The Walrus Blog

Monthly Archive: October 2011

For Crying Out Loud

A rant about Rick’s Rant about gay teen suicide
“Rick’s Rant” for October 25, 2011

Last Tuesday, as Rick Mercer got into the swing of his rant about our collective need to make things better for gay teens who increasingly see suicide as the only solution to their struggles, I thought to myself, “Yes, wonderful, spit it out then, Rick.”

But by the end of “Rick’s Rant,” in which Mercer called for gay public figures to be more visible so they might serve as role models to gay teens, he hadn’t outed himself. Hypocrite! I thought. But his words were powerful, and I went to YouTube to rewatch the video clip the next day. Commenters there, I noticed, shared my feeling that Rick had stopped a bit short, that if he was calling on other gay public figures to come out, he should have said he was gay, too. But a response to one of those comments shed some light on the matter (in what was the first and will likely be the last instance of YouTube feedback enlightening me — or anyone, ever). “You know he’s gay. I know he’s gay. Guess he’s not that discreet.”

And that’s exactly the point that Mercer was making in his rant: no one needs to go around waving flags if they don’t want to, but gay teens, and their bullies, need to be more aware of gay public figures going about their lives, happily and successfully. Still, his words have since been picked apart by various media outlets, including the Globe and Mail, whose editorial on Friday accused Mercer of wrongly placing the burden of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of closeted gay public figures.  (more…)

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Posted in Society  •  7 Comments

The Art of Book Design

Episode one of a new podcast series presented by our partners at Quill & Quire
Beautiful LosersMcClelland & StewartCS Richardson’s cover for the cloth reprint of Leonard Cohen’s novels Beautiful Losers and The Favourite Game was acknowledged as a 2009 Q&Q cover of the year

Welcome to Quillcast, a new podcast series from Quill & Quire featuring behind-the-scenes conversations with authors and publishing insiders. In this first episode, CS Richardson, vice-president and creative director of Canadian Publishing for Random House Canada, discusses the changing art of book design.

Over his impressive thirty-year career, Richardson has designed more than 1,500 books. He’s also an accomplished writer, whose first novel, The End of the Alphabet, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in Canada and the Carribean. He is currently at work on a second novel, The Emperor of Paris, to be published in 2012.

Listen to the first episode here, or subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. And click here to view a related slideshow of Richardson’s work.


Quillcast is produced with media partners The Walrus, Open Book: Ontario, and Open Book: Toronto, with support from Toronto Life. This project has been generously supported by the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Entertainment and Creative Cluster Partnerships Fund.

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Posted in Quillcast  •  2 Comments

Graff and the Beanstalk

A vertical farming architect explains why his towering SkyFarm will never happen
SkyFarmGordon Graff’s planned SkyFarm

Gordon Graff’s SkyFarm, a fifty-eight-floor behemoth priced at $1.5 billion, was to be Toronto’s ticket to the future of urban agriculture. In 2007, the vertical farm was envisioned to occupy a block of downtown Toronto that has since become home to the Toronto International Film Festival. Even before the global food crisis hit in 2008 and the locavore movement picked up steam, the idea of urban farming was a provocative one. Science fiction and environmental geeks gushed. For green-aholics, the idea appealed to both the inner consumer (“raspberries in February!”) and the environmental conscience (“local, organic raspberries in February!”). The media ate it up. ”Sometimes,” the Huffington Post wrote, “the answer to a complex problem is so simple, so elegant that you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself.” But four years later, Graff, who is now an intern architect at Toronto’s DIALOG, admits that his SkyFarm will never be built, and many in the media have begun rubbing the stars out of their eyes. The apparent retreat of the ivory-green tower raises the question: is vertical farming still the promised evolution of agriculture, or a case of the life and death of an idea?

Graff became interested in vertical farming at the University of Waterloo, where he wrote a master’s thesis on sustainable urban architecture. He began communicating with Dickson Despommier, a Columbia University professor of environmental health sciences and microbiology who is vertical farming’s biggest cheerleader. With urban population densities and a slew of attendant environmental problems increasing around the globe, the answer, Despommier and his students thought, was to grow farms up, instead of out. “All the water is recycled,” Despommier raves in this publicity video for his 2010 book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. “All the nutrients are recycled. And the only thing that actually leaves the building is the produce.”  (more…)

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Posted in Food  •  4 Comments

Against Wall Street

An interview with Ryan Hoffman, co-author of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City

The Occupy Movement has captured the planet, growing beyond its initial confines of lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park to an estimated eighty other countries worldwide, including Canada. What began with an Independence Day tweet by Vancouver’s Adbusters magazine (“Dear Americans, this July 4th dream of insurrection against corporate rule http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/95/revolution-america.html #occupywallstreet”) has apparently become something much larger, though what that means and where it might lead remains unclear.

Last month in New York City, Ryan Hoffman, an actor and writer who goes by @NewYorkCreator on Twitter, went to see the developing demonstration for himself. He talked to strangers along the way, and soon wound up on missions, sneaking gas canisters past police lines to fuel the protesters’ generator in Zuccotti Park. In late September, he co-authored the movement’s statement of collective principles — the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, modelled on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence — and thus appeared (first with co-author Lex Rendon, then again with journalist Michael Tracey) on Current TV’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

Hoffman and I spoke via telephone on October 8th. Much has changed since then, as the anti-establishment demonstrations have gone global. On October 15th, protesters moved into Toronto’s St. James Park, setting up a peaceable occupation that bears little resemblance to the days of rage that marked the G20 debacle of July 2010. The Globe and Mail described the Toronto movement’s methods as an attempt at “crowd-sourcing democracy.” Protests have popped up in at least twenty cities across Canada, stretching from St. John’s to Victoria.

During our conversation, Hoffman, who describes himself as a former Republican, explained the mechanics of direct democracy and consensus building at the New York City General Assembly, where everyone present must agree for any resolution to pass. He gave the impression, however this may sound, of being a patriot in the finest American tradition — here armed with 21st-century weapons like the hashtag and the live stream(more…)

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Posted in Society  •  2 Comments

Kingston: The Metropolis That Didn’t Happen

A Trudeau aide recalls the never-built high-speed train that would have reshaped Central Canada
Related LinkJohn Lorinc’s cover story for our November 2011 issueNovember 2011How Toronto Lost Its Groove
And why the rest of Canada should resist the temptation to cheer

In the wake of Pierre Trudeau’s landslide 1969 majority, several ambitious, activist policymakers began thinking about the relationship between Canada’s cities and the federal government. At the time, recounts Daniel Coates, then an advisor to Trudeau cabinet minister Robert Andras, a handful of influential federal bureaucrats had become increasingly preoccupied by urban growth, traffic, and housing. As they delved into the policy issues, they began to see that federal policy had a huge but largely uncoordinated impact on Canadian cities. “Nobody was thinking about it or talking about it,” Coates says. “But the dollar figures were stupendous. That was the compelling reason for [establishing] the Minister of State for Urban Affairs.”

With American cities facing dramatic upheavals, Coates recalls that his team began researching deeply, consulting prominent thinkers like Jay Forrester, a professor of computer engineering at MIT’s Sloan School of Management who had applied his work on dynamic systems to urban development. Inspired, Coates says his group started investigating the economic linkages between Canadian cities.

The bureaucrats pulled together an analysis and presented it to Trudeau’s cabinet. Their prediction: that Canada’s largest cities, especially Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, would soak up population growth, eventually becoming too large and too congested. Coates recalls showing the cabinet a map of Canada circa 2000, with “big red balls” indicating the population concentration in the large urban centres. The country, they predicted, would change dramatically. Time has proven them to be correct. (more…)

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Posted in Cities  •  No Comments

Better Living Through Collective Leadership

Prepared remarks for Imagining Toronto: A City-Builders’ Symposium
The Weston TowersMark PeckmezianThe Weston Towers

I’d like to spend my five minutes sharing a few stories that have influenced the vision I want to put forward. One of the stories relates to a picture included in John Lorinc’s piece in this month’s Walrus. It begins inside the middle of the Weston Towers, the three monolithic buildings that are shown on page 28, where for ten years, my family built a home on the twenty-fourth floor after arriving from Ghana to Toronto in 1979. We joined a small but growing community of Ghanaians living there. It was an amazing childhood, and my brother, who is here today, will attest to that. At the time, whether we were part of the 25 percent of poor high-rise dwellers was certainly not a concern to me. My top priority was peering over our balcony to see if the neighbourhood kids were starting a game of soccer-baseball in the valley behind our buildings.

A decade later, something of a panic struck our community. All of a sudden, we were hearing about one family after another moving out of the building and into houses. Home ownership quickly became the line separating those who had “made it” and those who did not. And the pressure was not just local. We began receiving phone calls from family back home asking if we had made it, like so and so’s family had made it.

My family, though not entirely prepared to do so, succumbed to the pressure and bought a house in North Etobicoke, Rexdale. I began the seventh grade in Elmbank Middle School, located near Jamestown Crescent, a neighbourhood that had been in the media often because of violence and drug-related activities. In the summer before high school began, I secured my first job working in Jamestown’s community garden, part of an effort initiated by the Thistletown Community Services Unit. Pierrette Forgie, the executive director of The Unit, as it was known then, had been a mainstay of the Jamestown community for more than twenty years by that point. She had seen waves of immigrants settle and eventually leave the neighbourhood. I’ll never forget her orientation session with me. She walked me around Jamestown Crescent, and every few steps she would tell me the story of a community and leaders within that community who worked together to address a need. I remember her telling me about the Somali women who were working to get a portable trailer in the area where they could share food and information about employment opportunities and the like. That memory brings me to my vision for Toronto as a model of city-building that comes from collective leadership. (more…)

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Posted in Cities  •  7 Comments

We Are Potential

Prepared remarks for Imagining Toronto: A City-Builders’ Symposium

I’d like to start by naming three of my favorite things that are happening in Toronto right now: The Gibraltar Point art centre on Toronto Island, the new Feminist Art Gallery built and run by Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue, and the West Toronto Railpath. These are three things that perfectly embody the potential for excellence when stultifying bureaucracy is outwitted, community is fostered, and public spaces are made with vision and radical hope. These are “yes” places.

Imagine if Toronto was so proud and smart about promoting and celebrating its artists that people from Berlin got excited about our amazing scene and started moving here. Imagine if every wealthy educated person in this city found making the decision to spend money on art as easy as deciding to buy designer shoes. Imagine all new condos being legislated to not only include a percentage of subsidized units but also a few dedicated affordable artist studios — instead of commissioning a single, one-off public sculpture. Imagine a downtown art college with such a fantastic international reputation, facilities, and faculty that it was the first Canadian choice of application if you were an ambitious young artist. Imagine that the Toronto Now gallery off of the AGO’s Frank restaurant was turned into a space for grad students, and the serious artists of Toronto could always be found in major shows in the main spaces of the museum all months of the year. Imagine there were line-ups to see these local artists’ work at the AGO like there were during those first heady days of Frank Gehry’s redesign. Imagine Torontonians with so much confidence that instead of travelling internationally to buy culture, they stayed here, trusted their own judgment, and invested in something they decided for themselves was excellent.

As long as I have lived in Toronto I’ve had a push-pull relationship with it, constantly leaving and searching for a place I felt I truly belonged but always returning for pragmatic reasons. For many artists and creative people I know this is a common story. We want to be here — there are excellent people and resources, it makes a solid base to travel from, our friends and families are here, and compared to other cities in Canada, we have a better chance of creating and finding opportunity. Best of all, there is an old and strong culture of do-it-yourself here, pockets of radical thinkers and makers that keep a fire lit even when the politics of safety and small-think capitalism threaten to smother all those who live to take creative risks.  (more…)

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Posted in Cities  •  9 Comments

Toronto the Ordinary

The author’s opening statement from The Walrus Toronto Project Debate at the AGO

In supporting the motion “Be it resolved that Toronto will never be beautiful,” I want to make clear that we are not talking about its livability, but its beauty, or rather, its lack thereof. An old pair of worn slippers may be comfortable, but hardly beautiful. In many respects Toronto is a wonderful city in which to live, but it cannot be called beautiful.

So, let’s begin by defining “beautiful” as it applies to cities. There is, I believe, general consensus that Paris, Venice, St. Petersburg, and perhaps Dublin are among the most beautiful cities in the world. What characterizes their beauty is:

First, their man-made forms. Streets and avenues, parks and squares, that are planned and designed together with the buildings that define them; that terminate or provide gateways to attractive, sometimes dramatic vistas; that enhance the monuments contained by them; and that are embellished by the landscapes that are an intrinsic part of the whole.

Second, they not only have a relationship to their major geographical features, but they celebrate them, whether canals, rivers or oceans. (more…)

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Posted in Cities  •  2 Comments

Toronto: The Worst Sports City in the World

Where “the teams lose because they don’t have to win”

This past summer, ESPN The Magazine, in its annual ranking of sports franchises, identified Toronto as the worst city for sports in North America. Inevitably, the assessment provoked a fury of denial. Brian Burke, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ president and general manager (and probably the best executive in the NHL) called the ranking, “absurd and offensive” and went on to claim, “I don’t think ESPN knows squat about Canada. I don’t think they know squat about hockey.” I suppose Burke had to say that, being GM and all, but it was still an embarrassing comment. No sane person could disagree with that ranking. As Burke must know, the only problem with ESPN’s analysis is that it focused almost exclusively on quantitative matters, the “bang for the buck,” meaning the money gathered from tickets, concessions, and parking compared against the team’s wins. Being a Toronto fan is so much worse than any algorithm could ever express. A merely numerical measurement fails to capture the daily spiritual trauma of following sports in Toronto.

Related LinkIllustration by Peter RyanThe Meaning of Hockey
by Stephen Marche

It’s a given that the true fan goes to games not for the necessarily occasional thrill of winning, but for the quotidian experience of losing — a truth articulated originally and beautifully by Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch. Losing in Toronto, however, is an unremitting condition. The CFL team, the Argonauts, is so bad that when I recently found a friend of mine betting on it, I immediately wondered if it was time for an intervention about his gambling addiction. As it stands, the Argonauts are 2 and 6 3 and 9 3 and 11. The Blue Jays this year aren’t completely terrible, but when you’ve said that, you’ve said everything. They may be a rising power in the East, as many claim, but they sure haven’t risen yet. The Raptors are still in their post-Bosh wilderness (not that the Bosh period was a golden age), and Toronto FC currently rests at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. The Leafs, who matter to Torontonians more than all the other teams combined, have not won the Stanley Cup since 1967, and they haven’t made the playoffs in a franchise-record six seasons. The only team with a longer dry spell is the Florida Panthers. The Leafs’ major source of hope seems to be Brian Burke himself, but when the major source of your dreams is a front-office guy, you are in a dark place. Cheering a GM, to me, is hitting rock bottom. (more…)

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Posted in Cities  •  2 Comments
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