Bedford Falls and Pottersville

What would the city be like if faith had never lived there?

In Frank Capra’s classic 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, the inimitable Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a small-town building and loan manager. Because of a series of missteps by George’s hapless uncle, several thousand dollars in deposits to the building and loan are lost only to fall into the hands of the unscrupulous bank proprietor, Mr. Potter, also known as “Potter.” As George and his uncle and the rest of the building and loan staff are scrambling to track down the missing deposit, the bank examiner shows up to audit their books. George takes responsibility for the loss – covering for his uncle – and faces the prospect of ruin: ruin of the building and loan, personal financial ruin, ruin of his family, and ruin of his reputation, to say nothing of jail time.

George retreats to the local bar where he engages in an altercation, rams his car into a tree along a boulevard, and wanders onto a bridge where he contemplates jumping so his family can receive the benefit of a life insurance policy, exclaiming: “It would be better if I’d never lived.”

Clarence, an angel who is trying to earn his wings, appears in order to stop George’s jumping. Clarence gives George the gift of seeing what the world might have been like if George Bailey had never lived. George sees the consequences for his brother whom he saved from drowning in a frozen pond, for the men his brother saved in World War II, for George’s wife and mother, and for the town of Bedford Falls. Clarence shows George that if he had never lived, the building and loan would have long since failed, and the town of Bedford Falls would have been owned lock, stock, and neighbourhood by Potter. In a world in which George Bailey had never lived, even the town had been renamed, “Pottersville.”

While Bedford Falls was a neighbourly place with wide boulevards, beautiful homes owned by families, and independent businesses along its main street, in Pottersville, the families are crammed into tenements, the boulevards are gone, and all the businesses are crass commercial affairs dominated by bars and strip clubs – mostly owned by and for the enrichment of Potter. Gone are the healthy neighbourhoods and the neighbourliness, and in its place the law of the jungle: every man for himself.

What would a city like, say, Toronto be like if religious and, specifically, Christian influence had never been felt? Let’s take a stroll along an eight-block stretch of one Toronto thoroughfare – College Street.

We start at the corner of Yonge and College at the site of the old Eaton’s department store with the restored high Art Deco concert hall and its Lalique fountain originally commissioned by Lady Eaton. That takes us past the former site of the Central Toronto YMCA between Yonge and Bay, now one block to the north. Crossing Bay one can see past parallel Dundas Street toward the edge of the financial district. This takes us within a block of Women’s College Hospital, past the Canadian Red Cross headquarters, and toward University Avenue past the Toronto “Sick Kids” Hospital, originally founded as the Victoria Hospital for children and the Toronto General, and within sight of the Princess Margaret and Mount Sinai Hospitals. Crossing University takes us just in front of the terminal vista of the Queen’s Park site of the Edwardian neoromanesque Ontario Legislature and of Victoria and St. Michael’s Universities. Moving west along College takes us into the city blocks which form the University of Toronto campus and another vista terminating in University College flanked by Knox, Wycliffe, and Trinity Colleges. We carry on as far as Spadina within a block if not in sight of yet another vista terminating in the old King’s College building and to the south, several churches including Knox Presbyterian and the old Cecil Street Church of Christ.

What would the city be like if religious – specifically, Christian – influence had never “lived” in Toronto?

There would likely be no Eaton’s department store since Timothy Eaton’s enterprise and business drive was informed and impelled by his Methodism. There would be no YMCA, since this was a cooperative effort of 19th century Toronto Protestants of various stripes. There might well be no Dundas Street as we know it or Bay Street financial district since the former was paved by James Beaty, a Christian entrepreneur, and “Bay Street” was built by Ulster Protestants – Presbyterians, Methodists, and Disciples of Christ. There would be no Women’s College Hospital – founded as it was because Ontario’s first, female, licensed physician, Jessie Kidd Trout, became a physician motivated by her Disciples of Christ faith and impelled by a Christian ethos to found Women’s College. Likewise, “Sick Kids” and Toronto General hospitals were organized, funded, and built by Christians acting together and informed by their faith. The same is true of Mount Sinai, founded by Toronto’s Jewish community – informed and moved by their faith. The Canadian Red Cross started, again, as a cooperative, Protestant effort spearheaded by Dr. George Sterling Ryerson. The University of Toronto was founded as a federation of church colleges – the Presbyterian Knox, the Methodist Victoria and Emmanuel, the Anglican Trinity and Wycliffe colleges, and the Catholic St. Michael’s. The neoromanesque architecture of the legislature – and the Gothic Revival design of the colleges and hospitals – reflected the faith of their organizers, founders, funders, and builders. And the Cecil Street Church of Christ building provided a spiritual home to Toronto’s growing, turn-of-the-century Jewish community when it was converted into a synagogue. Even College Street’s streetcars might well not ever have run its length as they still do, had it not been for Christian entrepreneurs and investors impelled by their faith who first created a streetcar system.

The City of Toronto, still, enjoys the fruit of generations of contributions made by these people of faith. They weren’t perfect. But, then, that realization on their part was “sort of” the point. The realization that humanity inhabits a world that belongs to God who created it. That ours is a damaged and less than perfect world nonetheless sustained by its Creator, in need of sustained and concerted stewardship and effort directed toward its redemption. That Christians are called and entrusted with the task of “being a blessing” and extending restoration of Creation in all its categories – business and enterprise and high finance, schools and universities, hospitals and medicine, and the voluntary sector and civil society. To encourage and contribute toward the “pluriformity” and “differentiation” of society – toward a plurality of institutions of all kinds that will contribute toward human flourishing.

To turn cities and towns into “Bedford Falls”… and to resist their becoming “Pottersville.”