'Toronto turning into Gotham city': Random violence pushing city to tipping point | Best of 2023

If there are more problems on the city’s transit, experts say, it’s because there are more problems for the people coming onto it

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This story was originally published on Jan. 30,2023. We are republishing as one of National Post’s best longreads of the year.

The city knows what’s happening. Toronto’s police chief, the mayor, transit bosses all sense it. They see it rumbling on a grey horizon. So do the wags of Twitter, daily commuters, and out of towners now thinking twice.

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It’s fear. Broad, public fear.

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Not only the possibly-irrational-but-maybe-rational anxiety about personal safety in public spaces, particularly in Toronto’s essential but maddening transit system, but something more meta.

The fear Toronto could be at a tipping point.

It is expressed in different ways.

“I also want, as Chief of Police, to remind people that we live in a safe city,” Myron Demkiw said Thursday, at a hastily called damage-control media conference after a nasty wave of violence involving the Toronto Transit Commission.

Standing with him, Toronto’s three-term mayor John Tory added: “I know many people who use the TTC, the passengers, are anxious and even scared and they must know that we are doing everything we can that will be helpful to address their concerns.”

On social media, of course, it’s said with more flair.

“Toronto is turning into Gotham city now.”

“Toronto 2023 = New York City 1983?”

“TTC about to give me the same anxiety I have for driving.”

“Arm the TTC workers.”

“It’s no longer Florida man, now it’s Toronto man because every day on the TTC you be fighting for your life.”

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Are things really so bleak?

Leo Zhang nurses deep, rich melodies from of his cello inside Toronto’s subway stations most days. The godfather of city subway buskers has been doing it full time for 25 years, except during COVID restrictions.

“I feel like a TTC ambassador,” he said Sunday, before setting up his large cello for a solo performance inside Bloor transit station.

Zhang is well known in the underground. He and his cello even appear in the latest advertising campaign for the TTC, called Take the Better Way, but even Zhang, who has spent more time beneath the city’s streets than almost everyone, notices a different vibe.

“People are freaking out. They don’t want to take the subways. A lot of people don’t want to ride it because of all these incidents,” he said.

From his view on the sidelines, there has been a slow erosion in confidence over 10 or so years — until COVID. Then things really tanked.

TTC busker Leo Zhang.
TTC busker Leo Zhang.

When musicians were kicked off TTC property by pandemic restrictions, homeless people moved in, and now that riders and musicians are back, they don’t want to leave, Zhang said. Many bring baggage from addiction, mental health and poverty with them, which he sees as root problems.

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“The city needs to do something for the homeless and the shelters.”

He’s noticed the city’s response as well: “I’ve felt the increase of police in the last two weeks. Probably every hour I see a cop going by at every station I play at. Great. That’s better than nothing.

“In my personal opinion they did this too late. They waited for all of these horrific incidents to happen before they acted on it. They should have acted on this 10 years ago.”

The violent incident reports are undeniably disturbing.

A woman died after being set on fire on a bus. Another was stabbed to death. A man was shot dead outside a station. People have been pushed onto the tracks, passengers and staff have been stabbed, slashed, punched, chased, robbed, threatened with a syringe, and swarmed. There was a child abduction and muggings. The list goes on.

A Toronto Police Forensic officer retrieves blood from the victim off the front door of the streetcar on Tuesday January 24, 2023. Jack Boland/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network.
A Toronto Police Forensic officer retrieves blood from the victim off the front door of the streetcar on Tuesday January 24, 2023. Jack Boland/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network.

The reports piled up though 2022 and continue into 2023.

A high-level response didn’t take long.

The gathering of Tory and Demkiw, alongside Deputy Police Chief Lauren Pogue and the TTC’s top bosses, CEO Rick Leary and Coun. Jon Burnside, the commission’s chair, shows the importance of the TTC to the city, and the incredible influence of public fear on civic leaders.

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The chief announced an immediate increase of 80 police officers on high-visibility TTC patrols, pulled from his off duty ranks and paid overtime wages so other frontline needs aren’t jeopardized, he said. The TTC is making supervisors more visible, cameras are being added, and more Streets to Homes workers brought in.

The announcement comes after an increased police budget has already been presented to the city, adding almost $50 million to the $1.16 billion. The TTC also wants more money for additional security.

“These recent incidents at the TTC, impacting both our employees and customers, are incredibly worrisome to me and the entire TTC organization,” said Leary.

“We don’t know exactly what is behind these incidents,” he said.

“We know the TTC really is a microcosm of what’s happening across the city right now and we recognize that there is a bigger society and systemic issue at play here and that these issues are complex, and the solutions aren’t always easy.”

He is likely right.

The only thing special about subways and buses as centres for crime is their role as conduits — shoving lots of people close together.

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A subway train is the urban leveller, where people from all realms and circumstance find themselves cheek by jowl, or butt cheek to butt cheek. Whatever they’re dealing with outside the station comes in with them — mental illness, abrasive personality, addiction, homelessness, privilege, poverty, anxiety, racism, aggression, entitlement, bad mood, stress, fear.

Subways are an intersection.

If there are more problems in subways and buses, it seems likely it’s because there are more problems for the people coming into them.

Some struggling the most use buses as a shelter and stations as a warming centre.

“There have been warning signs for years,” said Jane Sprott, a professor of criminology at Toronto Metropolitan University. There’s a housing dilemma, rising inflation, opioid crisis, mental-health stresses.

“And then a pandemic that’s made all of this worse,” she said.

“This may be a perfect storm for things to happen, so if there are mild increases, I guess I wouldn’t be that surprised.”

Sprott, nonetheless, isn’t convinced there’s reason to panic.

Overall, serious violence has been declining. Toronto tends to have lower rates of crime than both Canada and Ontario, according to Statistics Canada data up to 2021. That holds for both violent and non-violent crime. The pattern has held since 1991.

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Toronto police’s internal crime data shows a slight rise in major crime in 2021 and 2022, but that was driven by a huge spike in auto thefts.

“If it drifts up for a few years, I don’t know that’s need for panic. I think you’ve got to think carefully about what is happening and what’s going on,” said Sprott.

She watched the city’s TTC security announcement in frustration, calling it “crime-control theatre.”

She agrees more officers on a bus or subway will make anxious riders feel more comfortable but questioned if it makes the city safer.

“Most people aren’t going to do something criminal right in front of a police officer, but you might have just pushed it elsewhere. Hotspot policing tends to just relocate things. It’s not addressing the problem.”

Toronto police data also shows steadily increasing Mental Health Act apprehensions every year since 2014.

Real answers, she said, are found in a place politicians don’t want to go.

“You need long-term thinking about how you keep society safe generally. You need to fund prevention programs really well and the thing is, you’re not going to see results from these things within an election cycle.

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“There is no political gain for doing this, so no one wants to. They can’t claim credit for it in their election cycle. But if you shove money at police or change a law, then it is something you can point to, and people momentarily feel safe.”

Sprott can’t play cello like Zhang, or any musical instrument, but she’s handy with data, and she’s come to the same conclusion as the veteran subway busker: “You need to care about violence even in years of decline. You can’t just not care and leave it and then suddenly care.”

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Statistics, of course, look backwards.

And crime stats can’t quantify immediate fear. The numbers come later, confirming or denying what we think is happening.

Who can take solace in statistics when they’re feeling vulnerable?

“The fear is real,” said Sprott. “But how can it not be? Everyday you’re being told of everything that happened on a TTC ground across the city.”

A regular subway commuter expressed precisely that sentiment.

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On most rides, over years, she’s seen someone showing signs of a mental health, addiction or homelessness problem. She said she can’t help but react differently now with all the talk of unprovoked, stranger violence.

“It turns something I looked on as sad into something unsettling and a potential source of danger. You see people around you reacting the same way,” she said, asking her name not be used.

People might also be more skittish, right now.

For more than two years, the pandemic radically reduced public interactions. It’s left people out of practice in dealing with strangers.

That anxiety could lead to calls to police that otherwise wouldn’t be made.

Police backtracked last week on two transit incidents. A criminal harassment case announced Monday of a man bothering teenaged girls at a bus bay was declared non-criminal, as was a reported sexual assault on a subway train from Jan. 20.

Back down in the subway, not everyone feels impending doom.

Alice Li regularly plays her heart out on a flute, sometimes with other subway musicians but often solo. She uses her busking as a charity booster for Kids Help Phone, a mental-health resource.

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“In terms of the level of violence that’s been highlighted in news lately regarding the TTC, I’ve personally not witnessed anything to that extent. I don’t think that’s something there is necessarily more or less of right now,” Li said.

That doesn’t mean it’s always cheerful.

“In terms of my own personal safety, I think there is always a reasonable level of concern. You are performing in a public place and there is no security guaranteed, so you really do have to be aware of your surrounding — today, just as pre-COVID.”

Playing in the subway offers the same annoying harassment as playing above ground, such as outside the Eaton Centre, she said. She’s happy with increased security in either space.

She still sees more generosity than aggravation, she said.

“To see that kindness still exists in my city, I think that’s really heartwarming.”

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Originally posted 2023-01-30 16:58:56.