Book Review: Stroll by Shawn Micallef

Book Review: Stroll by Shawn Micallef

Stroll by Shawn MicaleffTitle: Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto
Author: Shawn Micallef (illustrations by Marlena Zuber)
Publisher: Coach House Books/Eye Weekly
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

Sometimes walking around your neighbourhood is one of the nicest things there is. Depending on where you are, you can escape from the everyday by going down a choice side street. If you’re feeling a bit more sociable, perhaps, you can just chat with your neighbours.

Occasionally, though, those walks turn into something deeper. You might be with a friend who’s been part of the community for a long time, and knows stories you don’t. You might notice an interesting sign or faded storefront. You might even have had your memory jogged by visiting an archive. It’s those sorts of moments that Stroll focuses on.

Shawn Micallef is one of the Senior Editors of Spacing magazine, a publication devoted to culture and architecture in Canada and Toronto specifically. Stroll was originally a series of columns published by Eye Weekly (which then became The Grid TO, which then unfortunately shut down last week), and is an in-depth look at Toronto’s history and development as seen through its streetscapes.

Each chapter of the book discusses a different neighbourhood or stretch of road in Toronto, from the Beaches to the Rouge to the hydro corridor on Finch, and does so from the perspective of one just walking around. Micallef’s observations are interspersed with those gleaned from long-time residents and historians. Interesting things about the city’s history reveal themselves when seen through the lens of the humble flâneur – ravines and highways are just as important as the now-iconic view of the waterfront. Each chapter also comes with hand-drawn pictures and maps of the locations in question by Marlena Zuber. The back cover also comes attached with a hand-drawn pullout map for more context.

I think part of what makes Micallef such an incisive viewer of the city is that he didn’t grow up here, like I did. He approached Toronto with the sort of exploratory eye that only someone new to a place can bring. It also helps that he came to the city right around the time it was really starting to undergo renewal and/or gentrification, and got to see some of the last glimpses of the past before the condo towers started going up. As someone who has lived in Scarborough my whole life, that’s not the sort of view I’ve had access to. Also, I was away at university during part of this transformation, I think.

That doesn’t mean it’s a light, read, though. I found it difficult to read more than 4 or 5 essays in a row. It actually took me about 2 months of nibbling to get through it all. The stores and architects and important dates become a jumble after a while. Is this the best way to think about history? Perhaps not. But it seems this book is best taken in at a slower pace. Considering that all of the walks are “strolls” rather than “jogs”, perhaps that’s a rather fitting way to look at things.