An Editor Reviews: Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2016-05-04


How do you look at a city? What do you see when you walk down its alleys, across its streets, and through its neighbourhoods? When I look out my office window at the skyscrapers and the CN Tower, I see walls of concrete and shiny sheets of glass, but Toronto wasn't always this way.


How did the city come to be?

Toronto the Overwhelming

I live in the GTA, not exactly a metropolis. As a kid, Toronto seemed larger than life, a confusing mass of twisting streets, shadowy back alleys, glistening storefronts, and millions of people, weaving in and around each other so fast they seemed to all blur together. Now that I work in Toronto, it’s…well, it’s still kind of confusing! I’m familiar with discrete neighbourhoods, but the larger picture is still just that same mass of twisting streets. I’ve always had the feeling that Toronto is so much more than just a city, that it has hidden pockets and threads of history running throughout it, but seeking them out…how do you know where to start?

Strolling 101

For Christmas, a good friend of mine gave me a book (she knows me so well)—Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto, by Shawn Micallef (Coach House). Coincidentally, TEC sponsored Shawn Micallef when he participated in Word On The Street 2014, reading from his book The Trouble With Brunch (read our review here). My friend didn’t know that at the time, but she bought it with the idea that now that she and I both work in the city, it might be nice to try to get to know it a little more intimately. If that’s something that appeals to you too, this book is a great place to start.


Stroll centres on the idea of the flâneur (basically, someone who wanders and watches a city), and examines the effects of place on human emotions and behaviour. Micallef explains that the best way to become acquainted with a city is to walk it, and walk it he does. The book is essentially a collection of essays, but essays that follow Micallef as he walks up Yonge Street, along the western waterfront, through the downtown core, or even inside buildings, like the Metro Central YMCA and the Toronto Reference Library.  The book’s photos help to illuminate stories of Toronto’s past and present, and Marlena Zubers charming hand-drawn maps plot the buildings Micallef discusses specifically in an easy-to-read way.

Hidden Gems and Little-Known Facts

All in all, there are 32 walks (complete with tips on what to bring, what to wear, etc.) that snake around and through the city, from Pearson Airport to Rouge Park, and each is like taking a walk with a guide who knows all the best historical tidbits about Toronto and the hidden gems you might not know about.


For example, I learned that at Earl Bales Park in the west Don Valley is home to the North York Ski Centre, complete with chairlift and rope tow. I also discovered that the reason Spadina is so wide is because in 1818, William Baldwin cleared a long and wide tract of land from the lake to his “Spadina House.” This cleared tract gave him a clear view to the lake…down his extra-long driveway, aka the Spadina we know today (Baldwin's house is still there, on the east side of the street at the top of the Baldwin Steps at Spadina and Davenport).


My last favourite tidbit is, of course, of a literary nature. While reading about the Bathurst walk, Micallef points out 1599 Bathurst, the building where Ernest Hemingway lived briefly in the early 1920s while writing for the Toronto Star. Apparently, Hemingway’s mentor, Ezra Pound, was no fan of Toronto, and addressed all his letters during Hemingway’s Canadian stay to “Tomato, Can.” Hemingway himself liked Toronto (or, at least, Torontonians), penning this verse:


I like Canadians: They let women stand up in the street cars/ Even if they are good-looking. They are all in a hurry to get home to supper/ And their radio sets.

We Should All Be Flâneurs

While I am often in a hurry after the workday is done (though usually to catch the train, not for supper), maybe it’s a good idea to slow down every once in a while and walk (TEC to Union isn’t even that far, Micallef walked back to downtown Toronto all the way from Pearson Airport). It’s always fun to discover new-to-you parts of any city, and ours has so many nooks and crannies, it could take forever to find them all. Toronto is in flux, and constantly changing. If we don’t take the opportunity to see the city as it is, as well as the left-behind and occasionally forgotten bits and pieces of Toronto’s rich history, the next condo that goes up might take the choice out of our hands altogether.


Buy Stroll, by Shawn Micallef, here!


And for more fun Toronto facts, check out Chris’s blog on Toronto's odd pronunciations of streets and places.