Thoughtful Losers who take Long Walks
The thing I’m taking the most comfort in this morning is Shawn Micallef’s recent micro-travelogue of Toronto street psychology called Stroll. Stroll is maybe my favourite Canadian book of the past year among that minority of my reading that doesn’t have line breaks. Its decision to be a walking tour based on straight lines–streets in lieu of neighbourhoods–is antithetical to our conception of the city as a sort of confederacy of cooperative towns, but it is refreshing. Streets, after all, are the phoneme of urbanism, that atomistic thing of which first sense is made out of cities. Only things as blunt and senseless as election boundaries would divide streets into West v East, North v South. And, luckily, those only come around once every few years.
The thing we really want our cities to have, though, isn’t so much sense as it is personality, and we need neighbourhoods to do this. The cult of neighbourhood personality is simplistic and defeating, requiring as it does the forgetting of chain coffeeshops in Parkdale and dive bars in Eglinton-Lawrence, but it’s a believable means of collective myth-making. Calling Toronto a “city of neighbourhoods” is accurate, but all cities, really, are cities of neighbourhoods. Levittown is a city of neighbourhoods. The Vatican is a city of neighbourhoods. We find the differences between the parts of the whole as a means of wrangling the whole into a singular thing. On one side of the fence, the grass grows to the northeast; on the other side, it leans due south. The people at the periphery of the city are all angry and shallow. The people in the middle are all smug, and shallow.
Micallef’s book does a lot of things very well. First among these is the understanding that, if we are to take neighbourhoods as personalities (read: characters) then the best way to craft a narrative out of a long walk is to move from character to character, across the (literal) throughlines offered by a Yonge, an Eglington, or (most distinctly) a Dundas. Another strength is the democratic view to the city’s geography. There’s a lot of suburbia in Stroll. One of my favourite chapters is a short one detailing a walk from my old stomping grounds near Pearson Airport, southeast into the city proper. It’s a long walk. Long, ugly, utilitarian, and rich.
The gorilla in the room this morning is yesterday’s mayoral election. I voted for George Smitherman, who, if I was to give all 30-some candidates a real look-over irregardless of winning potential, was probably like my eighth choice. This comes after a voting life spent spitting at the very idea of “strategic voting”, locked deep in some nebulous Athenian ideal of standing up, being counted, and dealing with whatever results I perpetuated. But this election, for me and for a lot of progressive artsy types (PATs) was different. Maybe it was a bit of an Alamo moment; we’re used to being held up as exhibit A of some snobbish cultural laughtrack. As someone on my twitter feed put it: I walk to work, vote for progressives, and struggle to pay my bills. Please stop calling me “the downtown elite”. We grumbled at all the usual overheated pandering when it came through the lens of the Harpers, the Mannings, and even the Harrises. But Rob Ford brought a whole new level of self-apparent confidence to this pettiness, and as the wave of his support trucked down Yonge from the end of Micallef’s stroll to its middle, the fear set in.
I spent election night at a series of parties. I’m willing to bet that at no point in the evening was I ever in a room with more than a 3% Ford voter share. Some of us voted for Smitherman, some of us voted for Pants. Some didn’t vote. It was exactly the kind of parties that Rob Ford thinks literary types are constantly engaged in, and that the taxpayer pays for (forget the fact that both parties were sponsored by the private sector: one by a tabloid magazine and one by a publishing house). The first party got out about 20 minutes after the polls closed, and I was presented, in the lobby, by a sea of sad people reading the news off their cell phones. Everyone decided to stay out a little later. Babysitters were called, dates canceled.
My night ended on the top floor of the kind of West End hipster palace that everyone knows, despite there being no name on the door. This anonymity lent it a sense of purgatory, like the sixty-so of us who couldn’t conceive of going home yet were clinging to the temporary loopholes offered by our reality in some vague hope that someone might get up and start a putsch. It was a sad room, a room already spinning desperately for the first whiff of outsider irony, that pre-creative oomph of normalcy. To wit: I heard seven unfunny Rob Ford jokes. But give it time, good ones will come before the end of the month. This is the pattern of these things, I’ve been told.
I left the place early (as did many others, us leeching artistic types have day-jobs to go to) and walked the long, thoughtful, Micallef’-esque walk of loserdom, down Ossington, under the overpass, and through Parkdale to Roncesvalles. I tried to think up some good news. Not because I want to undersell or otherwise spin the sickening displacement we all felt at 8:30 last night. This is not the city we were hoping we lived in. It’s a city more of streets than neighbourhoods, and last night, there was a narrative crafted out of those streets that made us into a sort of low-grade crowd of ancillary villains, impotent, hateable, henchmen to the powers-at-be. That’s an untrue, viciously unfair, story to tell, but such is the problem with stories. Take an infinitely complicated web of interrelations like the city, pick a line through it, and that line will tell a story. Not “the” story, of course, but one story. And all you need is one.
But forget all that for a moment. Good news: council, though changed, is not wildly different in its ideological make-up than it was yesterday. The ambassadorship element of the mayor’s office is undeniable, and will likely lead to embarrassments (picture Ford in front of the UN, wearing a nametag that reads “Hello, My Name is Toronto”). But there are other ambassadors. There’s us, for example.
Also, while there are real, nuts-and-bolts policy initiatives that, if enacted, will make life harder for artists, the Ford administration may well be good for art. We do our best when challenged, and the solipsistic view of public artists as cockroaches is, though lacking in subtlety and offered with bullying intentions, an interesting means of approach. Cockroaches are tenacious, are constant, and view a world independent of them. To be a cockroach is to be a perfect watcher.
My long walk through the West End filled me with a lot of warm, humble thoughts. This isn’t the city I thought it was. Most people don’t give a shit what any of us do. It is good and freeing to love Toronto, and be set back by it.