October 29, 2009
As David Crombie carries his tray around the crowded cafeteria-style restaurant in downtown Toronto, he smiles and waves to several customers who recognize him.
Some 31 years after he left city hall, Crombie is remembered fondly by these noon-hour patrons as the “tiny perfect mayor,” arguably the best in Toronto’s history.
At 73, Crombie remains an iconic figure in Toronto.
Long out of elected politics, he is still heavily involved in the life of the city, chairing or sitting on groups and boards that deal with issues ranging from waterfront development to swimming pools, a proposed city history museum and the future of Ontario Place.
Sitting and listening to him over coffee and a pastry, it’s clear that Crombie, who was mayor from 1973 to late 1978, is still passionate about this city, its politics, its history and its future.
It’s also obvious Crombie has strong views on what is needed in the next mayor, now that David Miller has announced he won’t seek re-election in 2010, and on what voters should look for when assessing the candidates running to succeed Miller.
Crombie, who is watching the emerging mayoral contest with great interest, is well placed to make that assessment.
He won three elections and resigned at the peak of his popularity to run as a Conservative candidate in the Rosedale federal by-election in 1978, which he won handily.
Elected in the days before amalgamation created the megacity, Crombie led an urban reform movement that tried to slow the rampant development that threatened downtown neighbourhoods.
Under Crombie, Toronto approved a new official plan limiting the size of office towers and promoting residential condos downtown, launched the film festival and started work on the successful St. Lawrence neighbourhood.
So, what’s required of the next mayor? And what should voters be looking for?
“I thought about it as I rode the subway just now,” says Crombie, who last year moved with his wife into a high-rise condo apartment at Yonge and Eglinton.
Holding up five fingers, he says there are five areas critical for any mayor. They are themes Crombie pursued in his mayoral campaigns.
First, keep Toronto moving.
We need to think smarter about how we use our streets and highways and find ways to ease the stresses now placed on overcrowded public transportation.
Second, keep Toronto growing.
Although we don’t see it every day, the city is undergoing an economic renewal, transforming itself from an old economy based on manufacturing to a new economy led by the financial services, biotech and communications industries. Crombie says the next mayor must focus on promoting these expanding sectors where new jobs are.
Third, keep Toronto safe.
Residents need to feel secure in their own neighbourhoods. Beyond adequate policing, Crombie says, this means turning schools into community hubs, where residents can meet for education, health, recreation and other services in a friendly environment.
Fourth, keep Toronto sound.
Crombie says city hall must show more “modesty” in how it spends the public’s money, noting that “in the old days” the city, which now runs huge deficits, was never allowed to overspend.
Fifth, keep Toronto special.
What’s “special” about the city, in Crombie’s opinion, is its ability to foster the public realm, such as public squares and parks. Also “special” is the diversity of the city, which has attracted creative talent here from around the world. Then there’s the waterfront, which he feels will be one of the best on the continent within five years.
Before leaving, I ask if the former mayor believes Toronto has been drifting or even declining in recent years as some have suggested.
“We are in pretty good shape, but we can do better,” he says.
He pauses, then adds: “I wish I could live another 30 years. By then, Toronto will be one of the top three regions in North America.”
As we depart, Crombie smiles and says: “I love this city.”
Hopefully, the next mayor will feel the same way 31 years after leaving office as Crombie does.
Bob Hepburn’s column appears Thursdays. firstname.lastname@example.org