The Cities Podcast Ep. 1 Strolling with Shawn Micallef
April 9, 2015
In this re-launch of the podcast, we take a spring stroll in unexpected places with author and urban enthusiast, Shawn Micallef. He writes about city explorations for The Toronto Star, Spacing Magazine and in his books, The Trouble With Brunch, and Stroll, from Coach House Books.
For more, visit http://news.utoronto.ca
Transcript: Strolling with Shawn Micallef
Welcome to The Cities Podcast, I’m Brianna Goldberg.
I’m standing in the middle of Cedarvale Ravine. It’s early spring, the trees are still bare. The creek is still covered with ice but I can hear water rushing underneath. This ravine is between the St. Clair West and Eglinton stations on the subway line. I live nearby… and I live where I do because of this ravine.
Because after a day in the core of the city, I can step out of the subway, take a few steps down a hill, and suddenly I’m surrounded by trees and bulrushes and a stream.
It’s a reminder of what Toronto used to look like before we built a city here. But it’s also what Toronto still does look like with our giant ravine system. Nature and concrete and river and lake, all woven together.
It’s actually my first day in the ravine this year because until now it’s been held hostage by slippery ice and snow.
Over the past few weeks I’ve peeked over the Bathurst bridge and watched its mini-glacier start to melt away with the somewhat spring-like weather.
But right now it’s about 10 degrees, it’s muddy and it’s messy… all the wildlife and flowers and trees are starting to rustle out. It’s a new beginning.
In the fall you might have listened in to our cities mini-series. It tied into the municipal election – we talked about traffic and transit and the future of cities.
Today, you’re walking with me into a new beginning for the podcast. One that’s more focused on telling the stories of the city, one that gets out on streetcars and into construction sites and mucky melting ravines as we explore all the ways Toronto – and other cities around the world – are changing, growing, and bringing citizens along for the ride.
And who better to guide us in these first steps than Toronto’s resident flaneur, Shawn Micallef. He writes about the city for The Toronto Star and Spacing Magazine and through his Twitter account (which I highly recommend following because it’s jam-packed with notes and photos from his explorations).
He’s authored a few books – The Trouble With Brunch and another one called Stroll, all about exploring the city on foot.
We’ll hear more from Micallef a few episodes from now, when he talks about how to love a city… but on a day like this, while the city is starting to reveal itself once again, I asked him to share a route for a melty spring walk… and he ended up taking us in some surprising places.
Here’s Shawn Micallef.
I think a really fun spring walk to go on is through the ravines. When it’s really snowy you can go deep on snowshoes, which I have. And you kind of have this weird freedom in the winter with something like snowshoes and being much more alone in the city because people are away. But there’s a really awesome feeling of those first spring walks when you’re out there and the rest of the city seems to be out and you’re seeing all this bare flesh for the first time in six months. And it’s like overwhelming humanity, which is great.
But when you’re in the ravines before the leaves bloom, you can see through the forest for the trees and if you’re walking through Rosedale you can see the back ends of all the mansions, which are totally covered up in the summer with foliage. So it’s like you get this really voyeuristic view of the city just before the leaves come out, and yet it’s still warm enough that you can walk for an hour and be comfortable, and you’ll stop at cafes and do all the kind of city things.
So it’s like you’re comfortable, you don’t have to really super — bundle up or have gear, but you really get to see the city kind of laid-bare. I wrote about this once, this kind of wonderful voyeuristic-ness of it, and somebody wrote in to either The Star or I, I can’t remember where it was, calling me, not actually a pervert but like something in that direction, about, “You peeping-tom, get out of my backyard.” I’m like, I’m not in your backyard, I’m just looking, because it’s there. And I’m like, “If you’re going to have a conspicuous McMansion, I’m going to look at it and judge it.” But you can do that in that period. So spring is a fine time to go for a walk.
It’s just really buoyant, I find, like the spirits of Torontonians are buoyant. I write these things about the winter or Tweet these winter walks, because winter is not going away. It’s here, figure out a way to actually enjoy it and not be such a sourpuss about it. But there is just this kind of level of like lazy sour-pussing around Toronto, which I think people would be happier if they kind of got out.
But those spring days when it just busts out, the kind of joy that you kind of feel walking in the city, this kind of ambient joy, it’s effervescent and it’s a really wonderful feeling. It’s almost like Toronto at peak. Somewhere between April and into June. June everything is — the foliage is out and so there is this kind of like pristine, clean newness to the city, and the smells and everything. It’s this kind of wonderful peak. But then you could say that I could romanticize all the other seasons, but I won’t.
So where would be, if you could suggest like, “Okay guys it’s time to get out there, get off at this subway stop and get a coffee at this place, start in the ravines here,” what would you recommend?
I think you should go to Old Mill Station in Etobicoke on the subway, get out, there’s not a coffee place right there so you should bring a coffee with you. And go either north or south on the Humber River. South you go down through the Humber marshes along the trail and you end at the wonderful white arched bridge at the mouth of the Humber River by the Palace Pier Towers. And you’re walking through this really wide expanse of Humber Valley. But then if you go north, The Humber becomes steeper on the sides, there’s some great cataracts because there’s a lot of vertical elevation as you go up. There used to be something like a half-a-dozen mills that use that elevation to kind of do whatever mills do. There’s a sort of drama to the landscape that’s totally easily accessible by public transit.
Then you can walk up and you cross under Dundas, or you could keep going more north and if you’re really intrepid you go all the way up to Weston. It’s an old Ontario town in the middle of the inner ring of Toronto. And you can do that in a few hours. You can cover distances, if you’ve never walked through Toronto, you cover way more distance than you think you would. Then you get up and inevitably there’s an arterial road nearby, because you’re going underneath them, Toronto is a grid, and you get up and there’s a bus. And if you don’t want to walk all the way back you just get on the bus and it takes you to a subway.
I’m going to sort of zoom out from there. What is a Toronto issue that comes to mind for you that either is in the process of an interesting new beginning, sort of we’re starting to think about this differently, or that really needs a new beginning, either from a policy perspective or a culture perspective?
I think the main thing that needs a new beginning is the idea of Toronto. I think this is already kind of starting. But getting over this urban/suburban divide. And there are people working towards that. There are differences, and this could be either a 905/416 thing, or just like downtown Toronto and Scarborough, North York, Etobicoke. And I think divides have been exploited by people who have something to gain by it politically or otherwise. There’s been a void of people talking about shared values. I think there’s more shared values than there are differences. This is still just like Southern Ontario. We’re not talking about insurmountable geographic or cultural divides.
And so I think if we start looking for those connections, and sometimes it’s just like when you think about how do you live. Maybe some of us drive cars more, maybe some of us walk more. But then you want your kids to live on a street that’s safe. You want probably a library nearby, and you want a good school. Those similarities kind of overlap. And when you start counting them up there’s just dozens and dozens of them that you could kind of point to and exploit for the better. So that I think is the main thing.
We’ve been amalgamated as a one megacity for now 17 years, and there are people throughout the Ford years and now still talking about the amalgamation. You can talk about that as a theoretical thing that maybe could happen, but there’s not political will to de-amalgamate. It would be such a mess, so it’s not going to happen I think any time soon, or ever I would say. But other people have different feelings about that, so it’s moot. So let’s forget about that and figure out ways we can make this work. And I think it’s really important, particularly for downtown people, downtown Toronto is becoming this kind of “Manhattanized” really wealthy place, expensive. The kind of people that can live downtown is quite limited because it’s so expensive down here and it’s increasingly so.
So when we start saying let’s get rid of the suburbs, let’s separate from them, we’re different than them, you’re basically saying you’re different from the part of town that doesn’t have the same economic advantages you do. And these are the parts of towns that are the most ethnically diverse, where the new Canadians kind of land, and where low income people live, often in towers. That kind of divisive language seems to be kind of rejecting the very idea of what Toronto is.
So I think if you want to talk about the amalgamation you have to really redefine what your Toronto is. Do you want like a rich core and a poor separate kind of outer band, or do we figure out ways to kind of make this place work together.
Shawn Micallef is author of Stroll from Coach House Books. He writes regularly for The Toronto Star, and Spacing Magazine.
Micallef also teaches two first-year courses at University of Toronto. He takes students on exploratory walks through the city and into council meetings and generally loops them into all sorts of other urban things. Those first-year courses are offered through University College and Innis College.
Thanks so much for being a part of this new beginning for the Cities podcast. There’s a lot more to come, so please subscribe on iTunes or follow us on SoundCloud… and keep an eye out for our stories posted at U of T News.
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Because the more city-loving people we invite into this podcast, the more we’ll be able to hear about your great stories of the city.
Today I’m talking to you from my favourite “place” in Cedarvale Ravine… you probably have one, too. Get in touch and tell us about your favourite cafes, nooks and crannies and secret stories in the city… any city, really.
Tweet with the hashtag #UofTCities or send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to our guest Shawn Micallef. We’ll hear more from him a few episodes from now when he’ll talk about how he grew to love Toronto… and how he’s grown to use social media as part of his engagement with the city.
Thanks also to Jay Ferguson for composing the great music you heard in this episode.
The Cities Podcast is produced by me, Brianna Goldberg, with help from U of T News editor Jennifer Lanthier.
Thanks for listening.