Review | Stroll, Shawn Micallef

…there’s something about the proximity of those quiet woods to the nearby village that makes Frost’s poem [Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening] seem cozy and urban – a quick escape into the wild but never far from civilization. How wonderful it would be to walk through a forest on the way to a friend’s house, or to a tavern or movie in another part of the city. In Toronto, the best of nature and the city often intersect… [p. 202]

Only Shawn Micallef would pair “cozy” and “urban,” and only he would link Robert Frost’s poem about the woods to a city, let alone Toronto. His view of Toronto having the intersection of nature and city is a tad more romantic than I would normally think, and it’s just this romanticism that makes Micallef’s Stroll such a great book. Micallef views his city with an almost childlike sense of wonder. Informed, certainly, by his vast knowledge of the city’s history, as well as conversations he has had with various others, but there’s a youthful excitement in Micallef’s approach to exploring Toronto. Remember how when you were a child, even an office cubicle can transform into a land of adventure? That’s the view Micallef presents of Toronto — every sidewalk is a path to adventure, every building a potential locale for a story.

I remember when the book first came out. I was working as a bookseller then, and what began as an easy database-search-type recommendation for tourists looking for a book on walking tours in Toronto turned into my go-to recommendation for anyone looking for a book on Toronto. What swayed me is this fantastic bit from Micallef’s “Flaneur Manifesto”:

Over and over, we’re told that Toronto is not Paris, New York, London or Tokyo. We’ve been trained to be underwhelmed… Any Toronto flaneur knows that exploring this city makes the burden of civic self-depracation disappear. [p. 10 – 11]

Hear hear, Mr. Micallef. In Stroll, Micallef chronicles his wandering walks around Toronto, covering the downtown core, and, more significantly, spreading out into Pearson Airport, North York, Scarborough and the Port Lands. I know of Stroll readers who take their copy with them as they walk around Toronto themselves, perhaps using it as a guide, to point out things they may not have noticed on their own. I opted instead to read Stroll at home, enjoying the treat of dipping into it and checking out a neighbourhood or two at a time, mini adventures where my imagination took me on these tours. Reading about neighbourhoods I was familiar with is quite an experience — as Micallef’s narrative moved along certain roads and noted certain landmarks, I could picture these areas clearly in my mind. Once in a while, I’d learn a fascinating tidbit about the history of a building I’d passed numerous times without noticing; other times, Micallef would mention a detail I hadn’t noticed at all, and I make a note to take a look myself next time I was in that area.

Reading about neighbourhoods I’d never visited is a different kind of adventure. In a way, it’s not quite as thrilling — I no longer had the memory of the landscape to guide my imaginary tour. On the other hand, this just means that all these neighbourhoods are still waiting to be explored. As Micallef says, you realize how large Toronto is, to be able to fit all of this in it.

Toronto through Micallef’s eyes is an adventure. His affection for the city is infectious, and he punctuates informational tidbits with humour and whimsy. I highly recommend this book for tourists, new Torontonians, people moving away from Toronto, and anyone, really, who wants to view the urban landscape in a new way.

I recently joined a Jane’s Walk that Micallef led. At one point, he stopped walking, glanced around and, for no discernible reason (at least to me), stepped onto a patch of dirt and grass and zigzagged through that rather than stick to the pavement. So much of my walking around, at least, involves getting from one point to another (in other words, I would most likely have stuck to the pavement). Micallef’s seemingly aimless wander opens up familiar locales to adventure, and that’s why Stroll is such an amazing book.

It helps as well to have Micallef’s highly romanticized view of his surroundings, picking out random details that would usually escape attention and finding the whimsy in them. During that Jane’s Walk, Micallef stopped by the 403 and told the group to close our eyes and listen to the cars zipping past. You could almost believe, he said, that you could hear the ocean. That’s a bit of a stretch, Mr. Micallef, but hey, why not? I’ll give it a try.

Review | Full Frontal T.O., Patrick Cummins and Shawn Micallef

Last year, I returned to the Philippines after about two or three years away. It was an odd experience, driving around the city where I’d grown up — the landscape was both familiar and alien. Every time I saw a place I remember well, I’d see a new addition, new facade, at times even a whole new building beside it — an unescapable reminder that I’d been away, and that the once familiar locales have moved on without me.

I remembered that experience well, during the Coach House Books launch for Patrick Cummins and Shawn Micallef’s Full Frontal T.O. The wall at the entrance to Urbanspace Gallery featured text by Micallef, but for the most part, Cummins’ images were posted on the wall without comment, at times even without dates. So while I viewed the photos with fascination, as a new Canadian (a GTA-er, yes, but not even a Torontonian), I lacked the context that infused others at the launch with nostalgia. “I pass by that area everyday,” someone told me, pointing to one of the photo sets. Another said trips to Chinatown were a childhood tradition, and seeing Cummins’ images of that area brought forth all these memories. Still another loved the pages in the book about her neighbourhood — she remembers how the street has changed and loves how this change was captured on paper. I can only imagine how a similar book on the city I grew up in — Full Frontal Manila, anyone? — would affect me. So for all who grew up in Toronto, all who live in Toronto, or all who love Toronto — definitely give this book a read.

For those like me — I love Toronto, but don’t have that twinge of recognition and nostalgia at photos of the city from the 80s and 90s — Full Frontal T.O. is a fascinating read. Confession: I love old buildings. I love visiting them and imagining the people who lived or worked in them years ago. The stories they can tell! And I don’t just mean official historical monuments — personally, I find hidden history much more fascinating, the stories of ordinary individuals who have made tiny, almost invisible marks on history. Point is, I loved the idea behind Full Frontal T.O. even before having seen the book. Cummins spent years taking photographs of the same spaces over time. We get to see a city change, and we get to imagine the tales that come with these changes. Very cool.

Then you add text by Shawn Micallef, and I’m definitely hooked. Those who have ever asked me for a Toronto book recommendation, or who have read this blog post know how much I loved his previous book Stroll. Micallef has a knack for turning the quotidian into an adventure, and his writing in Full Frontal T.O. is no exception. In his introduction, Micallef writes that because “we know we’re supposed to like pretty or big things,” we immediately associate with Toronto big landmarks like the CN Tower. However, “ragtag” buildings that “would never make it on to a Toronto postcard” are actually “the real Toronto,” the city in which most of us live. He writes,

Because we seem to look elsewhere all the time in Toronto — to a shiny new part of the city, or one of our older gems, or a possible future we might dream of — much of Toronto passes below our radar, even though we’re deep in the middle of it every day. We’re missing out, though.

Full Frontal T.O. calls attention to the city “below our radar,” the “vernacular Toronto,” as Micallef calls it. It’s why people who have lived in Toronto for years feel not just the joy of recognition, but also the thrill of surprise at Cummins’ choice of subjects to photograph. It’s also why people like me, who are relatively new to Toronto, feel an even deeper affinity with the city after reading this book. Full Frontal T.O. reveals a Toronto beyond the usual tourist landmarks, and thereby makes insiders of us all.

Micallef writes that the city is in constant flux, and that’s certainly true. Looking at Cummins’ photograph can be surprising at times by how little a space can change over time — 1042 Queen St W, for example, was a Printing shop from 1988 – 2004 (with a phone number beginning with LE, how long had it been there?). Thing is, and this is something I missed on my first reading, if you flip a couple of pages back, you’ll also see a spread on 1042 Queen St W, showing how by 2009, the Printing shop storefront had been replaced by a mural. Google Street View still shows a mural at this address, though I’m not sure how old that image is, and a March 2012 article at The Grid TO reveals the address is still unoccupied. Things you learn, eh?

Full Frontal T.O. is a fascinating read. Personal favourites include the spread on 148 Huron Street, mostly because of its description as “a feral house. They fed the fence to the plants and the plants liked it.” The images of the trees literally engulfing the front of the house until they were trimmed by the 2011 photo looks almost like the setting for a horror movie. I also loved the section on Gothic cottages. I had no idea until reading this book that Gothic cottages are “those with the peak over the front door.” Personally, I just think it’ll be really cool to say that I lived in a Gothic cottage.

Micallef writes that the book doesn’t contain a map, and doesn’t have the photos in any sort of geographical order because “it’s more fun this way.” He suggests that we “open the book anywhere. It’s all Toronto.” Sounds good to me. I did have fun flipping through Full Frontal T.O. It’s a photographic adventure into Toronto’s past, all in a handy little book. However, the best thing for me is that the book invites readers to explore Toronto themselves. Because the city keeps changing, even the most recent photographs may soon be outdated. When we visit these locations Cummins has photographed, what will we find? Fast forward ten years, or possibly even just ten months from now — what will we find then? Full Frontal T.O. explores the city, but the adventure can last as long as you want it to.

EDIT, May 15, 2012

Publisher Coach House Books has begun a blog for Full Frontal T.O.

From the blog:

The Full Frontal T.O. Blog aims provide an online forum of the work. Did you live in this house? Work in this storefront? Have an amusing anecdote to tell? If so, please add comments to the photos. We can to create an online living history of these buildings, and only you can help us do that!

Check out the blog at http://fullfrontalto.wordpress.com/ and join in the creation of an online living history of Toronto buildings!