Strolling through Wychwood Park with Shawn Micallef
This is one of those posts that's been on my list to write for sometime. Back in late Spring when Shawn Micallef's book, Stroll, came out, I got together with the author for a walk around Wychwood Park, one of Toronto's oldest gated communities, located between Davenport and St. Clair on the escarpment formed by Lake Iroquois.
I had thought that a tour of Wychwood would be the perfect way to find out more about both Shawn's book and the concept of psychogeography, the method upon which his walking tours is loosely based. The latter is, as Shawn writes in Stroll, "a term invented by Guy Debord and the Situationists in 1950s Paris. They were concerned with the effects of geography on human emotions and behaviour, so they did absurd things like walk around Paris using a map of London."
Although the Situationists had hoped that such exercises might "strike a blow against capitalism and society," the observations in Stroll aren't so political and lofty. What it does have in spades, however, are subtle notes about often-unseen aspects of Toronto, the types of things that, while available to be seen, are often missed on account of the lack of attention we have to offer during the daily grind.
Key to appreciating the minutiae out there, according to Shawn (among others), is the temporary defamiliarization of our surroundings, or what Bertolt Brecht called the "alienation effect." As he explains in the introduction to Stroll, by "taking what's familiar and making it strange...and letting some unpredictability seep into your routine, you're better able to see what all the excitement is about."
Being a big believer in this way of thinking and in the necessity of forcing oneself to experience the unfamiliar on a consistent basis, I suppose I felt some pressure to get this post right, to do it a bit of justice. So I delayed writing it, repeatedly pushing it back over the summer. But, I finally told myself that I had to get it written before the leaves changed colour and all the green foliage in the photos looked ill-fitted to the season. Fortuitously, the author's project, @strollcity, which will display the tweets that Shawn sends out during his walks on screens in subway stations, is set to launch tomorrow. What better time to shed a little more light on Stroll?
I met Shawn at the inconspicuous southern entrance to Wychwood Park, a gate that reads "Wychwood Park Private Grounds." As I was waiting for him to arrive, I realized that the little bit of running water to the west of the gate must be what remains of Taddle Creek, one of Toronto's most famous buried waterways. This was the first in a series of little discoveries made during my walk through the park.
I'd be surprised if there was a better Toronto tour guide than Shawn Micallef. Soft-spoken and insightful, it'd be easy to be humbled by his knowledge of the city if it wasn't for his unassuming manner. So beyond what I already knew about Wychwood, I was treated to a few tidbits that one won't find in the Wikipedia entry.
For those who don't want to follow that link, the basics are as follows: Wychwood was founded as an artists colony by Marmaduke Matthews and George A. Reid in the late nineteenth century. Its most famous resident, no doubt, was Marshall McLuhan who lived at No. 3. Although the community was amalgamated into Toronto in 1909, the area is still maintained and managed by the residents via an executive council.
No doubt it's this last part that so confused me when I first discovered the neighbourhood as a 12-year-old. Riding my bike through the area with a friend who had told me about this strange place without "normal" sidewalks and streetlamps, I was fascinated and confused. What was this place, I wondered? When I told adults of a private community near Forest Hill, they scoffed at me.
I was a little off on the exact location back then, but I was certainly right about the private thing. Although a considerable number of cyclists struggled their way north up the road while Shawn and I took our walk, I still had that sense that I was visitor on someone else's property.
This lessened a bit as Shawn shared what he knew about the neighbourhood. When walking by the pond that sits at the centre of Wychwood (which was created by damning Taddle Creek), for instance, I learned that descendants of the original goldfish that Matthews' grandson introduced to the waters before heading off to fight in the Great War are still said to occupy it. Sure, this sounds a bit implausible, but the place has a certain je ne sais quoi about it that makes such a thing easier to believe.
There's also, of course, some intriguing architecture to found at Wychwood. Not only are there numerous examples of the Arts and Crafts style (something I was not really familiar with prior to the visit), but for those inclined toward the contemporary, there's also an Ian MacDonald-designed home that won the Governor General's award in 2008. Shawn explains that the structure actually sits on the footprint of the original home, which is perhaps why, despite its modern look, it fits so well with its surroundings.
As we made our way out of the private community and toward the Wychwood Barns, I got a little background on the opposition Artscape faced from residents who aren't so moved by the history of their neighbourhood. Perhaps it's this attitude that contributes to my sense that Wychwood is not as welcoming as one would want.
Still, as we leave neighbourhood behind, I'm grateful to have learned a bit more about its history and residents. It's something that had been on my list to do for a while, and, like this post, I'm glad to have finally knocked it off the list.