Toronto’s war on fun

If only we could shrug it off as a quirky hangover from its Victorian origins

Toronto's war on fun

Jessica Darmanin

You can interpret a city’s ambitions by the face it presents to the world. When it comes to Toronto, its streets fretted with bars called Harlem and Brooklynn, the skyline spiked by condo developments with names like The Manhattan, and the Legoland imitation Times Square installed at the corner of Yonge and Dundas, it is clear that the city wants to be New York. Which is funny, because there are few large cities in the world that are less like New York than Toronto. Where New York is dense and chaotic, Toronto is sprawling and orderly. New York has endless canyons of stunning architecture, while Toronto’s flat streetscapes look like they were designed by blindfolded six-year-olds. And while New York is resolutely devoted to upholding its rep as the city that never sleeps, Toronto wages a relentless war on fun.

Let’s start with an old favourite, the municipal ban on ball hockey on city streets. Every Canadian kid plays street hockey, but only in Toronto is it a furtive activity, occurring under the reproachful gaze of signs declaring “Ball and Hockey Playing Prohibited.” Defenders of the bylaw argue it is harmless because it is so seldom enforced, and that trying to get rid of it might cause more problems than it solves. But that misses the crucial point, which is that it is a fundamental principle of a free society that what is not explicitly prohibited is permitted. A city that feels the need to prohibit many things is one that deep down does not trust the citizens with their freedom.

It isn’t only homegrown pastimes the city finds objectionable. Last summer, Toronto became one of the few jurisdictions on Earth—along with the Taliban regime that terrorized Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001—to prohibit kite flying in a park. The ban was a response to complaints about debris left from kite-fighting competitions held by members of the city’s Afghan and South Asian communities­—the leftover string was apparently disrupting lawn mowing and fouling trees, and there were concerns that some of it was embedded with glass shards that could endanger birds. A year later, city officials are trying to come up with a compromise. Part of the proposed solution involves a prohibition on “competitive kite flying in parks that have significant bird activity,” though the definition of “significant” remains unresolved. At any rate, it doesn’t appear to concern anyone that the freedom to fly a kite without being harassed by petty little officials was one of the reasons many of these people moved their families thousands of kilometres away from their homelands in the first place.

But this chintzy nickel-and-diming of pleasure in the city of Toronto is blind to colour or creed. Two years ago, a community group took over an abandoned shack in Christie Pits that had an old oven in it, and started hosting impromptu neighbourhood pizza nights. The city’s response? Pay a $100 fee for a permit and cough up money to pay a city staffer to watch over things.

This was pretty much the same approach the city took in February, when organizers of a youth group in Toronto’s immigrant-heavy Jane and Finch neighbourhood thought it would be fun to host a skating party at a local rink, complete with cookout and hot chocolate with marshmallows. The event was seen as a way of helping teens from places like Somalia and Cambodia get accustomed to the leisure rituals of their new country. It too was kiboshed, after the city demanded the group spend $80 applying for a permit and then purchase $2 million in liability insurance.

Now that the warm weather has arrived, Toronto’s war against fun has drawn new targets. Hence the recent denial of a permit for Afrofest, the African cultural festival that has been held in Queen’s Park for the past 23 years. Then there is Mayor Rob Ford’s assault on street art, which recently saw a squad of jihadis from the city’s Ministry of Boring erase a mural that the artist says the city paid him $2,000 to paint in the first place. Finally, there is the ongoing battle over restaurant patios. Officially, every patio in the city has to be closed down by 11 p.m., but some are allowed to remain open till 2 a.m. It varies from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, depending entirely on the whim and whimsy of the local strongman on city council.

It would be nice if we could just shrug this off as a quirky hangover from the city’s Victorian origins. But much as it seems to wish it were otherwise, Toronto isn’t a colonial backwater anymore; it is one of the largest cities in North America, and one of the most culturally diverse in the world. Indeed, it might be precisely because of that diversity that city officials are so afraid of fun. After all, every culture defines fun in its own distinct ways, and if you allow a free-for-all of fun, who knows what sort of problems might ensue. But this is the sort of gambit that is guaranteed to backfire: preventing South Asians from flying kites, or Somalis from having a skating party, is exactly the sort of overweening cultural paternalism that hinders new groups from properly integrating.

Ultimately, people flock to the great cities of the world—Paris and London, Hong Kong and New York—because they are places where anything is possible, and everything is up for grabs. “The city is a competition,” as some Frenchman once wrote. But if Toronto is a competition, then city officials are dedicated to ensuring it’s the only one in the world where everyone loses.




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Toronto’s war on fun

  1. Perfect article.

    The same “overweening cultural paternalism” has been rampant in Montreal in recent years. It’s easier than ever for a single complainer to shut down concert halls with the ever larger noise fines, there has been a  serious crackdown on both loft parties and beers in the park – two favourite past-times in this city.

    It’s a sad sign of aging boomers and their entrenched political sway. As they get older and stupider, so too do our once-vibrant cities.

    • Maybe some of us are trying to keep cities alive by raising our families there. Not eveyone lives in the suburbs.

  2. A lot of us are mourning the end of Tuesday night drum circles at Trinity Bellwoods park.  They’ve been banned this summer despite people coming together to raise money to hire security and pay for permits.  They were one of the best things about living here.

  3. This is a great article and speaks on behalf of so many like minded Torontonians. This city has a lot of potential for “fun”. However, unless it lets go of its pungent ultra-conservative ideals, it’ll never be considered “competition” or ever be worthy of being compared to Paris and London, Hong Kong and especially New York.

  4. I concur with the drum circle comment, but this article is remiss to omit Adam Vaughan’s (successful) war on nightclubs. He set out to destroy a part of the city’s dance music culture and scored a major victory against fun. A city is judged by its nightlife, and Toronto certainly won’t win visitors this way.

  5. Well, as someone who has lived many places in my short life — around the United States in particular — I am somewhat a fan of Toronto. And I reject the premise that this city wants to be like New York City. 

    And as someone who worked in the financial sector in a past life, I can tell you that many New Yorkers are quite fond of Toronto’s sprawling mess made by blindfolded children, as you put it.

    The truth of the matter is, Toronto is a ridiculously vibrant city in terms of things to do.  It’s walkable and livable, and it doesn’t imitate the go-go-go culture of New York City, which is something that I think is appealing. 

    I think your underlying point about the “war on fun” is a valid one. And I’m not going to disagree with you on your core point about the city’s all-too-willingness to appease NIMBYs and ban everything from street hockey to kite flying. But I think a lot is subtracted from your criticism when you setup the a bull**** premise that Toronto is merely seething with a perpetual inferiority complex vis-a-vis New York City. 

    This is nonsense. Most of the people who I know, who actually live in downtown Toronto, value the city on it’s own merits.

    Which isn’t to say that us downtowners don’t sometimes edge towards an unfounded moral superiority towards the suburbanites and other places.

    It’s true, to some extent.  But it’s also not true that all us yuppie downtowners are all left-wing kooks, either. I’m a capitalist and a libertarian. I know many others, who choose the downtown life as a lifestyle and not as a political affiliation. 

    On the other hand, this article reads very much like the all-too-typical, anti-urban, find any reason to pigeon-hole Toronto by setting up straw men and broad generalizations to attack, by someone who lives in the suburbs, commutes downtown to work, and who grumbles that the roads aren’t wide enough to accomodate their chosen lifestyle.

    • As far as I am concerned, you have entirely justified Potter’s claim that Toronto wants to be like NY or has inferiority complex. It is not all about you, Brock

      Potter wrote one paragraph about NY-Tor and many paragraphs outlining how State is banning ‘fun’ activities and you mostly ignore point of article. All you write about how Tor people don’t envy NY and how downtown people think people in suburbs are morons.

      State likes labels – name streets and buildings after NY and it can bamboozle people into thinking they are in vibrant city while bureaucrats make Toronto as monotonous or anodyne as possible. 

      Why is Toronto trying to recreate the suburbs downtown if Torontonians really hate the suburbs? 

      If people value city on its own merits, why is State banning everything? 

      And if you are Libertarian, why no comment about how State is deciding issues that should be settled between individuals or communities?

      • The funny thing about the complaint that developers name condo buildings after other places is that it isn’t Toronto specific. That really isn’t a big deal. It is an attempt to make a non-issue into a symbol and it is kind of silly. No one makes that comment at The Paris Apartment building in New York City or the London.

        Where do you get the idea that us downtown dwellers are trying to make the city like the suburbs? Because that is just not the case.

        I need to point out that I am only replying to you because I also love The Arsenal.

        • I am glad you took time to reply. 

          I grew up in Toronto, I was teenager during mid 1980s and use to go downtown to seedy area and party. I left Toronto for university in 1989 and didn’t really get back to downtown until early 2000s and it was completely different place. 

          You wrote lower down “The last thing we want is people having a good time.” and I agree with that. Downtown and suburbs are similar in that they seem kind of fake or manufactured to me, in different ways. Suburbs are lawn, a few kids, nice school, no crime and downtown is people living high in sky while banning shark soup, kite flying, food carts, pizza nights and bottled water. 

          Both seem artificial to me. Bureaucrats are taking over and banning everything they don’t approve of and it is making Toronto very anodyne.

          I like chaos, lively streets or neighbourhoods and bureaucrats seem to be attempting to stamp out anything that offends them.  I find it depressing. 

          Up the Arsenal! 

  6. The people in charge of the City of Toronto parks and rec department have done a lot of damage in the last year and a half to community efforts to organize events in city parks even continuing with longstanding events (I’m thinking the whole mess around moving the parks supervisor of Dufferin Grove Park as well as the Christie Pits Pizza Pit Debacle you mention).

    But just to be clear Afrofest is on again this year July 9-10 in Queen’s Park as usual with some adjustments to set up having been negotiated to take some of the pressure off the green space. The permit was going to be denied and there was a bit of an outcry and a lot of negotiation but it’s on!

  7. I read Alf Apps speech the other day about positive rights and this article makes me think of positive rights. People are having things banned that bother them personally – I have right to walk in park without being bothered by kite flyers because they annoy me. What happens with positive rights is that everyone has rights in theory but no one has any rights in reality. 

    It will soon be law of jungle or anarchy in toronto because people who were banned from flying kites in park are going to wonder why people still can walk their dogs or ride their bikes but they can’t fly kite. Where is sense in that? 

    And why are white people allowed to continue doing their activities in park while Toronto bans south asian activities? Does Toronto think South Asians don’t notice these kinds of slights because I am guessing they do.

    It is mommy or nanny fascism. Mom knows best and she doesn’t want you to poke an eye out. 

    Virginia Postrel – Search For Tomorrow:

    Stasist social criticism—which is to say essentially all current social criticism—brings up the specifics of life only to sneer at or bash them. Critics assume that readers will share their attitudes and will see contemporary life as a problem demanding immediate action by the powerful and wise. 

    This relentlessly hostile view of how we live, and how we may come to live, is distorted and dangerous. It overvalues the tastes of an articulate elite, compares the real world of trade-offs to fantasies of utopia, omits important details and connections, and confuses temporary growing pains with permanent catastrophes. 

    It demoralizes and devalues the creative minds on whom our future depends. And it encourages the coercive use of political power to wipe out choice, forbid experimentation, short circuit feedback, and trammel progress.

    http://dynamist.com/tfaie/index-excerptA.html

    • You are far off base with your kite flying comments. These kites have strings with jagged edges (some with with glass in the strings, some are made/altered with barbs of wire). If you bothered to do any reading on it, you will now that children have been hurt with the debris of kite fights. I lived in Brampton for several years, and I can give you a first hand account of what I have seen. Branches wrecked, litter, deep grass (if you live in a city where the city does not cut it’s grass is not cut on a regular basis) with small strings full of sharp edges). Any “community” supports this sport (and trust me, no one clears up after they finish) has no right to use a public space.

  8. Potter

    State is not only banning ‘fun’ activities, it banning many activities. State is relentless in trying to make everyone exactly the same. 

    “She was thrilled in 2007 when the province amended Ontario Food Premises Regulations restricting street food vendors to selling hot dogs and sausages. She was devastated when the city snubbed existing vendors and hand-picked new ones for its Toronto A La Cart pilot project to bring in diverse street food. She wasn’t surprised when the program bombed amid complaints about red tape and expensive and unmanageable carts.”

    http://www.thestar.com/living/food/article/1004344–street-food-vendor-expands-her-offerings

    “A bid to ban Toronto’s ban on bottled water was washed away Wednesday.

    Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti tried to get city council to agree to revoke the ban, put in place during former mayor David Miller’s reign, that will phase out the sale of bottled water on city property by the end of the year.”

    http://www.torontosun.com/news/torontoandgta/2011/04/13/17985686.html

    Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam grew up, like many in Chinese-Canadians in Toronto, slurping shark fin soup — a symbol of luxury and wealth served at weddings and other auspicious occasions.

    On Monday, she stood beside colleague Glenn De Baeremaeker as he called on Toronto to ban the delicacy in a bid to end the “cruel, wasteful, barbaric, evil and inhumane practice” of finning the toothy beasts.

    http://www.thestar.com/news/article/1007701–campaign-to-ban-barbaric-shark-fin-soup

  9. I wonder how much this problem of banning fun is really Toronto specific. It might be worst in Toronto, but I see these types of problems everywhere. More significantly perhaps, much of the banning of fun is the result of threats and consequences of legal liabilities for injuries sustained on city property. All it takes is one person in a hundred to hurt themselves in someway at a public event and feel entitled to some kind of compensation. The problem is also perhaps one of the litigiousness of our society and the jurisprudence that has developed over the years to support it.

    People should be allowed to take the personal freedom to have fun; but conversely they have to take the personal responsibility to accept the consequences if that fun gets a little out of hand.

  10. Potter this was a slap-dash easy-pickin’s lazy column. I’ll just say that apart from in Quebec, this could describe any city in Canada and leave the rest of my nit-picks at that.

    • Do you have examples, or was this a slap-dash easy-pickin’s lazy response to the column? Because, for example, here in Edmonton, we’ve got no problem with kite flying in the park or ad hoc community activities.

      • Ottawa.

      • London, ON comes to mind as well.

  11. Oh– and it was Dufferin Grove Park, not Christie Pits, so you could have at least got some facts right.

  12. “Toronto isn’t a colonial backwater anymore; it is one of the largest
    cities in North America, and one of the most culturally diverse in the
    world. Indeed, it might be precisely because of that diversity that city
    officials are so afraid of fun.”

    Ya think?

    OF COURSE people (and not just overzealous bureaucrats) have had it with ‘diversity,’ especially when it comes in the form of razor-sharp string slashing children’s legs in parks, ethnic parades featuring paeons to terrorists and shootouts at ‘cultural events.’ Toronto, like so many other Canadian cities, is still a ‘colonial backwater’–only of the third world, rather than Britain, or France. And cocoa and skating lessons for Jane & Finch gangsters-in-waiting won’t bring Jane Creba back.

    I’ve seen this happen in Calgary. Here in Alberta, we’ve seen too many ‘community events’ degenerate into shootouts and knifings, with both victims and bystanders being unwilling to assist police. Actually, the ‘no fun’ crowd now comes in the form of our Muslim Mayor (Naheed
    Nenshi) and Police Commissioner (Mike Shaikh), who have decreed bans on beer at softball games, as well as tighter regulations for Stampede Beer tents. (And don’t forget MLA Mohammed ‘Moe’ Amery, and his alcohol warning label plan.)

    So-called ‘urban art’ is also little more than formulaic and mannered scribble, often done on private and city property without permission. There is nothing to ‘celebrate,’ here, and kudos for Rob Ford’s administration for cracking down on this garbage.

  13. I love Toronto. But, I also love this article.
    Toronto is a great city that is always being hampered by the busy body collective known as City Council.

    There is a lack of diversity on City Council, that is why they so easily shut down things like Afrofest and ban activities that mean a lot to our diverse population.

    But, the same thing is happening in Montreal and I remember condo dwellers in Halifax successfully closing some really nice live music venues.

    The last thing we want is people having a good time.

  14. Mr Potter,

    I will take issue with one of your statements.

    The complaint that developers name condo buildings
    after other places is kind of silly. It is an attempt to make a non-issue into a symbol. Unless you have never been in any other city in the world, you would know that naming streets, restaurants and condo developments after other cities and their landmarks is very common.

    Have you ever seen The Paris Apartment building in New York City or the London? Perhaps you didn’t notice because you didn’t need to make a point.

  15. I’ve heard Toronto described as the eye avoidance capital of the world. I’ve heard that young female Torontonians complain that young guys won’t make a move and I’ve heard that young guys complain that young women are cursorily dismissive. Maybe the grey ghost of the old severe, scowling Toronto (that bastion of parched Protestantism, the outpost of cold and clammy Anglo Saxons, the stupefyingly dull community of homes and churches, whose civic and church leaders regarded the sensuality of fresh bread with horror and who thought of sidewalk cafes as gateways to perdition) lingers on.  

  16. I really like Toronto – it’s a big, vibrant and highly diverse city – however I fully agree that it has an almost stalker-like yearning to be New York, USA.

    Toronto then complains that the rest of Canada has no respect, but aren’t the reasons obvious? How can one respect any city with such a deep and pitiful inferiority complex? Toronto has immense potential for leadership. If only Torontonians would cease trying to impress and be noticed by the United States; accept themselves for who they are (which, ironically, is greatness), and leverage their massive assets and enviable position as the biggest city in a major nation. By doing so, they could easily amass the respect of the nation and additionally be recognized worldwide as an inspiring, unique and great global city. 
    But Toronto doesn’t want the respect of their nation. The want the respect of another nation. 
    The same goes for the rest of Canada. So many news reports lately covering what the US thinks about the riots in Vancouver. For Canadians to move forward, we need to embrace the atitude of Who Cares What the US Thinks! Remember that the rest of the world recognizes the United States to be nauseatingly self-righteous, disturbingly-puritan, stunningly violent, destructively colonial, and ignorantly unsustainable. So it is the last country Canada should emulate. Instead, let’s emulate ourselves. The best of our track record. Our history. John Graves Simcoe not MLK. Let’s start paying attention to what what we think about ourselves. Let’s be Canadian. 

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