Friday, October 1, 2010

TFC as a symbol of the New Toronto

Back in May of 2007, I took a friend of mine to see Toronto FC play the Chicago Fire at BMO Field. Like most Torontonians at the time, my friend was only barely aware of the existence of the MLS expansion team and looked bemused as we entered the gate and received our complimentary circular seat cushions meant to keep our arses cozy in the cold, plastic seats. Skepticism about the long-term viability of a Major League Soccer franchise aside, he was impressed by the size and energy of the assembled crowd, and not a little intimidated by the noise of thousands of feet stomping on the steel rafters as we ambled up to take our seats on the second tier of the west stand (stomping which would later cause some screws and bolts to come loose from the stands).

Toronto had yet to score after four games. After the much-anticipated home opener in late April produced a disappointing loss, the desire among supporters for a goal was palpable. A few minutes into the first half against the Fire, which TFC spent playing the best football in its short history, you could sense the crowd knew it was only a question of when the goal would come, and, well, you know the rest. Needless to say, my once-sheepish friend was fist-pumping and shouting like mad along with everyone else at BMO that day.

Most Toronto FC fans who were there are content to tell this story over and over again, in part to demonstrate their bona fides as supporters of the club. But for me the moment was significant not just for professional soccer in Toronto, but for the city of Toronto itself. That ecstatic moment was for me a symbol of what this city is capable of, of the passion that lies beneath the patina of the old Victorian conservatism that has defined Toronto since its founding in 1834. Here was a typically Torontonian institution—a franchise team purchased by a much-maligned and extraordinarily wealthy corporation, playing in an inexpensive stadium built on the back of a hard fought (and highly politicized) consensus between public and private investors—embraced by a grass roots fan base of Toronto soccer people who united behind the club on their own terms. To me, that jumping South Stand, comprised of groups like the U-Sector, the Red Patch Boys, the Voyageurs, many of whom had been active in the soccer community for years, remains a powerful reminder of the tradition of spontaneous organization that has long-defined this city.

I (like many other Torontonians) didn't always believe moments like that were possible here. Seven years before that unforgettable game in May 2007, I left Toronto to do my undergrad in Montreal. The city I left had endured a five year period of massive political change. The conservative provincial government under Mike Harris, elected in 1995, pushed through a massive omnibus bill that downloaded a score of what were formerly provincial services onto the municipalities. The city's five boroughs were then forced in 1998 to amalgamate into one municipal entity, what critics then referred to as a "megacity," and Mel Lastman—a former furniture salesman and mayor of suburban North York—was elected mayor in 1997 by mostly conservative suburban voters, a post he held for six years.

It was an embarrassing time for Toronto, led by an ineffectual mayor, saddled with a provincial mandate on a municipal budget, fueling an economy that kept both Ontario and the federal government flush with cash but forced by those same entities to close its schools, cut off funding to arts programs, and make do with a transit system unworthy of a city Toronto's size. Culturally, Toronto had the artistic outlook of Cleveland but with delusions that it was somehow a little brother to New York. Its leading elites despised its own gritty, working class roots (brilliantly documented in the opening credits for Kids in the Hall), whether the activist Birkenstock socialism of the 70s and 80s, or the curtained Taverns of the deeply protestant the 50s and 60s. They demanded everyone, including its own citizens, regard Toronto as "World Class," regardless of whether the city had in fact achieved anything worthy of the assignation.

Meanwhile, as I settled in Montreal, a generation of young urban enthusiasts and planners (some of whom founded publications like Spacing magazine) arrived in Toronto and slowly transformed the city. The Gladstone Hotel was purchased and renovated as an art space, Queen West west underwent an enormous revitalization, several different arts festivals emerged, and long-time landmarks were reconstructed, some (the AGO) more successfully than others (the ROM). In 2003, a city fed up with cronyism at city hall elected the progressive mayor David Miller (who, while deeply flawed in some policy areas, happened to be a major soccer enthusiast). Even more interestingly, a small group of young people began to take interest in Toronto's oft-neglected past. Heritage groups became more vocal in protecting city landmarks from rampant development. Many of the city's younger boosters believed that in order for a city to be "World Class," it had to first uncover, protect, and learn from its history. Soon, things once deemed impossible—the revitalization of Parkdale and Regent Park, the Nuit Blanche all-night city-wide arts festival, the construction of BMO Field and the wild success of pro soccer in T.O.—were happening right before our eyes.

The success of Toronto FC offers a microcosm of this decade of change. Like many good things in Toront, TFC came into existence through the leadership and cooperation of city officials and their corporate contemporaries, but the real success came from ordinary fans of the professional game, both the sons and daughters of immigrants brought up on the European soccer and long-suffering Canuck footy die-hards who cheered together when Dichio scored in the 24th minute.

It seems now that, for both the club and the city, the moment may have been a mere flicker of a false hope. Toronto is facing an election on October 25th with a slate of mayoral candidates convinced they must further financially run into the ground a city they don't seem to particularly like. None have acknowledged that the city's dire financial health was largely imposed from without, and that an effective mayor must work both as leader and civic advocate at both the provincial and federal levels, as David Miller tried (and failed, ultimately) to do. Most have already threatened to cut the arts, kill the badly-needed Transit City project, and halve the number of elected city counselors, saving what amounts to chump change in an unbelievable $7 billion city budget. Meanwhile, city progressives, while magnificent on issue activism, continue the now decades-long trend in the left of abandoning electoral politics, leaving the one serious progressive candidate to campaign alone while they plan Barbecues for Bike Lanes.

The growth of pro-soccer in Toronto is likewise facing the prospect of a stall. The prospect of four years without playoffs for TFC coupled with a cynical ticket price hike from MLSE could threaten season ticket renewals and lead to more and more empty seats at games. BMO Field, built to be Canada's national soccer stadium, only produced its first national team win yesterday, a friendly between CWNT and China, and movement pushing the CSA to properly restructure seems to have waned. Like the city itself, the Toronto soccer scene is once more facing a long, slow decline because those who worked so hard to get us here are succumbing to complacency.

Cities don't get very many Danny Dichio moments. They're rare and they're beautiful, but they don't happen by accident. If we're to see something like that moment again—thousands of people spontaneously throwing thousands of seat cushions on BMO's then fake turf, millions of plastic plates chucked on plastic grass through the booming warnings from the BMO announcer to behave (such an un-Torontonian thing to do!), all for the mad love of football—we need to have the courage to slough off once and for all that old Victorian mantle, to ignore the man on the speaker telling us to stop, to cheer like mad despite the cynicism we all too often confuse with realism in this city.

There's still time.

(Photo Credits: Top photo Kevin Steele, middle wvs.) 


Lord Bob said...

So Preki was the Rob Ford of Toronto FC? Or is that Dasovic?

Parney said...

If Ford wins then we deserve him :(

A said...

No Parn, the city of Vaughan deserves Rob Ford.

Fantasy football game said...

yeahh they deserve it.

Chris Michael said...

Brilliant article. It's a crime that the 905 gets to ruin a city they don't even use. But I admire your optimism: it's hard being a Leafs fan when the golds stay empty, but we don't do it for MLSE, now, do we.

prime8contra said...

Most impressive... I likes.

Paul S said...

How does 905 get to ruin Toronto? That's an interesting thesis; see the author's words about smug highbrow Torontonians calling their city "world class" at the expense of the real working classes who make their subsidized jobs a reality. I think you just proved it. If you get Rob Ford, then it's democracy at work. Enjoy your fellow citizens knowing what's best for them. Great article.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on a job... done.

Who are you calling sheepish?