for the arts or the parks if less was wasted in the first place. As a downtowner, I ride a bike to work but drive a great big minivan on weekends.
To think we can solve all our problems by divorcing is a fantasy. Are we really going to give East York its own mayor and Etobicoke its own fire department again?
But, if my day on the road from Rob Ford's house to mine is anything to go by, the way people see this mayor can be wildly different from one part of the city to the next.
As Ms. Wahl at Henhouse puts it, "I just can't believe that I feel so differently about something – so passionately about something – and people living in the suburbs just feel the complete opposite from what I feel. 'Oh, leave him alone, he's a good guy.' Who thinks that? It's just sad. It's so black and white."
In Toronto right now, though, those seem to be our only shades of opinion.