Laugh a little, Toronto

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Wednesday night, I attended a joyless meeting in a windowless room in North Toronto. It was about granting a liquor licence to an ebullient French chef named J.P. Challet and his two partners, who want to open a charmant 22-seat restaurant called Ici in a downtown neighbourhood (mine) that could use and clearly wants it. The sort of boîte you find all over Paris, not just on the entertainment strips, but rarely here: modest, with excellent food and no tablecloths. To perform this public service they must fight City Hall, literally.

Local NDP councillor (and deputy mayor) Joe Pantalone snuck a motion opposing the licence through council on an urgent basis, without telling the chef-owners or giving them a chance to make a case. He won't return their calls even though they're now his constituents. They stand in their window in their whites each day beckoning people in to snack and talk about it. They're the ones doing local politics and making community real. But deputy Joe acts as if they're the old dope peddler trying to lure teens into a lair with video games. Believe me, the stuff on their menu would make adolescents retch.

This is how Toronto always shoots itself in the foot and makes the rest of Canada wince. It can't lighten up and have fun. That was once based on WASPy prudishness. It's why Westerners used to come for the Grey Cup and show locals how to have a good time. It's why Toronto is a joke in Quebec.

What I don't get is why the political left is so often implicated. On the night 30 years ago that Toronto über-reformer John Sewell was elected mayor, he told celebrants at his victory party to go home and get to bed. It boded ill. Mayor Barbara Hall was dour, if wry. I've been puzzled by why I find current mayor David Miller, who says he won't run again, irritating. For me, it's not his behaviour during the garbage strike; most of what he's done is well-intended and useful. But he's gloomy and whiny. He started complaining about not being appreciated almost from the start. Only Tory Mel Lastman seemed to fully enjoy life, even if he was mayorally incompetent.

Isn't that odd behaviour for socialists? It's so unsociable. Couldn't they put some of the social back in socialism? At the hearing, local MPP Rosario Marchese saved a little left face by supporting the licence. But he's brother to Graziano, of Dooney's, the café where the tide of Starbucks was temporarily turned back a decade ago. When he was culture minister in Bob Rae's NDP government, Rosario was often found brewing a cappuccino behind the bar, rather than at Queen's Park. That's what you like in a culture czar. Joe Pantalone is more like a one-man lynch mob, with a whiff of Stalinism in the sense of harsh, mindless wielding of power in the name of left-wing values.

Why joylessness? Who knows? There are unhappy people whose main solace comes from unhappiness in others around them. It becomes a problem when they have power to inflict unhappiness -- at home, in the polis, wherever.

And why do people seek joie de vivre in local politicians, but not in a Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff? Because cities are where most of us live. A local pol shouldn't just talk the place up -- she or he should enjoy it. If you don't like life here, you can't be doing a very good job. People don't just want safe streets; they want safe, fun streets. That's not an impossible dream.

These local places, where neighbours socialize publicly, are fragile but resurgent. Dooney's closed a while ago, then reopened as a sort of Dooney's for grownups a block away, called The Annex Live. A splendid place near me called Gamelle, run by Jean-Pierre Centeno, expired during this recession. But now there might be Ici. (Hopefully licensed -- for fine wine, not drugs, Joe.) Also run by a Jean-Pierre. One goes, another comes. Turn, turn, turn.

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