How to Love a City with Shawn Micallef
July 10, 2015
How can Torontonians learn to adore their city in the midst of the 2015 Pan Am & Parapan Am Games? Shawn Micallef writes about Toronto and urban issues for Spacing Magazine and the Toronto Star. He’s also authored The Trouble With Brunch and Stroll from Coach House Books. Micallef brings his own experiences from exploring the city – and introduces the concept of ‘psychogeography’— to help listeners remember how to recapture a sense of wonder about Toronto and other global cities. The podcast also features Sarah Khan, explaining why she decided to become one of the 23,000 Pan Am volunteers.
More about The Cities Podcast: http://news.utoronto.ca/podcasts
Original music for The Cities Podcast by Jay Ferguson. Also featured, “Minerva” by Kris Magnuson.
Debut episode of The Cities Podcast featuring Shawn Micallef available: http://news.utoronto.ca/podcasts/cities-podcast/strolling-shawn-micallef
Ep 9 How to Love a City
[Ambient sound of radio music, street sounds]
Voice on loudspeaker: Okay, Sarah, give us a big wave and smile. People on the sidelines, let’s hear some cheers for our torchbearers, they are making history today as we get ready to welcome North America’s best athletes to Toronto.
This is The Cities Podcast, I’m Brianna Goldberg.
It’s a beautiful day, I’m jogging next to an athlete who’s holding the torch for 2015 Pan Am/Para Pan Am Games. It’s very exciting. Seven thousand athletes coming into the city from 41 countries, it’s a huge event. Twice the number of athletes from the Olympics in Vancouver, in fact.
Not everyone is so happy about it. People have been complaining about HOV lane insanity, people have been complaining about streets being closed down. So I thought this was a really great time to dip back into the archives and grab some tape from the cutting room floor from my interview with Shawn Micallef. He’s an urban issues author for Spacing Magazine, Toronto Star, he’s written a few books for Coach House Books about the city. And he told me this great story about how he came to love the city of Toronto. So I thought in this time of Pan Am pessimism, what better time to go back, learn how to love a city again?
So here we go, as the torch gets passed off from one athlete to another…
Here’s Shawn Micallef on how to love a city.
I first got interested in cities growing up in Windsor, which is a city that’s across the border and across the river from Detroit. And so we grew up looking at the Detroit skyline metaphorically and literally. Detroit news stations came into our house and we subscribed to the Detroit free press, that sort of thing. And so we had this really intimate relationship with Detroit but we weren’t really part of Detroit, we were a little detached from it. And I think watching Detroit from afar made me really fascinated by it, I always wanted to go there. But also the fact that Detroit was kind of a city in this crisis of slow and fast decay… with these weird rich suburbs. Fascinating place. And watching it decline was kind of heartbreaking because you saw the greatness of Detroit and the people that lived there and the culture that came from that place and then kind of watching it kind of crumble was heartbreaking, it’s like watching a family member decline. Being next to Detroit made me fall in love with cities and then as a Canadian, looking up the 401, Toronto always seemed this almost Oz-like city at the end of the road. Shiny skyscrapers, streetcars, subways. Decidedly not falling apart. So it was the opposite of Detroit, it was a city that was growing and had all these layers to it, human and otherwise. It had all the kind of infinite mystery that is appealing about a city.
I moved here and got a job, a regular job that had nothing to do with urbanism. A real job with benefits and everything like that. But then on my lunch hour, the office was at Bayview and Eglinton, and so I just started exploring for an hour instead of sitting in the cafeteria and wasting an hour. Eat at my desk before and then go for a walk. Go for a walk to Yonge and Eglinton and start exploring that and then on the weekends I would go for long, like five or six hour walks from my apartment or house, or take a subway somewhere and start going for walks.
I realized when I got here in 2000 I thought I was moving to a city that I knew because there were many trips up in the 90s, visiting friends who went to U of T and otherwise, and you come up here for stuff sometimes. What I realized when I moved here, I only really knew a small slice of Toronto. I knew Yonge Street, because that’s where you go when you are in late high school or early university, the destination is like that archetypal ‘Going Down the Road,’ that movie from 1971 with the two fellows from Nova Scotia. So it’s kind of like, you have to go to Yonge Street and walk it. And then going to Queen West because that was cool. And then maybe going to the Annex because that’s where U of T friends lived. And going to the Future bakery.
And so I got here and I realized, I don’t know where College Street went and I didn’t know what was around the curve as Dundas curves away. And the city’s vastness slowly became apparent. And so I started exploring it, just on my own. And then I slowly found other people who were into the city in the same way, fascinated in the same way. And started poking around ‘walking theory’ and found two things.
One was a book published in 2000 by Rebecca Solnit who is a writer from San Francisco, and she wrote a book called Wanderlust: the history of walking. Became this magical bible and it’s like, oh, there’s somebody else who’s into this thing, this walking. And she wrote it so beautifully. So there’s Wanderlust and then I came across ‘psychogeography’ as a concept. It was a way of walking around cities, exploring cities, that was developed mostly in the 1960s by the Situationists. Radical Marxists in Paris who did many things, but they did psychogeography, which was a method of breaking out of the modern cog in the machine kind of thing, way we go through the city without noticing anything. They had very different methods, guerrilla methods of walking around cities. They would use a map of London and negotiate Paris, intentionally trying to get lost. They would go on smell walks and other things. The one thing they did that I found really fascinating was this thing called the derive, or the drift. And they would just drift through Paris, so it would be like walking for the sake of walking, with no destination in mind. Just whatever intersection or fork in the road or whatever you came to. Whatever looked interesting, whatever looked like a mystery, you kind of follow it down. And that’s how, I realized, I was walking in Toronto. I was just kind of walking.
Psychogeography, I think, is a really fun way of approaching the city as an umbrella term because it’s essentially about paying attention to space and the spaces you pass through and how those spaces make you feel. So the psychology and geography. Under that umbrella you can pull aesthetic issues, architecture, you can talk about urban planning, but you can also just talk about emotional attachment. How does this place make you feel? What things have happened here? What is the social history of the place? Dip into the historic archive of the things in there. So as a writer for the city it’s, I find, a really kind of good intellectual approach, using this theory with fuzzy boundaries.
Shawn Micallef writes for Spacing Magazine and the Toronto Star. He also authored The Trouble with Brunch and Stroll from Coach House Books. And Shawn teaches a first-year course as part of the UC One program… learn more about that by heading to news.utoronto.ca and searching for the name Shawn Micallef… I’ll also link to the story where this podcast is found online. You can also hear more about it in my first interview with Shawn from the debut of this podcast, you can find that in our back episodes.
So now in spite of the Pan Am related grumpiness that’s even been noted by the New York Times at this point… you’re equipped to love the city once more. And I’m going to do you one better, I’m going to convince even the pessimists among you to get straight-up excited about Pan Am…
My office mate, Sarah Khan, is one of the people behind the voice of U of T’s social media. Sarah is also one of the 23,000 Pan Am volunteers – the largest force of volunteers in Canada’s peacetime history. Now, I think Pan Am is well and good but I constantly ask her why she offered to do this… to spend her spare time helping to make the games run smoothly. I can’t imagine being an awesome enough person to volunteer. But Sarah is legitimately excited about the games… and I’ll let her explain why.
Thanks to Sarah and the 22,999-or-so other volunteers for helping to realize this giant event transforming our city and the university, which is hosting many of the events on both the St. George and Scarborough campuses.
Speaking of help, I could use yours. Give me a heads up about stories you’d like to hear about on this podcast. Tweet with the hasthtag #uoftcities or send me an email at email@example.com…
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Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or follow us on Soundclound. It’s free and you’ll receive new episodes as soon as they’re available… Don’t forget that you can also go back and explore earlier episodes featuring Roman Mars from Radiotopia’s design podcast 99% Invisible, last episode Izzy Ritchie from the Strumbellas and music critic Ian Gormely made their case for how Toronto could be a more music-friendly city. We’ve heard from architects, poets, city councillors and more.
Today you hear music that friend of the podcast Jay Ferguson produced just for us. I also featured original music from Kris Magnuson, he’s part of U of T’s master’s of music composition program. Additional tracks from the Free Music Archive came from Jazzafari and Ketsa.
This series is produced by me, Brianna Goldberg, with help from U of T News editor, Jennifer Lanthier.
Thanks for listening. And enjoy the 2015 Pan Am/ Parapan Am Games.