I’ve heard it’s frowned upon to begin an article with a cliché, but in the case of Shawn Micallef, an exception must be made — the man has literally written the book on walking around Toronto.
Two years ago, Micallef published Stroll, a collection of essays on what one learns and observes by travelling through Toronto neighbourhoods at walking speed. Today, he’s a journalism fellow at Massey College, and a senior editor and owner of Spacing magazine.
“This idea we have of a single historic view of the city doesn’t exist. There were a series of historic moments in the past, not a city in the past in some sort of monolithic way.”
From the Massey College quad on the first real spring-like day of March, Micallef sips his coffee and recounts the beginnings of his career as a writer.
He half-jokingly refers to himself as a flâneur — the French term describes a character who explores and observes cities. In his intro to Stroll, Micallef calls the flâneur a “perfect idler” and a “passionate observer,” referring to the definition originally coined by 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire. Essentially, the moniker is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the most basic distilled version of what Micallef does: he walks around cities (mostly Toronto) and then writes about what he sees and learns in the process.
After moving to Toronto from Windsor, Micallef became interested in the parts of Toronto that were outside of the typical out-of-towner’s reach — the places outside of the main stretch of Yonge, the CN tower, and the Eaton’s Centre.
“I found there were dark places on my mental map of the city, so I just started wandering from where I lived at the time, Yonge and St. Clair, kind of just drifting through the city.”
On his travels, Micallef met others who were into the same thing, so he began writing about his strolls for Toronto websites. Eventually, the observations made on his walks became a recurring column in Eye Weekly, which had two iterations — one called “Stroll” and the other called “Psychogeography.”
“Cities can be very utilitarian — we’re busy, trying to get to our work, or to our lover, or to wherever it is, so we’re not really paying attention to spaces. Writing about cities forces people to stop a bit and think about the places they go through and spend so much of their life in. And maybe if we think about and appreciate that, life is better — but then again, that might be a stretch.”
He also notes that the fresh perspective of an outside observer can make an often seen or visited place new.
“Sometimes it isn’t until you read something about the place you live from someone else that you notice the things around you. There are a lot of things we overlook. I overlook things and it takes someone else to point out things they’re totally into, and then suddenly that’s part of your life.”
While he was working at Eye Weekly, Micallef also joined a small magazine devoted to urban living in Toronto called Spacing. He came aboard after the first issue, and since he knew several people who had started the publication, he was able to, along with five others, become an owner when the magazine was incorporated.
His work for these publications became fodder for what would eventually become Stroll. “Each chapter started as either a little piece in Eye, or a piece in Spacing, or articles from a few other places, like The Star, and then I was able to expand on them.”
Noting the finished product ended up being more than three hundred pages, Micallef laughs, “When it was done, I was like, I don’t remember writing this.”
After publishing Stroll in 2010, Micallef continued with Spacing and Eye Weekly (until Eye shuttered in the spring of 2011), and became a Massey journalism fellow in June 2011. Offered to four mid-career journalists or writers, with an additional two international journalism fellows, the Massey Journalism Fellowship gives writers a chance to take a sabbatical and to study freely for one academic year at U of T.
“It’s nice because there never is any time to pause and think when you’re out there doing stuff, jumping from one thing to another. It was really wonderful, that first week, to remember what academic speed feels like. It’s a much more humane sane speed.”
Micallef smiles wryly, “My analogy of it is when the Millenium Falcon comes out of warp or whatever it is, and the blur of the stars all slow down. So to kind of slow down and be humane for a while was nice. Of course, now it’s speeding up again and the anxiety is coming back.”
Micallef sees studying cities as almost something that enables their progression and growth. “When you study the past and present of a city, this worry that people have about change, and this anxiety about change can be mitigated a bit.
“This idea we have of a single historic view of the city doesn’t exist. There were a series of historic moments in the past, not a city in the past in some sot of monolithic way. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t save old stuff; we should save it, old good stuff, that is, but we should be a little more sanguine about change. If there is any common defining thing about a city is that they are always changing … which makes them extremely exciting.”
This attitude, along with his own research, has given Micallef perhaps a more optimistic view on the future of Toronto than we’ve seen in the recent combative language from City Hall on issues like LRT and the Harbourfront.
“It’s a little hard to talk about right now really. We’re in a funk, but there is no other time in history I’d rather live in Toronto than now. It is the most exciting time for Toronto … because of all the new elements coming in: new Canadians, new buildings, new infrastructure. I compare Toronto to these mythic places like Paris or Berlin in the ‘20s, New York in the ‘50s… The momentum of the city is way more powerful than whatever political leaders are in City Hall. The city is going to be fine, if that’s what one is worried about.”
Micallef sums up his thoughts on the future of Toronto succinctly. “Physically, the city will be certainly recognizable, but it will be thicker, taller, and — I think — more fun.”