From the general hubbub at Toronto’s Music Hall last night, where the first round of “City Idol” was played out, one short speech resonated above all. Surprisingly, it did not come from the stage, where 82 would-be city councillors had displayed their wares for a precisely measured 60 seconds at a time, but from an audience member, near the event’s end.
“Dave Meslin for Mayor!”
Even Mez himself seemed momentarily taken aback. He had been about to explain the method of counting ballots. Instead, he gazed into the darkened crowd in front of him to the source of the call, and grinned for a moment. “That’s not on the table right now,” is what he finally said.
Right now. David Miller, take heed.
Dave Meslin is a guy we’ve known a long time: a planner and an organizer, a schemer and a strategist. We still remember his presence at an early “Dundas EAST” meeting, when we were first talking about what to do about the problem of speeding traffic on Dundas Street East in this end of Toronto. The main problem with the street was that while it had four lanes of traffic, only two were ever busy at a time, and even that for only about one hour a day. The other 23 hours Dundas was an empty speedway. People who were used to the status quo could all see the problem, but no one had any convincing solutions. About the most radical gesture that anyone came up with was to change the centre lane to a counter-flow with a red light to regulate which direction traffic could go in. Think Jarvis Street. Not very nice.
Mez was asleep for most of the meeting, a result of his stretching himself so thin in those days. We had in fact just rode over from an ARC meeting together. But he roused himself suddenly and threw out a suggestion:
“Ban all car traffic.”
“Just ban all cars from Dundas. They only need it for an hour a day at best. Let them all go somewhere else.”
This was a great counterpoint to the Canadian Auto Association types who had been proposing all the houses bordering the road be torn out to make the roadbed wider. It had the result of moving us into a fruitful discussion where the elimination of two lanes of car traffic could be painted as a reasonable compromise.
Today Dundas East is a remarkable success story, where cyclists and motorists, residents and pedestrians, dog-walkers and school kids all seem to be getting along just fine.
Good ol’ Mez.
Mez eventually found a pressure point to which to apply his creative forces: the Toronto Public Space Committee, which he invented and inspired for several years. The TPSC’s main agenda is the elimination of the glut of corporate advertising that fills public spaces throughout the city. “David’s” TPSC has taken on “Goliath” in many contexts. They’ve even won some battles against city hall. The group puts out a great magazine, “Spacing,” and seems to be a magnet for creative and inspirational projects about city living. Several of the writers in the uTOpia book had TPSC affiliation.
We last talked to Mez about a year ago at the corner of Spadina and Adelaide, and he mentioned he was burning out on the TPSC and wanted to do something else. He had been working with Toronto city councillor Joe Mihevic (he drafted, as we understand it, Mihevic’s proposed resolution to require sideguards on trucks in Toronto–the bill passed, but sideguards are still wanting [apparently it’s not enough that cyclists’ lives would be saved; it’s going to take the crushing of a Smart car or an Austin Mini before the province acts on the city’s resolution –ed.]).
Shortly after that we heard about Mez quitting the TPSC and starting a new group, called “Who Runs This Town?”
From this emerged the City Idol proposal: to reinvigorate city politics with new enthusiasm (only 38% of those eligible voted in the last municipal election), a talent show modeled on the TV reality programs would be launched. But instead of searching out pretty faces or good lungs, the search would be for strong ideas and new energy. The plan, part one of which played out last night in the Music Hall, is to let folks vote for the strongest candidates in a series of preliminary heats, with the eventual four winners receiving support and strategic counsel from the City Idol “machine,” in an actual run for council seats in the four districts that make up Toronto City Council.
“Tell us more about the City Idol machine, grampa!”
Ah yes. You have your machine politics, and then you have your politics machine.
Mez, it would seem, is an inventor as well as a showman.
Up on the stage last night, he told us to stick around. The speeches were over: some of them remarkable for cleverness, for clarity, for sense of style, or for moxy. All of them short.
The voting was over. We had marked our ballots with the numbers of the five contestants we most liked (no easy feat) and passed them to ushers in the aisles with collection baskets.
The “contestants” were in the lobby out front, Mez told us. We could talk to them as we pleased while the ballots were counted. The process would take about an hour, he figured.
The hall was cold and most of us were ready to leave.
“I give you the counting machine!” Mez said, and gestured to the white curtain behind him. It jerked upwards.
On stage was a fantastic spectacle of some thirty or so people dressed like old-time bookies or accountants, complete with white smocks and green visors, bouncing to a staccato keyboard performance from Bob Wiseman (of Blue Rodeo fame). We watched them tearing the ballots into sections, dropping them into basins and transfering them into dishes and thence into bags, from large to small to smallest, the whole process a remarkable metaphor of a truly transparent democratic process.
The rhythm and melody was kind of mesmerizing. We forgot our fatigue and the chill in the air. We got up and congratulated a few people we knew who had made a bid for the “Idol” title. We had a two-dollar chocolate bar. We talked with friends in the hall. And occasionally we watched the machine, tearing passing, dropping, and processing. As it processed the ballots it folded up on itself from stage left to right, until only one last table stood there, Mez and a few others gathered around it.
The rest of the cogs of the machine linked arms and did a conga dance to the beat of the music.
And Mez announced the cut: half would move on to the next level, half were eliminated. He was nice enough about it. He encouraged everyone to stay in the real municipal race, in fact, for the fall elections.
Mez wasn’t among the contestants, not for “City Idol,” nor for councillor. Not for Mayor, either.
But he won’t be eliminated. We figure he’s got the stage as long as he wants it.