The new century has given Toronto a renaissance in pride in itself that can almost single-handedly be attributed to the Toronto Public Space Committee. Its house organ, the quarterly Spacing magazine, significantly overlaps the Committee in staff and writers, although the two entities are legally separate. Spacing and Public Space spawned a recent book edited by Jason McBride and Alana Wilcox, Utopia (perverse official orthography: uTOpia). There are a few other sites and clubs in a similar vein (Reading Toronto, the Toronto Psychogeography Society) – so much so that it is possible to speak of Spacing-type articles and, more importantly, of Spacers.
What are Spacers like?
From what I can infer, Spacers, by and large:
- are young, nearly all in their 20s or 30s
- all believe in biking and public transit and don’t like cars very much
- are suspicious of advertising and want it removed to the fullest extent possible from public space
- hold up the very concept of public space the way libertarians hold up private space – as a leitmotif or touchstone that is fundamental to their entire project
- vote regularly and do so as a solid NDP bloc, save for a few Liberal supporters who keep quiet about it
- flatly hate Conservatives and Tories of every stripe (and any capitalization)
- were overjoyed when David Miller was elected mayor
- nearly all have university educations, most of them from local universities, chiefly U of T, for which they retain a halcyon fondness disproportionate to the university’s actual role in their lives today
- view themselves as nonracist but are almost entirely white (see also: nonhomophobic/straight)
- and – the kicker! – nearly all live west of St. George St.
In fact, as far as they’re concerned Toronto pretty much doesn’t even start until you hit St. George St. – unless of course you want to talk about all the billboards in Yonge-Dundas Square, at which point they are suddenly willing to admit that downtown Toronto exists.
What Spacers are loath to admit is that anything east of downtown exists. And I have the numbers to prove it.
Counting the references
It is straightforward, if tedious, to read Spacing and Utopia and count up the place names mentioned and put them in categories like West, East, North, Suburban, and Downtown. I already did that with Spacing and found they talk about the west end roughly twice as often as they talk about the east end. (Why wouldn’t they? Spacers nearly all live in the west end; apart from occasional jaunts down to Yonge and Dundas to cluck their tongues, it’s their whole world.)
What about Utopia? Could it be worse? Yes, in fact – by more than a factor of three.
I had time over Christmas holidays in 2005, so I went through every page of the book and catalogued all the recognizable Toronto place names. I excluded places outside Toronto, historical or fantasy places, and a few other obvious cases. I categorized everything as West or East (of Yonge St.); Downtown (around Yonge St.; this was a more nebulous area, but anything that reasonable people would agree is downtown, like the CN Tower at the foot of west-end Spadina, was deemed downtown); and North (of roughly St. Clair). Places that crossed the city, like Lake Shore Blvd., were excluded. Example categorizations:
Gladstone, Beaconsfield, the 360, Sneaky Dee’s, Kensington Market
Leaside, Gerrard and Jones, 157 Coxwell, the Port Lands, the Don River
PATH, Toronto-Dominion Centre, Ontario Place, Regent Park
Don Mills, North York, Pusateri’s, Eglinton
Of course I missed or miscategorized a few references occasionally – but only occasionally. I have my data in written notes and a computer file; if you want to come over and inspect it I’ll make you a cup of tea, but the raw data will not be published. (They already have been, after all – in the book.)
Results for Utopia
- West: 394 references
- East: 55
- Downtown: 70
- North: 31
Utopia talks about the west end seven times more often than the east end and twice as often as all other areas put together. (If you quibble with the numbers, call them accurate to one significant digit, where the proportions are six times and 2½ times.)
The full title of the book, Utopia: Towards a New Toronto, would more accurately be rendered as Utopia: Towards a New Annex & Parkdale.
Another quasi-objective measurement can be made from the maps that come with the book – one of them a conventional cartographic exercise by Andrew Alfred-Duggan, the other a freehand artistic interpretation by Marlena Zubar.
Zubar’s map is almost self-incriminating, covering an area from just above Bloor St. to the lake. The western border is High Park (in other words, the entire west end is featured until you reach a large natural barrier), whereas the east end terminates in Riverdale at about Logan Ave. There’s an inset drawing that amounts to a joke about Mount Scarberia. It’s almost a prototypical Toronto story – a Toronto artist incapable of even a halfway decent parody of a New York genre, in this case of idiosyncratic subjective mapping of Paula Scher (slideshow). (It isn’t even a halfway decent parody of the Maira Kalman/Rick Meyerowitz genre – Cf. “Newyorkistan.”)
Alfred-Duggan’s map, whose colour choices and copy-editing deserve improvement, takes Toronto all the way up to Dupont, once more westward to High Park and south to the lake (in fact, Toronto Islands are shown in detail). But it too gives up completely at Logan Ave. (If the natural feature of High Park was a viable western border, why not be honest and call the Don River a viable eastern border? Why even go so far east as Logan? Why pretend?)
Think about all this for a second. You buy a book entitled Utopia: Towards a New Toronto, and the maps in the book recount the falsehood that Toronto pretty much stops at the Don River and at the railway tracks behind the Loblaws at Christie and Dupont. If you live east of Logan you don’t live in Toronto as far as these maps are concerned.
Was it a question of space? Hardly: Both maps are printed on one side of the sheet. The obverse could have depicted the rest of the city, had the mapmakers believed there was any city left to depict.
This isn’t a matter of interpretation, you know. The east end of the city simply isn’t on the map. When was the last time you heard about something even vaguely along those lines? When China annexed Tibet or Iraq annexed Kuwait, declaring them mere provinces? What about the name of the country most of us call Taiwan – how many variations can you find? (Hint: Check Microsoft Windows, then an atlas, then the Olympics.) How about renaming Cambodia as Kampuchea? How about the Falkland Islands, or are they the Malvinas?
Where else are entire people and places left out? In maps –
- of the U.S. that leave off Alaska and Hawaii?
- of Canada that show Alaska as a very large Yukon?
- of North America that leave off the arctic islands?
- of Mexico and Brazil in which illustrated farmland and greenspace are actually slumlands and shantytowns?
- of Africa that show Lesotho and Swaziland as undifferentiable from South Africa?
Now: Do you find those examples too grand and geopolitical? This is frigging East York we’re talking about here, right? Not something really important like Tibet. Well, that’s the size of the artillery you’re using when you leave somebody off a map. We get upset; whether intentional or not, you are attempting to define us out of existence.
And we have issues with that. Wouldn’t you?
Utopia by chapters
I’m sure that Spacers will dismiss my factual documentation as the product of someone with too much time on his hands. (Yes, exactly – it’s called Christmas. I told you that already.) Facts only matter when it comes to something they care about, like megabins or bike lanes, but not when it comes to their own performance.
We can then turn to the realm of opinion. I have prepared capsule reactions to or summaries of each chapter, which should not be confused with actual reviews.
- McBride & Wilcox, Introduction
Helpfully lists west-end pet projects and Spacing affiliates in a single paragraph
- 1. Rutherford, “A City in Our Image”
A tale of Toronto and Paris strewn with such improbably grandiloquent “quotations” that it buries its lede: “When you praise doesn’t believe you; when you criticize pride is wounded”
- 2. Keenan, “Making a Scene”
Insufferable, winking, heavily-sidenoted documentation of the incestuousness of the Annex/Parkdale/College/Queen West indie axis. If you take away the Meryn Cadell scenario of hanging out in the same sawdust-floored paupers’ taverns (“Go to a place where the people really care – very little about you. But they are just like you”), then the whole thing falls apart. A worst-case scenario played straight (as all participants are): This is me and all my friends, and aren’t we fixing up this city proper for once? Repulsive
- 3. Micallef, “Modern Toronto Just Wants Some Respect”
Useful first-person contribution to the scanty literature, too much of it written by that flabby old queen John Bentley Mays, about the hidden modernism of Toronto. We need more of this, including walking tours (or at least photo sets on Flickr)
- 4. Cohen, “The Zeidler Effect”
The Zeidlers are much discussed and we have in no way finished with that discussion. They have yet to screw up, but they also have yet to penetrate the eastern frontier of Spadina
- 5. Murr, “The History of Toronto’s Future”
Recollection of recent citybuilding history that actually doesn’t spend all its time (merely two-thirds of a page) on the Spadina Expressway, a topic about which we know all we need at this stage. Passes up a chance to delve into St. James Town and Regent Park, mentioned only in passing
- 6. Kingwell, “Reading Toronto: Architecture and Utopia”
Highest concentration of unintentional laughs per page of anything in the book. The whole things’s about U of T, a west-end constituency. Name-drops his time in New York; complains about West Village rent but fails to mention he couldn’t swing staying in New York. There must really be something wrong with you, apart from a Toronto tenure your fellow academics reportedly opposed, if you’re Mark Kingwell and you can’t make it in New York.
“The deal was queered” indeed: Check the loving description of a construction worker “ressed in flannels and jeans, good-looking, thin, he might have been 25.” The turgid, grandiose style, subdivided into cute little chapterettes, fails to conceal what he’s actually saying: Yes, Mark Kingwell really does appreciate being right next to Philosopher’s Walk, and it really would be pleasurable to have a new open-air stadium built beneath his office window. Imagine all those hot, sweaty football practices
- 7. Johnson, “Roots to Roofs”
I got more information out of this, the latest in a series of articles on green roofs, than I had expected, but all the example sites are from the west end
- 8. Akler, “Home Improvement: In Appreciation of Innovative Houses”
I turned the page and thought my whole hypothesis about this book was about to be blown up before my very eyes. There, right in front of me in pictures, was that hideously ugly building on stilts on an appropriately ugly street, Coxwell Ave. The chapter is actually about laneway houses, not “innovative” ones, and spends more time talking about west-end developments (three) than east-end (two, itself an uncommonly high number for Utopia)
- 9. Reid, “The St. George Campus Takes Shape”
If I have to read another chapter about U of T, I’ll scream. St. George St. did not need remediation, the improvements were seriously overrated, Grad House is an abomination, the Hillel building is already showing its age, signage and wayfinding are a disaster, and the place is notable for its old buildings that visually assault and belittle the pedestrian, like the big gym and Robarts. The reality of the U of T campus (“how recent projects have fit in and remoulded the campus as a whole”) is nothing like the Spacers’ fantasy misrepresentation
- 10. Verge, “Changing Lanes”
Solid interview with Jeffrey Stinson about laneway houses, but the examples are all west-end, except to talk about land value in the Beach
- 11. Evans, “Paved Impressions”
Information-dense chapter about Toronto sidewalks. Then again, I think concrete is interesting
- 12. Allderdice, “The Toronto Islands: A Love Story”
I think the Islands are underdiscussed and agree that their residents are unfairly resented. (The Islands are also not easy places to live. You really aren’t living in Toronto anymore. Expanding residences to other Toronto islands isn’t a good idea without better infrastructure – everything from a real grocery store to better insulation.) However, it may be self-serving to devote much of a chapter to the author’s own design proposal
- 13. Heti, “Dream of the Waterfront”
Bit of a futuristic trifle. But, according to Keenan, Heti is also a terrifically important new authoress, so I guess she was indulged
- 14. McKay, “Fly on Queen Street”
Queen West is so important that a little gallery there gets its own chapter
- 15. Glouberman, “No Place Like Kensington”
Kensington Market (“K-mart”) is already seriously overrated and overdiscussed. Filth and overcrowding have a certain bohemian air, or are at least given a pass (as they are on Bloor West, whose conditions border on slumlike). Glouberman’s is one of the chapters (along with Keenan’s, Reid’s, McKay’s, and McLean’s) that pretty much loses the case for Utopia as a book about “Toronto”
- 16. Lorinc, “Stripping Away Stereotypes: Toronto’s Retail Plazas”
Fabulous piece, a model for what Spacers should really be doing. Tell us less about your Queen West galleries and K-mart and more about the real city. We already know you cherish your pet little neighbourhoods; get on the damned TTC and do some research somewhere else in the city, preferably without holding your nose
- 17. Ninjalicious, “Infiltration of Toronto in Progress”
One east-end/downtown location (Gooderham & Worts), one west-end (OCA[D]). (I have his book and, though I find it delightfully written and packed with expertise gained from unique experience, I’m having trouble plodding through it)
- 18. Bow, “Where Have All the Subways Gone?”
Strong, fact-rich contribution on a topic that nearly everybody who doesn’t drive an SUV can get behind: More subways
- 19 McLean, “Go West, Young Hipster: The Gentrification of Queen Street West”
The title is its own punchline. You don’t like how Queen West has evolved? Buy a building and turn it into affordable housing. Or move. Just STFU already. I read this chapter, with its focus on Beaconsfield, and kept thinking to myself “Beaconsfield is on the West Island.” That’s how foreign that whole neighbourhood is to me
- 20. O’Donnell, “Toronto the Teenager”
Another original piece, about contribution by youth. More of this, please
- 21. Tobias/Holden, “Streetcars, Streetlights and Street Smarts”
If you’re going to present an interview, even on solid topics like these, do not “heavily edit” it. Credible discussion of TTC advertising and marketing
- 22. Duncan, “I ♥ Infrastructure”
Manhole (“maintenance-hole”) covers, often in the west end; Christie subway
- 23. Cowen, Lehrer, Winkler, “The Secret Lives of Toilets”
Not specific to Toronto and shouldn’t really be in the book, though it makes a strong case. (I’ve been to Sydney and used their coin-operated toilets. Of course coins are a barrier; they’re intended to be. However, there are ways around that problem, like handing street-involved people money. It’s also possible to increase the time limit inside the restroom for nursing mothers)
- 24. Hardwicke, “Velo-city”
Bog-standard futurist article for an alternate Toronto that takes biking seriously. Unconvincing even for the man who coined the word icebike and rides year-round
- 25. Jacob, “Flashlight”
Good piece on the Toronto Sculpture Garden, marred by focus on a single artwork. It’s a Spacing or a Now article, not a book chapter
- 26. Archer, “Making a Toronto of the Imagination”
Snuff-film viewer Bert Archer (2006) herewith contributes a chapter to a book published by Coach House Press, which he describes on his Weblog as “a publisher that really can barely keep itself breathing and perhaps should stop trying, poor things.” (He had to recant later.) Using that grand, scattershot lord-of-all-I-survey tone that is actually worse than his previous method of trying something once then writing about it (sex with a girl, living on Dupont), Archer dismisses the Roxy as “way out in the east end at Greenwood” and make a curious mention of “those halal pizza places... in the Muslim section of the Danforth that you’re always intending to get a slice from, just to see.”
The book’s contributor biography states that Archer “makes his home in the far east (out by all those halal pizza places on the Muslim Danforth).” In other words, he lives there, finds it “way out” and “far” east, and is just like the mythical interlocutor he addresses in never quite getting around to eating halal pizza right in his own hood.
And did you notice he can’t be bothered to tell us where the Muslim Danforth is? (It starts at the Madinah Masjid mosque at the foot of Donlands. Lest you think that’s way out and far east, there’s a subway station right at the corner.) Archer approaches Roy Cohn levels of denying something about himself, in this case where he frigging lives
- 27. Dovercourt (great Toronto name there, confirmed as a pseudonym for Jonathan Bunce), “Making a Green Scene”
Futurist speculation about building a home for indie music, which would inevitably be situated in the neighbourhoods already known for indie music (“Queen or College,” but certainly not way out by the Opera House)
- 28. Rahder, Wood, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future”
Further futurist speculation, this time about car-free zones, a concept so overrated it is disputed elsewhere in the book (p. 127, citing Montreal’s cautionary tale of Prince Arthur)
- 30. Vaughan, “An Age-Old Idea”
I am an unabashed squealing fanboy of Adam Vaughan. (I told him “I like your shit” the one time I met him.) I agreed with Vaughan that gay marriage – or, as it is accurately called, equal marriage or merely marriage – set Toronto apart for a good three years. Yet I was stunned out of my gourd to read his endorsement of vastly increased accessibility for people with disabilities as the step Toronto should take as “the next frontier of human rights.” The kind of accessibility I work in isn’t the architectural kind and I know almost nothing about it, but I’ve never seen anyone move disabled people to the very front of the line, at all, ever. (And everything he said at the Spacing town hall in November [podcast] was seriously astute.) Why shouldn’t he be mayor?
- 31. Fram, “Situationist Toronto”
Philosophical article on (city-wide) pedestrian spaces and psychogeography
- 32. Taylor, “Between Utopias”
Standard bitching about developers laying waste to small-scale residential streets and Toronto media’s failure to document the little things that make this city real. (“Toronto real estate and ad space.”) Implicitly situates Toronto’s idyll at Queen West and the Cameron House, in case any of us had plans to conceive of our own small-scale residential streets as such
Bonus for weekend revelry
And here’s a little drinking game for those of you who drink (as I expect nearly all Spacers do, given how often they write about their favourite bars, all within walking distance of the Spadina streetcar). Every time somebody mentions Ondaatje or In the Skin of a Lion, order another round at Sneaky Dee’s.
Criticism from within
Spacers, whether working for the magazine or the Committee, are engaging in a discussion of the public realm. That discussion is itself public. There couldn’t be a better example of a discussion that is open to criticism.
And they’re going to have to learn to take criticism, especially from within – from someone who supports their project in general and many of their activities in specific. (I’m the one who requested and published megabytes of megabin data, not them.) They need to get over the idea that the only groups that could possibly critique their work are fundamentally evil, like advertising agencies or foreign-owned multinationals pushing billboards masquerading as garbage cans. They have to get over the idea that everything they do is so thoroughly just and proper that it can’t be criticized. They need to get out of the classic leftist model of mandated agreement on absolutely everything, even issues unrelated to their goal. They need to understand the idea of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – someone who agrees with the fundamental precepts but may dispute the details.
But it isn’t just Spacing...
Of course I’m picking on Spacers. They set themselves up for it. But they aren’t the only malefactors. Take, for example, nobody’s favourite architecture critic, Christopher Hume. His article exploring the many other downtrodden hotels awaiting zeidlerization talked about several in the east end, including the homely Duke of York and Jilly’s, both down the road from me. Then he throws it all away:
Queen Street East, despite being run down and long neglected, is now coming back to life.... Like it or not, the middle classes are turning their spotlight even on this dark and dreary corner of the city.... Now Queen East is on its way to becoming yet another downtown destination. Art galleries have popped up, and condos, bars, restaurants and antique stores are appearing daily. The possibilities are vast. The truth, however, is that Toronto has always preferred to go west.
Friends don’t let friends move into a run-down, neglected, dark and dreary corner of the city. But I guess sometimes they will – like it or not.
...and it isn’t just my neighbourhood
I am not asking the Spacers to cover my neighbourhood specifically. They probably wouldn’t be able to; it’s as foreign to them as Winnipeg is, and seemingly as far away. I just want to ask why so very little east of Yonge St. is ever covered by Spacers.
It isn’t just Leslieville or South Riverdale. It isn’t even Riverdale, whose absence is even more conspicuous. Why do we scarcely ever, or never at all, read anything about Church and Wellesley, Regent Park, Moss Park, St. James Town, the Distillery District, Thorncliffe Park, East York, Cabbagetown (either the “real” one east of Parliament or the area colloquially called that), Rosedale (even “Rosedale Heights,” i.e., Castle Frank), Leaside, Moore Park, Little India (“Gerrard India Bazaar”), Chinatown II, the Studio District, or the Upper Beach, let alone the actual Beach?
What about Toronto’s many curious little interzones – sections of road that are not yet a named neighbourhood but also aren’t merely intersections? Just for starters:
- Dundas east of Broadview (there’s a bike lane of some notoriety; nothing else to say about it?)
- Kingston Road
- Queen East from Greenwood to Coxwell; from Coxwell to Kingston Road/Eastern Ave.; from Kingston Road to Woodbine
- The (actually very gay) high-rises of Riverdale, hiding right there in plain sight. (Not everybody in that neighbourhood is upper middle class and works for the CBC)
Why not a series of articles on the chain of microcosms that is Queen St.? Isn’t that a book right there?
Aren’t these the sort of invisible Torontos that Spacers kind of like? Or do they just love to write about their own little enclaves for an audience of neighbours?
Do Spacers actually believe their own stated purpose – covering “Toronto’s public spaces and urban landscape... any and every issue that concerns life in the city’s public realm”?
If they do, they need to explore the actual public realm of their city. They need to get out more.
Archer, Bert, 2006. “Reality TV.”
Not directly hyperlinked because the blog posting’s detailed description of “seek... out” online videos depicting genuine murder is too disturbing to risk accidental clicking. Know what you’re doing before viewing that page.