Of Eb Zeidler, John Sewell, and Rob Ford

by Richard White

January 2014

The Institute for Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto hosted a gathering last month to commemorate Eb Zeidler’s weighty new autobiography. The institute was stepping outside its mandate, strictly speaking, for Zeidler and his work have little connection to either the finance or the governance of cities; but Zeidler is such an iconic figure, and much of his early work in Toronto – Ontario Place, Eaton Centre, the Queen’s Quay restoration – had such an impact on the city that holding a public forum on his book seemed fitting enough.

Zeidler was present, but at nearly ninety years of age cannot be expected to deliver a sustained public speech so he was ‘interviewed’ by the man who managed the book project for him, the retired CBC radio producer and local urbanist, Max Page. Their talk was mostly pre-arranged questions and answers, but the plainspoken Zeidler, even half-scripted, is so engaging that the format seemed perfectly suited to the situation.

The program then moved on to two invited guests, both notable in their own right – AGO Director Matthew Teitlebaum and former Toronto Mayor John Sewell – who we assumed would both offer thoughts on Zeidler and his work. With all due respect to Mr Teitlebaum it was the words of John Sewell, first of the two, which left the deeper impression.

He had almost nothing to say about Zeidler – Sewell is not known for his admiration of Zeidler’s work – and instead he drew attention to and took issue with a passing statement in Zeidler’s book about how the city surrounds us all. This is not correct, Sewell declared: cities do not surround us, suburbs do; Canada is not an urban nation but a suburban nation and we are worse off for it. Sewell then spent some fifteen minutes essentially recapitulating his 2009 book, The Shape of the Suburbs, on the tragic ascendancy of suburban values in the GTA. Or maybe he would prefer ‘lesser’ to ‘greater’ in that name.

It was an odd turn of events, but with Sewell long being known, even admired, for his temerity, the audience likely was not surprised. But, appropriateness aside, it just sounded so outdated and discordant. Of course Sewell is not alone in his views. He gives voice to a substantial group of inner-city ‘progressives’, many of whom lived through and were permanently shaped by the reform era of the 1970s and hold fast to the tenets of that era: Metro is a road-building villain, suburbs are banal, long live the Annex! Such thinking might have seemed refreshingly countercultural in 1970, but the avant garde must keep moving forward to stay ahead of the troops and in this case it clearly has not.

The idea that suburban-dwellers, which presumably means those who live in housing built after 1950, lack a willingness to co-operate for the public good – essentially what Sewell is claiming – strikes me as so absurd as to be almost a parody of itself. Urban fabric built in 1880 is different from that built in 1920 or 1960, and these different urban forms attract different income and status levels, stages of life, and ways of living. But the several million people in this urban community breathe and drink in one regional ecosystem, work in a metropolitan labour market, and share a good many values and problems. Dividing the city into us and them, into good city and bad suburbs, is a vestige of 1960s anti-establishmentism that has not aged well; it needs to be let down the drain once and for all. If such thinking really does live on among influential citizens in the well-feathered nest of the ‘old city of Toronto’ it is no wonder Rob Ford gained so much support in the areas Sewell attacks. As the old sports adage goes, and as any football coach knows, the best defence is a good offence.

Toronto's suburban landscape: Lawrence Avenue East, 1963 (City of Toronto Archives)

Toronto’s suburban landscape: Lawrence Avenue East, 1963 (City of Toronto Archives)