Opponents of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug are hoping desperately to see them ousted from the city's leadership in Monday's municipal election. But even if Doug Ford fails in his last-minute bid to replace his ailing brother in the mayor's chair, losing to opinion-poll front runner John Tory, the discontent that helped to put the Fords in power – from inequality to taxpayer fatigue to suburban alienation – will remain.
Rob Ford was swept into the city's top job in 2010 on a wave of anxiety and frustration. Canada was recovering from the aftereffects of a global recession. Ontario was suffering from the decline of its once-dominant manufacturing sector. Toronto had just been through a 39-day strike by city workers that left piles of garbage to rot in parks.
Mr. Ford's simplistic promises to fight for taxpayers, run city hall like a business, and "stop the gravy train" struck a chord with many voters. If he had a history of off-kilter behaviour and ugly rants, many voters were too fed up to care. Mr. Ford took 47 per cent of the vote, easily besting second-place George Smitherman, a former Ontario deputy premier, who took 36 per cent. "People took the biggest hand grenade they could find and they threw it," says pollster Darrell Bricker, chief executive of Ipsos Public Affairs.
Their anxieties and frustrations have not gone away. Toronto is, by almost any measure, a fantastically successful city. The centre is booming, with construction cranes crowding the sky, and the streets below teeming with urban life. Young people are flocking to live and work downtown where, according to the Toronto Foundation's annual Vital Signs report, population growth tripled in the five years up to 2011, compared with the three previous census periods. For the first time since the 1970s, it outstripped the growth rate of the suburbs.
The city is absorbing tens of thousands of new residents every year from all over the world, with hardly a twitch of racial conflict, much less the rioting that has afflicted some European cities with high immigration. As of 2011, 51 per cent of the city's 2.6 million residents were born outside Canada.
Crime is low and falling. Toronto had 57 homicides in 2013. Chicago has had 325 this year so far. International rankings give the city high marks for safety and livability. A thriving financial sector and growing cultural industries are producing thousands of jobs.
But as it grows, Toronto is changing, and not everyone is happy about it. Established, older residents in the car-dependent suburbs see their way of life under threat amid all the chatter about the evils of the automobile and the virtues of urban density. New immigrants often find it hard to get a foot on the first rungs of the economic ladder. Young couples despair of ever owning a house in a market where a narrow Victorian on a treed downtown street can go for more than a million dollars. People everywhere fume about the congested roads and crowded subways, buses and streetcars.
A quick trip around the city reveals its divides. In the city centre, wealth and success are everywhere. Four super-luxury hotels have opened in the last few years, including a showy Trump tower. Theatre impresario David Mirvish is teaming with renowned architect Frank Gehry to build two dramatic high-end condo towers. The talk of the Manhattanization of downtown Toronto no longer seems so presumptuous. The feel is electric.
In the neighbourhoods that immediately surround the core, it is the Brooklynization that stands out. Everywhere you look, new coffee bars, galleries, yoga studios and organic grocery stores are replacing old hardware stores, shoe-repair joints and travel agencies as the ceaseless wave of gentrification rolls east and west from Leslieville to the Junction. To the north of downtown, meanwhile, neighbourhoods such as Moore Park and the Annex are continuing to climb in visible wealth and status.
Travel a little farther out, to the city's inner suburbs, and it is a different story. This is Rob Ford country. He lives in a modest home on a street of big, comfortable houses with groomed lawns and gardens. But just a few minutes away is the Dixon Road community – sometimes called Little Mogadishu because of the large number of immigrants from Somalia who have settled there – that was the focus of police raids linked to the Ford drug scandal. Blocks from there is the Catholic high school where Mr. Ford once coached football; just next to it, two teenage boys were shot to death on Oct. 6.
While the central city is on the way up, these precincts are on their way down, showing a steady decrease in average individual income compared with the citywide average. In the 1970s, according to research by U of T scholar David Hulchanski, the neighbourhoods on the city's northeastern and northwestern shoulders were comfortably middle-class. Today, they are the landing spot for tens of thousands of struggling new immigrants, many of them living in the hundreds of often rundown apartment towers like those on Dixon Road. This ring of suburbs is also the home of an earlier generation of European immigrants; many of those people are aging, on fixed incomes, and worrying about the future.
To both these groups, the debates at city council about expanding the bike-path network, or whether to let jets land at downtown's Toronto Island airport, often seem to be happening on another planet. At last month's Ford Fest, the annual family barbecue and pep rally, retired electric-utility labourer Umberto Defrancesco, 70, worried about whether he could even hang on to his house if taxes went up.
"We worked all our life for that little home," he said, as he waited to cheer for Rob Ford, who is out of the mayor's race but still running for city council.
Like him or not, Mr. Ford managed to connect with marginalized, sidelined, off-the-radar and plain old angry people all over the city, but especially in its poorer quarters. It is one reason that, to the world's astonishment, he managed to keep an approval rating in the 40s even after showing up in a drug video, being caught consorting with gangsters, admitting to using crack after months of denials, clinging shamelessly to power, and turning himself into an international laughingstock.
Whether he accomplished anything for those people is another question. Much of what he did seemed designed mainly for show. One of his first moves to tackle inefficiency in government was to cut off the supply of sandwiches to city councillors at evening meetings. He toured public-housing estates to check for broken fridges and cockroaches, but a staggering repair deficit remains. With his reckless behaviour, his racial slurs, his undisciplined, haphazard way of governing, he betrayed the very people he claimed to champion. Instead of trying to heal the city's divisions, he exploited them.
His brother has been doing the same in his run for mayor, trying to whip up what he calls the "common folk" against the "downtown elites" and painting Mr. Tory as a spoiled son of privilege.
But just because the Fords aren't the solution doesn't mean there is no problem. It is a problem that so many people regard city hall, and government in general, as remote, wasteful and unresponsive. It is a problem that many newcomers aren't getting ahead. It is a problem that the suburbs feel left out of the action.
Addressing their resentments and healing the city's divisions has to be an urgent priority for whoever comes out the winner on Monday night.