A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘psychogeography

[URBAN NOTE] “Savouring the city with each step”

Josh O’Kane writes about how his walks throughout Toronto have helped him, originally from New Brunswick, get to know his adopted city. I can testify that this works.

For more than four years, I have walked to and from work. But that’s about to change.

It’s about three kilometres each way, which is more than I used to walk in a week. I grew up in Saint John, N.B., in a car culture so ingrained that I’d drive to the cinemas a block from my parents’ house. In undergrad, I never lived more than two minutes from campus. Walking always seemed like a waste of time.

Now, I’m in Toronto. I hated the pedestrian commute at first, despite the city’s sheer walk-ability. There was little joy in those first few months of sore legs, or on those days spent trudging more than an hour through a blizzard or rain storm. But here’s the thing: It’s still better than standing for 15 minutes in a blizzard or monsoon, waiting for a streetcar that never comes.

I’m a reporter here at The Globe and Mail, trained to dispassionately report the news, and a millennial culturally moulded to express any personal feelings through sarcasm; I am not used to earnestness. But I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that walking to work everyday has made me both physically and mentally healthier. It wakes me up in the morning and winds me down at night. And walking has shown me what Toronto is, shown me how Toronto is changing and made Toronto feel like home.

After throwing out the flyers in my mailbox each morning, I start zig-zagging through the West End then cut through Trinity Bellwoods Park. As I pass by Gore Vale Avenue, I glance up at my old apartment, a basement palace on the park, torn from my clutches four years ago. It was here that I first decided to walk to work – an easy 20 minute stroll.

Moving west forced me further away from The Globe, though it only made the walk more interesting. I grew up a music fan far from Toronto and learning who I share my community with has been a pleasant surprise. Sometimes, I’ll see Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew holding court outside a coffee shop or the Barenaked Ladies’ Jim Creeggan running with his dog. Or, after cutting through Bellwoods, I might notice Ron Sexsmith, eyes glazed, walking to the store.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 9, 2016 at 5:30 pm

[BLOG] Some Sunday links

  • blogTO notes the growing concentration of chain stores on lower Ossington.
  • The Broadside Blog’s Caitlin Kelly describes her luck in interviewing a New York City firefighter.
  • Citizen Science Salon reports on a citizen science game intended to fight against Alzheimer’s.
  • Language Hat starts from a report about unsold Welsh-language Scrabble games to talk about the wider position of the Welsh language.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money shares the astounding news leaked about Donald Trump’s billion-dollar losses.
  • Marginal Revolution links to a psychology paper examining the perception of atheists as narcissistic.
  • Towleroad reports on the informative reality television series of the United States’ gay ambassador to Denmark.
  • Window on Eurasia notes how Russia’s war in Aleppo echoes past conflicts in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and examines the position of Russia’s border regions.

[URBAN NOTE] “Walking the grid of freedom”

I love Kalypso Nicolaïdis’ autobiographical essay at Open Democracy about her experience of Manhattan’s liberating grid of streets. Beautiful writing, lovely photos.

Freedom is the original promise. Once upon a time, we were born to a thousand paths…

Most lessons in life are learned the hard way. Some, however, are learnt with delight. Such has been Manhattan’s gift to me, a lesson in freedom, courtesy of a grid dreamed up 200 years ago.

I am new to the city, the alien progressively giving way to the resident – a transient resident, alas, a freed mother making a home away from home for a little while. But lessons, like fairy tales, never leave us as long as we continue to tell them.

We learn freedom from its boundaries. From the constraints we encounter and respect, and from those we create and overcome. From the limits to what we can do and from the infinite possibilities we find within. And so from home to school to work, every morning I walk the grid. Well, my little piece of the grid. 15 streets to cross and seven avenues. I know every sidewalk and every corner along the way by now. But I will never walk every one of the 13 million possible paths on my diagonal – life is just a taster. As it is, I tend to retrace a dozen favourite ones. Our brains are like fields that have been ploughed for a thousand years, a few synapses programmed to ignite along familiar sinews, all other options long left dying along the banks. Freedom as a neuronal illusion.

And so my story goes. Freedom on the grid, it first seems, comes from never having to stop. Never having to plot one’s trajectory ahead: so many crossings and no obstacles on the way. Red Hand on the street, take the avenue. Red Hand on the avenue, take the street. The Walking Men push me along. No need to decide, my feet have taken over. I can walk fast, free to roam on automatic pilot, free to buy into the choices made in my stead. The grid is its own GPS, three minutes per avenue, one per street. It is the destination that matters. I will be there in 32 minutes. Freed from calculations and hesitations, I can let my mind wander. Back in Oxfordshire where I usually live, I can walk any which way I like through my endless meadows of forgotten paths. My little choices here and there, to avoid a bank of buttercups or take the sun sideways, now seem random, pointless.

To be sure, my Manhattan power-walk hits hindrances on the way. Take the myriad doormen who seem to wait for my passing by to spray the pavement in front of their building. Admittedly, I smile. This is my little bit of Greece-on-the-Hudson, my father would feel at home. Still, it can be slippery, you know! Each one seems to have perfected a different strategy. Respectfully turning the jet away on Fifth, waiting till the last second to avoid you on Park, turning it off on 18th street, ignoring you, semi-circling around you, aiming above you, what’s next? And will that little bit of pavement really be shinier tomorrow? In this silent game, I wonder whose freedom is being tested anyway.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 28, 2016 at 7:45 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Radical Flâneuserie”

3 Quarks Daily linked to Lauren Elkin’s article in The Paris Review looking at the experience of women wanderers in cities, the flâneuses, and the ways in which their experiences are guided and limited.

There’s something so attractive about wandering aimlessly through the city, taking it all in (especially if we’re wearing Hermès while we do it). We all, deep down, want to detach from our lives. The flâneur, since everyone wants to be one, has a long history of being many different things to different people, to such an extent that the concept has become one of these things we point to without really knowing what we mean—a kind of shorthand for urban, intellectual, curious, cosmopolitan. This is what Hermès is counting on: that we will associate Hermès products with those values and come to believe that buying them will reinforce those aspects of ourselves.

The earliest mention of a flâneur is in the late sixteenth century, possibly borrowed from the Scandinavian flana, “a person who wanders.” It fell largely out of use until the nineteenth century, and then it caught on again. In 1806, an anonymous pamphleteer wrote of the flâneur as “M. Bonhomme,” a man-about-town who comes from sufficient wealth to be able to have the time to wander the city at will, taking in the urban spectacle. He hangs out in cafés and watches the various inhabitants of the city at work and at play. He is interested in gossip and fashion, but not particularly in women. In an 1829 dictionary, a flâneur is someone “who likes to do nothing,” someone who relishes idleness. Balzac’s flâneur took two main forms: the common flâneur, happy to aimlessly wander the streets, and the artist-flâneur, who poured his experiences in the city into his work. (This was the more miserable type of flâneur, who, Balzac noted in his 1837 novel César Birotteau, “is just as frequently a desperate man as an idle one.”) Baudelaire similarly believed that the ultimate flâneur, the true connoisseur of the city, was an artist who “sang of the sorry dog, the poor dog, the homeless dog, the wandering dog [le chien flâneur].” Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, on the other hand, was more feral, a figure who “completely distances himself from the type of the philosophical promenader, and takes on the features of the werewolf restlessly roaming a social wildness,” he wrote in the late 1930s. An “intoxication” comes over him as he walks “long and aimlessly through the streets.”

And so the flâneur shape-shifts according to time, place, and agenda. If he didn’t exist, we would have had to invent him to embody our fantasies about nineteenth-century Paris—or about ourselves, today.

Hermès is similarly ambiguous about who, exactly, the flâneur in their ads is. Is he the man (or woman?) looking at the woman on the balustrade? Or is she the flâneur, too? Is the flâneur the photographer, or the (male?) gaze he represents? Is there a flâneuse, in Hermès’ version? Are we looking at her? Are we—am I, holding the magazine—her?

But I can’t be, because I’m the woman holding the magazine, being asked to buy Hermès products. I click through the pictures of the exhibition Hermès organized on the banks of the Seine, Wanderland, and one of the curiosities on view—joining nineteenth-century canes, an array of ties, an Hermès purse handcuffed to a coatrack—is an image of an androgynous person crossing the road, holding a stack of boxes so high he or she can’t see around them. Is this flânerie, Hermès-style?


Written by Randy McDonald

August 28, 2016 at 6:45 pm

[NEWS] Some Tuesday links

  • The BBC notes an attack on a vegan restaurant in Tbilisi by meat-eating nationalists.
  • Bloomberg notes a slur by a German populist against a non-white soccer player, reports on Sweden’s economic boom, Looks at rail investment in India, and notes Southeast Asia is beating out China as a destination for Japanese investment.
  • Bloomberg View looks at reform in Tunisia’s Islamist movement and notes the lack of private foreign investment in Greece.
  • The CBC notes anti-gentrification sentiment in the Montréal neighbourhood of St. Henri, resulting in the looting of a gourmet grocery store.
  • MacLean’s interviews Sebastian Junger on his theory that PTSD is rooted in the problems of modern individualism.
  • The National Post looks at an anthropologist’s discovery of ancient hobo graffiti.
  • Open Democracy notes the Europeanization of Estonia’s Russophones.
  • The Toronto Star contrasts the responses of the NDP and the Conservatives to their election defeats, and notes how older Chinese couples are now using fertility treatments to have their second child.

[URBAN NOTE] A walking map of the TTC network, courtesy Pavlo Kalyta

Via blogTO comes a map made by one Pavlo Kalyta showing the walking distances between different TTC stations.

How long will it take you to walk from Bloor to Queen Station – you know, if there’s a major subway delay or something and you don’t feel like taking a shuttle bus? Now, you no longer have to guess thanks to a handy subway Walking Distance Map.

Pavlo Kalyta, an assistant professor of accounting and sustainability at Queen’s University, created the map[.]

As someone who has walked between many of these stations, I can say that the walking times do feel right.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 21, 2016 at 4:42 pm

[BLOG] Some Saturday links

  • Bad Astronomy reports on the discovery of a repeating fast radio burst.
  • blogTO lists the five most exciting neighbourhoods in Toronto, my Dupont Street rating there.
  • Centauri Dreams studies the ecology of space colony agriculture.
  • Crooked Timber notes the contrast between progress on climate change internationally and bizarre rhetoric in the United States.
  • Discover‘s Inkfish reports on a study suggesting scenic environments do keep people healthy.
  • Language Log notes difficulties with accessing Tibetan-medium education in China.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money notes the authoritarian mindset.
  • Marginal Revolution wonders why labour mobility in India is so low.
  • Steve Munro looks at the TTC’s policy on fares.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer notes yet another issue with the Nicaragua Canal.
  • Towleroad notes Hillary Clinton’s apology for praising the record of the Reagans on HIV/AIDS.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy notes an American custody order preventing a mother from talking about religion or her sexual orientation to her children.
  • Arnold Zwicky notes some prominent children’s graphic novels.

[BLOG] Some Friday links

  • blogTO notes the impending end of Parkdale’s Skyline Diner.
  • Centauri Dreams reports on the efforts to track the origins of the 2013 Chelyabinsk impactor.
  • D-Brief notes the development of ultra-durable, high-capacity glass memory chips.
  • Dangerous Minds directs readers to a walking tour of punk London.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to a paper examining the magnetospheres of hot Jupiters.
  • The Dragon’s Tales reports on Russia’s war in Syria.
  • Far Outliers notes Koestler’s description of the small railway towns of Soviet Central Asia.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money notes how the influence of Africans has been underestimated in the United States, looking at food.
  • The Planetary Society Blog notes the reactivation of an old space probe’s cameras.

  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer notes oddities in figures about public spending in Mexico.

[URBAN NOTE] “The PATH defies navigation, just go outside”

I disagree somewhat with the hyperbolic title of Edward Keenan’s Toronto Star article. My limited experience has been that that the PATH is navigable, but that the knowledge is not very portable. You need to learn, by trial and error and by paying close attention to all the maps.

What is today recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest underground shopping complex — and what Financial District BIA executive director Grant Humes says “has turned into probably our busiest pedestrian street in the city” — is just a series of basements of different buildings. It emerged from private landlords agreeing to link together the underground shopping concourses in their various buildings. It was not designed with an eye to people moving across the city through it — it was never intended to be the privately-owned neighbourhood that it has essentially become.

As Humes says, “There is no overriding set of rules. There is no one behind the curtain, quite honestly, thinking about it and pulling the levers on a regular basis.”

Though the city has, since the 1980s, acted as the “co-ordinating agency,” all the sections of the path are owned and controlled, as the city says on its website, “by the owner of the property through which it runs.”
Having twice this week attempted specific journeys through the PATH — from Atrium on Bay to WaterPark Place and from WaterPark Place to City Hall — and having twice gotten lost on the way, I can observe that this understanding of how the PATH evolved and functions is essential to navigating it using existing signage.

The “streets” in the underground have no names, and don’t follow the above-ground grid pattern most Torontonians are used to. Instead the signs and maps rely on knowledge of building names or addresses — and the signs present them to you one at a time.

So, for instance, to get from the Ferry Docks to City Hall, you enter at WaterPark Place, then travel through One York, Air Canada Centre, 25 York, Union Station, Royal Bank Plaza, Toronto-Dominion Centre, First Canadian Place, 121 King West, the Richmond Adelaide Centre, the Sheraton Hotel, and then finally into City Hall (through the parking garage).

If you can keep that list of names, in order, in your head, there’s still some difficulty in finding the signs that direct you to the next destination (especially in Union Station, which remains under significant reconstruction), but you can generally find your way once you do.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 18, 2016 at 6:42 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “The slow death of purposeless walking”

The BBC Magazine featured an essay by one Finlo Rohrer talking about how people no longer go walking for the sake of going walking, but instead go out with intent. (His conclusion, that people should go out walking with the goal of not having a goal, is nearly paradoxical but is so in a way that works.)

Walking is a luxury in the West. Very few people, particularly in cities, are obliged to do much of it at all. Cars, bicycles, buses, trams, and trains all beckon.

Instead, walking for any distance is usually a planned leisure activity. Or a health aid. Something to help people lose weight. Or keep their fitness. But there’s something else people get from choosing to walk. A place to think.

Wordsworth was a walker. His work is inextricably bound up with tramping in the Lake District. Drinking in the stark beauty. Getting lost in his thoughts.

Charles Dickens was a walker. He could easily rack up 20 miles, often at night. You can almost smell London’s atmosphere in his prose. Virginia Woolf walked for inspiration. She walked out from her home at Rodmell in the South Downs. She wandered through London’s parks.

Henry David Thoreau, who was both author and naturalist, walked and walked and walked. But even he couldn’t match the feat of someone like Constantin Brancusi, the sculptor who walked much of the way between his home village in Romania and Paris. Or indeed Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul at the age of 18 inspired several volumes of travel writing. George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bruce Chatwin, WG Sebald and Vladimir Nabokov are just some of the others who have written about it.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 18, 2015 at 3:57 am