Adam Sobolak’s walking tour of the Ford Family’s neighbourhood was originally intended as a psychogeographic analysis of how suburbia shaped our mayor. But in light of last week’s events, Sobolak’s May 6 stroll became “an inherently provocative gesture.” We tagged along—and tried to not get arrested.
Stepping off the sidewalk into Douglas Ford Park, I easily recognize the man sitting on the bench as urban explorer Adam Sobolak. I also easily recognize that no one else has shown up for the Sunday-afternoon tour of Rob Ford’s childhood neighbourhood that Sobolak has promised to lead; it would, in fact, be just the two of us.
Sobolak, for his part, is relieved that anyone at all has bothered to trudge up to this stretch of Royal York Road, just south of Lawrence Avenue, to listen to his proudly non-expert psychogeographic musings about upper-middle-class suburban living and how it shaped the family that dominates both City Hall and our popular imagination.
I’d received the Facebook invite to “This Used to be Rob Ford’s Playground”—a special edition of Sobolak’s Chicken Fat Perambulation (CFP) Toronto-appreciation walking series—last Tuesday night. Its description read: “Even if (deliberately) non-affiliated [with Jane's Walk], it may be the boldest such gesture happening” during the May 5-6 weekend. But following the events of Wednesday evening, Sobolak’s walk took on greater implications: “Being here is inherently a provocative gesture,” he concedes right at the start.
A similar thing could be said of the Christina Aguilera mask on a stick that he clutches at all times during the tour. A promotional item for the movie Burlesque that he acquired a couple of years ago at Pride, it is merely a prop that he uses to signal that the walk is, in fact, taking place. And although it’s at first as jarring as you would expect, I soon forget he is brandishing it—a luxury not afforded to the various confused locals who undoubtedly wondered just why the hell a loud man in a tan blazer carrying a Xtina mask was making pronouncements about postwar architecture to another, shorter man dutifully jotting them down in a notebook.
The Chicken Fat Perambulation strolls typically creep northward along Yonge. Sobolak began at the lake in the middle of 2009 and has been doing one or two blocks at a time, every week since. (Or every other week, depending on whether anyone shows up.) Currently stuck at Yonge and Berwick, just south of Eglinton, the next walk will be #64—though Sobolak guesses it would be #128 if you count the ones he’s aborted due to lack of attendance. He spends the rest of his time working as a foot and transit courier.
This particular CFP walk is intended as a sincere appreciation of the Fords’ way of life, which Sobolak says was not too different from his own Etobian origins. (He mentions having been a classmate of Stephen Harper’s at Richview Collegiate.) “This node is the public face of the Fords,” he says, referring to the one-block radius surrounding the former estate of Doug Ford Sr.
The label baron and single-term backbencher in the Harris government passed away in 2006. He was the father of Rob, Doug, Randy, and Kathy Ford, and the husband to Ruth Diane Campbell; she continues to live in the manor, and her sons continue to hold both public and private events in its massive backyard. In 2010, the nearby park was renamed after the patriarch: According to the City staff report on the renaming [PDF], it was formerly Weston Wood Park at 1521 Royal York Road; according to the current sign, it is now Douglas B. Ford Park at 12 Westonwood Road [sic].
In preparing for the walk, Sobolak watched a video of the dedication ceremony, finding it “tranquil and otherworldly, like visiting some far-off relatives and being genuinely touched.”
He is less kind to the playground itself, which he calls “forlorn in its disuse.” It’s pretty standard stuff, aside from a small red plastic motorcycle fixed to the ground via a spring. “That’s the closest gesture to anything different,” Sobolak remarks, “and it’s pathetic—Parks Department nothingness.”
As we push eastward through the park, we eventually find ourselves directly across the street from the front of the family compound on Weston Wood. Knowing that Rob and Doug are currently broadcasting their weekly radio show at the NewsTalk 1010 studios, a world away at Yonge and St. Clair, I am less nervous than I would otherwise be, given recent events. And yet in the driveway is a Ford-statured man wearing a cowboy hat, looking straight at us. It is almost certainly eldest brother Randy.
Sobolak asks me if I could “mediate,” should anything happen, and we quickly turn our conversation toward the landscape, marvelling at the creek in the other direction. We follow it for a little bit, around the back of the Ford property, as Sobolak notes that there is “something strangely hostile about the chain-link fence” that walls off the Fords’ enormous backyard. It contrasts well with the clear water in the creek, and the fallen tree that forms a perfect little bridge from one side of it to the other; Sobolak, with nostalgic tenderness, conjures an image of “Lil’ Rob and Lil’ Doug” scampering along it as children.
With no Fords remaining in sight, we park ourselves at the end of the cul-de-sac, to appraise the architectural qualities of the house. Sobolak calls it “Brady Bunch modern” and is dazzled by how self-effacing and humble it appears from the street. “This is one of the least obtrusive triple-car garages I’ve seen,” he says. In terms of its heritage value, Sobolak observes that “this is the most designation-worthy mayoral house this side of Mackenzie House,” before acknowledging that heritage designations, and their perceived interference with taxpayers’ rights, stand against everything the Fords represent.
Sobolak, who mentions he was diagnosed with autism as a child, continues the tour with reflections on the architectural details of the other houses on Weston Wood, and then of the large plaza on the opposite side of Royal York. We eventually make our way around to what he calls “the culinary ground zero of Ford Nation”—the Mayflower, a Chinese takeout joint that looks uncannily like a doctor’s waiting room, complete with a stack of old magazines. It’s a remnant of an era, Sobolak explains, when it wouldn’t have been out place to say that “Oriental people work like dogs.”
It’s been about two hours since the tour began, and, having learned every little sculptural quirk of the plaza, I’m getting bored. There’s only so much admiration of concrete modernism that one can take. But Sobolak says that, although the walk has now officially concluded, he has a post-script in mind.
We walk a few blocks north along Royal York, until we hit Riverside Cemetery. On this early May afternoon, it’s as verdant and bursting with life as a place of this nature can be. Having a pretty good idea where he’s going, Sobolak leads me to the final resting place of Douglas Bruce Ford: a lovely headstone sandwiched between two bushes, with a colourful wreath that has recently been laid in front. The man whose memory continues to define the identity of this neighbourhood, and the politics of this city, is given appropriate berth on a patch of land to himself. On the monument is a phrase from Matthew, etched without punctuation: “OF THOSE WHO ARE CALLED FEW ARE CHOSEN.”
Summing up his study of the Fords, Sobolak says, ”You cannot write anything, or talk, or cover anything successfully without an appreciation of thy enemy. And maybe even, through the appreciation, learning things for the future.”
Offering me a ride back downtown in his car, Sobolak drives us south along Royal York. At the start of the walk, he had told me, “I respect [Rob Ford's own house on Edenbridge Drive] as being his private sphere.” But when we come to Edenbridge, he figures we may as well take a detour along it. The street is simultaneously lush and spacious—suburban in the nicest possible way.
I’d quietly hoped that we’d just keep going past Rob’s house, which is right near the end, only casually gawking as we whisk by. But, instead, Sobolak slows down the car for a better look. We slide along, noting the triangle of parkland the mayor wants to buy. And then toward us comes a minivan, license plate DON BOSCO. The radio show is over. It slows down to turn into the driveway, and Rob—wearing shiny sunglasses—gazes at us through its window. A police vehicle that had been hiding in the bushes in front of us begins to inch outward.
“Keep driving,” I say to Sobolak firmly. “Keep driving.”