The election as viewed by a Warholian warrior

himy3.jpgHimy Syed opened a campaign office in the storefront of the Metro Theatre (677 Bloor St. W.) because he figured it was the perfect place to advocate for the reunification of north and south Koreatown — two sides of the street that fall into two different electoral wards. Syed has claimed residence in about a dozen different parts of Toronto, ever since his family moved from the U.K., flipping houses that flipped them around the town. Being a local nomad comes naturally to 36-year-old Syed, who lives in one part of Trinity-Spadina while running for council in the other, but has spent this municipal election campaign maneuvering between events, just to ensure this season’s rhetoric gets preserved on YouTube. Syed’s camera and curiosity have been a presence at many events over the last couple years reflecting the new, if sometimes forced, vision of uTOpia. But he approaches it with a neurotic feeling of unease. “Groups like the Toronto Public Space Committee have made peace with this city,” Syed says. “I have yet to have that peace.” The quest nearly led into the electoral arena in 2003, when he got the last-minute spark to run against mercurial Giorgio Mammoliti in York West, but ran in with the registration money seven minutes too late. Syed threw his name into the ring to serve as city council fill-in for the past year after Olivia Chow bailed to run federally, and was left dismayed by the undemocratic process that handed the job to city hall workhorse Martin Silva. So, he ran in the City Idol contest — seeking the opportunity to win a customized campaign — but lost the downtown run-off to Desmond Cole, now running in Ward 20. Brooding home from the event, Syed found a crisp $100 bill on the pavement outside the long-shuttered Hungarian Castle in the Annex, now being renovated into a bookstore. He took that as a sign to spend the money on getting his name on the ballot as an alternative to Ward 19’s resident deputy mayor Joe Pantalone. You can’t be a serious candidate without a campaign office, however, and that’s why Syed plunked down $800 for a week or two in the terminally vacant space under the dilapidated marquee of Toronto’s last XXX picture show, one that he — along with many locals of a certain age — remembers for the “Metro Theatre hot … Hot … HOTline” where a woman described the alleged plotlines of that week’s triple feature in the throes of ersatz ecstasy. But for the days leading up to the election, the faded poster for Summer of Laura is being overshadowed by signs and flyers not only for Syed’s campaign, but other registered candidates from around the city who arguably haven’t been given a fair shake by the system.

Serving as a delegate at the World Urban Forum in Vancouver last June gave Syed some insight into new possibilities: “The city-state needs to be replaced by neighbourhood civilization,” he concluded after the trek, which reinforced his belief in developing a culture of civic engagement and a culture of sustainability. “This sustainability isn’t just a matter of planting a tree,” insists Syed, who is challenging tree advocate Pantalone to reach a deeper level of consciousness than seeding a few lawns. Then again, Syed has been contemplating this stuff since childhood. “Other families would sit at the dinner table and talk about sports. We’d be talking about how to defeat Machiavellian tendencies — if the end doesn’t justify the means, then what does it justify?” And this led him to devour the ideas of Jane Jacobs, who Syed figures wasn’t too impressed with how her name was bandied about: “This city was full of her disciples who hadn’t even read her books. She believed that if someone talks about neighbourhoods, and other people don’t pick up the ball and run with it, then it’s just a long drawn-out conversation,” he explains. “We have arias, but we don’t have choruses.” The expectation that a city councilor will make decisions affecting their jurisdiction without absorbing as many perspectives as possible is against his nature, Syed explains, and therefore advocates a system where each neighbourhood boasts a co-council of its own. Pantalone used the one and only Ward 19 all-candidates meeting, Tuesday night at Dewson Street Public School, to liken himself to a good country doctor. Why would you want to change the doctor after all this time? “Well, if in the past 26 years we have new treatments, new cures, new medicines, new therapeutic techniques for healing, and new research into health care,” responds Syed, “having a doctor who isn’t up to date on today’s health sciences scene is probably not a good idea.”

The notion that Pantalone doesn’t need to work very hard to secure his council seat is also being challenged by George Sawision, a master electrician who also established an unorthodox office, amidst the espresso sippers at Caffe Brasiliano at Dundas and Bathurst. Since the Metro Theatre space isn’t large enough, Sawision offered his headquarters for Syed to host a Tuesday morning press conference regarding The Invisible Election, giving a soundbite opportunity to a bunch of relatively credible un-incumbents who haven’t earned much mainstream exposure — including mayoral candidate Rod Muir — amidst a mayoral non-race that’s earned more gratuitous media glare than ever. Five weeks of running with the herd to listen to every reminder that Mayor David Miller has taken the city back and now wants to move it forward, while a short semi-sensible lady and a tall bombastic man admonish him for doing everything wrong, might be the greatest wastes of time ever inflicted upon the electorate. Syed must see something in these dreary debates, though, since he’s obsessive about capturing every moment he can through his Nikon Coolpix 7600 viewfinder — which portends a future scenario where the election debate takes place through more technologically sophisticated mass-appeal means than the old-timey campaign tactics meant to foster the illusion of everyone being represented at city hall. Pantalone hasn’t even found it necessary to fight his fellow candidates — therefore, throughout his half of Trinity-Spadina, it’s hard to even tell there’s an election campaign going on. “If this thing was going to be determined by the number of signs,” smirks Syed, “then the next Ward 19 councilor would be named ReMax.”

Toronto Municipal Election 2006 [YouTube]

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