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Books on Cities: 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.

Read the whole thing at Substack. You can listen to my Notebook on Cities and Culture interview with Shawn Micallef here or on Youtube.