John, Paul and the Fall of Toronto

"I've circled the planet 44 times and I can honestly say Toronto right now is operating better than any other city. I don't know how long its golden moment will last. But for the moment, it's the most comfortable city. It's the cleanest city and it works."
Buckminster Fuller, 1978

The streets are garbagey now with pickups less frequent. The Toronto Transit Commission keeps raising its fares. It's the only transit system in North America with no support from political levels other than municipal. The schools hold bake sales to buy books and pencils. There's been no major office construction and virtually no new rental accommodation downtown since 1995. The number of two-parent families with kids using homeless shelters grew by 545 per cent between 1988 and 1999. There's a farcical Olympic bid: the numbers don't work and the mayor tells Sambo jokes. We are in the decline and fall phase. Two visages have hovered over this spectacle for decades, during both rise and fall.

One is John Sewell. In the 1960s, he led tenants against city hall and the developers that infested it. He wore a leather jacket and lank hair. In 1969, he became an alderman. It was hard to picture. He led the Left opposition to what was considered a Left mayor: David Crombie. In 1978, he became mayor. That was really hard to picture. But he got a baggy suit and rode his bike or the subway to work. He loved it when citizens talked to him. It was the job he was born for. There's not much you can do as a mayor, but he riled the power blocs anyway. I once told him the reason they hated him was because people like me could get through to him as easily as they could. "Easier," he shrugged. They united against him. "All we need is a candidate," they said, and found the virtually opinionless local pol, Art Eggleton, now defence minister. When John Sewell lost in 1980, that should have been the end for him, but he didn't realize it.

He became an alderman again, then a Globe columnist. In 1986, he was appointed head of Toronto's public housing system, where he changed things for the better, and was fired by the province. It's hard to say why; it seemed to be his fate: serve the public and lose your job. In the early 1990s, he ran a commission into land use. When the Harris provincial government, with manifest disdain for local democracy, decided to amalgamate all Toronto in 1996, Sewell led a movement to stop it. He failed again, but that one really rattled the cage. He'd been a columnist for one city weekly, NOW magazine, but was dissatisfied, so he took a pay cut to write for another, eye, where he still is. The inspiring thing about John Sewell is he doesn't go away.

The second is Paul Godfrey. He sat on North York council from 1965 to 1973, then was appointed head of Metro Toronto by the Tories. His entry in Who's Who, usually self-written, says "leader in crusade to bring major league baseball to Toronto, leading proponent of a new dome stadium." No other goals for the city are noted. The Olympic-bid people now use the SkyDome as a case of financial disaster to learn from. In 1984, Godfrey became publisher of the Toronto Sun, founded largely to oppose visions such as John Sewell's. He helped sell the Sun papers to Quebecor last year. Sun writers were ecstatic to escape a bid from the Bolsheviks at The Toronto Star, but they may be re-evaluating since the Sun became a cost-cutting sports tab and little else. A year ago, he became CEO of the Blue Jays. People tend to eventually find their level. Just this week, he defended Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash, whom he retained in his first act as CEO. As GM, Gord Ash's main acquisitions have been pitcher Joey Hamilton and nobody - received for David Wells since Mike Sirotka fetched up lame. It turns out nobody was a better deal than Joey Hamilton.

Through all these years, he never ceased to operate at the centres of power, though he hasn't run for office in thirty years. Mayor Mel could easily be seen as his - illegitimate? - political offspring. So could Art Eggleton. All three sported those weird male perms in the 1980s. The scary thing about Paul Godfrey is he doesn't go away.

You could put John Sewell and Paul Godfrey on an engraving - in perpetual struggle - and make it Toronto's city seal. One morning last spring, I was down at city hall to pay a fine and get my licence reinstated. A bunch of teenagers was cavorting ahead of me toward the door and, ahead of them, a shambly man. Yeah, it was John Sewell, turning and talking to them about when the place was built and what is done inside it. I have no idea how he came to that task, like a teacher or city guide. "Citizen Sewell," said CITY-TV reporter Adam Vaughan knowingly, when I played the scene to him.

A note on not being too grim: Decline and falls are part of the lives of cities, countries and individuals. Then they rise again, sometimes. As a Jewish character defiantly told Tony Soprano when Tony and his pals were about to cut the man's fingers off: "My people fought the Romans. Tell me, where are the Romans now?" And Tony answered, "You're lookin' at 'em."

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