January 5th, 2017

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • Beyond the Beyond's Bruce Sterling notes the terminal problems of Livejournal.

  • blogTO names five up-and-coming Toronto neighbourhoods.

  • Centauri Dreams looks at asteroids and other bodies in space that might be natural vehicles for travelling between planets.

  • Crooked Timber links to a grim analysis of the prospects for the United Kingdom's Labour Party.

  • The Dragon's Gaze links to a paper suggesting a search for Beta Pictoris b as it transits its star.

  • Marginal Revolution looks at the importance of Chuck Norris in Ceaucescu's Romania.

  • Savage Minds looks at reasons why anthropologists have failed to join in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

  • Torontoist notes the generally low quality of jobs created recently in Toronto.

  • Window on Eurasia links to two scenarios for Russia's collapse, looks at conflicts in Russia-Belarus relations, and considers two Estonian novels recently published regarding Russian invasions.

[LINK] "Trump’s tough talk good news, says Canadian auto union"

The Toronto Star's Lisa Wright reports on the surprisingly positive reaction of Canadian auto union president Jerry Dias to Trump's protectionist statements. I can only hope that he is trying to put a good spin on bad news: Why would Trump necessarily distinguish between Canada and Mexico, after all?

It probably bodes well for Canadian auto workers that U.S. president-elect Donald Trump is leaning on Ford and General Motors to keep auto production at home, says Unifor national president Jerry Dias.

“Trump, as crazy as he is, is showing governments can play a role” in helping to strengthen the auto sector to save or even create jobs, said Dias, whose union represents 23,000 Canadian employees of GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler.

He said Ottawa should also “stick its nose” in the auto business after Ford Motor Co. aborted plans this week to build a $1.6-billion (U.S.) small-car factory in Mexico that Trump had criticized, with the automaker announcing instead it would invest further in Michigan.

The surprise move Tuesday was announced just hours after Trump hammered General Motors Co. on Twitter for building its Chevy Cruze hatchback in Mexico and threatening a “big border tax” on the company for importing those vehicles into the U.S.

“I’m thrilled about Ford’s investment in Michigan instead of Mexico and creating 700 jobs,” said Dias, noting Trump’s persistent interventionist campaign with U.S. corporations is clearly making an impact.

[LINK] CBC News' Don Pittis on Mexico as an emergent First World economy

CNC News' Don Pittis has a good article, written from a Canadian perspective, arguing that the likelihood of Mexico's emergence as a First World economy means that we should shed old stereotypes. Among other things, there's the potential for substantial profit.

Handicraft markets on beach vacations may perpetuate a cartoon image of the country, but a visit to Mexico's vibrant and sparkling capital city, undergoing a long-term building boom, offers a very different view.

A new report by the Conference Board of Canada commissioned by HSBC makes the case that Mexico and Canada may be ideal trade and investment partners.

The report sees clear signs that Mexico is on the verge of an economic transition that will only benefit Canadian companies that get involved.

Despite Trump's claims, the number of Mexicans running from poverty to the United States has dwindled. While Spanish speakers continue to cross Mexico to enter the United States from other Latin American countries, an increasing number of Mexicans are finding good work at home.

In December, news that Mexico had displaced Canada as America's second biggest trading partner got lots of attention in Mexico.

But the reason U.S. companies want to locate there is that the country has become a global manufacturing hub, having free trade deals with more countries than anywhere else.

[URBAN NOTE] "Storefront Theatre shuts down and looks for another space"

NOW Toronto's Steve Fisher reports on the closure, at the end of this month, of Toronto's Storefront Theatre, located on Bloor just west of Ossington. A nice venue that hosted shows I enjoyed, apparently the theatre's hold on its property was too tenuous to justify staying there. I hope they can find a place in this neighbourhood to stay.

Storefront Theatre, the Bloor and Delaware venue where award-winning work has been cultivated and produced for the past four years, has until the end of the month to vacate the premises.

The news was first delivered Monday night from the Storefront stage by company member Scott Garland, outgoing producer and co-host of the Sing For Your Supper playreading series (which co-hosts/producers Kat Letwin and Cameron Wyllie plan to continue, nomadically), and was confirmed this morning in a press release put out by Storefront.

The news may seem sudden, and is a definite blow to the six remaining shows in Storefront's 2016-2017 season (some of which may still be presented at alternate venues). But as Storefront Arts Initative's managing director Claire Burns says, a move has been in the planning stages for some time.

"The tenancy has always been shaky," says Burns. "We had a lease, but after the flood [in 2014], we moved to a verbal month to month agreement. For the past year, we really wanted to sign a multi-year lease, so we could invest in the space."

Storefront ran a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2016 to renovate, which would have included soundproofing to mollify the neighbours. But there was no point in beginning those renovations and bringing the space up to code (a necessary step towards a full liquor licence for the venue, which has until now made do with special event permits) if there was no lease to protect their investments, and said lease never materialized.

"So we have some money to start with elsewhere," says Burns, referring to the renovation campaign coffers, "though we're hoping to build on that."

[URBAN NOTE] "A Development Proposal for Jarvis and Gerrard Will Spare “Hooker Harvey’s”"

Torontoist's Madeline Smith reports on how a plan to redevelop Jarvis and Gerrard will leave a storied fast food restaurant on that corner intact.

A new proposal for a mixed-use development on Gerrard Street will take out several of the buildings between Jarvis and Mutual Streets, if approved. As noted by Urban Toronto, that puts the so-called “Hooker Harvey’s” on the corner of Jarvis and Gerrard squarely in the path of destruction. But as it turns out, the local landmark with an insensitive nickname may escape unharmed.

According to the planning rationale documents for the proposed site, the 25-storey mixed-use building will have an “irregular shape” that will wrap around the restaurant. The proposal would see several heritage buildings relocated and integrated with the new design, which includes a 25-storey tower and some mid-rise retail and office space. But a small piece of the northwest corner of Jarvis and Gerrard is notably not part of the redevelopment application, and so Harvey’s lives on.

[URBAN NOTE] "Raising property taxes is neither progressive, nor regressive"

Edward Keenan, as usual, makes sense in the Toronto Star in talking about the import of property taxes, and how they are--in Toronto--properly not understood as an issue of left or right.

On the subject of Toronto property tax rates, my own position has long been clear: I wrote last spring that the city should raise them five per cent in addition to the rate of inflation, and I still think that’s reasonable.

But it has been interesting to see, during the mayoralty of John Tory, how a willingness to raise property taxes is now being held out as a litmus test for progressivity.

This is an angle of argument ramping up once again as the Toronto budget committee gets down to its detailed work next week as the mayor and budget chief promise not to consider large property tax hikes.

A rash of critics of the mayor scoff loudly at his hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed new revenue — through road tolls; hotel taxes; ending vacancy rebates for commercial landlords; land transfer tax changes, and, even, a 0.5-per-cent-per-year property tax levy dedicated to infrastructure capital — because his refusal to significantly raise residential property taxes marks him as a regressive reactionary.

This is weird.

[URBAN NOTE] "To snitch or not to snitch? Airbnb in the city is a complicated thing"

In the Toronto Star, Sean Micallef considers the question of how neighbours of Airbnb properties should react to them. Are they entirely new threats, say, or are do they continue age-old patterns of people trying to eke out a way in their city?

It took me a while to realize my neighbour was running an Airbnb across the hall in my rental building.

It’s a slow thing to notice. There are longer hellos and goodbyes at the door, suggestions to go to the ROM, and one morning three guys came out with an empty case of beer and suitcases.

There’s only so much you can glean from overhearing the occasional interaction through a door and what the peephole reveals. “Peep” is such an accusatory word: it’s my innocent fish-eye look out into the public corridor. Further poking around on the Airbnb site revealed rentals that match my building.

An Airbnb next door is not an imminent crisis by any means, but when I mentioned it to a friend, he said, “You’ve got to report that!” Not only do unauthorized short-term rentals violate the lease agreement, they eat into Toronto’s precious rental stock. If my neighbour is renting her place out full time, it takes a relatively affordable unit off the market.

A study published in September by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives called “Nobody’s Business: Airbnb in Toronto” said Airbnb is constraining the city’s supply of housing and even threatens the hotel business and character of neighbourhoods.

Recently, Toronto’s municipal licensing and standards department charged owners of three homes on Bleecker St. with zoning violations for allegedly running short-term rental businesses at properties that aren’t their full-time homes. This last bit is the crux of the Airbnb problem: Is it a business or is it just a way to make extra cash?

[MUSIC] "Songs from the Lowdown brings together music from Toronto’s street performers"

The Toronto Star's Emily Mathieu tells a story of some of Toronto's street musicians who, together, have released a CD. I'm more than curious to hear it.

Wendell Cormier is most of the way through Don Williams’s heartbreaking classic “I Believe in You”, when one of the many freight trains that travel through his west end neighbourhood goes rolling by.

Cormier, sometimes known by his stage name Woody, grins and turns his body and acoustic Fender toward the single window in his bachelor apartment to draw attention to the clatter, but the self-taught, seasoned performer doesn’t skip a beat.

[. . .]

Cormier is one of six musicians featured on a newly released soundtrack, Songs from the Lowdown. Their stories and talents were featured in the 2015 documentary film Lowdown Tracks.

The styles of music range from country and Americana to blues, and what the filmmakers describe as punk hobo. The original songs on the CD are inspired by the complicated and difficult lives of the artists who wrote and play them. Most of the artists currently play in Toronto, either busking on the street, at shelters or during the occasional paying gig at a bar.

Through conversations with activist and singer Lorraine Segato viewers are guided through their stories, including Katt Budd, whose mother died in a car crash when she was a baby. Budd was in the car.

[MUSIC] "On The Men Who Rattled Pop's Gender Rules — And What It Means To Lose Them Now"

At NPR, Ari Shapiro interviewed Wesley Morris about the deaths last year of three musicians, David Bowie and Prince and George Michael, who each pushed the boundaries of acceptable gender performance in different ways. Morris' take on each of these artists is noteworthy, as is his conclusion.

It's obviously a tragedy — a coincidence of the calendar — that all three of these artists died in 2016. But do you think that when you put the three of them together, you see something about the evolution, or maybe devolution, of masculinity in pop music?

Yeah. I mean, to have that happen in a year in which we were re-debating the propriety of maleness with regard to women, and excusing it as just the thing that men do?

You're talking about the presidential race talk about sexual assault, things like that.

Yes, yes. And I think that just looking at what the coming administration is going to look like, it's gonna be full of generals, full of men who have exerted power in this very traditional way. I think that we go through these waves, these periods. It's gonna be really interesting to see what the next three or four years turns up — in terms of how you might be able to trace some through-line from people like your Princes and David Bowies and George Michaels to whatever is happening in music in two years.

What will come of these men's shared legacy?

[MUSIC] George Michael, "Jesus to a Child"

George Michael's song "Jesus to a Child" was the first single off of his 1996 album Older, and it was the first of his songs that came out after I had begun listening systematically to pop music. Even at the time, this song though well-constructed seemed different, not like his earlier hit singles like "Faith" or "Freedom '90". Little did I know at a time that this song, like the album it came from, was probably the most high-profile tribute to queer grief in pop music at the time, perhaps ever. This song is a moving lyrical tribute to his lover Anselmo Feleppa, another victim of the pandemic.

Kindness in your eyes
I guess you heard me cry
You smiled at me like Jesus to a child
I'm blessed I know
Heaven sent and heaven stole
You smiled at me like Jesus to a child
And what have I learned from all this pain
I thought I never feel the same about anyone or anything again
But now I know

Johann Hari's 2011 Huffington Post interview with Michael captures the signal importance of Feleppa in Michael's life, the hugely positive impact of the relationship and the devastating impact of his death just two years after they met.

In a concert in Brazil one night, he spotted “a really cute guy” in the crowd, and “he was so distracting I actually avoided that end of the stage.” But afterwards Anselmo Felleppa, the Brazillian dress-designer face-from-the-crowd, came to George’s dressing room - and changed his life. “It’s very hard to be proud of your sexuality when it hasn’t given you any joy,” he says, “but once you have found somebody you really love... it’s not so tough.” Anselmo “broke down my Victorian restraint, and really showed me how to live, how to relax, how to enjoy life.” It was his first slow, tender sexual relationship with a man, he explains: “I was shagging around but I had so little experience with men that my sex life was so ridiculously inadequate for me, right until I met Anselmo really.” But it was more than that: “He was the first person I had ever loved, and I discovered he loved me too.” Even now, there is a hint of quiet incredulity in his voice.

But then - six months into their relationship - Anselmo discovered his blood was infected with the HIV virus. The sour grief that gripped George gave him - he winces at the irony - one of the best performances of his career, when he played the Freddy Mercury Tribute Concert as Anselmo began to die. “Can you try to imagine being any lonelier than that?” he asks. “Try to imagine that you fought with own sexuality to the point that you’ve lost half of your twenties. And you’ve finally found a real love, and six months in it’s devastated. In 1991 it was really terrifying news. I thought I could have the disease too. I couldn’t go through it with my family because I didn’t know how to share it with them - they didn’t even know I was gay. I couldn’t tell my closest friends, because Anselmo didn’t want me to. So I’m standing on stage, paying tribute to one of my childhood idols who died of that disease... the isolation was just crazy.”

The day after Anselmo’s brain haemorrhaged away, a stricken, incoherent George finally told his parents he was gay. “They didn’t even know he existed. The thing that really killed my mum was the idea that I had gone through that without anybody,” he says. While George’s life had always been shot through with depression - “it runs in my family, I’m sure it’s genetic” - it was only now, in the early 1990s, that he descended into “a deep black hole” he thought he would never escape. He made the classic depressive’s mistake of trying to warm himself with cannabis and ecstasy. His mother’s sudden death from cancer floored him, and “it got to a point where I was smoking 25 joints a day”.

Jane Moore's 2004 GQ interview goes into more detail, quoting Michael's fears that Feleppa did not seek the best possible treatment for his infection because he feared the negative publicity. Feleppa died, far from Michael, when Michael was scarcely 30. I can barely imagine.

I swear I remember mentions of the press of Michael having something to do with Feleppa at the time of the release of "Jesus to a Child", even mentioning how this was a tribute to the man without mentioning the significance of the man. The significance of the song, though, is clear: Michael was paying tribute to the man he loved, the man who aved him and the man whose loss prostrated him. Of all the early music groups active in the first half of the 1990s, only the Pet Shop Boys come close to this, in their faintly elegiac cover of "Go West" or their powerful "Being Boring". Their approaches, though real and definitely meaningful, were more oblique than Michael's.

What else can I do but congratulate him? Michael mattered.