The go-to guide to the real Toronto: an interview with Shawn Micallef

Andrea Wrobel, Senior Staff Writer
“I live at Yonge and Bloor – the center of the universe. I like living near the subway and the nexus of things. I like being at the centre. It’s easy to get out. If you live in Parkdale , it’s notoriously harder to get out with the King cars and Dufferin buses. I also like the metropolitan-ness of the middle and how mixed up it is. My building looks a lot more Toronto in terms of ethnic and class make up than the fancy street in Cabbagetown that I used to live on.”

Shawn Micaleff (Photo courtesy of Yonge Street Media)

That’s Shawn Micallef on where he’s currently living. I caught up with the author of Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto and Full Frontal TO, Toronto Star columnist, co-editor and writer for Spacing Magazine, and all around Toronto enthusiast at this year’s Pages Festival + Conference.

How did you come to be the go-to Toronto guide?
Some people ask questions like, ‘What are the good restaurants to go to?’ or that sort of thing and I have no idea. There’s this whole “Toronto” that other people are much better at. I have a wider view of all the neighbourhoods; the physical, cultural, social places of the city. I think for the last 14 years, part of my career, I’ve decided somehow, is to use Toronto as my fodder for writing and projects.
But why I did that… I’m not from here. I find that a lot of people who are from Toronto – as Torontonians do and as I do, although I remind myself not to – you kind of get into your bubble. Your neighbourhood or the neighbourhoods that you go to. One section of town and you don’t break out of it. Because I was from away, from Windsor, when I got here I made it my mission to explore this new city that I lived it. It made me a little uncomfortable not knowing all the edges of it and all the neighbourhoods. Where College Street ended. Where Gerard Street ended in the other direction. I just started exploring and I started writing about it and it took off from there.
In your exploring, did you just walk down College Street? Or did you drive, bike?
Walking mainly. I wrote a book about walking around Toronto – Stroll. What I would do on Sunday afternoon when I first got here was I would pick a subway station and leave my house which was in the Annex and start walking in one direction, zig-zagging for a few hours. Seeing where I ended up and exploring that way. It’s a very kind of drifting; a wandering exploration.
I do it by car sometimes. I really like exploring the 905 and that hinterland of Toronto.
You’re branching out!
You really get a grasp of how big this place is when you explore outside the core. You never really get a grip on it because it’s too big to get a grip on, I think. That’s why, even Toronto itself, I don’t understand how you can be mayor of this place because it’s so big. The 905 is also part of us and it should be seen that way. It’s so vast. I like going for Sunday drives, usually listening to psychedelic Sunday on Q107. There’s something about that driving/road music.
You get up north, east or west, and you get into some really beautiful, hilly country, almost half suburban like you’re in the countryside. I think the 905 is underrated, but you need a car for that.
I sometimes take big long bicycle rides through Scarborough, so I use all three modes of transportation. They’re all useful.
Walking is the best because you get the most intimate relationship with the place. You get to hear sounds and you can stop and you get to be a little more anonymous than in a car. Walking is the easiest form of transportation to go on auto-pilot. You can really focus on looking around.
How do you think not being from here gives you an advantage? Does it make you more curious than people who are from Toronto?
I think so. I think it’s natural for people to sort of take for granted the place you live in and to think you know it. Having an outsider’s perspective of everything being new is useful. I’ve been here 14 years now so I’m certainly not an outsider anymore. I worked on city projects probably even deeper than most people because I made it my career.
It’s funny because I go back to Windsor, the city I thought I knew intimately which I lived in for 25 years, and I realize I didn’t pay attention to it the way I pay attention to Toronto, mostly because I lived there and I thought I knew it. When I go back home to visit I’m re-exploring that city as I did Toronto, now as a bit of an outsider 14 years later.
We tend to take our surroundings for granted and my projects try to remind people that live here of the layers of their city.
Check out Shawn’s project murmur and keep your eyes peeled for signs like the one on the right to get a little piece of Toronto history!
Would you say Toronto, as your new home then, is the root of you and your writing?
It is, definitely. Despite some distant relatives being from here, my family’s roots in Windsor only go back to the mid-60’s, but Windsor was home and the history of that place has become my history and now the history of Toronto has become my history. As the city that surrounds me, it informs a lot of my life. What I try to do with my writing is show that. Even if you just arrived here.
Understanding the place that you live in gives you a sense of home. You know your home intimately so you need to know your city and how it came to be, even long before you go there.
It’s a big city to get to know intimately, with so much going on every single night. You have ample opportunity to get involved in anything under the sun but there are also times you could go out and not run into anyone or talk to anyone if you didn’t want to.
That’s one thing I noticed coming from Windsor. I could go downtown and generally find people around. You can go to the one, two, or three places and find people whereas Toronto doesn’t work that way. There are just so many people and options on different nights and different places. It’s a much different city to negotiate socially. You have to work at it.
Do you think that scares people away?
Maybe not ‘scares them away’ but it depresses a lot of people when they get here because they might come from places that are easy – they’re either known or the city is easier to negotiate because it’s small. It’s a challenging nut to crack, Toronto, but I think it can be done. I think Torontonians are actually kind of open if you make the first move and figure out ways to get in. It is work. I worked on it. I had a Windsor diaspora when I came here but I actively sought out groups of people who were interested in the same stuff as I was.
Social media might make it easier now. I’ve actually met a lot people on Twitter chattering about the same things and I’ve met some people who have actually become friends.
I agree. I think social media definitely has that ability. So with all these reflections of Toronto and of home, how are you incorporating these ideas into your work these days?
This is a little silly – it’s not exactly a project – but, on my explorations of Toronto, I like tweeting about where I am and tweeting picture of Toronto; a Toronto that maybe not everyone sees or appreciates. A lot of that Toronto is in the suburbs. There’s a lot of suburban strip malls and a lot of modernism…
I think part of Toronto’s – not problem – but its self-image is the downtown, older buildings. Victorian, Edwardian buildings. That’s people’s idea of Toronto. Most of Toronto is not like this. Most of Toronto was built after the war. It’s a much different kind of landscape. This comes out in my writing, but that Toronto needs  to be represented a little more. I try not to beat people over the head with it but all these people are left out… I want to show that we can be as excited about these parts of Toronto as people have been in the past with College and Clinton, Cabbagetown, and those sorts of neighbourhoods.
You can keep in touch with Shawn on Twitter, read his weekly Friday column in The Star, or check out his take on the Canadian Urban Landscape in Spacing Magazine.

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