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January 15, 2008

Richard Florida

Mr. Negative

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I just came across this entry by a fellow name Philip Preville, a blogger for a local magazine, Toronto Life, who according to his bio "lived much of his life in Montreal and Edmonton before he was lured, like so many Torontonians before him, by the promise of more work and a better livingroom ..."

In case you missed it, the weekend Globe featured the latest in its series titled “Richard Florida Ingratiates Himself.” In each installment, Florida heaps his brainy-sounding flattery upon a different area of Toronto while appearing photographed in its midst with a shit-eating grin. First it was Kensington Market, then Dundas Square, now the U of T, which he praises for being nondescript —sorry, I mean “seamless.”   The description strikes me as either an insult (“That was a campus I just walked through? I thought it was just a few low-rise office towers amid some churches”) or a pleasant fib. If anything, the U of T’s border streets (Bloor, Spadina, Queen’s Park, College) do an excellent job of signaling to passersby that there’s nothing much to see inside the quad—it’s a subtle but highly effective cloistering. But don’t listen to a sourpuss like me. Just read the final paragraph of the story, in which Florida—pardon, that’s Dr. Florida to you and me—lays on the positivity thick and brown as Nutella.

His personal diatribe doesn't bother me: I'm a big boy, I can take it.  But listen to how he tears into his home town. I have been wondering for some time now why people like Preville are so negative and insecure about what Jane Jacobs' said is North America's greatest city.  And these folks are not critical in the way New Yorkers are - with an attitude of "my city may have problems but it's still the best around." People like Preville are all too ready to rip into this town at the drop of a hat. Some call it "tall poppy syndrome" but I think its even more cynical and disturbing than that.

My piece in the Globe and Mail was about the enormous advantage having a world-class university in the center of the city is. I am not trying to ingratiate myself with anyone: why in god's name would I have to.  I've spent the better part of a three decade academic career criticizing local leader and "squelchers" for damaging their communities.  My piece, actually, was prompted by a ludicrous article in the New York Times on how Yale is working to remedy more than 50 years of damage it has inflected on its home town of New Haven.  I contrasted the integration of University of Toronto with its surrounding neighborhoods with the walled-off, moated-up, university-as-biggest-slumlord-in-town model found in too many US cities.  I've studied university-community connections for more than two decades, and my positivity was because Toronto actually does this better than just about anywhere else I've seen. I noted that this was, to me,  the most striking spatial feature of the city by far - one that many people in Toronto take for granted and most people outside of Toronto and Canada are relatively unaware of.

Maybe a stint in one of those New Haven neighborhoods Yale is helping to "revive" might turn him around.


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I hate to be glib but the eastern border of the campus is Bay and not Queen's Park. And the integration of the east campus (St Michael's and Victoria Colleges) with the provincial capital and the rest of the campus is further evidence of your point. I can't think of too many universities that are so linked to their state's seat of power. Maybe that other "UT" in a vibrant, creative city, UT Austin.


I hate to be glib but the eastern border of the campus is Bay and not Queen's Park. And the integration of the east campus (St Michael's and Victoria Colleges) with the provincial capital and the rest of the campus is further evidence of your point. I can't think of too many universities that are so linked to their state's seat of power. Maybe that other "UT" in a vibrant, creative city, UT Austin.


I too am surprised by the number of Torontonians who simply do not appreciate what we have in our own back yard! Sure there is always room for improvement, but that doesn't mean that Toronto needs to be constantly beaten down. The University of Toronto is an outstanding institution with--easily--some of the best architecture in the city and country: a progressive grad house by Morphosis, contextual and mixed-use work by architectsAlliance, superstar names such as Foster, and more.

But, as Richard Florida has pointed out, one of the biggest advantages of the University of Toronto is its integration with downtown Toronto. As an alumnus of UofT, and an architecture grad at that, it was a tremendous advantage having the city at my disposal.

But perhaps Torontonians are forgetting about this unique asset because it works so well.

I'm currently a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania. Penn, like UofT, also began in the downtown core but was later moved across the river to West Philadelphia. If there is anything that speaks about Penn's contentious relationship with West Philadelphia (now re-branded as University City) it's the fact that the University once contemplated building a wall around the campus to keep crime out. Thankfully that was not done, but what we have instead is a security officer on every corner, every night--just to make sure that our little bubble remains safe from the terrors of the greater urban fabric.


A born-and-raised and damn proud Torontonian


Preville's article is undoubtedly coloured by his living in Montreal. U of T is really nothing special in the integration department compared to McGill and Université de Montréal. Montreal is truly the standard for livability in an Canadian city, compared to which Toronto falls short in so many ways.

As an ex-Montrealer (like Preville), I similarly note an uncritical boosterism (he calls it ingratiation) on your part. Toronto does have its good points, but it has lots of work to do if it is to live up to its potential. In particular, it would be much more becoming of its politicians and residents if they stopped all this whining and actually did their part to make the city better.


Mr. Preville sounds a lot like many Pittsburghers I know....while I wouldn't say that Pittsburgh "is North America's greatest city," it's sad how little many of us appreciate our home. Richard, I'm sure you remember this from your time here...

Paul White

I like the hyperlink to the nutella graphic.


Perhaps Scott can comment on my "uncritical booster" tendencies from my decades in Pittsburgh. That's one thing I'd never be accused of. If truth be told my goal is not to explain Toronto to Toronto or suck up to them, but show places like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the US and around the world that there are things that are working here - the foundations of a new more cohesive model of urbanism - good and bad, warts and all. Toronto's commenting class needs to get over it's labelling anyone who identifies a strength of the community as a "brown-nosing booster." It sells the community short, it creates all kinds of palpable insecurity among many residents (why else would they project so much onto an "outside") and worse of all, it's paralyzing. But Steve's right it's time they stop whining and go out and do something.


One of the most frustrating things about living in the US as a Canadian was seeing how little awareness there is of Canadian successes that could be applied in the American context. Vibrant inner cities are definitely in that group. So your goal is a good one; not sure if the Globe and Mail has the right audience for it.

In general, the people who want to say nice things about Toronto seem to bear an unfair burden of proof. But I do think it's related to a sense of ownership in the city's well-being. Toronto as a city is imperfect and unfinished, and people who live here seem to feel _entitled_ to something better. Positive reviews probably make some worry about settling for second best. I'd like to think that's a powerful attitude, and healthy at the right dosage.

Not sure if you've met David Crombie (known as the city's "tiny perfect mayor") but I bet he has an interesting take on this phenomenon from decades of experience.


Matt - Very, very nicely said.

Frank godfrey

With respect to Steve's concern over the " uncritical boosterism " for Toronto, following upon his assertion that " Montreal is truly the standard for liveabilty in a Canadian city, compared to which Toronto falls short in so many ways ", I suggest the ex-Montrealer is hoisted by his own petard. Comparing these two cities has been going on a for a long time. Having a preference is fine, but please see your own " boosterism " for what it is. I'm sure R. Florida could do a very good series of articles on what makes Montreal a great city, or one on Vancouver, for that matter.


Hmmm. Things are heating up a little further, I see. Mr. Preville's response: http://www.torontolife.com/blog/preville-politics/2008/jan/16/dr-florida-and-me/


What you have encountered from Preville is a typical Canadian attitude. One thing that you will discover living in Canada is how enthusiatic and upbeat Americans are by contrast. Next you may encounter the social stratification issue, no doubt a legacy left from the British.


Thanks all. Wil, I see both all around. Both are understandable, historically, I reckon. But I'm going to do my best to butt my admittedly hard head and strong will against each. Josh, thanks for the link. I tried my best to respond.

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