The Old Man and the Stairs: A tale of civic bureaucracy and the public sphere

When grumpy-old-man cum guerrilla civic activist, Adi Astl, decided to take on City Hall–or rather, give up on City Hall–by building a set of stairs into to a local park recently, he could hardly have imagined that he would end up as something of an international folk hero. Astl proudly showed off his handiwork to local news crews and journalists earlier this week in a park near Toronto’s Islington and Bloor neighbourhood. Astl clearly believed he’d simply addressed a simple problem with a common sense, inexpensive solution; I suspect the rest of us believed this was a quaint local story with a lot of a libertarian bent that made for some fun local news. After all, this genial 73-year-old had managed to do for $550 what the City claimed it couldn’t do for less than $65K. Turns out, the story resonated on a whole bunch of levels. Big Bad City said the stairs had to go, citing public safety, (but everyone knows that means they’re worried about liability), and suddenly a bit of local-interest fluff was national and then international news. This was the stuff of archetypal narrative-making: a kindly grandfather up against the evil bureaucracy of the Official City.

I first heard about the matter on the Young Urbanists League’s (YUL) Facebook page on July 19. It didn’t strike me as much of a story, but I wondered in the comments why the city couldn’t just put up a “use at your own risk” sign, rather than going to the effort of tearing the stairs down. Seemed easy enough. After all, Toronto is built on ravines, and all over the place there are unofficial spaces that get re-jigged for human access by locals. No big deal.

In fact, the episode reminded me of how my neighbours in my own East York hood had done just that just a couple of years earlier. There is a school directly on the other side of a ravine space at the foot of our local street. It goes without saying, people don’t want to have to go all the way around up to the main street and back down in order to access the school and the public park that is attached to it on the other side of the swampy wild space. So people threw down old tires and planks of lumber to make a shortcut which is easier to traverse. Occasionally city crews would come by and clean up the space, but within weeks the gerry-rigged footpaths would reappear.

As fate would have it, one day a city crew and a bunch of trucks showed up, and a few hours later the formerly wild terrain had been weed-whacked, and some railway-tie frames filled with gravel and wood chips were left in place. The footpath was not wheelchair accessible, and there was certainly no lighting nor handrails. There was a sign hung on a nearby fence that stated the path was not maintained, as it is a natural ravine,  and warned users to proceed at their own risk. Since I used the path daily, it was a welcome improvement. I tripped on the ties a couple of times because the nature of ravines is to constantly be moving, but it was way better than getting soakers and having to grab onto tree roots in order to get up the awkward hill.

That day when the city finally relented and gave the ravine crossing its rustic makeover, I happened to be writing a paper for a conference for the Canadian Association of Theatre Researchers (CATR), and I was re-reading Michel De Certeau’s famous 1980 essay, “Walking in the City” from his book The Practice of Everyday Life. De Certeau begins by looking down at NYC from the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre, imagining himself to have an objective view of the city, its streets, and the people passing through. But what he sees from that Icarus-type vantage point is simply the official city, the city organized by city planners and maps and buildings. To understand the city, he needs to walk in it with the other walkers, and by walking re-write it—that is, live it. The idea of stability here is exposed as a visual fiction propped up by the past; what is revealed is a quotidian fluidity enacted by city dwellers, who both accept and subvert the official spaces of the city. “Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its accomplishments and challenging the future” (91). De Certeau contends that city walkers make use of the imposed structures of city planners (i.e. roads, maps, bylaws), who necessarily function by the fiction of wholeness, but a city’s walkers/voyeurs are constantly re-writing what has been traced/recorded/mapped. Things like informal footpaths and shortcuts eventually make themselves part of the official vernacular of the city form. For De Certeau, walking and its subsequent official mapping, using the city, creating footpaths, which eventually all become part of the official city, are all part of the paradoxical discursive act of ‘local authority,’ “a crack in the system that saturates places with signification” (106).

When the city crews left my local hood and its newly-minted footpath, I was a bit thrilled to note how right De Certeau had actually been. So my response to the Old Man and the Stairs story these many years later was mostly a shoulder shrug. This story was exactly about the discursive activity of cities. Really not a big deal at all.

As much as I hate to admit it, I was clearly wrong about the not-a-big-deal part. Within hours this story seemed to be preoccupying social media. For me that means the pundits, politicians, and other political nerds in my twitter and FB feeds. I follow people from across the political spectrum, and it turns out everyone seemed to have an opinion on this one. What was going on, I wondered? Why do people care this much?

Well, part of the answer is the very archetypal aspect I mentioned above. The other part has to do with the libertarian bias of the original story by right-wing Toronto Sun writer Sue-Ann Levy. Her article is rife with Levy’s well-known anti-union, anti-big-government rhetoric. The problem is that when the likes of CTV picked up the story, they only partially corrected for the bias. Mayor John Tory, in the way only he seems to be capable of doing it, managed to irritate both the right and left with his official statement on the matter: the libertarians thought he should have shaken Astl’s hand and had his back against the evil City unionized bureaucrats; the progessives felt he’d thrown city workers under the bus. Still, the mayor echoes many who are “not happy that these kinds of outrageous project cost estimates are even possible.”

When I look back at the original (public) YUL post that introduced me to this story, I see that lots of people who are actually trained in these types of city planning activities quickly wondered what practical and structural issues would call for such a high cost to replace what was basically a piece of rope and some paving stones that someone had bashed in place. My friend Josh Hind (@joshuahind) who has project managed some of the biggest entertainment events for the city, including the 2015 PanAm games main stages, provided the most useful hypothetical breakdown of why that might happen that I’ve seen so far. Meanwhile, citizen-journalist, Shannon McKarney (@zchamuseems to be the only reporter who actually cared to look at the stairs themselves. While mainstream outlets were focused on Astl’s personal story and his archetypal struggle, these two citizen journalists were looking at the physical structure itself and its meaning. Michael Laxer also posted a story on the Left Chapter blog, and there are more expert opinions in the comments about the possible physical requirements for the ravine space Astl try to tame.

What effectively happened was a battle between the storybook narrative and the practical considerations that the likes of Hind and Mckarney noted, and it’s this dialectic that managed to scoop up a lot of thoughtful people and sent the story into the digital viral stratosphere.

“When you use ‘common sense’ as your argument, you’ve lost. ‘Common Sense’ is a battle cry from those who don’t wish to interrogate their possibly faulty assumptions.”

In an exchange with Hind, I argued “The 65 – 150K thing is ridiculous. Common sense isn’t always wrong (though it very often is). This was some kind of weird performance art that expresses a frustration with a type of civic bureaucracy, which I guess is doing its job because I’m talking about 8 stupid steps in Ebobicoke on FB. If indeed there is an accessible entrance to the park 120 paces away, then all those infrastructure costs are disingenuous. Then they don’t need all that lighting and grading.”

After I wrote that, I spent a fretful, sleepless night thinking about what I’d said–over what I considered a silly fluff piece to boot! I wasn’t worried about bickering with Josh–it’s what we do, and it’s part of the fun of our friendship, and performative frustration part is pretty much the basis of this essay. But oh, that “common sense” remark bugged me. When you use “common sense” as your argument, you’ve lost. “Common Sense” is a battle cry from those who don’t wish to interrogate their possibly faulty assumptions. They use it for, oh pick your favourite issue right now: Gender neutral bathroom? ‘Everyone knows there’s only two biological sexes, it’s common sense.’  It basically means that you’re not sure why you think you’re right, but your gut says so, so there. But that simply cannot good enough. And it’s not to say that our impulses and gut reactions don’t matter, because they do, a whole lot. Common sense reactions by non-specialists should not be dismissed out of hand; especially in this situation, citizens are really asking for more information.

“Somewhere in the debris of the social media bickering, the hot takes, and the multiple points of view, we’ve described to ourselves the city we want.”

Lots of people, including the mayor and Astl’s city councillor, Justin Di Ciano, all agree with what is likely a popular sentiment: $65 – 150k for a simple set of access stairs to some allotment gardens? WTAF?! There is such a general distrust of “professionals” and “experts” in our culture, and yet, when someone gets hurt there’s a hue and cry for more regulation on the most mundane of things. I can see why those of us who understand the importance of our experts and professionals have an urge to speak up and remind the rest of us of what they do. It also made a lot of sense when Hind said to me that he was disappointed “to see otherwise progressive people fall over themselves to get on the ‘$65K is crazy’ side of the argument without even considering why the estimate is high.” But the patronizing tone that has emerged in some of the conversations around this story is troublesome, and does little to create trust between non-specialists and experts.

My point is, we should see conversations that erupt like this one has as a productive part of citizenship. I think this is what De Certeau means when he says ” Far from expressing a void or describing a lack [the discursive practice of living the city]… creates such. It makes room for a void. In that way, it opens up clearings; it ‘allows’ a certain play within a system of defined places” (106). Somewhere in the debris of the social media bickering, the hot takes, and the multiple points of view, we’ve described to ourselves the city we want. I’m not certain it’s particularly clear yet what that city looks like, and I’m not sure I’d be ready to jump on a bus cobbled together by someone’s retired great uncle. But some old dude wanted to be able to walk up and down a hill to access his allotment garden this week, and somehow a lot of the world cared. Chalk one up for grumpy old men.


EDIT JULY 23: added link to Left Chapter Blog.