Stroll-ing with Shawn Micallef
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Stroll-ing with Shawn Micallef

If Toronto has an uncrowned urban enthusiast-in-residence, it’s Shawn Micallef. Senior editor for Spacing magazine, urban matters columnist for Eye Weekly, co-founder of the site-specific documentary art project [murmur], and instructor at OCAD, Micallef wears many a city-related hat.
This week, Micallef launches his book Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto. The premise: he takes us on a series of walks-in-prose throughout the city, directing our focus a little closer than usual to the spaces that we move through. The text is accompanied by contemporary and historical photos, as well as lovely hand-drawn maps by Marlena Zuber. It seems simple, but what Micallef offers is in fact a deeply researched and astutely observed tome of a decade’s worth of walking in the making. The conversational quality of Stroll makes it all seem as easy as, well, a walk in the park.

Micallef dubs the thirty-two jaunts across the city “psychogeographic,” and by way of introduction serves up a Flâneur Manifesto. If this academic affect has you sceptical, rest assured that Micallef knows the limitations of the jargon he employs, and his borrowing from the Situationists (and others) is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, ultimately ringing more playful than pedantic.
Micallef has a love for Toronto that is unfakeable. It is ardent without being naive, infectious without being preachy. Stroll offers an exuberant parsing of the city we often ignore, cast aside, or simply forget to appreciate. With Micallef as a guide, Toronto becomes the kind of place that you feel not only an urge, but even a responsibility to get up and move through.
Torontoist spoke to Micallef from a parkette in Little Italy about Torontonian self-loathing, getting lost, and why we’re not Montreal or Paris.
Torontoist: In the introduction to Stroll, you refer to the fact that Torontonians often seem to feel surprised and even guilty about living here—something you call our “civic self-deprecation.” To put it bluntly: what’s our problem?
Shawn Micallef: Toronto has long had this complex about being an underdog city. I have a couple of theories about this. One is that we’re a colonial city and maybe this is a colonial hangover. You walk around Toronto, and so much of what you see is referencing something in the U.K. and Ireland. These things take us out of the local and point us to the more important, original version. Also, in the last fifty years or so, we sort of function as a de facto American colony as a result of that cultural influence. We’re always looking to New York, for example, as the city that we have to match, or even Chicago, or San Francisco in terms of beauty. We’re forever made to compare ourselves to other cities. Which every city does, I think, but it seems to have become a part of the culture here.
The other thing is that Toronto was never supposed to be the great city that it is. It was designed in the beginning—or not designed, rather, because there was no real thought put into it—to be a kind of provincial backwater. In Canada’s growth and idea of itself, Montreal was always its premiere city. And when you walk around Montreal, the architecture, the urban design, the feel of the city has sense to it: the infrastructure subtly tells you that this city is important. Toronto was never supposed to be an important city, so it didn’t build itself like that. The infrastructure of Toronto is forever going to be catching up with the city that it is. So, if you’re walking around and it sometimes feels that the buildings here are a little bit too low, that they’re set back from the street, that there’s something kind of dumpy and frumpy about the way things feel, it’s because we weren’t supposed to be what we are.
You make the argument that we can shake that feeling by walking though Toronto and engaging with it. How does that work?
In a city like Toronto, the details matter. You don’t plop yourself on a street in Toronto and say, “Wow, look at Toronto” in the way you would, say, Paris. Paris looks like Paris—the city is like a museum piece. When you come to Toronto, the street might not look that way, but if you start poking around, the details that make Toronto great start coming out pretty quickly. They’re details that you only see at the speed of walking.
Can you exhaust those details? At what point is the city completely knowable, where you can’t be surprised by it or lost in it?
The downfall of walking, if there is one, is that those amazing moments of disorientation happen less and less. I can’t find it very much at all anymore between, say, the Beach and High Park and up to Eglinton or Lawrence. There are little pockets in between, but for the most part, in that stretch of the city, I always know where I am.
Where I do get that disoriented feeling now is out in the suburbs. I look at Stroll, and it’s a fat book, but it still just scratches the surface of Toronto. I feel guilty about that. I look at the map that shows where all of the walks that the book takes you on are located, and I see that there are these huge areas that I didn’t touch. I think: “Oh, poor Rexdale, why didn’t I go up there?” In those parts of town, I’ll often get that wonderful sense of disorientation.
Once, coming off the subway at University and Dundas, I came up an exit that I don’t normally use. For just a second I thought, “Which way is which?” like I was in a new city. And then: boom. There was the Zurich tower, and everything kind of snapped into place. But that was four years ago.
The last time you were momentarily disoriented downtown was four years ago? Do you have a good sense of direction?
Yes. I usually know whether I’m going north or south. I can kind of go through places on feeling. I gave a Jane’s Walk recently, and we took a detour down into the ravine and back up, and even though it was just a little loop that I thought was straightforward, a lot of people asked me which direction were going in. We were still going north; we hadn’t changed course at all, but it disoriented a lot of people. When we got up out of the ravine and you could see the buildings again, I heard all these exclamations as everyone recognized where we were again. I realize that not everyone has this weird fetish about direction, and I’m a little jealous of that. So, walk, but don’t walk so much that you spoil your ability to get lost.
I’m also a little bit jealous of people who can immerse themselves in the city and not worry so much about paying attention to it all the time. Sometimes when I’m thinking about cities, or writing a column, or working on Spacing, I get this feeling like: “Shut up and just enjoy the city and stop thinking about it. The city is there to be enjoyed.” But then I go right back to thinking about it.
There’s probably a more casual way of being a flâneur, just paying slightly more attention to the places that you’re passing through. A lot of us pass through spaces without thinking about them as we go from school to home, home to work, home to friends’ places. We have these well-worn paths through the city, and we stop paying attention to what’s around them. I do that, too, on my most well-worn paths. But if you actually stop and look, you realize what’s there, and you get excited about it. One of my favourite definitions of psychogeography is that: simply getting a little excited about places.
Is Toronto particularly susceptible to that over-familiarization with the places that we spend our time because of the way that neighbourhoods here have such strong identities? They’re often quite small, too. It seems that every kilometre on Bloor, for example, the street signs tell you that you’re in a different village.
We do tend towards a kind of neighbourhood parochialism. Which is good. It’s good to have all of the services that you need nearby and to not need to commute across the city or in from the suburbs to get the things that you need.
In Toronto, we have these archetypal, wonderful neighbourhoods like the Annex, Little Italy, Kensington Market: these spaces of exceptional urbanism. Sometimes, though, the most interesting places are the neighbourhoods without a name, the in-between places. A neighbourhood in Toronto recently decided to give themselves the name Junction Triangle. It’s like they’re saying, “We’re not in-between anymore. Now we’re here.” There’s still an in-between somewhere, but it got a little smaller.
Do you have a favourite neighbourhood in Toronto? Or more than one?
I like Cabbagetown because it’s where I live. I like Yonge and St. Clair because it’s all so full of towers, and mod, and ’60s. It was my first Toronto neighbourhood. I’m fond of the Annex for all of the fuzzy, warm Annex reasons: the romantic idea of it. I also particularly like the St. Lawrence neighbourhood around Front Street. It always feels like Toronto in 1978 around there. I don’t know how else to explain it, but it has this kind of late David Crombie vibe to it. It feels like wonderful late ’70s disco era–Toronto. It may be the font of the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts that does it.
Those are the kind of details that come up in your book. The way you describe these walks in Stroll makes it feel like the reader is really there walking, and the text is integrated with these hand-drawn maps that almost physically recreates the process of moving through these places. How do you see people using the book? Do you imagine that people are going to read through a chapter and then put down the book and go take the walk themselves, or are we meant to walk with the book open and read as we go? Or is the reading enough; is it a substitute for walking, even?
I look at Stroll as offering starting points just to get people excited about these places. I would say it would probably be better just to read it through before you go because it’s not a “Go left, go right” didactic tour. It offers a rough path, something just to give a sense of direction, a sense of what’s there now, what was there before, and observations that I’ve made. But that’s just the surface of it. I want people from there to go out on their own, to do the walk, but to divert from what I’ve outlined whenever they want. If something seems interesting to them, they should go follow that path and see where it leads. I’m interested in whatever I’m interested in, but other people may not be. I hope to get people excited about a place, but I also hope that they will go add their own layers and stories to that place.
The book contains quite a bit of history: the history of the buildings, the way that the space was used in the past, and so on. You talk about how Toronto is constantly changing and constantly evolving. When we’re appreciating Toronto’s details and enjoying the city, how do we keep from hanging onto the way things are now? How do we avoid developing a sense of conservatism about it?
The city was never static. You see this a lot as cities develop—any city, not just Toronto—that people have a nostalgia for the way it was. The problem with development is that people see every development as an attack on the way things were before, but the way it was before is never the way that it was for very long.
Illustrations from Shawn Micallef’s Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto by Marlena Zuber, courtesy of Coach House Press.
The book launch for Stroll is free to the public and will be held at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 18 at Lula Lounge, 1585 Dundas Street West.