Monday, October 27, 2014


TORONTO IS GOING TO THE POLLS TODAY, and thanks to our former mayor, municipal politics in this city became global news. If you're from here you know all about Rob Ford and "Crazy Town," but if everything you know about Toronto you learned from Jimmy Kimmel, I'm here to offer a little history of Toronto's recent mayors via a dip through my archives.

David Crombie, Toronto, April 1988

There have been eleven mayors of the city of Toronto in my lifetime, but the earliest one I can recall is David Crombie, the "tiny perfect Mayor" as he's still remembered today. I have a memory of him being mayor forever, but he only held office for six years, from 1972 to 1978, and even people who weren't alive during Crombie's tenure are prone to wishing aloud that we had a mayor like him again.

I photographed Crombie long after he was mayor, in the final year of his decade as a member of parliament and cabinet minister. The client was the Metropolitan Toronto Business Journal, a glossy magazine published by the city's board of trade that boasted a bustling newsroom and a reputation that required all photographers to wear a tie when we did a shoot. A few years later, after the 1987 stock market crash decimated my client list, I went back there again to look for work; the newsroom was gone and the Business Journal was a newsletter put together by a retirement-age gentlemen working out of what looked like a storage room.

Crombie's tenure is remembered as a golden era of progressive city policy, when developers were held in check, the demolition of neighbourhoods was stopped, and Jane Jacobs' theories of urbanism had a voice at city hall. Oddly enough, Crombie did all this as a member of the Progressive Conservative party, albeit a member of the "Red Tory" wing - what most American conservatives would call a "goddamned city liberal."

Barbara Hall, Toronto 1997

Barbara Hall was the last mayor of the old City of Toronto, and I photographed her for NOW magazine in the last year of her only term in office. She was presiding over a ceremony at the construction site that would soon be the Air Canada Centre, a purpose-built arena meant to be home to Toronto's NBA team.

Cheerleading for a major league sports franchise was a poor fit for Hall, the ultimate progressive, and her rather dour term in office, coming as it did after June Rowlands' equally dour mayoralty, gave the city an oppressive sense that city hall was a disapproving schoolmarm, intent on improving the citizenry whether they liked it or not. In any case, that Toronto was about to swept away, and Hall would be swept away with it.

She'd end up as the head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, one of a network of provincial and federal kangaroo courts whose assault on liberty in the guise of a misconceived legal notion of fairness has been an embarrassment to my country. I'm rather taken with how stolid and Soviet she looks in this picture. I did not like Barbara Hall.

Mel Lastman, North York, 1997

Mel Lastman was a millionaire furniture salesman and the first mayor of the amalgamated municipality of Toronto created in 1998. I met Lastman when he was still the mayor of North York, a position he had held since 1972. He was leading the forces fighting the provincial government's planned amalgamation of six independent municipalities into one "megacity" - a battle he would lose, but which would make him that new city's first mayor.

I photographed him for NOW magazine in his offices in North York City Centre, where he was amiable but stiff, and faintly unenthusiastic - my left-leaning employer had not always been a big fan of his, but opposition to the amalgamation had made strange bedfellows. Like a majority of Torontonians, I was opposed to the megacity, and tried to make small talk with Lastman about the campaign.

I mused aloud that if the province wanted to create one big city, why hadn't they looked at other options apart from one big, central city hall - like, say, the borough system in New York City?

"Oh, how does that work in New York?" he asked me, sounding slightly bored.

It occurred to me, with a shock, that the man who'd been mayor of North York since man discovered fire was so incurious that he hadn't a clue how the biggest city in North America was run. We were in trouble.

A public referendum that solidly opposed the megacity was ignored by the province, and Lastman ended up neatly defeating Barbara Hall in the first megacity election later that year, serving two terms in a style that's best described as a fully-loaded clown car doing donuts in a minefield. He's remembered for a promotional stunt that populated the city with gaily-painted fibreglass moose, and for wondering aloud if he'd get eaten during a trip to Kenya to promote a city Olympic bid.

David Miller, Toronto 1996

I have a long history with David Miller, the man who succeeded Lastman as mayor. I met him for the first time in 1996 when he was running in a provincial election as the NDP candidate in the riding where I grew up. I photographed him for NOW in front of a big canvas of sky across Eglinton Avenue by York Memorial Collegiate, the school where my stoner friends went to high school.

He'd end up losing that election, but won a seat as a councillor in the new megacity a year later, where he made his name as an opponent of Mayor Lastman and as a critic of corrupt lobbying practices. I'd left NOW magazine at the end of 1999, and pitched their competition, eye weekly, a story on the outspoken councillor who everyone was sure would make a run for mayor.

David Miller, Toronto 2001

I followed Miller around for a day, from his home in High Park to his office at city hall, in committee meetings and finally on the subway to community events in his riding that night. It was a good piece - the sort of old-fashioned journalism that I'd always wanted to write. And to no one's surprise Miller ran for mayor in 2003.

I ran a group blog about the mayoral election, which I regarded as a crucial one, considering the shambolic quality of the Lastman years and the city's burgeoning budget deficit. I ended up endorsing Miller, writing that "the one thing I want to see Miller do - the thing that, if he fails, I'll never forgive him for failing - is clean out City Hall." It sounds so naive now, eleven years later, but I can be like that sometimes.

Miller won handily, beating perpetual loser John Tory by a thin margin and Barbara Hall by a massive one. By the time he ran for a second term I had lost my enthusiasm for Miller, but whoever I voted for instead didn't stand a chance.

David Miller, Toronto 2006

I ended up covering Miller quite a bit for the national free daily, doing the sort of workmanlike journalism that I never imagined I'd be doing a decade earlier. If I sometimes lost enthusiasm for photography at the dawn of the digital era, I'm sure you can understand why.

Miller's second term was even more disappointing than the first, and culminated in a summer-long garbage strike that was close to broken when Miller caved in to union demands. Not long after, he announced that he would not run for re-election.

Back when I wrote my feature on Miller as an up-and-coming councillor, I told my editors that I'd like to do a second part, focusing on a rookie councillor from Etobicoke who I was sure would run for mayor after Miller. When I told them who it was, they laughed and said there was no way - the guy was a buffoon. A joke. It would never happen.

David Miller and Rob Ford, Toronto 2001

I have tried repeatedly to get a portrait session with Mayor Ford. When I started putting together this post I began calling and e-mailing his office again, pleading for a few minutes of his time. After being ignored for a week, I finally got an e-mail saying that the mayor unfortunately had no time in his schedule. A few days later he announced that he had cancer and was dropping out of the race.

God help me but I miss Rob Ford already.


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