David Topping’s Toronto Malaise

by Joey deVilla on September 27, 2006

On Monday, I posted a link to a personal ad posted in the “Rants and Raves” section of the Accordion City edition of Craigslist, the free online classified advertising site. For the benefit of those who didn’t check out the ad, it’s titled

I LOVE TORONTO, DAMMMIT! and is a laundry list of things about our fair city that the author — known only as “Mary Fucking Sunshine” — loves. I agreed with most of the list, so I blogged it.

Yesterday, in the blog Torontoist — which bills itself as “a website about Toronto and everything in it” — an article covering “Mary’s” posting titled Concerning “I LOVE TORONTO, DAMMMIT!” was published. In the article, its author, one David Topping, appears to take great glee in refuting several of “Mary’s” points, calling Toronto a “giant dehumanizing city” in his closing paragraph.

Wondering where David’s Toronto malaise came from, I clicked on his byline, which led to a page containing his bio. The very first line told me all I need to know:

David Topping is not well-travelled; he almost never leaves the city he was born in.

“Wait a minute, Accordion Guy,” you might say. “You can’t take that bio at face value. We’re talking about hipster city bloggers, for whom irony and sarcasm is the default mode.”

That is a valid consideration, so I give you a quote from a series of articles that David posted (that I enjoyed), in which he photographed all the stations in the Accordion City subway system. He wrote:

I’ve lived in Toronto’s west end since I was born. I’ve moved twice: once, in grade nine, a block east of my old house, and, four years later, downtown to live in residence on the U of T campus. My Toronto — the part of the city that matters to me — has never extended further west than Kipling, further east than Yonge, or further north than St. Clair.

Therein lies the problem: his frame of reference against which he judges Toronto is, well, Toronto. Not even the whole city, but a subset that completely leaves out its eastern and northern halves.

Some Torontoist readers rightly called him on his familiarity-bred contempt of the city, to which he replied that when he visited New York City, people seemed friendlier. How many times have you been, David? Once? Twice? And did you venture anywhere say outside the Soho/Greenwich Village/East Village/Lower East Side box, or Park Slope?

As for this statement in the comments — “Or look at homelessness, for one; there’s a problem that seems way more persistent in Toronto than elsewhere,” — it’s only proof that he doesn’t get out much.

(Note that in the paragraph above, I linked only to articles about homelessness in the U.S.. If I really wanted to smack David about with facts about persistent homelessness, I’d pick Mexico, or even better, my home city of Manila…or lots of other cities off-continent. Ever been to a Third World country, David?)

David, it takes a bold man to wrote authoritatively on a topic of which he knows little or nothing. Have you considered a job at NOW magazine?

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous September 27, 2006 at 6:40 am

Let me start by saying, Joey, that I don’t have any contempt for Accordion City, I do genuinely love it – which is why I almost never leave it. I was trying to make fun of the gushiness of the Craigslist writer and to disprove some of her arguments in favour of the city.

Just to address a few of your points, though (I’ll copy these onto the thread on Torontoist, as well):

– When I went to New York (yes, only once), I walked around a lot of the city – Harlem, the Bronx, Coney Island, etc. My hotel was on the upper west side and I didn’t want to be confined to only knowing that area of New York.

– I don’t mean to say that homelessness isn’t a problem elsewhere, and please, please don’t interpret my comments as meaning that I don’t care about it. One of the things that does bug me about this city is that there’s so much apathy towards homelessness when it’s a real problem that some of us have just gotten used to it. Thus my ‘Nathan Phillips Square’ comment addressing hers. Obviously, I’m not saying Toronto’s poverty problem is worse than Africa’s or something like that; that’d be ridiculous and ignorant on my part.

– The entirety of my closing paragraph is meant to show how Torontonians can stand out against the “giant dehumanizing city” that I’m talking about. (“The true greatness in our city isn’t midnight skating at Nathan Phillips Square or our music scenes or spotting hot cheese employees – it’s making a genuine connection with real live people in a setting (a metropolis) that is not at all conducive to it. An anonymous posting on the internet proclaiming love for a giant dehumanizing city is just way too easy. There’s more to discover? Go for it.”) It’d be hard to argue, I think, that any large city isn’t dehumanizing in some capacity, at least compared to a village or a town or what have you.

When I posted the article, I genuinely expected a “har har” response from a bunch of born and bred Torontonians (I even employed some of that famed “hipster irony and sarcasm” in the article); instead I was met with a bunch of really surprised and half-outraged people. As I wrote in the comments, I thought we were all jaded and bitter. Or maybe it’s just me?

David Topping

Torontoist

Anonymous September 27, 2006 at 7:00 am

It’s just you.

Anonymous September 27, 2006 at 7:05 am

Hipster? Isn’t this guy about 19 years old?

Anonymous September 27, 2006 at 7:34 am

I don’t think there’s an age requirement to be a hipster, other than beingold enough to stay out late and be part of the city’s “scene”. At least that’s what the current usage of the word seems to be.

Consider the evolution of the word “hippie”. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm used the term “hippie” the way it was used when he was frequenting jazz clubs: it referred to a white guy who was part of Harlem’s jazz scene.

Anonymous September 27, 2006 at 8:01 am

Hey, David! From one High Park resident to another, welcome!

I wrote my piece because I felt that “Mary’s” gushing over the city was a valid point of view, and that mocking it misses the point. So she’s new to the city, and perhaps she was having one of those crisp sunny September days where the anything seems possible, and was inspired to post something to Craigslist. Hey, that’s why the “Rants and Raves” section exists, for people to get things off their chests.

You are right in that it’s the people that make a community, but the city is the environment in which that happens. The structure and amenities that a city offers often has an impact on the people within it; build an area one way and people are neighbourly, build it another way and people generally want to be left alone. A good chunk of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities builds upon this thesis. I think that in spite of its warts, Toronto offers a pretty decent infrastructure on which those social relationships can be built.

Large metropolitan populations can have a dehumanizing effect, and one explanation is the concept of Dunbar’s number, which got mention in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point — there’s a limit to the number of people with whom we can form relationships. This can be mitigated by creating places with a “neighbourhoody” feel, which scales down the vastness of the city — many parts of the city manage to accomplish this.

As for homelessness, as a one-year resident of San Francisco, let me tell you that we ain’t got nuthin’ on them. It’s partially the climate: it’s easier to be homeless in the Bay Area, where the risk of death by hypothermia is greatly reduced. The area around city hall is literally carpeted with the homeless and their shopping carts, and in many parts of the Mission District, you’ll find human poop on the streets. The locals have had to develop an even stronger ability to ignore the homeless as the city is tightly packed — surrounded on three sides by water, the city is a mere 7 by 7 miles, and you can cross six tax brackets in as many blocks. Living there even longer than I did, my friend (and former boss) Cory Doctorow coined the phrase “San Franscarcity”.

Finally, I think that there’s something wrong with equating enthusiasm and optimism with naivete and a jaded, apathetic and sarcastic approach with worldliness and knowledge. That’s not thinking, that’s just posing.

Come to think of it, another thing that prompted me to write was my recent visit to Belfast, where I got a look at the “Peace Wall”, an Orwellian name if ever I heard one. You ain’t seen “dehumanizing city” until you’ve seen this thing and get told stories about why it’s there.

Are there lots of problems with Accordion City? Without a doubt. But on the grand scale of cities with equivalent populations or with equivalent ethnic or class mixes, we’ve got it pretty nice here.

I have a proposal — maybe we should catch up sometime, we can each say our pieces and perhaps blog about it in some kind of round-table fashin, perhaps bringing in other bloggers from Torontoist and beyond. Perhaps we could even make it a podcast! What do you think?

Anonymous September 27, 2006 at 8:32 am

Your comments here affirm a statement you made on Sept 21 (Stupid Flag), where you said: “My experience has shown that you can build healthy, supportive communities and friendships online…”. While I am well-travelled, and somewhat well-read, I currently have very little time in my life to experience the scene in Toronto (like I used to), other than the culture at work, at school and in my commutes. However, I get a view of the culture, a feel for the scene, online, by reading the opinions and the experiences of others, through blogs and news. The picture I have of Toronto is vastly different to Mr. Topping’s. We live in a dynamic and optimistic city, with borders beyond High Park. But does your or my post change the view of others? Fortunately not, since my Toronto includes the homeless just as it includes the “hipster malaise” views of Mr. Topping. It takes all kinds.

Anonymous September 29, 2006 at 8:38 am

The area around city hall is literally carpeted with the homeless and their shopping carts

What kind of underpadding would you use for something like that?

Anonymous September 29, 2006 at 8:41 am

Discarded burger wrappers from the nearby “Carl’s Jr.” on Market Street.

Anonymous October 2, 2006 at 5:20 pm

Hello Joey,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments about my post (which was indeed inspired by one of those cheery September mornings). I’ve written a rather long response over at the Torontoist, but wanted to mention that this rang very true for me:

“I think that there’s something wrong with equating enthusiasm and optimism with naivete and a jaded, apathetic and sarcastic approach with worldliness and knowledge.”

I know I am relatively naive, and terribly idealistic. I also know that naiveity does not necessarily exclude cynicism, sarcasm, and downright bitchiness. I’m certainly capable of all those things. Nor does the excessive use of exclaimation marks always equate to a lack of sophistication or worldly intelligence. The unbridled enthusiasm in my post was as much a reaction to all the negativity on CL as David’s post was a reaction to my gushiness.

I’m grateful that David at least made an attempt to dissect my “argument” intelligently. Those of you familiar with craigslist RnR will know what a rarity that is. (Incidentally, it was never meant as an air-tight dissertation, just as a little blurb to “get off my chest” as you say) We all see life in different ways, I suppose. One view is as valid as the next; I just happen to find mine the most rewarding.

Anyway, I still love Toronto, hipster city bloggers and all. It’s all part of the texture.

Thanks again!

~Mary Fucking Sunshine

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