Spacing Magazine

2005 06 25

Year of Creativity


On June 13, 2005, Mayor Miller announced that 2006 is Toronto's "Year of Creativity." We can only hope that it doesn't look anything like 2005. Toronto's "Beautiful City" initiative has attempted to ban community postering and enact an anti-graffiti law that is threatening to white-wash some of the best examples of creativity in the city. The new bylaw could force property owners to remove graffiti from the sides or back of their building, regardless of whether or not residents in the community see it as art and don't mind it being on their walls. City staff insist that the graffiti community (some of which is funded by the city) was consulted on the bylaw and that mural art projects will be protected. But organizations in the street art community say they were not asked for input, while property owners have been threatened as recently as last week to remove murals from their back-alleys or be fined.

In addition to lousy legislation, we've also noticed a disturbing trend of police intimidating groups who have gathered in public spaces for artistic or political reasons. Recent arrests at Critical Mass, where hundreds of cyclists take over main streets, and at a drum circle at Trinity Bellwoods park reflect poorly on the city.

If City Council is serious about creativity and art, they should be encouraging grassroots street-level expression, not banning it. Creativity exists on our streets and in our parks, not just in theatres and galleries.

2005 06 26

Swimming in Toronto

They say it’s going to going to be hotter than usual this summer, which means the race up the 400 away from the city each weekend will become even more fierce. Sadly, many people often forget we have our own lake, beaches, ravines, and urban forests, which can also provide much needed relief from the smog and intense heat that reflects off our buildings and pavement.

Even fewer people would actually consider swimming at our beaches, regardless of how safe city officials claim them to be. It’s hard to unlearn our negative associations with city lakes – for years we’ve been told that they are dirty and polluted and will give us some sort of terrible sickness if we swim in them. In reality, however, the water quality at Cherry (Clark) Beach and Hanlon’s point now compare with those in cottage country.

On June 30th, there will be a celebration at Woodbine Beaches to officially welcome Blue Flags to Toronto. Blue Flag is an internationally recognized program that requires beaches to meet strict swimming standards. According to Sarah Winterton of Environmental Defence, Toronto has one of the toughest water monitoring processes in the country, if not the world.

To check the status of Toronto’s beaches visit : or call the beach hotline at 415-392-7161.

2005 06 28

Front lawns

I didn’t choose the evergreen shrub manicured to look like a tree as the centerpiece for our front lawn. On a Sunday evening, my landlord is nowhere in sight; what’s to stop the people passing by my porch from assuming I am the author of this work? Yet, this is my public persona to all who pass by. It’s not an unfair assumption; I myself wouldn’t hesitate to pry into a neighbor’s lawn to critique their poor choice of ground coverings. It’s not unlike window-shopping conventions that have become an integral part of our social practices. Occupying a piece of prime property along our city’s sidewalks allows for public display of some of our most private expressions. Front lawns are sites of privilege, and our city’s sidewalks lend full access to some of their most creative compositions. They reveal our intentional seclusion with guarded views through hedges and fences; our obsessive neurosis to water and manicure for hours on end; and our need for a place of leisure. They provide us with an opportunity to display our discarded or unused possessions – yard sale items disclose as much about our habits and lifestyles as do our more permanent lawn fixtures.

In some ways, the public square is no match for the individually tailored private lawn. They are custom designed to suit personal style, taste and pleasure. Getting to know our neighbors can begin with something as simple as strolling along any one of our city’s residential sidewalks.

Philip Evans

Trashing up the sidewalks

In southern Etobicoke today, the City of Toronto unveiled the first EUCAN recycling/litter bin as part of a 90-day pilot project. But if you were to walk by one of these things you would be hard pressed to recognize it as a waste bin since is covered in ads similar in size to bus shelters. But before we go on about what is wrong with the monster bins, let's focus on the weather.

Today was another smog day, and Toronto has already surpassed last year's total of smog days. Ontario set a record yesterday for energy consumption, and we broke it again today. According to the Toronto Environmental Alliance, Ontario coal plants are operating at maximum capacity. Employees at City Hall and Queen's Park did their part for conservation by reducing the use of air conditioning and turning off any thing electric that wasn't necessary. Even Honest Ed's said they would keep their gaudy lights off this evening. Obivously, these are good examples to set for the rest of us energy hogs.

But across town at the EUCAN unveiling, the City was proudly touting these monster garbage bins (seven feet high, 4 feet wide) which are electrically illuminated. If this pilot project is approved in the fall, thousands of our garbage bins will be lit up wasting unnecessary energy that is generated by our nuclear and coal plants. When did we decide it was necessary to have electric garbage bins?

There are a number of other design flaws in the EUCAN bin that are worth pointing out:
1. Each receptacle is not labelled. It is not clear where you put your recycling bottle, your newspaper, your litter, or cigarette butts.
2. The receptacle for litter is not covered which will allow animals and rain to get into the bins.
3. The placement of the EUCAN bin is perpendicular to the road instead of parallel -- if the bins are sited like this on downtown sidewalks they will become a serious obstacle in heavy pedestrian traffic.
4. The sheer size of the bins means that the ads will be competing in easy sight range with Viacom bus shelter ads. A deal between Viacom, EUCAN, and the City will have to guarantee the bins will be placed a fair distance away from bus shelters. Unfortunately, this means the advertisers needs will be served first, while residents and transit riders as an afterthought.

2005 06 29

Traffic Checkpoint

I left Toronto at noon on Friday. The plan was to arrive in Kingsville, Ontario around five o’clock. That would give us time, we thought, to take the smaller highways and to enjoy Essex County highlights like Leamington tobacco or the Wheatley asparagus mascot.

At four o’clock, we were just past Mississauga. Toronto’s traffic problem is not a secret, and it’s not news, and it’s not something anyone outside of Wheatley actually talks about. But it has become more than a phenomenon -- now it’s a civic monument.

There may as well be a Great Wall around Toronto; as citizens we are trapped inside it, and instead of might or prowess we need patience and air conditioning to overcome it. I had neither. After four hours in the opaque stink of a hundred thousand cars idling on the spot on the 401 at Islington, I realized I could have flown to England by now. By the time we hit Milton and the traffic started thinning out, I felt like I’d just fled East Berlin, for all the torment and rigamarole.

And when we were lolling through the Main Streets of Duttons and Blenheims and I was able to breathe again, I looked back with something like awe at the thing we had just conquered. It was a mountain range, a moat, a Berlin Wall. Toronto talks about eliminating the traffic problem, but what it really does is coddle it, and nurture it, to the point that it has grown up into an object as important and characteristically Torontonian as our CN Tower.

The population of Essex County is 166,000. The average daily traffic on the busiest part of the 401 is at least 400,000.

2005 06 30

Regent Park Déjà Vu?

A major problem with the original Regent Park development was that its public spaces – of which the project had an abundance – lacked visibility and circulation from outside the community. Without these qualities, the public spaces between buildings felt private, and ended up being treated as such.

The redevelopment of Regent Park is intended to rectify these problems by putting public streets through the community once more. Unfortunately the drawings of the design chosen for the first new building suggest one of its features repeats some of the old problems.

A tall glass tower, designed by architectsAlliance, will rise beside a lower building. A signature feature of the design is a staircase that rises parallel to the sidewalk at the base of the tower, leading to a green space between the buildings, elevated two storeys above street level.

The staircase creates a tall blank wall that looms up over the sidewalk, and in the drawings extends along the entire length of the block, making the new street (an extension of Sackville) unpleasant and opaque to pedestrians.

Both the visibility and the physical access to the elevated green space between buildings, meanwhile, are greatly reduced by the direction of the staircase, which is at a right angle to the garden area. As a result, this garden area will feel like an isolated private space between buildings, as the old Regent Park public spaces did.

The design of private buildings has a powerful impact on public space, and small details can make an enormous difference. The staircase needs to FACE the sidewalk (rather than being parallel to it). This simple reorientation will get rid of the blank wall, and instead create a pleasing open space along the street, one that is welcoming. It will provide a clear view from the street into the elevated green space, knitting it into the city fabric. Finally, it will encourage the buildings on either side to provide openings – windows and doors – at or near street level, making the street feel open, watched and used.

After going through the trouble of demolishing Regent Park, it is very important that we do not repeat some of the same mistakes in the first building of the new development.

Small-scale drawings can be seen here.

2005 07 01

“The New City” is the old photoblog

photo by Sam Javanrouh, from Daly Dose of Imagery

When it comes to photographing a city, there’s something wonderful about pictures taken in a ‘personal documentary’ style - that middle ground between the snapshot of the non-photographer and the purposeful shot of the pro.

Personal documentary-style photos (a.k.a street photography) are a different beast than snapshots, which are equally spontaneous but lack artifice and craft. And they have a different feel than the ‘purposeful shot’, those photos taken by pros for spot news or touristy-type books that have a style, but lack the vitality of something taken on the spur of the moment for the simple pleasure of it. They are visual hidden treasures retrieved in a rectangular frame; the kinds of photos that are earned by getting out on the pavement and cruising, or that come about as by-products of day-to-day travel like taking a shortcut home from work, or walking to the corner store to buy coffee filters.

Wonderful is no doubt the right word to use, because that is what photographs of the city that hit the high notes inspire: you wonder where the photo was taken, or wonder how you could have missed this subtle gem existing right under your nose, or wonder how many of these ephemeral and precious moments you miss every day in the habitual rush of city living.

You can find stellar examples of this style in both Toronto’s champion photoblog: “daily dose of imagery (DDOI)” and in that website’s long lost relative, “The New City: A Prejudiced View of Toronto”, a tragically out-of-print book of photos of Toronto circa 1958-61.

Sam Javanrouh’s DDOI website features daily posts of digital photographs of the city; excellent pixelated snaps such as the peeling paint sandwiching the storefront windows of a furniture store on Parliament, or a spinning Esso sign in front of a criss-cross of streetcar wires at Church and Dundas, or the comfortable-looking Q and A session of a documentary screening at the Bloor Cinema.

“The New City”, published in 1961 by MacMillan, features the black and white photos of Henri Rossier capturing similar moments from another time, and is one of the great documents of Toronto well worth scouring used bookstores or shelling out online for.

It’s a testament to the quality of the photos in the book that Rossier gets top billing over the book’s author, Canadian literary icon Pierre Berton. As explained by Berton in the intro, Rossier was a young amateur shooter from Switzerland who walked into his office with a portfolio of photos taken during the two years he had been in the city and asked for help creating a book. Described by Berton as “a newcomer who has been here long enough to know his way around but not too long to grow blasé,” Rossier’s photos won Berton over with their depiction of a new Toronto blossoming. It was the beginning of an immigration boom (in the next 30 years, non-Caucasians would rise from 3 to 30% of the population), and during the expansion period that would create the city’s boroughs.

Berton was a writer in the mold of journalism greats like Liebling or Mencken -- keen, witty, and aware that a good yarn is important as presenting the facts. Discussed by Berton are the different sects and castes of the city and where they dwell (see “Italian Town” or “The Guilded Ghetto”), as is Toronto’s changing shape and size, and it’s habits of work and play.

But the star of the show is Rossier, whose photos were inspired by the style of that era, when photojournalism had hit it’s high watermark in Life Magazine’s photo essays and the work of the legendary Magnum photography agency. Using his rangefinder Lieca camera, still the sharpest and quietest cameras to date, Rossier is in the park when the local kids get a hockey game going, watching the Ferris Wheel at the Ex, peeking through the window of a Chinatown barbershop, at the construction site where the city is pushing towards an orchard near O’Connor Drive in the East, and documenting the last of the organ grinders at Rosedale Station and the full-wall advertisement for televisions painted over an older one for a tool and die company on Queen St. East (possibly now covered by a billboard for computers?).

Often grainy, and sometimes slightly out of focus, Rossier’s shots are more about capturing the zeitgeist of the city than making pretty pictures - they’re about people and spaces, the little things…

These are the kinds of photos that stand as unofficial time capsules for future generations, and the relevance of Javanrouh’s current photoblog is reinforced by Rossier’s journal of the past.  It can’t be co-incidence that Rossier’s worthy successor is also not a photographer by profession, and a recent immigrant to Toronto (he moved here from Iran in 1999).  There is a kinship, a direct lineage of visual artists making a personal project out of their burgeoning relationship with their new home - our city. With cameras in hand, they’ve walked Toronto’s streets and noticed those little things that amalgamate to make the whole, prodding those of us who have grown too comfortable to take a step back and notice too.

By Sean Waisglass