Shortly after it was announced in March that Toronto surpassed Chicago in population size—making it the fourth-largest city in North America—a Chicago columnist named Neil Steinberg wrote a piece at my city’s expense. So lame and genteel are Torontonians, he argued, that they can’t even acknowledge success when it seldom comes their way. Steinberg’s dig was in reaction to a Canadian Business article that questioned the veracity of the city’s new-found status (were we really bigger?), but his jibes were levelled mostly at Torontonians themselves—suckers who “sit crouched in slush with their hands locked around their knees, gazing poutingly over the border to the south, paralyzed with envy, disdain and longing. They just wish we cared about them enough so they could have the chance to scorn us. But we don’t and never will.”
This week, Neil Steinberg is eating his words. If the American definition of civic pride is attention paid, Toronto is the proudest city on the continent. If we are, in fact, sitting in slush, gazing longingly at the Statue of Liberty, she is gazing right back. My city has finally achieved the attention it so desperately craves. And doing so was apparently very easy. We didn’t have to become the fourth-largest metropolis in North America, or promote our diverse makeup and lack of crime to make international headlines. All we had to do was elect Rob Ford mayor, and wait.
American gossip website Gawker broke the story last week and the Toronto Star immediately corroborated it: Rob Ford (allegedly) smokes crack. The unapologetically buffoonish right-wing mayor, whose saving grace was his work with at-risk youth, may actually be feeding the drug industry that puts said youth at risk. Gawker editor John Cook, and Toronto Star reporters Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan, claim to have seen the mayor smoking crack in an iPhone video recorded by Ford’s alleged dealers. When neither news organization could, or would, come up with the cash the dealers requested in exchange for the video, Gawker started its own “Crackstarter campaign” (as opposed to Kickstarter, the popular crowd-funding website), which has raised over half its goal of $200,000. Rob Ford, damnable mystery that he is, has said nothing about the allegations beyond “ridiculous.”
Meanwhile, Toronto has morphed into a desperate reality-television-show character—the Snooki of the civic universe—the city that delights in all and any outsider attention. Sure, we were upset when Steinberg made fun of our monument to multiculturalism and our love of Tim Hortons in the Chicago Sun-Times, but Rob Ford has elevated us. We are now the butt of something bigger: We are being mocked on The Daily Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Can you imagine the smug, satisfied look on the face of every Toronto urbanite (myself included) who can go home and watch late night TV, knowing they might finally get to laugh at one of their own? Who cares, really, that to most people outside Canada, the word Toronto is at this moment synonymous with crack cocaine? We made the New York Times! And Vanity Fair! And New York Magazine! (For more information, log onto to any Canadian news site, where you can find the complete list of every American who ever thought about us, ever.)
“The collateral damage to the city’s once-vaunted reputation will sting for years to come,” Richard Florida wrote recently in the Globe and Mail. What glass-half-empty thinking. Toronto has, in many ways, never looked better. Civic engagement is at an all-time high. (I heard some teenage boys talking about Rob Ford yesterday on the bus—the first time I have ever heard anyone discuss municipal politics out of sheer pleasure.) Journalism, an industry we all know needs some good news, is thriving under Ford. The salaciousness of his mayoralty may have saved more jobs than his proposed casino would have created.
Alas, not everyone is so optimistic. Some Torontonians are embarrassed by the allegations against Ford, by the bullying in city council, the homophobia against gay pride and the fact that he is literally—let’s face it—a top hat away from being the Penguin from Batman. “We’re the biggest city in Canada,” they say. “We deserve better.”
But everyone thinks they deserve better—no one more so, I suspect, than Rob Ford himself. Given his unusual resilience, I wouldn’t put it past him to stay in power as long as humanly possible, even if the video surfaces and the allegations are impossible to deny. Crazily enough, no law would stand in his way. So, Torontonians—and all Canadians, really: You may as well milk this sideshow for all it’s worth. We don’t have real bike lanes, you can’t buy a bottle of wine at our corner stores, and our mayor is in a crack scandal. But hey, at least we made the New York Times. Congratulations, Toronto, you’re a world-class city.