The Meaning of Rob Ford

Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford died yesterday at the age of 46. He had been battling cancer. Ford was a high-profile, polarizing figure who built a political career playing off tensions between the urbanizing central city and Toronto’s working-class outer neighborhoods.

A protestor laid in the path of a machine Toronto used to erase the Jarvis Street bike lane in 2012, under Mayor Rob Ford. Photo: Spacing Toronto
Under Rob Ford, Toronto erased the Jarvis Street bike lane, but not without a fight. Photo: Spacing Toronto

Most famous to Streetsblog readers was Ford’s almost comical hatred of bike lanes. “Cyclists are a pain in the ass,” he once explained during a City Council hearing. During his reign, important bike routes that served thousands of cyclists were literally erased.

John Lorinc at Spacing Toronto has been reflecting on Ford’s legacy in Toronto. He pinpoints a moment in 2011 when the public’s assessment of Ford began to crystallize. It was “when 14-year-old Anika Tabovaradan eloquently articulated her sense of loss and hopelessness” about the shuttering of her neighborhood library thanks to Ford’s budget cuts. Her testimony at a budget hearing was all over the news the next day.

Lorinc writes:

Many people will feel bad about Ford’s premature death, but not sad.

Yet we are compelled to seek meaning in this life that has come to a close, and particularly a sense of meaning that extends beyond the universe of his family and friends.

It seems to me that Ford’s place in the city’s story is that he, with his brother Doug, caused so many Torontonians to wake up and to see, as Tabovaradan did, precisely what was at stake. In a relatively short period, he tore up transit plans now being dusted off, and slashed bus, recreation, and community services in the very parts of the city he claimed to defend. Ford hypocritically misused the city’s resources with his football coaching, behaved crudely to constituents, bureaucrats, and fellow councillors; showed little regard for the dignity of the office; and embarrassed the city in front of a global audience. Eventually, even early supporters came to see what was being squandered.

As Joni Mitchell once sang, You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

So thanks to the insistently dialectical nature of politics, he gave us an incredibly important opportunity to re-discover the qualities that make Toronto a peaceful and aspirationally inclusive city — a place where most people understand that the public sphere is more than a cost centre.

It’s certainly not the legacy Ford intended, but it’s a powerful legacy nonetheless.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Mobility Lab presents a video about the promise of new technologies to address an old problem — the vast majority of cars carry only one person at a time. And The Urbanist exhorts Mayor Ed Murray to act more decisively to make streets safer for walking and biking.

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