Shawn Micallef, Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness (2017)

I've just returned from a few weeks in Toronto, a city with which I find myself in a not-quite-expected relationship. It started seven years ago, when a Torontonian listener of my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture suggested I come interview a few notables there. I'd given little thought to Toronto in particular, if some to the Canadian city in general. For the show's previous season I'd gone to Vancouver, a frequent car-trip destination when I was growing up near Seattle. Toronto, by contrast, must have held an appeal as an experiential blank slate, and the listener who recommended it also named several potential guests to get me started. At the top of the list, as I recall, was Shawn Micallef, whose copious writings about Toronto — including books on its architecture and the psychogeographical walks to be taken amid it — made him seem like an ideal interviewee.

To the surprise of Micallef and the city's other local observers, Toronto had lately become an object of attention from the international news media. This owed to the antics (as they were by then almost reflexively called) of mayor Rob Ford, who cut a distinctive figure in the buttoned-up realm of Canadian municipal politics. A vulgarian Falstaff given to illegal drug use and what he himself called "drunken stupors," this scion of a label-manufacturing dynasty had positioned himself as the fearless leader of a forgotten Toronto. Far from downtown, showcase of the city's participation in the 21st-century urban revival, this constituency projected the image of exurban striving, for economic if not cultural capital. "Ford Nation was utterly familiar to me," writes Micallef, "a life where a Reader’s Digest sat by the toilet; where people cut their white wine with 7UP, and where wood-paneled basements were standard."

Those words come from Micallef's Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness, which came out a couple of years too late for us to talk about in our interview. Instead we discussed his then-latest book The Trouble with Brunch: Work, Class, and the Pursuit of Leisure, a treatise inspired by life in not just Toronto but his hometown of Windsor as well. A kind of mini-Detroit across the river from the big one, Windsor when Micallef was growing up there in the 1980s afforded its native sons and daughters (as well as no few immigrants) plentiful employment in auto manufacturing and other industrial sectors. Even into the 1990s, one only with difficulty turned down the "good money" available on the factory floor. But Micallef himself ultimately did just that, trading the prospect of decent working-class financial comfort in the small city for cosmopolitan middle-class precariousness in the big one.

Micallef is in this sense an immigrant to Toronto, granted a degree of outsider status by having come of age elsewhere. One desires this in an observer of place, conspicuously few astute examples of whom were born and raised in the places they observe. But Micallef is less of an immigrant than his Nova Scotian mother, let alone his Maltese father, and he barely ranks by the standards of modern Toronto, a city that has fashioned its abundance of quasi-assimilated foreigners into a brand. "Multiculturalism!" wrote Hong Kong author Jan Morris after a 1984 visit. "I had never heard the word before, but I was certain to hear it again, for it turned out to be the key word, so to speak, to contemporary Toronto. As ooh-la-la is to Paris, and ciao to Rome, and nyet to Moscow, and hey you’re looking great to Manhattan, so multiculturalism is to Toronto."

Thirty years after that essay's publication, I quoted from it in a Guardian piece I wrote after my own first trip to Toronto. Its editor was a Torontonian himself, albeit one who had left for London, and he possessed strong ideas about the state of the hometown he'd left. Ford had just dropped out of the imminent 2014 mayoral election after being diagnosed with the cancer that would later kill him. Absent the figurehead of Ford Nation, the presumptive victor was the Toronto-born John Tory, whose Canadian roots run back to the eighteenth century. An independent small-C conservative like Ford, Tory came off as in most other respects a staid establishment figure. His probable (and in the event, actual) ascent to the mayoralty, my editor argued, constituted a prompt for a "wither Toronto" piece: didn't it suggest that the city's vaunted multiculturalism had run aground?

I wasn't displeased with the piece that resulted, cringe though I still do at the headline "Old White Guy for Mayor." But part of me suspected that I hadn't closed the book on Toronto, and perhaps had only just begun to read it. My next trip there wouldn't come for a few years, but I would make it with a more personal connection, having in the meantime got together in Seoul with a girl who'd graduated from the University of Toronto (professional home of Concrete Reveries author Mark Kingwell). Some of her family remained in Toronto, having emigrated from Korea to Canada in the early 2000s, and staying with them every year or so has given me a perspective on versions of the city that, once entirely peripheral, have become in some ways central. One is the Toronto of what official jargon calls the "new Canadian"; another is "edge Toronto" and beyond.

My girlfriend's family live in a suburb about twenty miles out of downtown. But as I've discovered, the geographical terminology changes at that distance: there "downtown" no longer refers just to the area south of Bloor Street, the city's most prominent east-west thoroughfare, but to everything within Toronto city limits. And as I first learned from Micallef's writing, those city limits expanded dramatically in 1997, when the political entity of Toronto absorbed the municipalities of York, East York, North York (a kind of satellite Koreatown), Scarborough, and Etobicoke. I'd be lying if I said I fully understood the reasons for this amalgamation, though it seems to have been unpopular at the time and even today remains a matter of contention, if unquestionably a fait accompli. It is the resulting "megacity" of Toronto into which Micallef arrived in 2000, and which he explores sixteen years on in Frontier City.

Rob Ford was dead by the time of Frontier City's publication, but his bloated shadow hangs over the book. "How did Rob Ford arrive at the top of Toronto? What was happening in the city? What did Rob Ford mean?" Micallef asks in its introduction. "Somebody like Rob Ford could become mayor again, and the cause, the thing to blame, is the city itself, not any one kind of person or particular political ideology." I take this to refer in large part to Toronto's incoherence, a characteristic I don't wholly consider a liability. Los Angeles, where I lived while making Notebook on Cities and Culture, may be even more incoherent, and few cities have fascinated me so intensely. I've actually come to consider Los Angeles and Toronto equivalents in many respects, and if their shared incoherence has common causes, those must include population diversity and sheer size.

"Anybody wanting to govern this city has to contend with its Los Angeles scale, as a distributed city with relatively high density in nodes downtown and elsewhere, separated by vast territories of relatively lower density," writes Micallef. "The Toronto-Los Angeles comparison is one that keen observers are beginning to use rather than Toronto’s traditional counterpoints like New York or Chicago, which are, perhaps, the cities some people wish Toronto could be, rather than the one it is." The incompatibility between the visions of not just Toronto's potential but its actuality constitutes one of Frontier City's major themes. Nowhere is this more comically evident than in what Micallef calls the city's "village fetish," exhibited by its many neighborhoods that — even with skyscrapers, subway lines, and all-night amenities — insist on regarding themselves as hamlets, which in a city like Toronto amounts to "a denial of its very urbanity."

This may be the manifestation of a wider North American, or perhaps Anglo-American, syndrome. In its built environment and lifestyle, the small town is outwardly preferred to everywhere else; thus one pretends to be living in a small town even in the heart of a world capital. In Toronto and Los Angeles alike, this results in curious juxtapositions of development and infrastructure: detached houses standing behind their lawns mere blocks from a subway station, for example, or transit lines prevented from drawing anywhere near neighborhoods of higher population density. Here we have the result of decisions made in local politics, an arena dominated by the preferences of the almighty homeowner. In Frontier City, the inveterate urban walker (and Toronto Star city columnist) Micallef assesses such phenomena in relatively obscure corners of Toronto, alongside a series of political hopefuls intent on servicing the interests of other constituencies.

Ten of Micallef's strolling partners are running for city council, and two for the school board. Several are young, and many are full-fledged immigrants from countries like Chile, Sri Lanka, and Somalia. (None are Koreans, an immigrant group notorious in the West for a resistance to direct participation in politics.) Micallef asked each of them to walk him through "their" Toronto, which strikes me as a promising method of getting to know any city better. Even after four visits, during each of which I've made time to stay in and explore different neighborhoods of the city proper, I wasn't familiar with most of these Torontos, whose features include high-rise "social housing," ravines filled each week with family picnics, and strip malls aplenty. "It’s like a microcosm of Toronto," says once school-board candidate of an example of that last. "The Vietnamese restaurant has award-winning dishes. There’s Greek, Chinese, Mexican."

For Micallef, these strip malls illustrate a larger point about 21st-century Toronto. In their far-flung and unprepossessing sections of the city — located though they are within the suburban conception of "downtown" nonetheless — they offer "butcher shops, travel agents, music schools, pharmacies, Irish pubs, British pubs, Caribbean pubs, Sri Lankan restaurants, bakeries, wool shops, barbers, and some places that defy categorization." Here and beyond now lies the essence for which Toronto continues to celebrate itself: "the city trades on a reputation these strip malls and surrounding areas gives it bragging rights to. We’re proud of being one of the most multicultural places on earth, but that multiculturalism happens more in the inner suburbs than it does downtown." And just as the strip malls of what's called the "greater Toronto area" harbor a surprising diversity, so, Micallef finds, does Ford Nation.

"Those who attend Ford events know they can be more multicultural than other events in the city, like hockey games, book readings or art openings," he writes. In effect, the "Camelot in oversized T-shirts" that was the Ford family "brought out a side of Toronto that’s been hidden in the background and often only celebrated on paper or in the city’s motto, Diversity Our Strength." One may wonder what recent immigrants from distant lands could have in common with the more visible members of Ford Nation, who in extremely-online-left parlance would be described as "dealership chuds." Some of it, I suspect, has to do with a shared attitude toward the making of money, and the enjoyment of comforts straightforwardly acquirable with that money. Seeking out just the right on-trend faux-industrial aesthetic amid which stand in line for eggs Benedict and mimosas on a Sunday holds little appeal for either group.

Blinkered though they certainly are in their own ways, it is the brunchers who have an active interest in the city beyond their own literal or metaphorical front yards. They have more of one, at any rate, than those occupied with establishing themselves in an unfamiliar society or running label factories, and thus more likely to regard Toronto as an entity in a disengaged, utilitarian manner. Something like that attitude is indulged by the incumbents whom Micallef's interlocutors attempt to unseat, on the whole unsuccessfully. Given to intransigent and in some cases bizarre (if sub-Fordian) behavior, these seemingly entrenched municipal officials default to stoking tax rage, casting as prohibitive the cost of all but the most basic improvements to the public realm. "It’s almost as if the only thing people will easily spend exorbitant amounts of money on in Toronto are houses," writes Micallef. "Those who can, that is."

As a whole, the megacity of Toronto persists in a state of contradiction, perpetually expressing both desire for greater urbanity and a stubborn unwillingness to pay for it. "It is an odd thing to be a Torontonian," Micallef laments. "We are always longing for the city we don’t allow ourselves to have." Much the same holds true about being an Angeleno, Los Angeles also having long "struggled with being a 'world-class' city" that lacks the wherewithal to make the changes required to maintain that status — or at least to make them in a timely fashion. Though the southern Californian metropolis has committed blunders aplenty in the 21st century, it has, at least, continued the severely belated construction of its rapid-transit system. Toronto's subway-and-streetcar network suffers from the opposite problem of having slowed its expansion far too soon, but recent years have seen reasonably promising new construction.

"In 2021, the behind-schedule LRT will have opened on Eglinton," writes Micallef. "The changes it brings could bring new tracks politically too." With 2021 nearly at an end, this Eglinton Crosstown light rail line has yet to receive so much as a tentative opening date. It would've come in handy during an earlier Toronto trip, when I stayed for a week or two near one of its stations' construction sites. Still, that neighborhood offered its own pleasures, none more Torontonian than a makeshift-looking Jamaican place serving jerk chicken and curried goat until 4:00 a.m. It survived the pandemic, I'm pleased to see, and I hope it survives whatever changes the new transit hub eventually galvanizes. Micallef is sensitive to the undesirable consequences of urban infrastructure, but even more to its necessity. For the challenge facing any megacity, especially one of Toronto's deceptively stimulating incoherence, is essentially Forsterian in nature: only connect.


Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His current projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.