(I wrote this post, in longhand, on a flight from Toronto to San Francisco about ten days ago).
I’m about to be a bit controversial. People might well send me emails of a complaining nature, and leave comments telling me I have no business poking my nose into other countries’ business. My mother will call me to warn me that if I’m not careful I will get thrown out of the country. Any country. Especially Canada, next time I want in. Well, heck, this is just opinion, so let’s not get our knickers in a twist.
I really love Canada. I love the USA. But I want to talk about something I’ve noticed in north America, and I think I’m fairly qualified to comment as I do a lot of traveling. In fact I am writing this post following a month of city-hopping for my LEAVING EVERYTHING MOST LOVED book tour. Hmmm, that has a ring to it, doesn’t it, because there’s something I don't want to leave in just about every city I visit.
I first came to North America when I was 19, finally making a 15-year dream come true when I arrived in Toronto, Canada – yep, I began saving when I was four years of age. I spent a summer in the city, and I fell in love with everything about it. I have been back many times since, though only thrice in the past eight years. And now I am sad because that once gracious city has changed so much – and not for the better. During the drive from Pearson airport into the city, the eye is assaulted by mile upon mile of tower block apartment buildings of bland glass and grey (though there is one with a vivid slash of blue).
It reminds me of Soviet Russia, or of certain areas of south-east London in the 1950’s and 60’s, when there was a rush to provide housing for the masses of people made homeless by the bombing of WW2. I remember, not so long ago, reading an interview with the now-elderly architect of those housing estates, and he confessed that he felt intense guilt regarding his work – he admitted that he had created a social nightmare; housing that crushed the soul, a process that gave way to crime, depression and the destruction of a sense of community – the very community spirit that brought those people through the Blitz. Now those tower blocks are being demolished to make way for housing considered more conducive to connection, even for the most socially disadvantaged. It’s going to take time to undo the fungus of isolation and aggression that often accompanies ant-hill living though.
Here’s what I believe a modern city should reflect: It should have about it a sense of the time, it should meet business needs, but it should also nurture the collective soul of the humanity within. Construction should be pleasing to the eye. Those tall monoliths can point to the sky with optimism, but let’s also cherish and maintain the older heart, the buildings that speak to the history, the roots of the broader population. In Toronto, many of the buildings I loved have gone, demolished in favor of yet another faceless architectural ugly sister. Those remaining are deemed heritage buildings, paying almost Disneyesque lip service to what is being lost. I marveled at the curved futuristic City Hall when I first arrived in the city, but even that now seems tired and grey, in need of a steam clean.
I talked about this whole subject of Toronto's architectural development with locals both young and old, and it seems everyone I spoke to hated the way their city was going, blaming the administration, the contractors, and above all they commented, “It’s all about the money.” Sometimes I didn’t even have to start the conversation – it would just come up when I told people I remembered the old Simpsons and Eatons department stores, and I remember watching a helicopter put the final piece on the top of the CN Tower.
There are cities where I have seen a powerful juxtaposition of young and old – Chicago, for instance, and of course, San Francisco. And I’ve seen others where I’ve felt the weight of loss, and asked locals, “Where did it start, this city? Where are the old buildings?” And I’ve been told that they’re gone, demolished in favor of steel and glass.
The great thing about Toronto is that those wonderful warm Canadians are as wonderful and warm as ever, and I still love Toronto. And I’d like to add that I am not simply a Luddite. I love London’s Millennium Bridge – I could walk back and forth several times in a day. I am fascinated by Houston’s skyline, and I think Chicago has got it just right. And when I see the Transamerica Tower from the ‘plane coming into SFO, I know I’m home.
Though this is the view I see on my walk each morning ....
But wherever I am, I can see what banks, construction firms and back-hander public officials can do to communities when they want to.
My grandparents lived in an ordinary street of terrace homes in south-east London. My Dad was born in the house and, indeed, I lived there with my parents for a short time when I was a child. It was the sort of community where the back doors were always open, and everyone knew everyone else. On a summer's evening, the younger mothers in the neighborhood would set up a long skipping rope almost the length of the whole street, and everybody - women, children and men - joined in, jumping in and out of the rope, clapping hands and chanting whatever skipping verse someone started shouting out. The street came under a compulsory purchase order in the late 1950’s, and my grandparents had to move. Tower blocks went up in place of the once-vibrant community (which had been labeled a “slum” to get the permission to demolish), and soon it became a high-crime enclave. My grandparents were rehoused many miles away, and they never quite got used to it. They missed the soul of the place they’d left. Every home, every apartment, every building, store, office and city needs a soul. Humanity depends upon it.
Before I go – and I am off again, across the Atlantic today – a big thank you to all the terrific booksellers across the USA and in Canada who hosted me in connection with my book tour (and I believe our independent booksellers, along with libraries, are an important part of real community spirit wherever they are). But a special mention to the inimitable Ben McNally, who not only represents the very best of Canadian bookselling, but his store on Bay Street is one of the great things about Toronto - people have even tied the knot flanked by his shelves of books!
So, what do you think makes a good twenty-first century city?
And have a great weekend!