A raccoon horror story

Tales from Toronto's vermin scene

I live in the Annex and, as you might have noticed, the area around campus is slightly overrun with raccoons.

A friend was coming over to watch a movie at around 2 a.m. one night. He ran into a little problem — or rather, six little problems. Outside my door were six fully grown raccoons, hissing and fighting with each other. He had gotten about halfway up my driveway when he was fully surrounded.

We devised a plot in which I hit an umbrella against a metal railing and scared off the raccoons while he made a run up the staircase. In the morning, the amount of raccoon dung outside my place was astonishing. Further, the little guys had carried on with their gang activities well into the night.

Raccoons have made their presence well-known around campus and surrounding areas. Pest Control Toronto cites the large number of parks as the leading cause for our infestation, and they argue that raccoons can be found in attics and basements without the homeowners even knowing. The raccoons, it would seem, have made themselves a little too comfortable in Toronto.

City building blocks

Researchers at the U of T Cities Centre show us their work

City building blocks

Every day, citizens of cities around the world deal with difficult issues like housing and affordability — which, in a notoriously high-rent city like Toronto, is on the minds of students and professionals alike. The University of Toronto’s newest institute for urban research, the Cities Centre, is a growing hub of faculty, professionals, and graduate students who have come together to discuss those issues that affect the lives of city-dwellers.

The Cities Centre, housed at 455 Spadina Avenue, was established in November 2007 with the mandate of encouraging interdisciplinary scholarly research on cities and urban policy issues. They focus on the quality of life in cities around the world, and attempt to improve communication between researchers and urban communities, and among researchers themselves.

Professor Alan Walks from the Department of Geography and UTM’s Program in Planning is a research associate at the Cities Centre. He conducts projects on urban social-spatial inequality.

“My big current project is examining the implications of automobility for Canadian cities, and for Canadian citizenship in general,” says Walks. “This includes an analysis of the effects of automobile dependence on mobility, the costs of automobility, and the effects on financial vulnerability, spatial mismatches between the location of labour, and jobs, and the implications of automobility for urban politics and policy.”

The impact of research extends far.

“My research has shed light on the processes producing urban inequality, and on the policies that might alleviate the effects of inequality, concentrated poverty, and hardship,” Walks explains. “I hope that my research continues to contribute to both policy debates regarding the best options for addressing inequality, and on our understanding of what produces inequality and poverty in the first place (including the processes behind what is known as ‘development’).”

Ron Buliung, an assistant professor at the Department of Geography at UTM, is a research associate at the Cities Centre who specializes in transportation geography.

“My work basically looks at the design, implementation, and use of transportation systems in terms of how these things play out today. And I’m also interested in the historical aspects of the development of the transportation systems in the GTA and elsewhere,” says Buliung.

“One issue is simply how do we facilitate, or enable, people to get around the city on a daily basis for their work and other activities. This is for people who want to walk, bike, take public transit, or drive. These are significant questions in the City of Toronto for the best way to move forward in building a transit system for the city.”

Buliung also works with Metrolinx, the transportation-planning agency for the GTA and Hamilton area, where he and his colleagues have been trying to facilitate transit according to workplace and travel demands.

“So, how to facilitate people getting to work instead of driving by themselves, because driving by themselves is the best way to contribute to the growing congestion in the city?” says Buliung.

“I’ve done work with them in helping them to understand who’s making the decisions to carpool, why they’re making those decisions, and how we can help people to make different decisions about how they travel around the city on a daily basis.”

In September 2011, the Cities Centre published an open letter urging Toronto City Council to make well-researched decisions regarding long-term plans for the city. It specifically took issue with the City’s plans to take control of the Port Lands in order to build a massive shopping mall, a monorail, and a Ferris wheel.

Over one-hundred-and-fifty urban design and development professionals signed the letter and showed their support for maintaining the planning of the waterfront under Waterfront Toronto.

“It’s not the case that we say we wrote a letter and the government changed its mind,” explains Buliung. “The letter is an external piece of information that’s put into a democratic process. It’s really through its influence on various members of council that the city may move in one direction or another, or ignore it entirely. All we can really do is be part of the debate.”


Lightning round with Professor Ron Buliung


City where you were born?


Favourite city to live in?


Favourite city to visit?

New York City

Favourite part of Toronto?


Favourite Torontonian?

Not Rob Ford.


Lightning round with Professor Alan Walks:


City where you were born?

Etobicoke (it doesn’t exist as a city anymore)

Favourite city?

I don’t have a single favourite. I really liked Bobo-Dioulasso, but that is only one of many great cities that I love.

Favourite part of Toronto?

The Martin-Goodman bicycle trail.

Favourite Torontonian?

Mary Margaret O’Hara and Jeff Healey

The Cities Magazine

Magazine Editor ERENE STERGIOPOULOS tells you why you should read our last — and best — magazine of the year

The Cities Magazine


Squirrel Horror

The killer squirrels of Washington, DC

Washington, DC has the highest concentration of squirrels in the United States. Folks even call it the “Squirrel Capital” of the world. Averaging three pounds, these furry rats are to DC what the killer rabbit was to the Knights of the Holy Grail.

I spent a summer there when I was 15 and was used to Canadian squirrels, the sort that said “please” and “thank you” when collecting their nuts. So I thought nothing of it when, one day, while enjoying a scrumptious bacon and avocado sandwich on a park bench, an American squirrel joined me.

As I ate, I became more and more aware of this squirrel’s presence. His glowing, red gaze was unnerving. From the corner of my eye, I could see him rubbing his paws and scratching his hind legs against the surface of the bench. Nervously, I moved to another spot, where I hoped to finish the rest of my sandwich in peace.

I hadn’t been sitting for two minutes when a shrill chirp pierced the air. Before I knew it, a flurry of fur flashed across my face, snatching my sandwich from my hands.

All I remember are his cold, cruel eyes, and that feeling of despair as I realized that my bacon and avocado sandwich was gone for good. The killer squirrels of DC had gotten to me; there was no going back.

Smoke & mirrors

How companies use guerilla marketing to get in your head

Smoke & mirrors

Yo, can I have a cigarette?

It’s a familiar refrain in Bombay social circles. I don’t — can’t — smoke, so I make my apologies and the questioner moves on in search of someone else with a cigarette to spare.

It was the summer of 2011, and I was back home in Bombay. That summer, if you asked certain people for a cigarette, their answer would immediately be “yes.” It was something I noticed at a succession of social gatherings in the city during my trip home: young people giving out cigarettes at a rate that would have bankrupted the ordinary student, even in India where a pack costs about a dollar and not 10 like it does in Toronto.

There’s a reason those people were able to be so free with their smokes. They’d been hired by a company, Enbisaze Solutions, to distribute — or “sample,” in their terminology — Marlboro cigarettes to young people at social events.

“It was a three-month campaign, where I had to sample cigarettes to legal-age smokers — that’s the ages of 18 and above,” explains Vanessa, who was hired as a “Marlboro Red Connector.”

“At any parties or any chilling-out scenes where a group of more than six people were present, I had to sample.”

It wasn’t as simple as just handing out cigarettes to friends, though. “You had to take pictures — that was very important — to show the number of people you had sampled to,” says Vanessa. “Every time you sampled, you needed to take pictures and give [the company] an estimate as to how many people you had sampled to and how many packs of Marlboro you used to sample to those people.”

Advertising is certainly not a new concept. The ancient Egyptians featured their wares on papyrus posters, and billboards have existed since at least the late seventeenth century.


Rewind to New York in the 1890s, and you’d see a kind of guerilla marketing similar to what I saw last summer in Bombay. If you were walking along the street in those days, you’d be accosted by a man in the street, engaging you in lively discussion about the wonders of the commercial establishment behind you. Swayed by his argument, you’d find yourself stepping inside to peruse the wares for sale.

It’s one of the earliest examples of the “promoter.” Product placement and guerrilla marketing all seem like fairly modern concepts — far removed from the ‘60s Mad Men era of big advertising. But store-owners in late-nineteenth century New York understood the same basic concept that drives product promotion today: the personal touch sells. The man who talked you into entering that shop was hired by its proprietor to do just that.

He wasn’t the only person in the city being used to drive up business. The owners of the stale-beer dives that filled the tenements of New York’s urban poor would permit tramps to temporarily inhabit their establishments on cold nights. The shivering “sitters” attracted the sympathy of passers-by, who could be counted upon to buy the tramps some of the dive-bar’s particular brand of alcohol. The tramps were “hired” on cycles, and owners made them move out of the beer bars at intervals to ensure fresh faces for the walking public to pity.

Just like the beer bar owners of New York City, the Marlboro Connectors made sure they “sampled” to as wide a spectrum of people as possible.

“I would see to it that I wasn’t oversampling, because you need to keep a count on how much you’re sampling,” notes Vanessa. “You can’t oversample, and you can’t sample to the same person a million times.”

Still, there was certainly no shortage of cigarettes. “They would give me two cartons a month, and whenever my stock was over, I had to go ask for more,” says Vanessa.

But the Connectors did have to meet certain minimum goals. “In a month we had to reach a certain target, which was 100 cigarettes, and in December, it was 150.

“If you met your target for the month, you would get the entire salary,” explains Vanessa. “If you sampled to [fewer] people, they would cut it accordingly, according to the number of people you’d missed out on.”

The promoters themselves had to meet certain criteria.

“You have to be a smoker,” explains Gaurav, an old acquaintance whose free hand with the cigarettes first brought this promotional scheme to my attention. “The clause is that once you start working you cannot be seen in public smoking any other brand except for Marlboros — that’s a serious violation.”

But within those boundaries, the Connectors were given the freedom to choose exactly how and when they would work. “We were allowed to take cigarettes as and when we wanted, when we partied,” says Gaurav. “Whenever we went to parties, when we went to clubs — basically anywhere with more than 10 people.”

Places where large groups of people congregate are ideal targets for guerrilla marketing. Yonge–Dundas Square in Toronto is one such place. Rain, snow, or shine, Toronto’s answer to the Big Apple’s Times Square is always buzzing. Another constant of the square is that there’s always someone trying to give you something for free.

Give people things for free, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll like what they get enough to pay for it the next time. 

A week’s worth of trips to Dundas Square can save you a lot of money on toiletries and snacks. I’ve picked up a straight razor, lemons, ice cream, and tennis balls among other things, just by sauntering by on my way to and from the Eaton Centre.

The people who haunt Dundas Square to give you free stuff aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re doing it because of that other great principle of marketing: give people things for free, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll like what they get enough to pay for it the next time.

That’s particularly true for young people, those aged 18–34, the target audience of most advertising efforts. The campaign I witnessed in Bombay was no different. The Connectors were selected as much for their age as for their smoking status.

“They look for young smokers, not exactly 18 but 19, 20, 21, up to 24 — basically below 25 years old,” notes Gaurav.

Despite not being a smoker, I fit the target demographic and still ended up being a part of the “campaign.” My face appeared in a number of the pictures taken by the Connectors in an effort to show the company that they were doing their jobs. “We had to take pictures with their faces, because that’s how [the company] knew whether they were legal-age smokers or not,” explains Vanessa.

But here’s the funny part: most people don’t think advertising works, at least not on them. Sure, they see the TV ads and they take the free swag, but they assume the product choices they make have nothing to do with marketing or promotion.

The marketers behind Red Bull certainly don’t agree. If there’s one company that’s associated with marketing in the modern age, it’s the Austrian energy drink manufacturer, whose logo adorns everything from Formula One cars to soccer jerseys and extreme sports events. Celebrities and athletes including rapper Eminem and NFL player Reggie Bush have endorsed the brand. But Red Bull’s most effective strategy is probably the personal touch: Red Bull cars and Red Bull girls.

They’re everywhere: hatchbacks with giant Red Bull cans on the back, whizzing through cities from Vancouver to Hong Kong. Out of them pour attractive young women carrying (smaller) cans of the energy drink. The combination of extreme sports, fast cars, and sex appeal makes perfect sense considering Red Bull’s target audience: young men.

And on the whole, it works. We’re so used to getting free stuff from guerrilla marketers, it’s faded into the background. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about taking a Red Bull can from a beautiful girl. It helps that the labour force that promotion campaigns tap is young and social, just like the campaign’s intended targets.

The illusion people retain that advertising “doesn’t work” on them seems to apply mainly to “big” advertising — billboards, TV commercials, and so on. Does it make a difference that the targets of guerrilla marketing can’t help but know that they’re being promoted to?

What struck me particularly about the Marlboro campaign I saw in Bombay was that everyone around me seemed completely aware of the fact that the cigarettes they were getting were part of a promotional campaign. “Most of my friends knew, 90 per cent of my friends knew,” admits Gaurav.

By and large, the guerrilla promotion of a particular brand of cigarettes didn’t seem to evoke any kind of response from the young people the campaign targeted. As for Gaurav’s friends, “they didn’t exactly react much; I didn’t get any hard core reactions. They were mostly okay with it.”

Maybe it’s the “free” angle. After all, my reaction to someone handing me a free energy drink is vastly different from the way I act when someone trying to talk to me about, say, the importance of educating girls in the developing world. Maybe we’ve just become so accustomed to being targeted by companies that we don’t see any harm in being given something to affect our purchasing choices.

As Vanessa points out, free stuff — in this case,  smokes — isn’t likely to be greeted by howls of protest. “[My friends] were happy about the fact, because anyway, they’re getting cigarettes to smoke.”

Where have you been?

We asked for your postcards and you delivered.

“My friend wrote this while listening to a speech by the Director-General of UNESCO in Paris.”

“You can often get a sense for life in a new city by wandering through grocery stores. This card takes the journey back to Bangkok shelves a few decades ago.”

“Capuchin catacombs, Palermo.”

“I picked this up at the MOMA in New York City. I got distracted by pretzels and hotties on the street so I forgot to mail it.”

“I spotted these while roaming the streets of Barcelona looking for a cafe and sangria.”

“Frogs: no idea. I think I picked this card up in Portland, Oregon.”

“This is a photo of Thailand’s king and his wife in the 1960s.”

“The energy, passion, and patriotism was out of this world — I have never felt so proud to be Canadian as I did in Vancouver.”

“I visited California and bought this because it represents how much I hate highways.”

“I picked up this deadstock postcard at a photoshop/café in New York. A cool concept, but unfortunately the scent of photo chemicals doesn’t mesh well with coffee.”

What makes a city move?

A history of Toronto by its most influential movements

The recipe is simple: friends meet over food, satisfying their biological urges while talking, ambitions and insecurities are thrown into the mix, and by some magic, the inertia that often dampens human imagination is overcome. The place can be any place, as long as it is one — cyberspace will not do. You need physical proximity for the ideas to flow. Toronto has its share of legendary nooks and crannies, where quintessentially Canadian narratives have emerged.

11908: The Group of Seven
36½ King St. East
The room above the Brown Betty Restaurant

“Toronto has arts, but no Art,” says a man in a little room of yesteryear, above the Brown Betty Restaurant on King Street. Others listen on over their steak-and-pancake portions. Art and patriotism spew out between mouthfuls as they encourage each other to speak against the artistic constraints of European naturalism. In attendance are J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, and Tom Thomson, who met as commercial artists working at the design firm Grip Ltd. They share a vision: Canadian artists should organize and find their own direction to express the unique territory of this young country. From here they begin taking weekend trips to Algonquin, Algoma, along the Georgian Bay, developing a style that will mark their future fame as founders of the Group of Seven.

2: 1952: The Toronto School of Communications
100 Queens Park
Basement coffee shop in the Royal Ontario Museum
Most weekdays, 4 pm

A group of friends gathers most weekdays at the coffee shop in the basement of the Royal Ontario Museum. Among the regulars are the anthropologist and filmmaker Ted Carpenter, the artist and curator Harley Parker, the political economists Harold Innis and Tom Easterbrook, and the then little-known English professor Marshall McLuhan.

They converse freely and throw around theories about radio and television. They suspect that these disruptive new media technologies are having an effect on society as well as the psychology of individuals.

This decade-long interdisciplinary exchange of ideas culminates in the publication of The Gutenberg Galaxy by McLuhan in 1962, which popularizes what comes to be known as the Toronto School of Communications. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan follows the work of Innis in positing that not only radio and television but all forms of media — especially print media — influence how we view the world through our senses.

3: 1963: Centre for Technology and Culture
39A Queens Park
Coach House, St. Michael’s College
Mondays, 7 pm

The coffee shop group receives an official home with the establishment of the Centre for Technology and Culture. Students flock there every Monday night as McLuhan hosts a seminar in “open mic” format, where ideas bounce around an increasingly star-studded crowd: the likes of John Lennon, Pierre Trudeau, Woody Allen, and Buckminster Fuller. McLuhan offers up koan-like “probe” statements (“The medium is the message!”) designed to provoke discussion and expose the role of electronic media in everyday existence.

Overdue international recognition is given to Toronto’s intellectual community, long populated by luminaries such as Northrop Frye, McLuhan’s long-standing rival. After his popularity wanes in the 1970s, McLuhan’s work is rediscovered with the advent of the Internet, a development which he had anticipated decades in advance.

4: 1965: Hippie-filled Yorkville
134 Yorkville Ave.
The Riverboat Coffeehouse

In the 1960s, Canadian musicians hailing from places like Orillia and Regina —  many of whom would later achieve international fame — were incubating in cheap-to-rent row houses in Yorkville. Bohemian types formed a lively artistic community, and folk-singers were hosted at the numerous coffeehouses (one popular spot being The Riverboat) and art galleries that lined Yorkville Avenue.

If you knew what you were looking for, you could catch a pre-fame Joni Mitchell busking in the street, Gordon Lightfoot playing to customers at Fran’s, or perhaps even The Mynah Birds, featuring both Neil Young and Rick James. These future singer-songwriters would also gather to the south on Yonge Street, where blues and rock bands — such as the future members of The Band — were playing in taverns like Le Coq D’Or and The Zanzibar.

In 1965, the musicians in Yorkville did not have a sense of being a “movement” in Canadian music. They were simply perfecting their craft together, making ends meet, and nursing their grand ambitions.

By the 1970s, the low rents which had attracted coffee shop owners to Yorkville in the first place began to rise as developers bought up housing on Yorkville Avenue. As the Yorkville scene disintegrated, musicians sought better opportunities in America. It is during this period that Canadian folk and rock music broke into the American market for the first time, beginning with The Guess Who (with “These Eyes” in 1969) and Gordon Lightfoot (“If You Could Read My Mind” in 1970), followed by Neil Young (as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and Joni Mitchell (culminating with her critically acclaimed album Blue in 1971).


Online exclusive

1925: The Arts and Letters Club
14 Elm Street
The Great Hall of the Arts and Letters Club.

On another evening, this one coloured by the sounds of J. Humfrey Anger tinkering on the spinet and always a debate, Wyly Grier (who will later become the first Canadian to be knighted) proposes that the meetings be named the “Arts and Letters Club.” The men agree. In 1925 (after a couple of evictions) they find a home at 14 Elm Street. Here, A. Y. Jackson (of Group of Seven fame) will bring his friend, Frederick Banting, a reticent scientist (who only a few years earlier helped to discover insulin) trying to evade the media hounds still lurking about the University of Toronto.

The Arts and Letters Club will over time entertain the likes of Robertson Davies, man of letters, and the creator of CBCʼs The National, Mavor Moore.

2008: The Toronto hip hop Renaissance
15 Fort York Blvd, Apt 1503
Noah “40” Shebib’s bedroom studio

Noah “40” Shebib is up late producing a beat in his bedroom studio. His friend Aubrey “Drake” Graham, still an unknown rapper, arrives late at night, carrying with him champagne, debt, and family problems. He needs to vent his frustrations, and 40 knows Drake well enough to instinctively craft a musical space which puts him in a zone to express himself. Drake and 40 serve as each other’s foils, and have arrived at this point of creative harmony after finding each other amongst Toronto’s vibrant hip hop community.

In 2004, many of Drake’s future posse could be found in the orbit of Toronto hip-hop figure Noah “Gadget” Campbell, including 18-year old producer Matthew Samuels (known as “Boi-1da”) who would produce Drake’s first hit, “Best I Ever Had” in 2009. Drake’s Toronto mix-tapes would catch the attention of New Orleans rapper Dwayne “Lil Wayne” Carter, who signed him to his record label and gave him access to valuable industry connections. Despite these new resources, Drake chooses to continue to collaborate with his inner circle. His niche sound (a somber R&B combined with hip hop) is born out of the unguarded atmosphere created in the studio during late nights of improvisation with his producers 40 and Boi-1da, where they goof around and share their favourite music with each other.

Drake’s creative team October’s Very Own (composed primarily of old friends) seeks to develop local talent, enlisting young artists like Hyghly Allenyne and Lamar Taylor (who direct Drake’s music videos and design his album artwork), singer Abel Tesfaye (also known as “The Weeknd”), and the producer Tyler “T-Minus” Williams. He is consciously building up the community and infrastructure that nurtured him early on, and setting up the foundations for himself, his collaborators, and Canadian hip-hop’s future success.

Mike Parsons’ guide to “Sound of the City”

The artist explains his work

Mike Parsons’ guide to “Sound of the City”

You might know Toronto artist Mike Parsons, AKA, Hey Apathy! from his street artwork on Queen West. Whether his distinct black-and-white drawings are on pavement, canvas, or paper, they generally revolve around the city. His 2008 drawing entitled “Sound of the City” is Parsons’ most intricate piece to date. We asked Mike Parsons himself to bring some order to the chaos.

1. Sax Player

That’s the very first thing I drew, a saxophone player. There’s the music coming out because I picked the theme to be music in the city. It also gives you a real sense of how much work goes into a piece like that.

2. End of Trumpet

This is where the music is blasting into all the apartments, as if [the dragon] played too early in the morning and knocked all these people out… I was thinking about all the places people use music in the city to make their lives better… When I was drawing this apartment with all the people flying out, I had the idea of a next-door neighbour playing the horn too loud, and that’s when I got the idea to do the whole trumpet city.

Click for full size

3. Face of the City

In the centre I gave the city a face. It’s got two eyeballs and a little dragon horn and it’s playing a giant trumpet. I just had that shape before I even knew it was a trumpet. The player is kind of a dragon, so this really powerful creature, but he’s also the one who brings the music. That has to do with both sides of the city. It can be a terrible as well as an exciting place. Even the whole theme of using black and white is sort of that idea: contrast, yin and yang, good and bad. Everything is in balance.

4. Poodle

When I made this, it took over one month. Each day I went into one area, and any strange idea that popped into my head, I added, keeping with the theme of the city, music, and chaos. So when I saw a lot of people walking their funny dogs, that’s probably how [the face of a poodle] ended up in there.

5. Billboards

I always have the billboards, which tend to be blank because there’s never anything of interest being advertised.