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youryongestreet — the crowd sourced archive begins to fill up

December 3, 2013 | Shawn Micallef | Comments (1)

The Toronto Library's youryongestreet project has been up and running for just over two months now and stories and other items are beginning to fill up the empty expanses along the map. As I wrote in the Toronto Star in October of Yonge:

It’s quintessentially Toronto and representative of nearly every architectural style, shape, and size that make up this city, from shiny skyscraper to the one or two-storey “messy urbanism” that characterizes so many of our streets.

It’s also one of the few streets in Toronto that runs from downtown to the city limits, then deep into the 905 and beyond. It’s everybody’s street; a unifying symbol in a city artificially divided by politics.

The Toronto Public Library recently launched youryongestreet, a participatory online exhibit of people, places, and events where anyone can upload their stories, documents, maps, pictures and videos connected to Yonge St.

I've excerpted a bits of the opening chapter of my book Stroll: Psychogeogrphic Walking Tours of Toronto along the map. My long Yonge Street stroll, from bottom to top, is what I consider my  most important chapter for the above mentioned reasons. Most Torontonians' lives have touched the street in some way. Add what you did, or what you saw, because if you don't no one else will know.

Toronto Idea Jam — 300 people share their ideas for a better city

November 29, 2013 | Shawn Micallef | Comments (1)


On Monday the Toronto Reference Library hosted 300 engaged Torontonians for an Idea Jam. To get the brainstorming going there were three short presentations first. The City of Toronto's chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, presented the Avenues Plan; Artscape's Seema Jethalal discussed how to use the arts to access, engage, and empower Toronto's diversve population; and I proposed limiting developers ability to assemble parcels of land together so, perhaps, new condo footprints might be smaller.

Then there was a brainstorming session among the 300 attendees, and below are the ideas that were collected that night; an open source well of thoughts about Toronto that may inspire further action.


•create positive loitering spaces for people to hang out in—indoor/outdoor space, e.g. a public space  that is open late with chairs and tables, musicians, following a European model

•use things like bike paths to draw people in from different neighborhoods and communities

•use public services to bridge income gaps—i.e. the public library, community centers, etc.—or leverage  existing spaces

•encourage more community involvement in downtown area via community groups, etc.

•more affordable housing

•GO Transit should have all-day service

•take Adelaide back as a transit corridor

•examine and be aware of the way technological progress may be negatively impacting our environment

•send Porter to Pearson to protect the waterfront

•revamp the ferry to the Toronto Islands to make it more of an experience and tourist attraction, to  make the most of a unique Toronto experience

•more public art

•keep employment opportunities where the condos are

•no more condos

•keep the density mid-rise—e.g. London, Paris, Europe

•more livable communities—live/work—with amenities close by

•preserve our heritage buildings

•walkability—less intimidating streetscapes

•more green space

•family cab license—new taxi class based on owner and his/her family operating a family livery business  to create an avenue of entry to middle class while improving congestion/pollution

•we support midrise buildings but we also want to have the costs per condo unit controlled at an  affordable price for average families who have an income of less than $80,000

•help motorists respect cyclists and vice versa—side streets designated as bike routes, similar to Vancouver

•reduce pollution exposure to cyclists using bike paths

•legislation to put planning first—if developers can’t or won’t comply, they won’t get a permit

•save the waterfront from pollution from expansion from the island airport

•improve streetscapes—create more livable communities with amenities close by

•implement rent control for commercial spaces

•new developments (condos) should have 20% dedicated to affordable and special needs units

•give developers incentive to sell/rent/secure retail spaces so that communities are created along with  condos

•retail size control to keep rents down and so that entrepreneurs can flourish

•activities/initiatives that tie suburbs to downtown

•homeless hotel

•we need to have a vision session and ask public what is it we like in our city, want in our city, need in  our city—then start brainstorming the ideas. Ideas are great but without buy in from all of Toronto, you  won’t have the city vision needed.

•stop the tax funding disconnect between urban and suburban voters, we propose tax free municipal  bonds and TTC

•all new buildings, if they have a flat roof, must have a garden—if roof is slanted, solar panels must be  installed

•TTC builds subway lines to remote places in Toronto—they have the real estate rights for 150 m  surrounding any station—and the TTC therefore becomes self-sustaining

•upgrade all buried telephone cable to fiber optic

•make city councilors potentially financially liable when they cancel/backtrack on a decision (e.g.  cancelled LRT)

•buses on Bloor Street as well as subways to relieve crowding on the subway (and buses are easier for  elders and disabled people)

•integrated, comprehensive transit system including rail, GO Transit, subway, buses, light rail, streetcars, boats, etc., across GTA

•we need municipal leadership and governance model that builds bridges (between suburbs &  downtown, etc.)

•build more dynamic market squares

•mid-rise idea is good, but vulnerable to OMB—get rid of OMB and replace with a more amenable  citizen design council

•as a way of making the GTA more efficient, let’s have all mass transit operated, funded, and managed  by one agency

•we need a more senior friendly city that welcomes seniors (as well as youth) to participate in city life

•we need a legislative review (provincial/municipal) of the governance of the city (the Ford fiasco has  demonstrated this)

•the City of Toronto should withdraw from the OMB

•a series of interconnected car free zones/pedestrian plazas kit together by a walking corridor across the city to unite us all

•more pedestrian streets

•narrow the roadways in Toronto

•mid-rise buildings would allow for ground level engagement

•warmer street lights and exterior building lights

•more color in exterior architecture

•less “red tape” at City Hall—i.e. with food trucks

•remove barriers to good planning—e.g. empty store subsidy

•protect our schools as public spaces we pay for

•place avenues in NW and NE corners of the city

•engage youth and artists to create streetscapes in neighborhoods and in all neighborhood design

•shadow city council

•higher density in the suburbs

•plan for people, not just buildings

•neighborhood businesses—places to eat and drink that are not chain restaurants or in strip malls

•prioritize ugly neighborhoods and do something about them—trees, streetscapes, etc.

•more landscaping for suburban trees as well as trees downtown

•create small “plaza” areas at or near major intersections with places to sit, small cafes, chessboards, to invite people to walk their neighborhoods and interact with their neighbors

•close off retail areas along major streets for the summer as pedestrian malls (e.g. Yonge Street from  Bloor to Queen)

•how can we rid ourselves of the OMB?—no matter what communities want or need, the developers go  to the OMB and they get everything they want—eliminate the OMB and allow city planners to have the  final say

•implement rent control for small retail shops in new developments

•facilitate outdoor culture, give citizens opportunities to know and engage with each other

•focus on improving transportation throughout the city

•change “taxpayer” references to “citizen” references

•teach children Urban Studies and Civic Engagement in school

•develop formula for allocating green space throughout the city

•make a beautiful city

•open design competitions with a focus on 3D zoning:

•green industrial

•urban agriculture

•community design

•public rooftops

•design for density

•since we are a city of high-rise density, we need to plan for more emphasis on public parks—more  parks, larger parks—to build communities from the inside out

•“an artist at every table”—Toronto can be the best city for the world if artists are invited to every decision-making table

•expand the Express Bus system all around the city, but not necessarily at double the fee (although I  don’t mind paying extra)

•beautify Avenue Road—it could be this city’s Champs Elysees

•all buildings with a flat roof should have a rooftop garden

•pay attention to the suburbs, like Scarborough, which were built with car culture in mind—it takes a  brave new approach to address the scourge of strip malls and inadequate transit

•start a Pan Toronto Interest Group—identify leaders and influencers from city core and the suburbs to  come together to engage members in their communities with those from other communities. We don’t  understand each other—understanding is key because we’re in this together.

•a youth council committee is a good idea, but what about a citizens’ council? I am a 30+ year old  working, rent•paying, citizen with no desire to be in politics but I would love to participate in something like this Idea Jam every month.

•bridge gap between suburbanites, downtown dwellers, and newcomers—create trust

•build a Junction gateway to Toronto—Bloor/Dundas West mobility hub

•encourage participation in resident associations

•create youth oriented local organization to integrate services including schools, recreation, libraries,  businesses, etc.

•recall the mantra “Toronto the Good” and collectively renew the civility of our city: care for our neighbors, extend courtesy to our fellow citizens (end road rage and encourage cyclists to observe rules of the road), encourage people to be informed and to vote.

•what happened to the idea of the canopy over the Gardiner that was going to be a walkway and park?

•elevated bicycle expressways

•toll the Gardiner

•elevated bicycle expressways

•make King and Queen streets one way opposite each other

•stop building high•rise condos near Yonge and Bloor

•create relief line that bypasses Yonge/Bloor subway station

•toll the expressways into Toronto—congestion tax for drivers

•mandate ward councilors to convene regularly scheduled weekly ward open forums to open dialogue  and confer with their diverse communities

•limit the power of the OMB

•a lot of the fountains in the city are not working—let’s fix them

•make building materials for condos higher quality, more colorful

•size of condo interiors is too small for most families

Writing the City — Passing through the passages of Yorkville

November 20, 2013 | Shawn Micallef | Comments (0)


Last week our final stroll this fall left from reference library mothership in Yorkville. A night walk through the sparkling city, the idea was to see the mix in Yorkville and pass through some of its passageways. Like the wanderer can famously do in Paris or Edinburgh, we can pass through Yorkville not just on the streets, but through passageways (like Edinburgh's "closes") and indoor retail corridors (like Paris's arcades). Despite the rapid growth in the neighbourhood, there's still much small scale, though there is some development pressure are particularly special parts of the areas. (Yorkville will be part of the Big Idea I'm going to present at next Monday's Idea Jam at the reference library come check it out).

Here's the route we took on this walk.

Our large group stopped at the now-disused presentation centre for the Four Season's hotel across the street. Such massive, solid buildings for temporary use. Somebody in the group said they would make good cottages.


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We checked out some of the public spaces created by recent development. Here's the courtyard at 18 Yorkville, designed by Toronto landscape architect Janet Rosenberg.

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Just down the street all 50 of us wandered through the new "rose" pathway pattern created by Montreal landscape architect Claude Cormier in the new Four Seasons courtyard. The "steam" wall wasn't on though — that's the wall you see in the back of the above picture. It produces a misty steam at regular intervals when working.

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Bright lights and some of the preserved Old Yorkville homes on Hazelton Avenue.

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We slipped through the series of outdoor courtyards and passageways that run alongside the Hazelton Lanes mall and condos — the old Victorian houses were preserved and partially incorporated into the 1970s structure, a very typical Toronto blend of old and new. If we weren't such a large group, we'd have passed through the Lanes indoors, but security might panic and think one of the notorious Library Gangs of Yorkville was invading.

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We all crowded into one of my favorite places in Toronto, York Square, built in 1968.  Not just an early post-hippy Yorkville development, it is one of Toronto's earliest adaptive reuse projects of this era that saw the Avenue Road Victorians connected to modern buildings designed by architects Jack Diamond and Barton Myers. Here we are in its courtyard, though soon it may be filled in as a condo proposal for this site has been made. Modern heritage is at the most risk of being cast aside right now during its awkward teenage years (at around 40 or 50 yrs old for buildigns).



We stopped at the Yorkville Park's Canadian Shield rock to look at the park itself, built over the subway, and Cumberland Street that does "up and down" fairly well, something that often doesn't work in Toronto as people here tend to like commercial spaces on the same level as the sidewalk.

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We ended in Cumberland Terrace, the mall across the street from the reference library. It's a block-long passage, and a bit of a museum of 1970s mall design, but it too is slated for redevelopment so check it out while you can, especially the cone of silence above and post-psychedelic tile work.

Photos in this post by Laura Headley and Phyllis Jacklin.

Walking the City: through the Ben Jungle and beyond

November 12, 2013 | Shawn Micallef | Comments (0)

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Tomorrow (Wed Nov 12th) is the last of our Toronto walks. We went from bare-ankle walking to winter coats. The seasons move fast. Meet us at the reference library front entrance at 7PM for a meander through Yorkville's passageways.

Two weeks ago we began a Saturday afternoon Scarborough walk at the Bendale branch of TPL. It's there at the bottom of the above map, in the wedge of land created where Danforth and McCowan Roads converge. Danforth Road weaves its way across the city until it meets up with the other Danforth (Avenue) as if it's the Broadway of Scarborough, crossing the grid of arterials at its own angle. Our general route was around Thomson Park, which some detours, as you can see.


We briefly toured "The Hub," the strip mall just south of Lawrence on McCowan. It has a genuine barber's pole.


Our walk covered nearly 5 kilometers of varied territory. After the commercial diversion, we head down into the Highland Creek ravine, passing by some of Scarborough's great modernist housing. The Brady bunch could live here.


The creek and path lead south by southeast from Thomson Park, slipping under the roadways making the Scarborough landscape of large roads and traffic seem far away. You can follow this path all the way to the mouth of the creek, meandering across Scarborough, below UTSC, except for the part of the creek that flows through Scarborough Golf and Country Club, where surface streets are required. All over Toronto golf courses block ravine path connectivity. We headed northwest though.


Like on our previous Etobicoke Creek walk, storm water has carved away some of the pathway. This area had been fenced off, so not recent. Water was running fast the day we were out after a morning of heavy rain. Here we're heading north — that's Lawrence in the background.


Under the Lawrence bridge.


We then popped up into the "Ben Jungle," where a dozen or so streets are named Ben-something.


Crossing over we wandered along St. Andrews Road, one of my favourite places in Toronto. For about half a kilometer it's a one-lane, country road.

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Some of Scarborough's oldest buildings are on this road.

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It was appropirate we came upon Scarborough's first public library along St. Andrews road, next door to St. Andrews Church, by the St. Andrews cemetary where some of the Scarborough's first european settlers are buried.

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Cutting through the middle of Thomson Park we stopped by the Scarborough Historical Museum, a collection of historic buildings moved to this site from around Scarobourgh. We were invited in for some warm apple cider and bread baked in their wood burning stove.

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Back towards the library we crossed the Gatineau hydro corridor. It runs diagonal across Scarborough and often has bike highways, though they aren't yet continuous. It does provide some vistas and open country though that, along with the creek ravines, are alternative routes through Scarborough.

The Great Toronto Peanut Walk

October 23, 2013 | Shawn Micallef | Comments (0)

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Last week as part of our Writer in Residence Toronto walks a nice group met up at the Fairview branch for a walk around the Toronto Peanut (come along on our next walk this Saturday starting at the Bendale branch). Few cities have their own peanut, and ours is quite big, but perhaps not what you think if you're unfamilair with North York.


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Our peanut was formed when Don Mills road was split, not unlike how University Avenue turns into Queens Park. Instead of a legislature inside there's a few schools, community centre, a church, and the Peanut Plaza. It's as modern an environment as Toronto gets, and from the era where it was thought it was best to separated uses in the city, with residential, institutional, and commercial all grouped in separate places. It all makes for a sometimes strange walk, as you can see from the picture above where we came to the very bottom of the peanut on a sliver of concerete in the middle of Don Mills Road.

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The peanut is made for cars, but as with so many car-oriented Toronto neighbourhoods, many people traverse it on foot. Here we are rounding one of the bottom edges of the peanut. There are only 4 places to cross with traffic lights around its circumference. With such a great size, we saw lots of mid-block crossings. While not illegal to so so safely under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act (it isn't, in fact, "jay walking") the speed of the cars, road-width, and curves make it difficult.



The peanut has a ring of apartment buildings around it with single family homes behind.

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At the top of the peanut is the Peanut Plaza, an indoor-outdoor commercial area very different from Fairview Mall a kilometre south of here. Instead of chain stores, the plaza has many independent retailers and services who likely could never afford the rents at Fairview. As one of the people on our walk said, "you can buy the stuff you need at the plaza". (Picture taken a few days before on a daytime trip).

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The plaza even houses nearby Seneca College's student pub. Those sure are cheap pitchers. They've carved out a cute little patio in the parking lot.

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Some nice mid-century design elements remain inside the plaza.

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A large Tone Tai supermarket moved in to the old IGA space. Stripmalls and places like the Peanut Plaza tend to reflect the surrounding population more than the big regional malls do (if they do at all). Another man on our walk said he's being going to the barbershop down the hall for 30 years, still owned by a now-80-something Italian man who has a few new apprentices helping out.


Most unexpectedly we visited a community garden next to the church at the bottom of the peanut. We would not have noticed it had a woman on our walk not pointed it out, due to both darkness and a landscape that, even when walking, is seen with a fast moving eye as the space is vast, as if speeding along in a car.




Photos by Cynthia Fisher & Shawn Micalllef

Thorncliffe Park in the dark

October 16, 2013 | Shawn Micallef | Comments (0)


We had a fine warm night for last week's walk in Thorncliffe Park. Night walks are great to see another side of the city and walking in a group gives people who might not be completely comfortable walking at night some liberty. There is  another tonight (Oct 16) around The Peanut begining at the Fairview branch of the TPL. The downside is pictures are harder to come by at night. Above is the old Coca Cola headquarters, a modernist gem whose future is uncertain, but it's one that might include a CostCo store.

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We began at the Thorncliffe library branch. Recently renovated (as many branches have been) here Islamic-inspired carpets were put in to reflect the surrounding population. When Thorncliffe was designed in the 1950s on the site of the Thorncliffe Park Raceway horse track it was expected to house around 15,000 people but now double that live here. One of Toronto's densest apartment neighbourhoods, that figure makes looking up at the lights different, knowing there are more people than average in all those apartments. There's always people on the street in Thorncliffe as a result. The buses are packed bringing people into and out of the neighbourhood.

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The mall at centre of Thorncliffe is the commercial heart of the neighbourhood, but, being a mall, it's still a private space, so the public spaces are incredibly valuable here. Enter Sabina Ali, chair of the Thorncliffe Park Women's Committee. She met our group to tell us about some of the work she's doing in the area, like the brand new tandoor oven (in a metal box behind her in the picture above) that was inspired by Dufferin Grove Park's pizza oven. It's at the centre of a whole lot of cultural and economic activity in and around the park.

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In the park Sabina and her collegues organize markets throughout the warmer months where people who make things in their apartments can sell them. In traditional economic & immigration models, somebody who knew how to do something (say, hat making) would creat a storefront on their house if they were on a main street. This is why formerly residential streets across Toronto became commercial, like Church, Dundas, College, parts of Bathurst, Weston Rd, The Danforth into Scarborough, and on and on. Since that's impossible in an apartment, the markets play an important role for the local economy and personal entrepreneurship. These aren't hobbyists, and most certainly some of the stalls you'd find during one of the markets will be become mini-Toronto empires in time (or not so mini). There's an incredible amount of capacity in Toronto neighbourhoods like this waiting to be unleashed — think of them as hundreds of vertical cottage industries stacked and spread across the city — and markets like this help give these economies some oxygen.

Go visit whenever you can and buy things Made In Thorncliffe Park.


We want you walking, talking, and writing Toronto this fall

October 2, 2013 | Shawn Micallef | Comments (0)

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Sometime it seems like not much is written about Toronto, that it doesn't exist in print and in our imaginations the way, say, New York does for New Yorkers or London does for Londoners. The opposite is true though, there's been an incredible amount of writing done about this city, both in fiction and non-fiction. This is, after all, a city of writers, and some of them even write about the city they live in. In Amy Lavender Harris's book, Imagining Toronto, she compiles hundreds of pages of Toronto mentions found in literature, and in this town full of smart people with a bunch of universities (particularly ones with Canadian History and Urban Planning departments), the local history and analysis shelves at the library at filled with books.

And yet we think nobody writes about Toronto.

Part of the reason is we've been trained to not get too excited about this place, but with my writer in residency I hope we get change that, a little bit, and turn more people into Toronto writers, especially ones writing about the parts of the city we don't hear too much about. Much of the Toronto writing that does exist involves the old City of Toronto, while the former cities and burroughs tend to go unexplored (though there are numours exceptions).

We've planned a bunch of walks starting from Toronto Public Library branches across the city over the next two months, and I hope both locals and people that just want to explore a new neighbourhood come out. I'm certainly not an expert on any of the neighbourhoods we'll walk through, but I do like to wander, so I hope you'll come and walk and talk about the neighbourhoods we pass through, sharing your own thoughts, memories, or ideas and asking questions. The idea is to get a little excited about the places we live.

Walking often leads to writing, being in the place gets us thinking. It's how I usually write about a place; I'll go for a long walk through it first that might seem aimless, but ideas always come. I hope participants on the walk will feel compelled to write about their neighbourhoods (either the one we walked through or another) or share their existing non-fiction writing with me. Let's chat about it, and we'll even be posting some of it here on this blog until December. We will be accepting manuscripts until the end of November.

I'll also be posting snippets of research items I gather in the stacks and other thoughts here. Perhaps some of that will inspire you to write too. Happy, sad, criticial, or celebratory, Toronto needs it all.

The more voices in the city, the better we'll know ourselves and each other.

Picture taken at Albion Road and Islington Avenue.

There are a 1000 stories in the naked city, as the saying goes, and you should be writing some of them. Writer in Residence Shawn Micallef will be encouraging people to write about their city. Follow along here on city explorations and journeys into the library stacks. Shawn will also be posting some of the city-writing that he receives from people like you.

Your comments, posts, messages and creative content are welcome, provided they encourage a respectful dialogue and comply with the Library's mission, values and policies.
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