Some at mayor David Miller's re-election launch Wednesday, May 17, were no doubt currying favour, and campaign workers and boosters were out in force.
But most of those packing the Steam Whistle Roundhouse just came to check out what he had to say and see who else was there. Aside from being Miller's campaign christening, this was also something of an event in Toronto politics. The city may have its first iconic mayor.
As Miller took the low stage in the auditorium, the room overflowed, though many were content to remain in the lounge and schmooze over the local brew.
On either side of the podium, video screens cycled through campaign posters: "One mayor whose speeches don't contribute to global warming." "Tall, because he stands on his principles." "His spin doctors just tell the truth."
They apparently don't tell it succinctly enough for a slogan, though. All the posters were worth a chuckle until I realized that none of them actually said anything. A potential danger of an iconic mayor: representation can easily become spectacle.
But it's uncharitable to read too much into catchphrases.
More telling would be his speech, and I was curious to see whether Miller's charisma would be matched by a clearly delineated platform.
In many ways his personality is a strength: he has facility for linking issues and departments in a sort of interdisciplinary mayorship. He doesn't set up unrealistic expectations that things that might take decades will happen in a term. But he can also feel, at times, unsettlingly vague.
The speech, alas, was mostly a straightforward laundry list of priorities: progress on the "new deal" promised in the City Of Toronto Act, the From The Streets Into Homes plan, which houses "more than one person a day." But his remarks also focused on the original odd couple of economy and environment.
There was the municipal "green fleet," the green bin program and weekly transit passes. "If Torontonians are given the right environmental choices," he said, "they will participate."
He spoke most glowingly as any mayor on the trail has to of the economy: a strong "neighbourhood business class;" 150,000 employed in arts, advertising and film; attracting "innovative businesses" from the "booming" biotech and finance sectors.
"Toronto has become the world capital of mining finance," he crowed.
But that booming economy must be joined by good jobs and decent wages," he continued, lowering his voice in practised sincerity, as the westering light streamed through the old tankhouse windows. He focused especially on jobs for youth. "That is how we'll make a safe city."
Expect to hear that last one fleshed out on suburban stops where the relative prosperity that likely has Miller's support wrapped up downtown is lacking. Of the 10 councillors in attendance, only two were suburbanites: recent appointee Paul Ainslie and Scarborough's southpaw centrist Glenn De Baeremaeker.
Miller spoke, as he has quite often, of the need for Toronto to "tell its story." For this, you only had to step out to the lounge, where dozens of photos by local collective DK Photo Group hang until June 4 as part of the Contact festival.
Among these loving, artistic portrayals of urban decay, the most striking is simply named Portal, a photo of an old window frame in a crumbling brick wall. Above the wall are bare trees, but the lower branches, visible through the window still have golden leaves. Viewed just so, the window appears to be a portal to another world, another season.
This is the beauty of photography: it's all about vantage, context. Framing is Miller's forte: economic prosperity, downright chilling in the version offered by some politicians, is reframed as something that can be steered toward sustainability and diversity.
But what is being left out of the frame? Toronto may be getting a new deal, but will it be an integrated one? The "innovative" businesses in the research, arts, and finance sectors are still drawn mostly to downtown. Meanwhile, suburban councillors have of late expressed worry over the loss of manufacturing jobs.
I also wonder if the focus on a "clean and beautiful city" encourages surface dusting. The homelessness strategy so far has dealt only with the most visible street homeless. That may be a budget issue; it may be optics. And while Miller shows more intention of steering business taxes toward progressive initiatives than any of his predecessors, there's a disturbing disjunct between hyping mining financiers and pumping the environment.
As the exhibit so movingly demonstrates, beautiful isn't always clean. The DK Group finds beauty in messiness: a window at the end of a dilapidated hallway opening onto a ghost-white sky, rusted pipes curling against a wall like lovers, a stairwell where plaster peeling like birch bark reveals blood-red paint.
These are places we go to hide or make out or remember, to be alone and think about what we'll do when we're not, to let the past inform the future. They're pure story, told and yet to be told. Pure city.
In stark contrast, condos loom outside the Roundhouse and crowd the central waterfront. Innovative? Sure. More sustainable? Arguably at least in a different location. But are they beautiful? Do they have that sense of laden stillness shown in the photos, usually only caught in dreams, but sometimes embraced by cities?
"Our city has a rich industrial history, and much of it is crumbling around us as we build condos and malls," writes DK photographer Jaymo on the group's website.
As Toronto prepares to tell its new story to the world, amalgamated and gilded in high finance, let's hope we'll be left with space to hear each other's old ones.