Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Toronto: Great Idea

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Some Great Idea window at Type

Edward Keenan loves Toronto. We know this, in part, because he has made a career out of writing about it, first for publications including Spacing, Eye Weekly and The Grid, and now in his eagerly awaited new book, Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto.

I love Toronto too, as regular readers of this column will have spotted and anyone who has asked me, face-to-face, questions along the lines of, “Um, so you lived in London, and then one day you just decided to move here... But why?” will have had explained to them in impassioned, hand-flailing detail. In one of my first columns for Open Book I outed Shawn Micallef’s Stroll as my new boyfriend (or at least a facilitator of dates with my other boyfriend, Toronto), and in summer 2012 I ignored the 14 daily horror stories (seriously, take them out the paper and there’d be almost nothing left) about the housing market, stood by my man and bought real estate, becoming, in essence, financially married to the city.

By contrast, when Mayor Ford, making a rare appearance on CBC’s Metro Morning in 2011 was asked what he loved about Toronto, he managed (and I’m paraphrasing here) something along the lines of, “It’s a little bit less crappy than it was before I took office.” Hmmm.

As a lover of Toronto for the reasons I am, the opening line of Keenan’s book spoke to me: “I have this notion that cities are just a collection of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves,” he writes. My Toronto story began in 2006, smack bang in the middle of the Miller years. I zapped myself straight into downtown Toronto and fell in love with the city’s creativity, cultural energy and inclusiveness. I was a book person. I met squillions more book persons. They were everywhere and it was easy and I grabbed on to it with both hands and held on tight. There was something intoxicating and convivial about it all.

As he recounts stories of his own interaction with the city — as child, downtowner, suburbanite, journalist, City Hall watcher, parent — Keenan conveys the energy of many such moments. His broad brushstrokes history of the city includes such triumphs as Jane Jacobs and the Bloor Viaduct and such hiccups as calling in the army to save us from the snow (don’t tell Moscow). Focusing on Toronto post-amalgamation, Some Great Idea is the story of the three mayors (not three bears, though if you think of Toronto as Goldilocks the analogy mightn’t be entirely off), and of the narratives Mayors Lastman, Miller and Ford bequeathed to their city.

Originally scheduled for publication in fall 2012, Some Great Idea was derailed when it became clear that an ending written at that point in time would be outdated before the ink was dry on the page. Four months later, Mayor Ford having been ordered to leave office, the book couldn’t be more timely, and for a book that reminds us of a number of democratic decisions we might lament, it is nevertheless extremely optimistic.

Effusive in its feelings for the city, Some Great Idea is not without its flaws, and its thesis, like Mayor Ford looking for a Calgary bathroom, gets lost at times. But a key takeaway is that Ford’s presence as mayor has opened up active, vibrant discussion among citizens about what city government should be doing, and political engagement among those who might previously have ignored city politics. Keenan notes that before October 2010 his readers were primarily City Hall watchers and political activists, but following Ford’s election they began to rank in the tens of thousands. “Public passion about city politics is higher than it has ever been in my lifetime,” he notes in his conclusion. “The messy events of the past two years — indeed, of the past decade and a half — have provided a moment of unusual clarity for Toronto,” albeit a clarity begat by friction. Diversity, he argues, is the great idea on which Toronto was built and through which it can continue to thrive.

A city is at once a million stories (2.6 million, in this case), each with its own protagonist, and a grand narrative containing infinite possibilities. “It is our mythology,” he writes, “and we’re still writing it.”

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Thanks for this column are due to Coach House Books, publisher and supplier (to me) of an advance reading edition of Edward Keenan’s marvellous book, and to the Toronto Public Library’s sexy Gladstone branch for free use of a desk, wi-fi and an all-round pleasant place to inhabit while I typed. Just two of Toronto’s really great ideas.

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Some Great Idea launches Thursday, January 24 at Lee’s Palace, and you’re all invited you civic-minded, city-loving bookworms, you. There’ll be an onstage conversation between Keenan and former mayor David Crombie, Toronto storytellers telling Toronto stories, dancing and definitely much engagement with your fellow city citizens.

*Pictured at top, Coach House Books Some Great Idea window at Type Books on Queen Street West. Window by Ghostfaceknitta.


Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, and a freelance publicist for many of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s literary award and fundraising programs. One or two days a week Becky works as a bookseller at Toronto indie Type. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs


You can find past columns by Becky Toyne in the Open Book Archives.

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