Expo, or, the tale of two mayors

The recent election of David Miller as Toronto’s mayor produced a bubble of hope and pride for the city, the likes of which I hadn’t witnessed in my seven years living there. Those who may usually be defined as politically apathetic (mostly due to lack of options on the ballot) became excited by the possibility of Miller in the Mayoral office, and all seemed genuinely inspired by Miller’s victory.

And where there’s a bubble, there’s people eager to prick it. So along comes John Sewell (a former mayor of Toronto), who recently wrote a scathing indictment of Toronto’s tentative plans to prepare a bid to host the World’s Fair in 2015.

At this point in the tale, I will note for those who do not know: I love Toronto and consider Toronto my home, but I currently reside in Montréal, a city that has many charms and that I am growing quite fond of. To ever compare the two is rather unfair, since the two are so different: and preferring one over the other can be akin to saying you love your son more than your daughter, but I digress.

And so, despite, or perhaps because of their intimate relationship as (I will dare to say it) the two most culturally and economically important places in Canada, and both “world class” cities in their own right (Torontonians will get the joke), I will indeed attempt to compare situations in the case of the hotly-disputed potential World’s Fair bid.

Sewell launches his attack by directly asserting that Miller is walking into a trap with the World’s Fair bid. He suggests that the bid, should it go through, will divert funds and attention from other important matters in Toronto, such as the state of the port lands, the homeless, children, affordable housing, public transportation, and other causes that David Miller appeared sensitve to upon election.

Sewell’s points are well-taken, however, I find that perhaps he is too keen to raise his pin to Miller’s bubble of hope for Toronto. To summarize my counter-argument, I have a two-word response: Expo 67.

Jean Drapeau, who was mayor of Montréal during the Expo years, was seen as both heroic and daft. Heroic, for overseeing the introduction of Montréal’s Métro (a four-line subway system), Place Des Arts, the 1976 Olympics, and Expo 67. Daft, for the price tag attached to these items.

But make no mistake, these things changed the face of Montréal for the better, and certainly put it on the world map. Expo 67, in particular, raised Montréal’s proflle globally and remains a source of pride here. No one would deny that Expo was more than just an event, it was a massive undertaking. To go into the many virtues of Expo 67 here would also be a massive undertaking – instead, I suggest you indulge in a bit of Expo nostalgia at this excellent website.

The Métro was extended to go to the fair grounds, and the fair grounds themselves are still being actively used today. The grounds currently host the Biodome, La Ronde (an amusement park) and, a little further away but on the same man-made island, Montréal’s Casino.

There’s little doubt that Drapeau was a visionary. These events did spawn “colossal infrastructure binge”, as Sewell might describe it, and you can insert your own cheap shot at the Olympic Stadium here, but the fact remains that these events drew scores of first-time visitors to the city, raised civic pride, and proved that, when planned correctly, large-scale events can leave behind infrastructure than enhances rather than detracts from a city.

Perhaps Sewell doesn’t trust Miller and the current Council to plan correctly. He does, however, worry that this will unjustly tax the minds of the elites in Toronto, distracting them from other issues. Might I suggest that an undertaking of this size \\should\\ occupy the minds of Toronto’s elite – to ensure that the project is a success and leaves a legacy that adds to city life.

So for the first time, and I hope it may be the last time, I suggest that Toronto (and perhaps English Canada in general) take a page from Montréal’s book. You don’t need to sacrifice social services and other essential things that make a city liveable because you have a World’s Fair. Perhaps the climate in Toronto is not right to support all of this at once – it it true that Québécers pay higher taxes. But I have heard no grumbling about the taxes here, because quality of life is paramount. Culture and large-scale events do not need to come at the cost of essential social services. To suggest that it must is a bogus argument, as I’m currently residing in the centre of living proof that it needn’t be so.

To achieve an undertaking such as Expo, while simultaneously paying due attention to more quotidian but pressing issues, would truly affirm Toronto’s world class status. If anyone is up to the task, is it not Miller and his team?

6 replies on “Expo, or, the tale of two mayors”

While i agree, fully, about the goodness and phantasmagoricalness of Expo ’67, my big giant red flag would be Expo ’86. Do you remember Expo ’86? I do, a bit, but not really. Sure i wanted to goto Vancouver then, and it was a neat thing. But i was 12. Then it left, an d i don’t hear people talking about 86 the way people like my mom remember their trip to 67.

Expo ’86 is hardly a blip on the culture meter, the historic one, anyway. I didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It cleared out a lot of space for shiny downtown condos. That’s not inherently bad, but it isn’t Expo ’67.

67 was a pivotal time the history/coming of age of Montreal, Quebec and Canada. All three. You could argue we became sovereign that summer. Throw in a little Trudeaumania and we became sexy, finally, with black turtlenecks and ascots and a bit of swashbucking.

I do see a parallel with Toronto though – Toronto is at a crucial time in its own developement – we’re either going to get our shit together and turn this city into one of the best places in the world or we’re going to slide into the familar urban decay that many north american cities experience. If Expo capitalized on this Torontopian idea, it might work. We do have something to tell the rest of the world, for sure – this multicultural experiment we have going here is unrivaled. And yes, Miller and his folk would do it right if anybody could. A John Tory type could produce a big Expo, but i don’t think that sort of politician recognizes what is really wonderful in this city.

Toronto. Oh Toronto. We know it’s a world class city, but is it accessible to the world? Isn’t this the same lover’s quarrel we had over the Olympic bid of 2000, and 2006? Do we keep losing or are we out to sabatoge ourselves?

I remember the Pope visit with particular fondness. The young catholic invasion was realized while I was sipping a half pint of beer on the sneeky dees patio. With only a small fence guarding me from the sway of youth backpacks I wondered: what has happened to Toronto? I too thought I had an exclusive claim on the city. Dreading filled subway cars, and making polite conversation on the way home. I sulked and sipped behind my little fence. (at least I chose a side)

What is it about the Torontonian mind set that wants to be exclusive to be world class? Do want to better ourselves rather than share the wealth?

Prague, Paris, so many major European cities give themselves over to waves of tourists and large events every summer. The residents leave their cities and let the tourists take over. What is it about Toronto that makes us want to hold our ground?

We should hold out for for something at least as cool as the Atomium
or the Philips Pavillion
http://users.skynet.be/P-ART/PARADISE/JOURNAL/JOURNAL1/journ1.htm from Expo ’58.
I had the pleasure of expoloring the burned-out shell of the American Pavillion of Expo ’67 before they turned it into some lame biosphere thingy. It was a monumental ruin, and we just don’t have enough good ruins, these days. Also on that trip we walked through a weed-choked field to find the big Calder piece. They’ve cleaned it up and moved it. I liked it beter when it was a relic of a lost age.

I went looking for ’67 ruins in October. I found a few lamp posts and foundations. And lots of space. The few structures that remained were bad renovations, like biosphere and the casino. that part was sad. but i found the Calder thing – it was still windswept, but the sun was setting behind Montreal and i was just about the only one there and it was perfect. the part that wasn’t good was the interlocking brick they put underneath. very un’67. Though the out of context feeling, knowing that the piece was there for Expo ’67 where it was surrounded by more utopic future, was neat.

Taking the Metro to the park was neat though. The station there is double big to handle the ’67 crowds.

I deliberately left Expo ’86 out of the post, because it didn’t have the same critical factors going on that made Expo ’67 great, and that could make Expo ’15 great.

There was no visionary mayor in Vancouver at that time, and also no culturally important factors (there is of course a huge Asian influence, but I am not sure where that stood at the time, and if it was already in full swing, it wasn’t being used to full advantage.)

Quebec’s cultural richness, in part, made ’67 a success. I think it’s correct to state that Toronto has such a diversity of cultures, and is so proud of it, that it could base an exciting Expo around that fact. It is something worth telling the world about.

Expo ’86 is a good lesson in what not to do. I think Toronto’s Olympic bids are also good lessons – they failed for a reason. An Expo bid would have to acknowledge what is unique and good about Toronto – and leave a legacy that isn’t "shiny downtown condos". I think it’s possible to do it, and strike a balance with other issues affecting the city.

I dunno. Call me an old fart, but I think the magic ingredient that’s missing is optimism about the future. When I was little, just a few years after expo67, this was my favorite book:
I had no reason to doubt that I would, in fact, live on the moon. Today, the idea is, quite literally, a joke:
There are no flying cars, or floating anything, and houses just get uglier and uglier.(although I must admit there are pockets of hope: this view of the house of tomorrow from the Century of Progress exhibition would not look out of place at Caban:
http://www.chicagohs.org/history/century/photos6.html )
A society that builds ugly houses, and can’t work up optimism about the future will never mount a great world’s fair. We make good rotis here, and there’s good music, but we’re not gonna pull off anything like this:

Maybe someone will demo a cell phone, with a case by Roots, or there’ll be some good video games.

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