When SPUR Came to Town

What Toronto outsiders taught an insider about his own city

Urbanist Article August 1, 2008

When the SPUR city trip rolls into town, the San Franciscans who participate get a crash course on everything they ever wanted to know about a particular city, and then some. It’s sort of like compressing a semester’s worth of learning — and some of the extracurricular socializing that comes with it — into four days. Seeing a new city from the perspectives of both a tourist and an insider, with the aid of a local guide, is an urbanist’s dream. However, that local guide might get as much out of it as do the trippers.

When I was asked if I could, and wanted to be, the local contact person on the Toronto trip, it sounded like a good fit. A large chunk of what I do — writing, making a city-centric magazine and various art projects — involves the City of Toronto somehow. Hooking up SPUR with the people in charge, from the mayor on down, seemed easy enough. Toronto’s city hall is a fairly accessible place and our various projects here generally have not run up against any notable political or bureaucratic walls in the past, so we managed to book the folks we needed to book with relative ease. I’m used to hearing quite a few of the politicians and top bureaucrats speak, but it’s usually around an issue or a particular project. Most amazing about tagging along with SPUR on this trip was getting to see these folks give “the whole story” of their slice of Toronto. It is one of those things we might assume we know, but have never actually heard it articulated wholly. It’s useful to have occasion to back up sometimes and revisit the city from the top down, rather than just at the usual granular level. For instance, we are generally supportive of our current mayor, David Miller, and think that he’s good for the city, but I hadn't realized how personable an ambassador he is for Toronto. So too were some of the councilors and civil servants we met. It’s a side we as Torontonians don’t get to see. None of this kind of activity will get votes or address a constituent’s specific grievance, but this unsung work goes on all the time, just outside of our view. Of course, there were some people SPUR met who presented the straight party line for whatever agency they represented, or perhaps weren’t as frank as others were and gave a rather Pollyannaish view of Toronto. There were times I wanted to speak up and push them off message a bit, or at least audibly groan in that particularly Canadian passive-aggressive way, but did not. However, as SPUR met folks outside of government and in the media, those speakers presented alternative views that contradicted the official versions. In my mind, the trip became a journey through the editorial and op-ed page of some imaginary Toronto journal, and it was up to SPUR members themselves to sort through all the information and opinions to decide who was on the right track.

Apart from policy and politics, experiencing the streets and sidewalks of Toronto with SPUR was by far the most valuable part of the trip. As a writer — and Toronto is often what I write about — I try very hard to imagine I’m seeing the city for the first time, pushing out whatever I know about that street, forgetting personal memories and bits I’ve previously researched about various locations, in order to look at the city through new eyes. It’s a nearly impossible task, and likely could never replicate the dream-like feeling that walking around a city for the first few hours affords, but overhearing the SPUR chatter came as close as I have ever come to capturing this feeling in Toronto. I started taking a second look at things I hadn’t noticed since I first moved here, like where fire hydrants are located, how street signs are placed and the way restaurants operate. I realized that we in Toronto take for granted a lot of things, such as how continuous our active and crowded streetscapes are, even late into the night, and that residential neighborhoods lie just off the main streets, and that there might be a condo tower or two thrown into the mix.

From a wider perspective, I also started to appreciate some of the new landmark buildings we have here. Torontonians are notorious for having an inferiority complex, thinking good stuff only gets built elsewhere. It could be a result of Toronto being, for so many years, simply a provincial colonial town, a sort of dumpy field office for London. Perhaps more recently this complex is connected with the Canadian relationship to the United States (a traditional, but friendly, Davidand- Goliath tale). I overheard surprise and awe that buildings such as the Royal Ontario Museum “crystal” by Daniel Liebskind brought a heritage building and contemporary architecture together in such an audacious way, or that Will Alsop’s Ontario College of Art and Design building — sitting on colorful stilts high above the city streets — was allowed to happen at all, and as quickly as it did. We tend to think we are mired in regulation here, but perhaps Toronto is freer than we think. As far as showing SPUR members around the city, I thought about how to show off the city. My first concern was the journey to the city center from the airport. Toronto is not a particularly beautiful city, certainly not at first glance, but the city seen on the ride to and from the airport is truly an aesthetically horrendous experience — though it’s rare for any city to have a nice ride to the airport. In drawing up a “where to go, where to eat” document, I began to think about directions of travel, and I had an urge to micromanage walks so that places such as Dundas Square or City Hall were approached from exactly the right angle, so as to experience exactly the right kind of Toronto moment. I also made efforts (and maybe by doing so I revealed a bit of that inferiority complex) to link Toronto locations with those in San Francisco: “This place is like Alamo Square,” or, “It’s kind of like North Beach.” A lot of that was unnecessary. By virtue of being members in an organization such as SPUR, the Toronto trippers were an inherently curious bunch and discovered more of Toronto’s good and bad on their own than I ever could have shown them.

One area that SPUR folks observed and commented on, in the most polite way, got to the heart of the Torontonian — and Canadian — identity: our multiculturalism. Whether it manifests itself as much as we think it does, it’s a fundamental and mainstream belief that we are diverse city and nation state. Toronto’s motto is, in fact, “Diversity is our strength.” Because we are too close to the matter, or perhaps too polite, we need outsiders to point out when the reality is not meeting our ideal vision of who we are. Why is it that in a city where more than half of all residents are newcomers, the City Council still looks rather white? Is our great and mythic multiculturalism celebrated by most people only because it simply means a greater variety of restaurants to choose from on a Saturday night? These are questions we are only beginning to address, and the sharp-eyed SPUR members reminded me that we should address them more often.

About the Authors: 

Shawn Micallef is a writer living in Toronto. He is also associate editor at Spacing Magazine (spacing.ca), a publication about all things public space, and co-founder of [murmur], the location-based mobile phone documentary project (murmurtoronto.ca).

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