I have returned to my new “home” in Toronto following a drunken fling with my ex-city Vancouver. Oh my – Vancouver was gorgeous, the sun warm, the whole town abuzz with the Olympics. Here in the “Big Toe” (as I like to call it) the snow is flying, I’m sick with either food poisoning or Norwalk virus, and I just found out I’ve been turned down for yet another job. My EX wanted to move here (said it felt most like home) and my friends said if I was serious about my career then moving to Toronto was the only thing to do. Today, though, it feels like the worst decision of my life. I’m finding it hard to love a city that doesn’t seem love me back, but according to Adam Vaughan, that may be EXACTLY what I need to do if I want to be a model citizen.
Vaughan is my city councillor here in Toronto, and he’s agreed to tell me what I can do to become a better TORONTONIAN. Now, that is a word I rarely apply to myself. Having just done so, I find it’s making me itchy, as though I’m wearing a wool sweater. Nonetheless, here I am, staring Vaughan down across his desk in City Hall, looking for answers. He’s 48, and although his hair is grey, the stylish clear rims of his glasses and the slightly too-large grey suit make him seem youthful, almost boyish. His manner is polite but terse, like that of a man with many appointments and not much time for someone with amorphous goals, like me.
“A lot of people hate Toronto” Vaughan starts. “There are plenty of folks who came here because they felt they had to. They bring a lot of baggage about Toronto with them, but I have little in common with these people. I love this place.” It’s right then that I realize I probably have little in common with Adam Vaughan.
Nonetheless, I need some good ideas on how to be a model citizen, and I figured the man who represents me in civic politics is the right guy to provide some: he’s lived here his whole life and he grew up in a household devoted to Toronto’s politics – his dad Colin was city councilor in the 60s and 70s who later covered City Hall as a TV reporter. Like his dad, Vaughan also covered municipal politics as TV reporter, and also chose to seek public office. He seems to have some natural advantages. His biggest, though, may be an excess of civic pride. If that’s the first prerequisite for being a model citizen, then I’m fucked.
I put that aside for a moment to suggest that the work of a civic politician is not unlike that of a janitor, or building superintendent. He’s says I’m not wrong. “A city has to function. Roads need to be fixed, garbage needs collecting. Things need to work.” He calls constituency maintenance, and he admits it’s a big part of his job. I tell him it sounds a tad boring.
But Vaughan says it’s the price you must pay for having a role in how the city evolves. . “I love the idea of city-building. It captured my imagination as a kid, and it still does. All that other stuff is my way of earning a right to have a say in the future of Toronto.” Vaughan compares it to the difference between building a house and keeping it clean. One requires you to be creative, the other does not. “I can’t believe how creative this job is.”
According to Vaughan, that same practical imagination is present all over his ward; car-free Sundays in Baldwin Village, or re-development in Alexandra Park. “There isn’t a corner of my ward that isn’t doing something interesting.”
It’s this chance to be on the ground level of all those innovations that Vaughan says keeps him so engaged..that and his personal connections. “I live in the same 20 blocks I grew up in. I took some heat recently for suggesting that anyplace outside the 416 is the rest of Canada to me, but it is.” In a previous life, I may’ve taken exception to that statement, but Vaughan says it in a congenial, matter-of-fact way. It doesn’t smack of the customary Toronto-centric arrogance I’ve come to expect from such a declaration. He loves Toronto, and he doesn’t care if you hate him for it. It’s probably that gift for stating his preferences so unapologetically that makes a bid for mayor unlikely, not that Vaughan minds. “This job consumes me. I’m with it every minute of every day, and I love it. Ribbon cuttings, all that ceremonial stuff – holds no interest. I can only think I’d be less effective if I tried to run the whole thing.”
Much as we realize we may not love the same place, I find myself taking a liking to Adam Vaughan - He insists he’s not an ideologue, that he has no personal interest in acquiring power, and he says it in a way that makes it hard to doubt. He seems to have taken on what could be a soul-crushing job motivated by a sheer love of where he lives. That’s great, but how can I help if I don’t share his enthusiasm?
There’s plenty to do, he says. He rattles off the name of at least a half dozen organizations in my district that he says are in “desperate need” of volunteers. All that’s required on my part is a willingness to “accommodate difference,” to “leave isolation and get engaged.” Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world, he points out. It’s very existence depends on people’s acceptance of their neighbour’s differences. So, I don’t necessarily have to love my city, just try to love my neighbour? “More or less,” he says. “But they’re sort of one in the same, don’t you think?”
Love thy neighbour. It’s such a simple idea, so pervasive and common that it’s become little more than a slogan on a t-shirt to most people.
One of Vaughan’s assistants enters his office to tell him his next appointment has arrived. Unlike when we started, he now seems unconcerned about his waiting guest. He smiles easily now, and appears almost reluctant to stop talking about what must be his favourite subject. I get up to leave, promising him that I will make it a point to reach out to some of the organizations he mentioned. As we shake hands, he says “If you have time on your hands, you should work on my re-election campaign.” It’s an intriguing idea. The cynic in me is saying perhaps he’s in desperate need of volunteers. On the other hand, maybe he’s leading by example; sure, I don’t love his hometown – not YET – but he’s not holding it against me.