Shawn Micallef's Frontier City is a good reminder that what makes a great city goes beyond the downtown core.
Shawn Micallef’s new book, Frontier City, takes place in spaces that feel both familiar to me, and not. Toronto, in a way, is both familiar and not, and so his explorations of the city’s outer neighbourhoods and inner suburbs, where everyday people work hard to lead everyday lives, remind me both of how much I’ve been able to make this city my home and how much of a visitor I still am. It reminds me that while there are parts that feel worn in, others are unknown to me. This is, I think, intentional: much of this book, written by someone who has a deep understanding of this city and what makes it tick, is about a city that constantly surprises, constantly reinvents itself, and seems less and less familiar the more granular your perspective gets. The implicit argument that this book makes, both consciously and unconsciously, is that that’s what makes Toronto great in the first place, and what will be the root of greatness to come.
Frontier City, in one sense, is about the literal frontiers of the city. Much of it takes place outside the downtown core, and so long-time residents of downtown are treated to a view of Toronto populated less with cafes and bars, and more with hydro corridors and open spaces. As one sort of urban vision expands outward from the downtown core, neighbourhoods (like Victoria Park and Danforth, in one chapter) become the frontier upon which the great dramas of urban form are playing out.
In this context, Micallef’s book is an interesting and measured meditation on space and progress. He is, as usual, walking and biking around with the reader (and, more often than not, with a city-building activist of one sort or another in tow) as he explores both the individual challenges that city-builders and these communities face, and what it means when that progress is not so easily won. In this sense, Frontier City is a figurative descriptor: it’s a book about a city that often feels so close to world-class status, but not quite there. (The subtitle of the book, to this effect, is Toronto on the Verge of Greatness.)
What’s perhaps best about this book is that it serves as a reminder that a great city is more than just its iconic downtown. Great cities comprise neighbourhoods, some of them far-flung, with unsung community activists working to make them better. What’s refreshing about Frontier City is that an exploration of those people and those neighbourhoods occurs in the conspicuous absence of the kinds of urbanism discussions that often dominate in Toronto: traffic on King St., subway overcrowding, downtown bike lanes. It’s refreshing because while they are important issues, if urbanists allow them to cannibalize the city’s attention (and patience), the more workaday urbanism falls by the wayside. Downtown urbanists should care about things like strip mall rents and development in Scarborough (to pull one example from the book), because those things matter to the people who live there.
Frontier City, then, is a book that can credit some of its success and quality to its originality, and for the fact that it’s comfortable with the slow pace of progress. It resists becoming a polemic for urbanist agendas, it never lectures people for not supporting urban design principles fast enough, and it travels effortlessly through Ford Nation without looking down its nose.
There are some things this book is not: namely, it’s not a book that feels aimed at all at Toronto outsiders. Non-Torontonians may have a hard time contextualizing Micallef’s vignettes within the larger trajectory of urbanism in Toronto if they don’t have a pre-existing sense of it. There will be those who will read this book and criticize it precisely on those grounds: there isn’t a high-level drama playing out in this book. No enemies and no heroes, per se, just people working for a better future. And from a reader’s perspective, it is a unique book: part of the reason this book works for me is based on my pre-existing familiarity with Micallef’s writing (the all-his-own voice which he is in some respects known for is firing on all cylinders here), but others may find it difficult to connect with.
Still, there are more than enough people in Toronto (especially in the #topoli-sphere) who should read this book. It’s an illuminating light on the liminal, suburban spaces where what makes for good city policy is at times more ambiguous and less well-understood than it is downtown. And for dyed-in-the-wool downtown-ers, this book will provide a (much needed, in my opinion) glimpse into the worlds of people who, when the city amalgamated, became part of a larger project in city building—one that, for five-sixths of the marriage partners, meant changing the name on the map.
Frontier City is published by McLelland and Stewart.