Monday, July 20, 2009

Sometimes, My City Annoys Me

Well, it's not really the city's fault. After all, the city is a collection of land and buildings. They can't really be held responsible. Even if you extend it to the people, they're doing their best. In fact, the thought crossed my mind the other day that Toronto succeeds despite itself.

No, it's the bureaucrats. Shocker, I know. When they're not busy doing nothing, they're usually busy screwing good ideas up.

Case in point Toronto a la Cart. A long-overdue idea that was presented around two years ago - Toronto should have more street food options than hot dogs.

It's an old law - the only food you're allowed to sell from a cart in the city is sausage in a bun. This has led to no small amount of hot dog carts throughout the streets of town. Some are good, some are terrible, most are standard. A similar law exists in Vancouver, but some entrepreneurial people started Japandog there and made the most of it. Here? It doesn't get more exciting than a German sausage with some condiments more interesting than pickles if you're lucky.

It was a bit of a joke that a city that has over a dozen ethnic neighbourhoods side-by-side-by-side only served hot dogs on the street. You couldn't even find roasted chestnuts or a pretzel cart. But some terrified councillor decades back made sure things were standardized.

So a well-meaning councillor proposed that some variety might be nice. That a souvlaki cart or some roti or dim sum wouldn't be a bad idea. Word got out to the people, and the people cheered. Okay, it's Toronto -- we nodded politely in agreement and grinned a little while talking about it over a beer.

Then it hit city council. There were safety concerns! So it had to be regulated until it was boring. Someone thought it should be unified under a city-wide banner, so "Toronto a la Cart" was born. It had to be healthy! Approval must be given!




Healthy street food? Who the fuck cares? We've been eating reconstituted lips and sphincters for decades off the hot dog carts, and you say the food has to be healthy now?

Give me a break.

Sooooo, in the interest of the public good - and the detriment of public enjoyment - it was all combined into a monolith of bureaucratic excess. Specially ordered and made carts were commissioned by the CITY. A specific size. Refrigeration. Specific layout. Black banner overhead with the not-as-clever-as-they-think pun of a name. A small fortune in licensing fees for interested parties. An approval process for the food being offered and the people offering it. Finally, the location was dictated by the city, not by the vendor.

In their final stroke of wisdom, the city, or perhaps more specifically the committee now in charge of the project, decided it should be seperate from the already existing hot dog cart businesses. This meant anyone running a hot dog cart was shut out of submitting an application.

Think about that - the people who have worked selling food to people walking by for DECADES were told they couldn't partake in expanding their offerings. Most of these men and women would jump at the opportunity to sell something other than sausage on a bun. There are as many ethnicities behind those grills are there are corners for them to operate on, and many of them would LOVE to skewer some lamb for you, or boil up some dumplings, or bread some pork, or put a schnitzel on kaiser. And they ALREADY HAVE THE EQUIPMENT, LICENSE, AND LOCATIONS.

But no... they were shut out. People who had no idea how to run a business, but could put together a mean spice rub, were being asked for their life savings in licensing and rental fees and then stuck in idiotic locations. A dust-cloud of a construction site in a condo-heavy neighbourhood (ie.- no business during the day). In front of a war memorial at Queen's Park (only businesses there to offer clients? Government offices). In line with 2 hot dog carts, 2 hot dog and chip trucks, and ANOTHER Toronto a la Cart vendor at City Hall? Yah, that's not overload.

19 applications from a city of 3 million people. 8 carts approved.

The options are interesting enough - souvlaki, injera, roti, etc.. So there's diversity there. The problem is - you can't get to most of them. I'm not going to drive to a food cart. I'm going to pass one on my way home, or to somewhere else. I believe there are currently 2 that I could do that with. There were 2 more (the one at Queen's Park, and one of the ones at City Hall), but they've both shut down until new sites are okayed for them. This means my options are limited to what those two carts have. If I want to try the roti? I need to travel 20 minutes north... by subway. I could walk to the best roti shops in town in less time.

And you know what? I haven't been to any. The whole botched process annoys me too much. I don't blame the poor saps who are behind the cart. I'm sure they're honest people trying to do their best.

Which is hard, because the carts are too small, run on gas-powered generators that have to be topped off regularly throughout the day, and the owners usually have to travel not-insignificant distances to their sites. Oh, and the owner has to man the station at least 70% of the time. You can't hand it off to your son or wife or husband or friend or business partner or an employee for a couple days while you try and rest your feet.

Idiocy from top to bottom. All tracked back to the morons who decided they needed to be attached to the project. The original councillor? After the final plans for the thing came out, he publically stated that he regretting bringing it up. That if he'd known it would become the bureaucratic power and money-grab that it did, he'd have kept his mouth shut.

I imagine the project will fail. It's a 3 year pilot project to see if it can be expanded. Two months in and a handful of the vendors have all but given up. The geniuses in charge will claim that we didn't support the project. We'll say that they fucked it up. In the end, everyone will shrug and move on, and we'll still be stuck with sausages on a bun.

Or they'll let it fall through the cracks and let the market truly decide. Maybe they'll realize they over-regulated and allow the hot dog guys to offer a few other options. Maybe they'll let restaurant owners open a cart within a few blocks of their establishment. Maybe I'll be able to buy a crêpe near the water like you can in Paris (still the best crêpes I've ever had). Or gelato from a bike-cart like in Rome (ditto). Or dim sum from a steamer cart like in Beijing (once again, the best). Or big salty pretzels like in New York (okay, those were dry and terrible).

Or maybe not.

Maybe I should start with smaller ambitions, and just become the benevolent dictator of Toronto, and then move my way up the ladder. I know I'd have your vote.


Dawn Summers said...

Hmmm, did I just read 2000 words on Toronto street vendor ordinances? Must be a workday.

Easycure said...

Welcome to creeping socialism. I would have thought that Canadians would have been used to it by now.