Sunday, September 4, 2011

Lessons Learned in London (Ontario)

Or a letter from an academic to his former temporary city of residence.

I moved to London in September 2007 to start the Ph.D. musicology programme at The University of Western Ontario. With the exception of two summers spent in Toronto I lived in London for the entire four years.1

I’d made a cursory trip to London in 2006 to visit with some friends who were to record a work of mine. London was extremely slow that weekend but, I was assured, it was normally more busy during the week. In the months following that visit, I spent countless hours preparing grad school applications; going over the writing samples, statement of research interests, etc. but I was happy to have the break from an otherwise miserable corporate job. In March 2007 I received my “yes” letter from Western and I prepared for the move.

Two things should have clued me into how my time in London would unfold. I believe they were forerunners, signs that I really wasn’t meant to move: First, on August 31 my paternal grandmother died--only a week after her 99th birthday; second, the truck I’d booked with UHaul didn’t materialise. That is, I booked a truck, got a printed confirmation, and the day before I was to move UHaul confirmed, indeed, that they did not have a truck for me and that I should have called the depot directly. Initially I did call the depot, but they told me to call the 1-800 number to make my booking. “Hello, left hand? I’d like you to meet the right hand.”

My first exposure to life in London was on the first day of school. I was living in an area of the city that would most charitably described as ‘God’s waiting room.’ The Cherryhill neighbourhood was populated almost entirely by geriatrics and university students. In fact, if one could fly straight up and look down, one could assemble in the mind’s eye an assembly line of sorts: The apartments, the mall where the seniors go to occupy their time (ask me sometime about the Cherryhill mall’s Christmas display), across Oxford St. is an assisted-living complex, followed by the crematorium and, last, the cemetery. I thought it spoke volumes that the logo for “London Cremation Services” looked almost identical to the “Tourism London” logo.

The cemetery, privately owned, was also the first place in that part of the city to be plowed in Winter. As soon as the first flake fell, the grounds maintenance folk were out with shovels, salt, and plows. The city sidewalks, by contrast, piled high with snow and ice. The area, full of old people with walkers, canes, and wheelchairs had no way to traverse the snow-crowded sidewalks. The city of London has a policy of not clearing sidewalks in a storm unless the accumulation is at least 8cm in one storm. That is, if there were three storms over a week and the snow accumulation from each was 5cm, the sidewalks remained unshoveled. If the snowfall in one storm was at least 8cm then the city would come by with their plow (eventually) to clean the walks... until the apartment property management company filled in the sidewalk while plowing their own driveways. London, I discovered, was built around the car. This was the beginning of my love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with the City of London and I’ve certainly not made any effort to hide my animosity. As with anything there are always exceptions. I’ve listed the worst of the worst here, but there are great individuals and groups in London who have kept the spirit of egalitarianism and social good afloat in a sea of dirty, hostile conservatism.

Lesson No. 1: The London Transit Commission (LTC) exists as lip service to the community

The buses shuttle students, seniors (who don’t drive), and everyone else who do not or can not drive. The latter group is comprised of drunks, tweakers, welfare recipients with no dignity, and other ne’er-do-wells.2 What is so unusual about the LTC is that the city does not have a dedicated transit planner. The consequence is that the bus routes and timings are as inconvenient as possible; this was done either by design or incompetence. During the week, there was a special bus that ran through my neighbourhood directly to the university. Though the school was close enough that I could walk in about 30 minutes, it was too difficult to walk it in Winter (especially because of the unplowed sidewalks). The bus route changed depending on the time of day and it stopped running at dinner time. I learned this one night when I had to get to school for an orchestra rehearsal. I missed the last bus to school because I stood on the wrong street. This was before I learned of the time sensitive route change.

On Saturdays the bus didn’t make a run to the university, but that was ok because it was the last place I wanted to go on Saturday. On Sundays, I often went to school to work in my office. What was normally a 10-minute bus ride became an hour long trek. I’d take one bus downtown and then wait another half an hour because the first bus missed the second bus by 5 minutes. This was mildly inconvenient, but there were weirder things; the buses stopped running at midnight on weeknights and Saturday, and 11pm on Sunday nights. I’m not sure why because downtown was always still active late at night. The justification was that there weren’t enough people downtown that late to warrant running the buses, but wouldn’t more people stay downtown late if they knew the buses ran until the bars closed? The transit was not without other issues.

In November/December 2009, the LTC drivers went on strike for about a month. The rhetoric flying back and forth between the ATU Local president and the city manager was astounding. Most galling about the strike is that there was very little public support for the bus drivers because: a) So much of the London citizenry commutes to work by car and, subsequently, were unburdened by the strike. In fact, some drivers were pleased, as they didn’t have to contend with buses weaving in and out of traffic to pick up and drop off those icky car-less commuters; b) so many London bus drivers are douchebags and their bad attitudes and poor work performance did not endear themselves to the very people who could have pressured the city into giving the transit union what they wanted; c) The LTC customer service line was an answering machine and there was little consequence for poor service or performance. When the transit drivers did get back to work, they still acted as if they’d a huge chip on their shoulder and took it out on riders. Municipal bureaucracy impeded not only an expedient resolution of the labour dispute, but other possible transportation solutions leading up to the snowy Christmas season (read: exam time). This leads me to:

Lesson No. 2: Municipal politicians expend more energy to stay in office than working productively to represent their constituents

Indeed at times, one must wonder if London city councillors actively work against the population and then wonder why they act that way. Par example, there was the distinct possibility that the transit strike could have lasted longer, much longer than a month. This, of course, would have been at an awful time of year just when the weather usually turns cold and snowy. We were lucky that London didn’t get its usual snow dump in December.3 Faced with the possibility of a protracted labour dispute, municipal councillors pondered how students and other people would get around the city. Those without cars would have to walk or take their bikes but the 8cm sidewalk clearing policy would have been a terrible impediment to effective pedestrian travel. The boffins at city hall voted on a motion to temporarily change the 8cm snowfall rule to 5cm. The motion was voted down by a clear majority, as it would have cost the city an extra $100,000. I can’t speak for anyone else, but when city council can approve a $50,000 budget increase for the mayor’s office, I don’t know why an extra $100k to clean sidewalks during a transit strike would be such a hardship for city coffers.

More recently (July, 2011) the city council voted down another attempt to establish a green bin composting programme for the city. What has long been regarded as an effective means of reducing landfill waste in cities around the country, London deigned it to be inappropriate and too expensive. Surprisingly, garbage bins across the city encourage residents to use their green bins and save the Earth. In the same meeting, a challenge to the city ordinance banning backyard chickens was voted down (the suburban councillors championed the anti-chicken campaign) because of the ‘noise’ and ‘mess.’ Again, there’s lots of empirical evidence to suggest that backyard chickens are both quiet, clean, and sustainable.

The most pressing issue in front of council is the city’s crumbling infrastructure. On October 31, 2007 (more of a trick than a treat) a massive sinkhole opened up at the intersection of Dundas St. and Wellington Rd., one of the largest intersections in the downtown core. What was originally only 9’x9’ pit turned into a hole that consumed most of the intersection and abutted the foundation for the bank on the Northwest corner. Over the next two months until the watermains that caused the sinkhole to open up were replaced and repaired, the city was abuzz with talk of how to fix the problem rather than engage in a series of patch jobs. The answer to the question was a resounding “We’d rather pay $1.4 billion in the long run than fix it now for $800 million. Don’t raise our taxes.” It was not only the city councillors who cried foul about fixing the crumbling downtown, but the folks safely ensconced in the newer outlying parts of London, the much vaunted ‘burbs. Surely, they didn’t want their tax dollars leaving their cozy neighbourhood to fix the downtown core. They worked there, but they didn’t live there; in effect, broken watermains were not their problem.

Lesson No. 3: It only takes one landlord to destroy a city

Anyone who has stepped off the bus or train in London will appreciate how void of life the downtown core is after business hours or on weekends. Contributing to the malaise is the almost complete lack of colour. The city streets are almost literally grey and varying shades thereof. I attribute much of the greyness to the scandalously high vacancy rates in buildings that are literally falling apart because the owner (many of them owned by the same person) values the tax write off of an empty building more than maintaining its heritage and contributing productively to a vibrant downtown life. It’s commonly understand that when “Farhi” buys your building you’re in for a dramatic rent hike and/or slow response to maintenance requests. His modus operandii is to raise rent and force out the current tenant to attract a new business or to have an empty space.

What effect does this have on downtown? An uncooperative developer is the bane of the urban planner’s existence. How does a city entice business to come downtown with astronomical rents on streets lined with fast food joints and cheque cashing businesses? What drives economic growth if it’s stifled by the very people who should encourage it? That’s the perennial question and if anyone can answer that, they should get in touch with the mayor sooner than later. Farhi is impervious to the overwhelming negative public opinion and resists with impunity any call for him to be a better neighbour. So much for corporate goodwill.

Lesson No. 4: A city is only as good as its businesses and the people that patronize them

The best businesses I’ve encountered downtown do not cater to students or the London old money specifically, but to the broader community with an interest in improving everyone’s life. Chief among them are a used bookstore (quite possibly the best one in Canada: Check out City Lights Books) and a handful of restaurants with active agendas for community involvement and improvement. The plethora of cheap bars, fast food, and cheque cashing businesses that pander to greasy locals and drunken undergrads are parasitic and contribute nothing to the community.

Lesson No. 5: When your city is based on a dying industry, embrace the next big thing

Or, rather, when your city is dying because industry relocated to China and/or India, don’t ignore the universities and colleges that contribute tens of millions of dollars to your local economy. Further, don’t be openly hostile to students and then wonder aloud why no one wants to settle in your city when they graduate. Chances are you’ve turned them off for life. There’s an adage in advertising that says: A happy customer will tell at least one other person, an unhappy customer will tell ten people. Lesson: Treat your students like customers who come to give the city a test drive. How badly do you want to sell your city as a good place to stay, live, and create a productive future?

I admit that this entry is long and angry, but it accurately reflects how I felt about living in London. I’ve lived in a lot of places and have always managed to integrate myself into the community fairly quickly, though in four years London resisted every one of my attempts. I also admit that, despite the misery, there are lots of great people in London who work tirelessly to create and promote a better way of life there. They come from all professions, age groups, political stripes, and demographics. Were it not for them and their blogs and twitter feeds I would have left London a long time ago with an even more acerbic puddle of vitriol in my wake. I don’t miss the city now that I have moved away and I really don’t look forward to the occasional visit back there for meetings with my supervisor, appointments, and eventual dissertation defense. My one saving grace will be seeing my friends, the fab few who made life there worthwhile.

1In 2008 I worked as a server at a Thai/Viet fusion restaurant and in 2009 I spent the warm months recovering from my comprehensive exams.
2I understand this makes me sound horribly bourgeois but dollars to doughnuts you’d say the same thing if you lived there for four years.
3This year, in 2011, the city (and university) was shut down entirely by a snow storm that lasted three whole days with a cumulative snowfall of 103cm.

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