Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Toronto the Good. Really?

Posted at Bene Diction Blogs On July 21, 2012

Next Saturday, July 28th, is a big day for Faytene Grasseschi as the latest of her big prayer rallies, The Cry Toronto, is planned for Massey Hall in the city’s downtown

. She’s been quite the gadfly in the past few weeks, spending a lot of time crisscrossing Ontario and speaking in various places in an attempt to fill the 2,500 seat hall for the event. She even alludes to how busy she has been in the introductions of her recent sermons.

As she says, gathering for prayer for Toronto is a useful idea. Toronto is a pivotal; and influential city—as she takes pains to mention, and aside from seeking to have God move in the city, anything that happens in the city may be influential outside its borders.

Of course, with Faytene and her friends, it’s likely that there will be at least a leavening of dominionism, but most of those gathering for The Cry Toronto will approach it as a basic hey-lets-pray-for-Toronto level.

But as useful as all this might be, it seems that a bad habit that has crept in to the church is carried on here by Faytene and her allies. This is a small point, yes, but I thin k it’s worth catching.

At 1 08 of this video clip, Faytene says this:

“…And you said that to me earlier today, Crystal that Toronto used to be called ‘Toronto the Good’, you know, so come on, we just want to see more of that in our generation…”

And then, in a prayer of blessing over Toronto, she adds this at 1:52: “…we bless Toronto. We call it ‘Toronto the Good’…”

I’m reminded of Christ’s admonition “Why do you call me good?” If Toronto has ever called itself “good”, that raises the question “how good?”.

History is being misused again. Wishing, by Christians, “doesn’t make it so”. I’ll explain what I mean.

Wikipedia attributes the nickname to 19th century mayor William Holmes Howland, due to it being a “bastion of 19th century Victorian morality.” If you have a look, the Wikipedia entry for Howland, a devout Christian, notes that Howland, although he tried to do some good things, had a mixed record as mayor:

“Many problems arose when he came back as Mayor. Senior officials were arrested for misuse of funds after a coal-supply scandal broke out and a street railway strike that was backed by Howland had the militia brought in after three days of rioting. His attempt to restrict liquor licences was also defeated by council.

One good achievement was the appointment of an Inspector to the police department to fight vice and prostitution.

During his second term, council's time was occupied with projects like the Don Improvement Scheme, construction of a new city hall and court-house, waterworks improvements and street paving. He was finally able to have the number of liquor licences issued by council reduced after the passing of the "Fleming Bylaw"”.

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on Howland seems to agree that although he had fine intentions, Howland’s record as mayor was mixed.

Well, it’s not fair to rest the reputation of a city on one person, and that is what C.S. Clark thought too.

Clark wrote a 1898 book: Of Toronto The Good: The Queen City of Canada as It Is. I thought that contemporary reporting would be just the thing to address how good Toronto was at the time that the nickname was a byword for the city, so I picked up a copy of the 1970s reprint of the book.

Judging by some things which are written in the book, Clark—if not still working as a reporter or editor--had extensive Toronto newspaper experience.

When you read on the cover of the book that Toronto was dubbed the good at the “Social Purity Congress” in Baltimore and the “World Conference of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Toronto in 1897”, you realize that the question “how good” is on Clar’s mind too.

Toronto, Clark writes was “one of the finest cities on the continent in point of beauty in point of beauty wealth and intelligence.” A couple pages later is added this:

“In point of morality the people of Toronto compare…with any other city quite favourably, and if the dark side of life is to be seen here, one may also witness the best….To a certain tent the people are liberal in matters of opinion, and as a rule men do not seek to influence the opinions of others except so far as they are privileged to do so, but any faddist, no matter how absurd or ridiculous his theories maybe, will find converts in Toronto who will be surprised at the lack of intelligence on the part of those who do not fall in love with them.”

So Toronto could have been reasonably said to be as good as any other city, Clark writes. But better? That is the crux of the rest of the book. We need to remember that the book is a product of its time, but the facts cited are telling.

I’ll try to be succinct. Here are some things that I read at random…

A recent election was dubbed by a local newspaper “Running in the Mud” and a recent scandal saw swindling of money at the local water works.

Crime statistics right before the writing of the book were increasing (pg 12) which implies that any godliness wasn’t spreading. Prostitution had been driven underground, noty stopped, as they started to work out of houses and hired rooms. (pg 14). There were accusation that the police were targeting boys for minor crimes and acting in a “purely vindictive spirit” (pg 16, 18) Alcoholism was rampant and whisky dealers had just gone underground.

The world of commerce saw its abuses too. There were “bucket shops” selling fraudulent stocks—“a cold swindle from start to finish”—and abuses in the insurance industry. There are, it is a matter of regret to say so, business houses where a man’s promotion depends upon his ability to speak evil of his fellow workmen.” (pg 60). Workers had to consent to be unpaid for sick days, days off or holidays.

One Presbyterian businessman was described by one of his fellow churchgoers: “He is the sneak of our church.”

Clark turns to public mortality questions next, arguing that prostitution can’t be stopped in Toronto and should be licensed instead. The numbers of bawdy houses were down, but instead, women were improving, using boat houses, rooms in stores, parks and doorways. (pg 86-92)

A Reverend Decarie is quoted as saying that prostitution must still be an issue in the city as the levels of foundling children seemed to be remaining the same. Adultery therefore, remained rife. The Toronto News newspaper reported that there were at least 500 abandoned babies per year in the city. (pg 96-97) In a “certain class of boys” 60 per cent were estimated to have venereal diseases. (pg 102). Women servants in the city were the victim of predatory employers.

Rev John A Williams had a church with conservative rules against “attending operas”, dancing and “playing cards”. These were rules that he couldn’t enforces for if he did, his biggest tithers would leave and they knew it. (pg 99).

Clark was dismayed that the godly people of his day seemed so unknowledgeable. “That describes you perfect moralist precisely. Theoretically and in his own mind he knows everything. Practically he knows nothing.” (pg 116)

. ”In giving a report on city mission work, the [Toronto] News declared that Toronto slums were worse than those of Belfast…if Toronto is a moral city, what under heaven, must an immoral city be like?” (pg 118)

[If I had been reporting on the thinks that Clark had been writing on, I would be frustrated too.]

Abortion was a problem, as every doctor in Toronto seems to field requests to do them. Classified ads for pills causing abortions ran in local periodicals. (pg 123, 125)

“The great inconsistency on the part of so many people lies in the fact that they dread appearances. People may feel almost revolted at the houses of ill-fame, yet I have shown that this goes on without cessation. Drunkenness, which is not a sin, is looked upon with abhorrence by Pharisees generally who demand the prohibition of the liquor trade, but they appear to be quite indifferent to the fayes of scores of girls who are going to the bad.” (pg 128

) The city of Toronto cited figures which argued that streetwalking had been cut in half, but their sources were not the type of people who would come across street prostitution. Often, Clark argues, certain working class women were reduced to doing prostitution on the side. (pg 131, 134-35)

Illegal gambling was rampant, as was drunkenness. (pg 143)

“Toronto is essentially a city of churches” writes Clark. This is a major section of the book, dominating the last quarter og the book. I suspect that Clark is not a regular church goes, as the author devotes a lot of space to hypocrisy and unChristlikeness in the church.

In the conclusion, Clark writes:

“It is customary in writing of a city to praise it. I have done no such thing. I have told you of the city as I have found it, and if it is not palatable, it is the city’s fault and not mine.” (pg 209).

Clark would not have been asked to write tourism brochures for the city of Toronto, but where there is smoke, there is fire.

Toronto was, no doubt, a city with many committed Christians who tried their best, but we do need to examine the fruit. To hold up Toronto has an example at that time, invited someone like Clark to do what they did.

I have to wonder of “Toronto the Good” has been used in an ironic or sardonic sense many times since then. Was the city called that with a bit of a wink?

As much as I might be tempted to exult, as someone from the West, in this, I know that my own city would suffer at the hands of a Clark.

Every city has its good and bad points. Calling it “Toronto the Good” also neglects the work of many reformers, such as those inspired by the “social gospel” for example. If Toronto was always “Good” in some mythical time, you can happily ignore the real work that may have been done to fix real problems since when it was though to be “Toronto the good”

If you look at Toronto as it was and is, you might find things to be genuinely merit. But starting as Faytene did, in a flip way, does a disservice to history.