Why Has Downtown Toronto Become So SWAG?

For me, SWAG (smug, white, affluent gentry) is an attitude, a state of mind.

Even a lifestyle choice.

Someone who is SWAG, is someone at his core, is selfish, self-satisfied and self-entitled, who also has some material wealth, or political power, or influence or possessions. Or even just a sense and feeling of societal acceptance. All in themselves, or as a whole, contribute to a SWAG’s material well-being.

But more importantly, this person is driven by a desire to preserve and conserve his material well-being, even at the expense of others. Or the Others. Those who are less fortunate. Who lack that sense of material well-being, or lack that sense of financial security, political power or societal acceptance.

In downtown Toronto, I am not just talking about a few select individuals or families, I am talking about whole communities, which have become SWAG, and potentially, spiritless and soulless.

In Toronto, you don’t have to be white to be SWAG.

Especially, in the case of downtown Toronto.

Now, I am definitely for open, inclusive, and identifiable local neighbourhoods.One of the assets of downtown Toronto is its strong and sometimes idiosyncratic neighbourhoods. I am also a supporter of preserving such neighbourhoods.

What I am not in favour of is when residents of such local neighbourhoods, in an effort to preserve their neighbourhoods, give rise to a perverted form of neighbourhood preservation, NIMBYism. Otherwise known as “NOT IN MY BACKYARD.”

For the longest time NIMBYs used to be very open publicly in their resistance to change or development or urban density.

But since 2002, for a variety of good planning reasons: the continued population growth of Toronto and the high infrastructure and environmental costs of urban and suburban sprawl, the City of Toronto amended its Official Plan.

And Toronto smartly designated certain obvious areas of the city, usually near established subway lines and/or mini city centres (Yonge/Eglinton) or streetcar lines, (the Beaches on Queen Street East or Parkdale on Queen Street West) ripe for urban intensification, i.e. mid-rise and high-rise condo development.

Much to the chagrin and horror of the NIMBY residents of these designated urban density areas.

Also NIMBYism became synonymous with selfishness, intolerance and lacking in civic-mindedness.

Here are a few examples of Toronto NIMBYism in the recent past and present:

Residential organizations in the urban intensive Yonge-Eglinton area fought the development of two Minto condo towers just south of Eglinton on Yonge Street. Minto won and an excellent councillor Anne Johnston was voted out of office by her NIMBY constituents. For negotiating with Minto with a view to the overall good of Toronto, and not the insular interests of her selfish and self-satisfied constituents.

Residential organizations in the Beaches have continually fought against well-planned and community sensitive, modest mid size condos on Queens Street by Reserve Properties. These NIMBYs wrongly claim the historical character of their over priced and over-valued Beaches homes will be destroyed.

Parkdale residential organizations opposed condos in the Triangle, on the basis that they would destroy the community. The fact is that these well-planned condos have contributed to the revitalization of the community.

Special mention should be given to Parkdale Councillor Gord Perks, a staunch NIMBY advocate, who is currently leading the charge against more bars and restaurants in the Parkdale area.

Poor Jane Jacobs would be turning over in her grave. Jacobs was a celebrated urban theorist and Toronto resident. Recall in her seminal work, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jacobs viewed downtown and local bars and restaurants as very positive for urban life, in terms of attracting people to the streets late at night. And ongoing pedestrian flow. Which in turn provide a valuable and practical sense of security and community. The absence of which leads to crime and decline.

Unfortunately, NIMBYs are not just content with excluding newcomers to Toronto from the NIMBYs’ very appealing communities.

My thesis is that Downtown Toronto NIMBYs have taken NIMBYism to a whole new level of intolerance verging on discrimination. Which I have dubbed SWAGism.

SWAGs wish to separate their established and affluent communities from the poorer inner suburbs of Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, York and East York, that adjoin downtown Toronto.

The spirit of SWAG Toronto is best captured by a recent Toronto Star article, which extolls the virtues of de-amalgamation. And represents a vain attempt by SWAG Toronto to recapture its political power, that was lost with the decisive defeat of George Smitherman by Rob Ford in the last municipal election.

The writer, referring to the evils of old Toronto amalgamating with the suburbs, (the residents of the latter clearly having different and inferior values and priorities) states:

“What was unleashed on Toronto in 1998 was a diabolical masterstroke: a perpetual culture war between the suburbs and the city, where the latter will almost always be outvoted by suburbanites with different values, priorities and motivations. Transit is a pregnant example. If the TTC only had to serve the former City of Toronto, it would actually turn a profit . Instead the beleaguered transit authority is whipsawed by populist politics and asked to deliver astronomically expensive subway service to the surrounding low-density sprawl.”

One urban academic recently referred to Ford as the “worst mayor in the modern history of cities, an avatar for all that is small-bore and destructive of the urban fabric, and the most anti-urban mayor ever to preside over a big city.”

The political left would be mistaken if they believe this presents a problem for “Ford Nation.” Exactly the opposite is true. Ford was sent downtown by suburban voters to bring home the bacon while cutting their taxes — essentially sabotaging the city. Mission accomplished. And if he thumbs his nose at Toronto elites along the way, so much the better. Ford himself may self-destruct, but the city will largely be ruled by suburban populists for the foreseeable future.”

I give a lot of credit and courage to political reporter Edward Keenan of The Grid, who clearly sees through the push for de-amalgamation as essentially self-serving, anti-democratic, anti-populist, discriminatory and elitist. And reflecting the true dark underbelly of SWAG Toronto. Keenan observes,

“Maybe most interestingly, is that if separating downtown were possible, it would still be entirely selfish and irresponsible. A growing majority of the most troubled neighbourhoods in Toronto are in the suburban areas, mainly because those are increasingly the more affordable parts of Toronto. The proposal to erect a political wall has the whiff of white flight: The wards that Ford carried in the last election are places where ethnic ‘visible minorities’ are an actual majority, while the downtown is more than 70 per cent white. All 13 of the city’s ‘priority neighbourhoods’ are in the inner suburbs, where the average income is 30 per cent lower than in the old City of Toronto. So be careful how you discuss ‘these people’ screwing up Toronto politics: De-amalgamation looks a lot like segregation by ethnicity and wealth.”

Of course, the suburbs are also the places where transit sucks, where riding a bike is difficult and where old high rise tower neighbourhoods are crumbling. If those areas are voting for people like Rob Ford, a good democratic approach might be to ask them why, instead of threatening them with exile.

In short, SWAG Toronto, appears to support erecting a wall to segregate white SWAG Toronto from the poorer non-white residents of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough, on the basis of ethnicity and wealth.

I also fear under the sophisticated veneer of SWAG Toronto, lay affluent, anti-democratic social/political elites, who fear non white strangers moving into Old Toronto as their neighbours.

Not a pretty picture, Toronto.

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