The City that Care Can’t Forget

Comparisons are odious, it’s true.  They’re also informative.

Toronto suffers constantly from comparison with other cities. Most of this suffering is self-inflicted.

We compulsively check international rankings to make sure we’re doing all right.  For more than 20 years we’ve been tortured by the ambiguity of, “New York run by the Swiss,” which was the late Peter Ustinov’s attempt to praise our city.

We tend to study and imitate other cities to avoid risky experimentation.  Behind the mask of world-classiness is a masochistic tendency to worry about what others think of us.

the bowtie says, “kick me, I’m a tourist!”

the bowtie says, “kick me, I’m a tourist!”

Apologies to all, but here’s another comparison.  I just returned from New Orleans, where I witnessed a degree of civility and grace that would seem odd here in Toronto.  Here are a couple of examples:

I saw a mother waiting indulgently for her two young children on Canal Street.  They had stopped and crouched to share a joke with a young bearded man, who appeared to have just wakened in the morning sun.  He was laughing, they were laughing, and their mother, standing off a bit, was smiling.  He pulled himself to a cooler place against the wall.  His clothes were as filthy as the pavement, while the kids’ clothes were fresh and clean.  The scene was like a twisted Norman Rockwell homage to tolerance.

A teenaged girl beside me in a Café du Monde checkout line realized she was a dollar short, and while helplessly searching her pockets, the boy in the silly paper hat behind the counter reached into his own wallet and put a dollar into the till for her.

On my last morning, after rushing out to breakfast in a downpour, the waitress confided that my companion and I would save money by sharing the full sized biscuit, with eggs, sausage, cheese sauce, jalapenos, and coffee, rather than ordering two half portions.  The combined bill was only about $10, but this harried, middle aged, career waitress was worried about saving us money.

Later at the airport, trying to unload some coins, I realized I would have to break a $20 bill for a bottle of water, and the lady in the line behind me, thinking I was short of money, tapped my shoulder and offered me a dollar.  I told the cashier that I wasn’t used to this kindness.  She said, with an affectation of weary pride, “Welcome to New Orleans.”

For those who factor race into the interactions of strangers:  The children were white, the homeless guy was black, the teenaged girl was black, the boy serving her was white, the woman at the airport was white, the waitress was black, I was, and remain, white.  Colour didn’t determine who was friendly and who wasn’t.  Not for the Creole cab driver, the antique dealer… even the bikers at Bullet’s Sports Bar, where I got to chat with the affable Kermit Ruffin.

I could share other examples, but my purpose isn’t to paint a rosy picture of what was once America’s busiest slave market.  Like most big cities, dig deep enough and you’ll find some rot in the roots.  This is a city that just sentenced its former Mayor to 10 years for exploiting Katrina relief programs, among other things.  It’s built on some painful history.  Corruption is a way of life.

Yet everyone conducted themselves with more confidence and generosity than I’m used to in Toronto.  Even the most marginal people I met were glad to share something of their place and culture.  They were proud of where and how they live, and oblivious to the judgement of outsiders.

Civility is considered to be a Toronto quality, but this is mere politeness.  My sense is that our civility is overstated, and we are less gracious to newcomers than we should be.  I know this is a crude, highly subjective, generalization.  Still, I see no reason why we can’t be more  kind to each other, and more hospitable in our chance encounters with strangers.  I say this because ordinary people on the streets of New Orleans have reason to be more mean and fearful than the good folk of Toronto, yet set a higher standard.

It bears remembering that one city has been in severe distress for a decade.   The other suffers only first world embarrassments, while enjoying enviable levels of prosperity and security.

In 2005, both cities had a flood.  Toronto recorded 1,200 wet basements, 10,000 hydro interruptions, and some infrastructure damage.  Repair costs were estimated at $500 million.

In 2005, New Orleans endured a 20 foot storm surge that put 80% of the city under water, killing thousands of people, costing somewhere between $50 and $100 billion dollars.  The various government agencies charged with preventing, mitigating, and remedying such a disaster proved to be incompetent and corrupt, leaving the devastated citizens facing a long fight to restore the city they remembered.  An economy that was barely treading water was pushed below the surface.  It is still struggling to recover.

In 2005, Toronto experienced an uptick in violent crime.  Fifty four of 80 homicides that year were shootings, rather than the more prevalent clubbings, stabbings, poisonings, and chokings which distinguish Canadian crime statistics from those of our American neighbours.  This phenomenon was named, “the year of the gun,” and millions of dollars were promptly appropriated to reducing gun violence in “neighbourhoods at risk.”

Nevertheless, crime rates had been steadily dropping in Toronto since 1998, and despite the increase in gun violence, the homicide rate held steady at around 2 per 100,000 persons per year.  Contrast this with New Orleans’ homicide rate, where citizens and visitors were four times more likely to be murdered than in comparable U.S. cities, and 25 times more likely than in Toronto!

The sudden depopulation of New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, caused murder rates to plummet.  There was almost no one left to murder and no one to murder them.  Also, there was no one left to keep reliable records.

The murder rate recovered quickly in 2006 and soon exceeded 2005 levels.  In fact statistical models suggest that homicide rates approached 95 per 100,000 population in the years after Katrina.

The difference between the reported homicide rate and the statistical estimates are attributed to an overwhelmed law enforcement system.  Depleted and stretched police ranks, backlogged courts, and overcrowded jails provided an incentive to drop or downgrade charges and sentences to the point where criminals, facing only six-months for a capital crime, coined the term, “misdemeanour murder.”

Adjusted for population, New Orleans’ murder rate would have turned Toronto’s “year of the gun,” into a massacre.  Instead of 80 deaths in 2005, we would have had 2,000 deaths at pre-Katrina rates, or about 3,600 deaths at peak post-Katrina rates.  It would have been like a war.

I don’t want to make too much of a narrow observation, but it is curious how a traumatized population, in an impoverished and dangerous city, conducts itself so well.  There’s no doubt that New Orleans has its share of anti-social predators and corrupt public officials, and there are plenty of mean and fearful people on the streets that I managed to avoid somehow.

Still, given the poverty and insecurity of its citizens, shouldn’t New Orleans be less friendly and generous to strangers than Toronto.  Or, given the wealth and security of its citizens, shouldn’t Toronto be more?

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