On Shawn Micallef’s Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto

by Jodie James Elliott

Stroll book coverToronto Proper is best entered via one of its two most cinematic orifices: the first, and my personal favorite, is from the west, along the Gardiner Expressway eastbound toward the Spadina exit; the second, and only slightly-less sublime, is from the east, southbound along the curving Don Valley Parkway, all the way to the bottom where it narrows into a funnel, pressurizing the flow of traffic and ejaculating onto the Gardiner westbound – also making its final approach on the Spadina exit. At the bottom of the Spadina exit, abandon your car here and start walking – in any direction – without looking back. Don’t worry, in less than ten minutes the City will take it away and you will henceforth be emancipated. I cannot recommend the best route for leaving the city, because I’ve never tried it.

While traveling by foot, one would do well by bringing along a copy of Shawn Micallef’s Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto. Through this, we may further expand our knowledge of accustomed sidewalks and passages, picking up examples of historical significance along the way, and cultivating a deeper appreciation of our immediate environment. But this book also goes beyond the well-footed neighbourhoods in our everyday lives, so that even the strictest of downtowners may understand the discovery of Toronto’s hinterlands – distant lands with exotic names like Markland Wood or Bendale, where most of us would normally never consider venturing. While experiencing these spaces, Micallef encourages us to succumb to the Verfremdungseffekt, a concept coined by Bertolt Brecht as a device normally associated with the performing arts, deployed to limit the ability of the audience to identify too closely with the characters in a play. In short, to feel alienated.

Micallef moved to Toronto from Windsor in 2000. Like many of us, he brings an inherent sense of Verfremdungseffekt as an outsider, and is thus able to experience what he sees with wide eyes. These experiences are mediated through a heavily-researched and densely-informative book, sprinkled with the dates and architects of landmark buildings, and even historical topographies, pointing out where forgotten creeks once flowed  and abandoned railways became parks.

This is not the first walking tour of Toronto to be published – Patrica McHugh’s Toronto Architecture: a City Guide is a detailed account of all the architectural styles that make up our city, examined block-by-block. Although it eschews any need for narrative flourish, it is still an excellent resource on the reference shelf in any Torontonian’s home. Nevertheless, psychogeographers lust for narrative and they will find it in Micallef’s Stroll – albeit the disciples of Debord or Sinclair will find no narratives of resolute marching, boots crunching through the unmediated backstreets of Toronto against capitalist determination. But these are strolls, not marches.

I wonder, then, how a book review with a psychogeographic slant might play out; how to dissolve Micallef’s particular and historical narrative into my own transient and psychic rant.

Let me take a stab at it:

I stumbled upon this book while enjoying a stroll of my own, which happened to lead me up to a bookstore on Bloor. I already knew of the book, and had been interested in its existence ever since it was first published. I guess I just never got around to it. You can buy it at a little boutique shop on Augusta in Kensington Market for full price, or you can buy a pristine copy at BMV on Bloor for $12, with Marlena Zuber’s fold-out map in tact. Opting for the latter, I packed the book into my knapsack, and headed home to read it straight through, without interruption. Of course the sections in this book are autonomous enough to be read in no particular order, allowing the reader to study neighbourhoods of personal interest, or to simply bring it along for a hike around the Brick Works or Leslie Spit as a resource.

Micallef’s narrative partitions Toronto into five general regions: The Middle, Westish, Northish, Eastest, and Eastish; whereas I have partitioned his book into two: Known and Unknown. And I think I speak for most Torontonians who would similarly divide the city. Let’s face it, there are just some places where most of us do not care to go. Fortunately, he saves these neighbourhoods for the second half – as if he knows it might take some work to draw the reader into Narnia.

There are sections of Toronto to which I am rarely compelled to visit: anything north of Eglington, anything east of the Don Valley, and anything west of High Park (this would usually comprise my most extreme and furthest-reaching borders), so I believed that many sections of the book (Northish and Eastest, in particular) would be of little interest or relevance to me. But because I know so little about these areas, I chose to read about them anyway. What if I could gain an understanding of Scarborough as rich and detailed as that of my own little downtown shire? Take, for example, the area west of Dufferin and south of Eglington, a neighbourhood near Black Creek Drive I would normally reserve for driving. Micallef paints the topography here as resolutely proletarian in the Orwellian sense, made up of “treeless lots dotted with brick bungalows, rusting Buick Centuries and Pontiac Fieros, and recycling bins overflowing with copies of the Toronto Sun” (177). In my humble opinion, this is as close as he comes to demonstrating any influence by the Grandfather of Psychogeography, Guy Debord.

Reading it now, six years after publication, there are already details throughout the city that have changed and are ever-changing. For one, all those grassy knolls that once populated the grounds at Harbourfront Centre. It wasn’t that long ago. But now, anything even remotely grassy or knolly has been leveled down and carpeted with artificial turf. Micallef tells us that Harbourfront was once a crown corporation established in 1972 to revitalize Toronto’s waterfront. It has since become a charitable organization. Established in 1991, Harbourfront Centre is mandated to continue the crown’s legacy and, as it boasts on its website, to become “a model of urban revitalization, inspiring San Francisco, London, Tokyo, Chicago and others to follow suit.” Here, Micallef takes a moment to contemplate Gene Threndyle’s gorgeous garden that once crept up the western wall of the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, before it had been stripped bare in 2013 to make a clearer path for service vehicles. That once-lush wall of densely-leafed vines is now nothing more than a brick monolith upon concrete slab radiating the sun’s heat like a pizza oven. Further, by the summer of 2015, five years after Stroll was published, not a single blade of natural grass can be found at Harbourfront. Overall, the legacy of revitalization has left us with a concrete tarmac of a park, disrupted only by rectangular patches of green artificial turf offgassing that new car smell in the summer heat. A model indeed.

University Avenue, by Toronto Artist, Marlena Zuber

For this reason I understand why Micallef might choose to avoid saying too much about a neighbourhood like Liberty Village: its transformation is so fast and ongoing that any meditations would inevitably become obsolete by the time of publication. Indeed, even cab drivers and pizza delivery services have trouble navigating Liberty Village’s streets – secret passageways too new and unknown by common dashboard satellite maps. But – on the other hand – history is history, and Liberty Village has much of that. Who else, other than Micallef, is going to properly delineate for us – once and for all – the jails and halfway houses, the munitions plants that once employed the Rosie-the-Riveter Bomb Girls? Who else is going to unearth those secret tunnels rumoured to extend from the forgotten depths beneath the Brazen Head Pub to places as far reaching as St Lawrence Market?

A neighbourhood such as this could have presented an ideal opportunity to delve into the theory of the dérive, an unplanned exploration into an urban landscape, directed by the effects of its unknown topography and aesthetic contours. 

But Micallef’s Stroll is more structured, not only observing the geographical and economic factors that characterise the neighbourhood, but also submitting his evidence of historical research. What may be lacking in the psychogeographic sense is the image of an urban neighbourhood as understood by the people who inhabit it. In his 1952 study Paris et l’agglomération parisienne, Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe writes the geographical area of the city in which an individual actually lives is a very small and deeply-personal radius. He demonstrates this in an example of a student living in the 16th Arrondissement of Paris, whose movements he diagrammed over the course of one year. It is discovered that her personal map of Paris forms a triangle, seldom deviating from the three apexes that are her residence, the School of Political Sciences, and the location of her piano teacher. Imagine a contemporary version of the Society of Psychogeographers, friends who meet and agree to trade the Google Maps of their individual lives, to explore each other’s daily urban migratory patterns, and thus really see any given neighbourhood as it is actually lived. Now that is psychogeography.

Of course, psychogeography can at times be a rabbit hole of academic ponderings, and thus not always easily accessible. Micallef smartly avoids these traps by resisting the urge to succumb too much to its political and philosophical underpinnings. Instead, Stroll is more similar to a guided historical walk that draws the reader out of the downtown and into the unexplored reaches of Toronto. For those who have heard of places like Crescent Town and Rouge Park but never really understood where they are located, this book will fill in the blanks of your mental map. And, for the downtowner who doesn’t really care about Dorset Park or Don Mills, Micallef’s conversations and observations will show why you should.

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