Sunday, 26 May 2013

Behind the City Scenes at Doors Open Toronto

What? Doors Open Toronto! An annual city-wide event that grants one-time access to buildings and locations not normally accessible by public. For urban-nerds like me, it’s an opportunity to get a behind the scenes look at how Toronto operates and the people/things that keep the city running. Doors Open Toronto has celebrated this 14th season this weekend, showcasing ‘over 150 architecturally, historically, culturally and socially significant buildings across the city’. The Toronto version of Doors Open is the original prelude to a province-wide event, now larger than ever with cities and towns all over Ontario participating. The best part: everything is absolutely free. Just show up and get ready to enter a world beyond the day to day.
Endless rows of documents at The Toronto archives
Where? We visited three sites over the period of one day in Toronto: The Toronto Archives at Spadina and Dupont, the Spadina House (aka ‘Spadina Museum’) just above Davenport, and Lower Bay Station. We had to pick and choose but you really need two full days to cross off everything you are interested in – and even then it would be difficult to do as most locations don’t open until 10 – 11am and close at 5pm, and many are only available for one day. Our advice is to really focus on the top 3 – 5 places in your list and keep a few more in case you find yourself with some buffer time.

I can say with confidence that I could easily spend an entire day at The Toronto Archives – a municipally operated storage and archival centre for all things City of Toronto. Copies of original Toronto maps dating to the early 1800’s can be viewed, council notes read, artifacts from significant locations available – you can even do research on the history of your house, including who owned it first and when it was built.

The Spadina House (aka ‘Spadina Museum’) was also a wonderfully preserved piece of Toronto History, but kind of dragged on throughout the self-guided tour. Unless you’re a detailed history buff, old houses kind of all look the same, regardless as to how many rooms are actually shown. Lower Bay Station, an unused subway station below the current ‘Bay Station’ and the stuff of folklore within urban exploring circles, was fun for about 7 minutes until you realized it just looked like a subway station. But knowing some of the most popular films featured scenes filmed on-site made it a little more special.

Lower Bay Station
How? A TTC family day pass is probably your best bet – allowing for unlimited public transit use for multiple riders at a time at the relatively cheap price of $10.75. If you plot out a route to maximize your time you get the most from Doors Open.

Go Again? I would definitely give Doors Open another crack (how punny!), especially because I had a positive experience this year, not only with the sites but the helpful and knowledgeable staff. I’d obviously choose different locations. Whether you’re new to Toronto or a veteran citizen, there’s always something worth learning at these events.

Friday, 24 May 2013

5 Betcha' Didn't Knows: Toronto

Toronto: a city of many identities, cultures and approaches to life. A place that never really gets tired of itself and continually finds new ways to recreate its fabric. But like any established urban area, Toronto holds onto little known facts and secrets that charm the people and communities within its ever expanding boundaries. The more intimate you become with its grid-iron history and financial bourgeois, the more you learn about each little quirk hidden behind the surge of life in The Big Smoke. Below: some of the lesser known aspects of our fair city.

1)   Front Street was Toronto’s Original Shoreline

It’s kind of a scary thought when you consider that everything South of Front Street (Harbourfront, The Port Lands, The Rogers Centre, The CN Tower and Lakeshore, to name a few) exists on infill land that was not so long ago covered in lake water. I mean, seriously…The person that decided ‘Hey, I think we need more space in Toronto…Why don’t we just create more land?’ and then proceeded to direct people to throw a shit ton of dirt into Lake Ontario until a large portion of it disappeared must have had some pretty ridiculous sized gonads.

If you look closely, you'll see them mounted on a steeple.
This massive campaign to extend the shoreline began in 1850 and lasted over 100 years until we can only presume it was decided that we didn’t want to live any closer to Americans. Today, little evidence exists proving just how far we actually got, but if you walk from Union Station to The Esplanade and imagine what it would be like to swim that same distance, you’ll probably build an appreciation for one of Toronto’s biggest engineering feats.

2)   The Junction was Under Prohibition Until 2000

It’s hard to imagine what prohibition was like, especially because most people on earth weren’t around during its heyday. Rather unfortunately, for the good people living in Toronto’s Junction Community, many don’t have to stretch their imagination too far. Here, the ban of alcohol sales and consumption lasted until late into the 20th century.

AND caused one of the most hilarious protests ever.
This restriction is partially responsible for rapid economic decline during the post-industrial age of the 1970’s and beyond – around the same time Toronto was all like ‘screw you, poor people!’ and successfully annexed The Junction, furthering the marginalization of this community. The commercial areas along Dundas West were all but alive until prohibition was lifted in 1997, causing an influx of local bars and eateries and (inevitably) hipsters to help re-boost its economy. And people wonder what good alcohol can cause.

3)   ‘Little Italy’ Isn’t Italian

It would be silly to name an area after an ethnicity that isn’t actually prevalent there, no? One might assume so. Turns out you assumed wrong. Welcome to Toronto’s ‘Little Italy’, a place that couldn’t be more Portuguese, according to Census Canada. Now take a walk along College Street West and really pay attention to the signs and advertising alongside gelato shops and bakeries; most are owned and operated by people of a Portuguese background. In fact, a fairly large area that should rightfully be named ‘Little Portugal’ would span South of College to Queen and Northwest to St.Clair.

Which begs the question: why the hell is it called ‘Little Italy’? Actually, there’s a (not necessarily good) reason: marketing. When it comes to attracting tourist dollars, ‘Little Italy’ translates to suave, lush and authentic when ‘Little Portugal’ doesn’t really translate into anything. Branding communities like this, while ultimately economically viable, doesn’t always represent its members accurately, so watch out for those misnomers and don’t let a name influence your perspective.

4)   ‘Cabbagetown’ isn’t Irish.

In another twist of misinformed irony, recent demographic studies show that the Toronto jurisdiction currently known as ‘Cabbagetown’ (usually an alias for a place that is dominantly Irish) is actually devoid of Irish people. In fact, the original Irish settlers in Toronto occupied what is now Regent Park, Moss Park and Corktown - South of the aforementioned area.  

You see, similar to the plight of ‘Little Italy’, ‘Cabbagetown’ was the victim of a marketing scheme designed for profit instead of accuracy. Because Regent Park was a virtual slum for thirty years before its current redevelopment project, ‘Cabbagetown’ was relocated – only the people remained in the same place and the more expensive properties to the North assumed the new name. While it remains an attractive prospect to live in ‘Cabbagetown’ today, you’re actually just moving into an area full of non-Irish, old white people. But go ahead and decorate your lawn with shamrocks, anyway. It’s not like there’s any Irish people around to get offended. 

Totally a place people want to live.

5)   There’s a Cemetery Full of Babies Under Yorkville.

So many dead baby jokes could be made right now. It’s completely true, and gravely apparent (zzzing!) during almost every construction project when little baby skeletons are unearthed by bulldozers. Before Yorkville was paved and spattered by condos and upscale boutiques, it was a secular cemetery for families that couldn’t afford proper burials. Known as ‘Potter’s Field’, an estimated 6700 people were laid to rest there, including many prematurely deceased babies. Not creepy at all.

Look behind closed doors and secrets become apparent. In Toronto, there’s no end to the things you can learn if you’re interested in digging a little. Just don’t dig in Yorkville.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Garage Sale-ing in Swansea Village

What? A favourite pastime of Canadians of all backgrounds living in cities: the garage sale. Yes folks, get ready for dozens of miscellaneous baskets filled with useless trinkets you hoard in your basement until you yourself host a garage sale. North Americans aren’t always given the opportunity to haggle, but when it comes to garage sales you better get your bargaining on or you’ll wind up with a bed spread that you paid for half over the depreciation value.

Where? Swansea village, just below Bloor West and beside High Park. A community full of white people anxious to turn their front lawn into a gypsy market. Roam the streets off Windermere and Runnymede on a Saturday morning and you’ll find dozens, lining the sidewalks with electronics from 1950 and crime mystery novels.

When? Some unreasonable hour in the morning, usually during the summer months and on weekends.

Who? To be completely honest, I was visiting my Grandma who I am certain was a wealthy salesperson in a previous life. Give this woman a marker and random house junk, then watch as the magic of selling things that could have been donated to Goodwill anyways lands you tens of dollars after an eight hour day. We all love it when Grandma holds garage sales because she also feeds us hot dogs and wine. This is one person who takes selling household items seriously, and has it down to a very fine art. We love you too, Grandma. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

4 Great Things People in Their Mid-Twenties Can Still Get Away With

As a child, the world seemed infinite and powerful. Everything was worth exploring and your quest for learning was never complete. Then you awkwardly stumbled into your teens and began to understand society as a parasitic cesspool of evil people trying to take all your money, make you miserable and punish you with irrelevant rules you were desperate to challenge. Once you finally tasted freedom after crawling from the terror gauntlet known as 'high school' you began to take gratuitous advantage of things like legal drinking and credit cards....That is, until all the people your parents warned you about who were actually trying to take all your money, make you miserable and punish you with irrelevant rules succeed in doing so.

Words from my favourite TV show character. 
Enter your mid-twenties: a time in your life when you can make decisions with the wisdom of earlier years and have fun without all the serious repercussions. It's arguably the best part of your life with the least amount of responsibility, and that makes a whole lot of awesome. While I hit my exact mid-twenties this week, I am apt to speak of all the things we quarter century old humans are ripe to take advantage of (and get away with). The list is just wonderful, and can include things like:

1) Mooching

Times have changed in the most mind-bending, absurdly different ways, as they tend to do while humans continue to surmount every impossibility ever. One great way things are way different than they used to be lies in the case of young adults, many of whom are recent grads entering the workforce and trying to sketch some sort of path in life. Because of the recent emphasis on post-secondary education over the past few decades, 20-something year olds are spending more time in the classroom and less time in places like wedding chapels, full time jobs and namely vaginas (at least unprotected vaginas).

'Please, sir...I want half my tuition back'
Because of our current tendency to settle down much later in life, we've been given the social normative nod to stay more financially dependent throughout this stage of life. It's still okay to take money from older people who actually have a decent credit rating and something called 'disposable income'. We may not be operating on the most liberal budget, but the generation of young adults in the 21st century has a hell of a lot more they can do than their much more limited predecessors. There's no shame in accepting some support in doing what you really want.

2) Partying

Sometimes I really question Google Images.
Yes, our youthful bodies are still amazing capsules absorbing alcohol and pizza at a rate that will not sustain itself later in life. Remember this the next time you're downing jello shots like they're absolutely essential to your being on earth. Our recovery times consist of a sleep in and greasy breakfast and we're primed for a new night of turning our bodies into a jar of sanitizer. In ten years that shit will take an entire week before we've totally purged ourselves after a night of binge drinking.

Partying also serves an equally important function for us (other than turning into the worlds best male belly dancer): social networking. Indeed we go out because we're at the height of our social lives and combining a hip venue with excessive drinking is the best way to broaden your connections. This urge won't last forever because other things become more important, but when you have the time and energy to invest in this aspect of life you'll want to squeeze out every drop of relationship-building-ness. 

3) Travelling

Young people make excuses for this one plenty of times over, but for most people in their twenties travelling is completely feasible. There won't be any other time in your life when you'll have this kind of mobility, so take advantage of it and go where you've always wanted to. Secondly, the type of travelling your body can afford at this point isn't going to last forever. If you wait until you're old and falling apart to go anywhere, chances are you'll be watching the world pass from a wheelchair inside a climate-controlled old person tank. 

On the other hand, this is totally a bus I'd want to be on.
That fear you feel when you know you can drop everything and go somewhere far away is usually what stops you from embarking - that's usually where the excuses come from. But I've never heard any traveled person tell me they wished they hadn't gone and stayed home and settled down early. That just doesn't happen. In fact, generally ignoring any want of travel now results in lots of regret later on, so what are you waiting for? GET OUT THERE!

4) Risk-Taking

Then again, I'm probably not the best person to be
advising on risk taking. 
Perhaps scariest of all is our ability to take risks. Now is the time to try as many new things as possible, experiment and learn about yourself. Our quest for self-knowledge is never as pertinent as it is in our twenties, but with great learning comes great risk. Luckily, at this point you probably don't have that much collateral, and having little to lose means your options are plenty. Yes, there is always a chance you'll pull and epic failure and fall flat on your face; but at this age, your recovery is minimal. 

Much of your success here will rely on resiliency - something that may be a bit of use when you're older, too - so why not build it early? Heck, if you can't take a few hits, what kind of stories will you have as a senior? Your grandchildren will think you're a smelly old boring fart because you always listened to your parents and followed all the rules. Please....don't be THAT guy. For your sake and your grandchildren's. 

I've hashed out a small list with a big impact on your mid-twenties. There's certainly more to add, but currently I'm too busy mooching, partying, travelling and risk-taking to write out the rest. Let's hope you are, too.

Safe Travels,

Aaron Turpin

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Google Maps: My Virtual Love Affair

Human kind has, throughout its own history, attempted in many ways to challenge both time and space through various medium for the purpose of ‘species introspection’; knowing more about the ourselves by leaving our own environment. Perhaps one of the most telling examples of this abstraction is the map - a tool used over the past 3000 years by humans to gain a new understanding of the world, fueled by a universal desire to see a place in its entirety. Maps have been created and used in every corner of the world and have changed form and shape over time. Our modern maps are dramatically different to the scrawling cuneiform once produced by early geographers and cartographers.

On its own virtual surface, a mapping system like Google Maps seems one-dimensional and unchanging. Insert your desired coordinates, point and click and you’re given direction. But a more intense critique of this online interface uncovers its many layers as a landmark tool of human interaction. Select street view for an interactive 360 degree display of your neighbour’s front lawn or the Burj Khalifa or even the Great Coral Reef and Grand Canyon (both new locations to explore on Google Maps). Google earth transforms the map into a topographic representation of the world, including towering mountain ranges and deep canals.

An image that perpetually fascinates me - Earth at Night.
I fell in love with Google Maps after I began to travel Canada and would use it to plot itineraries and en route destinations. Identifying an approximation of the duration of your trip, including traffic, weather and road conditions while also learning about local attractions all in one website was (and still is) incredibly helpful. Fueled by an amateur geographer like myself, Google Maps is the perfect place to better understand a place like Canada.

Recently, Google maps has opened its program to anyone interested in an effort to openly share knowledge on places and things in every corner of the earth. Users can now upload photos, write reviews and create videos of their own travels, building a network of media-savvy explorers who can connect with each other’s experiences. This trend, known as ‘Post-modern Cartography’ by academics, is rearranging our traditional ideas on what a map is and what it can do.

The effect of seeing the earth holistically gave human kind an appreciation that could not have been experienced before the creation of maps; the planet we experience from above is not marked by borders, but geographical diversities, light pollution and vast deposits of land and water. From this vantage point a place like Canada is vast wilderness blotched with cities and towns. This phenomenon – known as ‘The Overview Effect’ – is the exact sensation teased out after spending some time in a place like Google Maps. Philosopher David Loy describes this rush: ‘To have that experience of awe is, at least for the moment, to let go of yourself; to transcend the sense of separation.’

In the case of Google Maps, we find plenty of examples of how nature and humans are interpreted and re-interpreted by users and creators, forming a map that transcends mere topological information. At this juncture the opportunity for a platform that becomes subject to its users has the potential to change shape throughout time. I do not wish to frame Google Maps as intrinsically good or bad, but a technology that absorbs the values we project unto it. Interactivity in map making broadens its use as a reciprocal tool, having impact on both the user and the used. The future of Google Maps depends on this new form of engagement, and just how it will continue to change is increasingly subject to who is behind the screen.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Desmandre! Mark Yan at La Revolucion Mexican Bar.

Who? Singer/Singwriter Mark Yan and friends performing on the back stage at La Revolucion bar.

Where? 2848 Dundas Street West - just east of Keele Street and in the heart of the Junction - a place known for superior local bars and eats.

What? This place fits perfectly into the junction scene - an unassuming appearance and laid back vibe that only complimented the melodic selections from Mark Yan and company. Yan kept an audience attentive by offering many acts throughout the night and sharing the stage with talent from across Toronto. While you're enjoying the tunes you can also indulge in the delicious Mexican food options served late into the night, including mountains of nachos, taquitas and fresh guacamole. La Rev is also one of the few bars in Toronto that serves a Mexican beer called ‘Tecate’ that is a great pair with the filling dishes.   

Recommendations? I had the ‘El Burro’ and would definitely re-order. The wrap wasn’t small, but it wasn’t the size of a freakin’ body pillow like other places. It comes with your choice of beef, chicken or veggies (I had the herbivorian special) and is nicely seared for an optimal seal and crisp. I’d also recommend the Enchiladas. For you drink-only visitors, try the margaritas. I could have eaten a bowl of the rim all by itself. Is that gross?

Go Again? I can and I will. Mark Yan is a regular host at the bar and is sure to put on a great show. Not to mention the Junction is a great place to bar hop in general and La Revolucion is a must en route. A mere three days before Cinco de Mayo and I got my fill of Mexican food and hospitality…But, as the good folks at La Rev would remind you, it’s never too late to celebrate.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Moving In (Out)

Moving. Is there anything more sucky?

We don’t always consider what goes into transferring everything you have from one place to the next, even if everything you have isn’t that much to begin with. Safe to say I was reminded of the many headaches involved when you decide you want to do everything in one day, which always sounds logical in theory but never ends up being easy, especially when U-Haul sends you to a distributor who doesn’t even rent trucks anymore and you’re stuck standing on the side of Dufferin Street on the phone to a customer service lady who can’t quite figure out why you would book with someone they cut ties with long ago even though the website gave no inclination of this. Not like that happened to me or anything.

"...and THIS box is for when I throw up!'
On the other hand, there’s nothing like moving to remind you of all the stuff you didn’t think you accumulated between now and the last time you moved. The trinkets purchased at Goodwill, school books that were too expensive to throw away and all the kitchen equipment that sounded like a good idea when you bought it but just ended up sitting in the dark chasm of some cupboard for eight months. Those things are usually haphazardly thrown into rickety cardboard boxes from the grocery store and wind up broken by the time you unpack them at your new place. Which reminds me – why do you think we end up producing so much garbage by the time we’re finished moving? Why couldn’t I figure out that all the stuff we threw away on the day we moved was garbage before putting them in boxes?

All said, we’re in and we’re not going anywhere for a while, because I will die if I have to move again anytime soon. We often underestimate how long it may take us to acclimatize to a new space – at least for me the effort can be long-term. If an environment is what you make of it, we’re sure to create a loft that represents our character. But getting used to a new place is totally different and involves some sleepless nights and a month of forgetting where I put things. Once I’m over that phase, though, our loft becomes a home – and thank the moving Gods for when that happens. 

Ain't Yo Mama's Pancakes at the Caledon Family Restaurant

What: The Caledon Family Restaurant, previously known as ‘Flapjack’s’, but recently changed after the original owners sold it. Google Maps doesn’t even know this, and I am told the name change was about the only thing that was made different here – same staff, food and service that has attracted people for years.

Where: On Highway 10, about 45mins North of Toronto and close to the terminus of Highway 410. Literally in the middle of a farm. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: this isn't even in Toronto, to which my response is simple - close that blithering trap of yours and fill it with food at The Caledon Family Restaurant. You’ll see why I wrote about it.
Ohhhhhhhhh sweet sweet God. 
Eats: Three words: All. Day. Breakfast. We had Eggs Florentine, a Spanish Omelette and the ‘Breakfast Special’, complete with home fries and pancakes to cure our hangovers. The portions were generous and they even gave us an extra pancake after the kitchen ‘accidentally’ made more than the order. This was a very good thing, as we found out.

Best Parts: Holy Gods of the batter kingdom unite; these pancakes are off the chain. Easily the best flapjacks I've eaten, and I’m not a huge fan of them.  The homemade mix is buttery, light and fluffy beyond my wildest dreams. Combined with their homemade strawberry jam compote, I think I died and went to a very delicious world of country breakfast foods. The rest of the meal was also rather appetizing – rich hollandaise topped poached, runny eggs, fried potatoes and perfectly brewed coffee.

What really added a tone of goodness, though, was the atmosphere. This place reminded me of the mismatched breakfast spots in middle-of-nowhere locations along the Trans-Canada Highway, despite its close proximity to Toronto. Genuine country hospitality presents itself in the friendly service, oak furniture and tacky wall decorations. I was taken back to rural Canada and the places I miss when in the city.

Go Again? Absolutely, but I probably won’t get to because I don’t own a car. The only drawback of The Caledon Family Restaurant is it’s inaccessibility to commuters, but a getaway to the Greater Toronto Area’s wilder places would make a perfect excuse to stop here. For nature lovers, the restaurant is close to great conservation areas and parks worth exploring like the Cheltenham Badlands, Mono Cliffs and Forks of the Credit. You can even visit after a night of camping illegally, which is totally not what I was doing.  Regardless, this place has garnered a reputation well beyond Caledon and has even been featured on You Gotta Eat Here. Next time you're cruising rural GTA, make sure you stop by The Caledeon Family Restaurant.