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Toronto: Biography of a City

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by Allan Levine

Douglas & McIntyre
496 pages, $36.95

Allan Levine has done us all a favour by devoting his considerable talents and imagination to writing a “biography” of Toronto. The city becomes more real and alive under his microscope, and his powers of narration and storytelling make this a lively and informative read.

Those who have lamented the decline of history and the end of narrative need look no further than the recent work of Levine, whose biography of William Lyon Mackenzie King won plaudits from general and academic readers alike.

There is no central thesis to his Toronto book — it doesn’t have an argument to make or an axe to grind. But it is also far more than a simple recounting of stories, although there are a lot of those. The thread that ties the book together is the fact that there are more layers and complexities than the platitude “Toronto the Good” would have one believe.

Levine describes how much the tensions of race, religion, and class were present at the creation of the city, and indeed were a hallmark of much of its history. First Nations make a brief appearance at the beginning of the book and scarcely emerge again. This misses the extent of the tragedy of displacement and dispersal that has been such a feature of life in Ontario. Levine’s narrative, like so much of Canadian history writing, really comes to life with the transformation of “Muddy York” into the Toronto of William Lyon Mackenzie and his battles with the Family Compact.

The clash between the Orange Order and the Irish, the impact of industrialization and a burgeoning working class, the tensions of further immigration, and the continued success of the city’s elite in surviving all the changes happening around it are key elements in Levine’s story. Writer Frank Underhill loved to repeat the saying that “our history is as dull as ditchwater and our politics is full of it.” He was right about the politics but wrong about the history.

Levine pays tribute to his teacher Maurice Careless and his time as a graduate student at the University of Toronto. But it is a telling reality of the world of history writing that non-academic historians are presenting more compelling stories than much of what comes out of the academy. That is too bad.

Mark Abley’s brilliant book Conversations with a Dead Man enlightened Canadians on the country’s racist past, and Levine does the same for Toronto. The extent and depth of prejudice is not a pretty story, but Levine is right that the city was eventually forced to change due to multiculturalism and the sheer force of immigrant numbers.

The history and politics of Toronto, Ontario, and Canada are closely intertwined, but Levine’s accounts of the recent amalgamation of the city and of the interplay of different governments are a little too cursory. Provincial decisions on subways, welfare, and amalgamation have left the city weaker and poorer than it needs to be, and, just as it is impossible to separate the politics of one jurisdiction, so too history has to be understood as a tapestry of interwoven decisions and events. Levine might have chosen to extend his reach beyond former Ontario premiers Bill Davis and Mike Harris for a broader perspective.

As poverty has spread from Toronto’s downtown core to the suburbs of North York, Etobicoke, and Scarborough, an amalgamated city struggles to find the resources to deal with burgeoning needs. And thus the begging bowl becomes the largest piece of furniture in the mayor’s office of the modern city.

The underlying social and political trends behind this reality take up less room than many of the anecdotes that enliven the book, which is a pity. Still, Levine has introduced Canadians to a city’s past and has shown that we can’t understand the present or aspire to the future without knowing where we came from.

Levine also leaves us with the provocative insight that the early planners of the city made a point of drawing its streets in straight lines, ignoring the valleys, ravines, and lakeshore that comprise Toronto’s unique geography. The city’s modern creation missed an opportunity to match its geographic beauty with architectural achievement. We must also deal with the destruction of so many historic buildings, including the former “Bishop’s Palace” of John Strachan and the province’s first legislative building, in the rush to “civic improvement.”

Despite the vast effort to bury and pave our past, and to turn our backs on the beauty of our geography, Toronto’s people, in all their diversity and conflict, still have their stories to tell. Allan Levine has done us a service by writing this story — and may others join in the discovery, debate, and storytelling.

— Bob Rae (Read bio)

Bob Rae is a lawyer at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP and distinguished senior fellow at the University of Toronto. The former premier of Ontario and interim federal Liberal leader is an author, speaker, and advisor on public policy issues as well as an avid student of history.


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