Alumni Profile: Urbanist and Author Shawn Micallef

By Carol Neshevich ● July 21, 2017 14:00

Shawn Micallef

Shawn Micallef considers himself to be a lucky man. As a writer, editor and lecturer specializing in cities and urban issues, he gets to spend his days working on projects that fascinate him and makes a living doing work that he truly enjoys. As we all know, though, this kind of “luck” doesn’t spring from nowhere — Micallef has clearly worked hard to craft his own unique career path.

Not only is he an urban columnist for the Toronto Star, but he’s also an editor and co-founder of Spacing magazine (an independent, Jane Jacobs Prize-winning Canadian magazine dedicated to exploring the urban landscape), and he’s authored several books, including 2014’s The Trouble with Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure and 2017’s Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness. He also teaches classes at the University of Toronto, and was recently host of 2016’s Accidental Parkland, a documentary about Toronto’s ravines and waterfront.

In 2002, Micallef was a resident at the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab, where he co-founded [murmur], a location-based mobile phone documentary project that began with Toronto and has since spread to more than 20 cities around the world. Here, we chat with Micallef about his fascination with cities, the challenges and rewards of “cobbling together” your career, and the valuable lessons he learned during his time at the CFC.

Cover of Spacing magazine

Where did your interest in cities come from?

Shawn Micallef: I think it came from growing up in Windsor, Ontario, and sort of being in between two great cities. We had Detroit on the north side of the river, so we had a front-row view of Detroit in all its greatness: great buildings, great culture, but also its heartbreaking decline. At the same time, the great Canadian city — Toronto — was up the 401, four hours away. Toronto was kind of this gleaming Oz-like city that we visited on occasion, that was decidedly not Detroit, and always seemed to be on the up and up. Newer, shinier buildings all the time, subway systems and streetcars, like an electric nervous system running through the city. So I think between those two things — seeing a city in decline (even though Detroit has come back since I grew up with it), and then seeing Toronto, the city that did not have the grand beginnings that Detroit had but seemed to be growing into grandness — it was really interesting. My fascination with cities had always been there, but once I moved to Toronto after I finished grad school, I got deeper into it.

What fascinates you about cities?

Micallef: Cities have the potential — or maybe sometimes the illusion of potential — for infinite excitement, like an onion that you can continuously peel and find new layers of. New layers of people, new layers of culture, new layers of archaeology, physical or otherwise. It’s a bit like the way you walk through a library and randomly pick books off the shelf and discover stuff. That’s what a city is like to me: constantly exciting, sometimes confounding and frustrating, and sometimes all these different emotions and feelings wrapped up in the same block.

Looking back at your career achievements so far, what would you say is one you’re particularly proud of?

Micallef: I think my greatest achievement is that I’ve gotten to work on projects I really like working on, and sometimes get paid all right doing it. These projects have taken me around the world. I’m doing things that I really, really enjoy doing. Somehow I’ve cobbled together what I sometimes think of as a “makeshift career,” because it is so cobbled together, and it remains exciting.

What have been your biggest career challenges along the way?

Micallef: The precariousness of it is a bit of a challenge. I think I’m pretty stable because I feel a bit like an octopus —not necessarily with eight legs, but definitely several legs — where I write books, and I write for the Toronto Star, and I teach, and I have time to do other projects. So if one of those things stops, I’ll be held up by the other ones. That’s kind of a good place to be in, but it does sometimes seem tenuous. While I do and have done okay and am in a good place, I’m still not making as much money as if I’d gone to law school or something like that. These are the things you think about early morning on Sundays when you’re half asleep and you wonder, did I make the right choices? But then I realize — and this comes back to your previous question — that I actually really like doing what I do for a living, and that’s luckier than most people are in the world.

Describe your time at the Canadian Film Centre. What did you take away from it?

Micallef: I went to the CFC in the summer and fall of 2002, which is suddenly a long time ago, although it still feels like yesterday, because it was such an important moment. Even when I pass by the CFC today, I still get the same feeling that I had back then: it was terrifying, because I was embarking on something new, but being in this creative space also really allowed me to coalesce these amorphous ideas that I was excited about into something that seemed productive. I met people who both nurtured that and collaborated with me on the project that ultimately became [murmur]. It was a really exciting time to be working in the digital realm with mobile devices. In 2002, old-school cell phones were just becoming ubiquitous in Canada, so we were able to, at the right time and right place, be in this space where we could create a culture project and deliver it over mobile devices, and be among the first wave of people doing these kinds of projects. It was only being at the Film Centre that allowed us to step into that moment.

[murmur] (2002 IAEP Prototype) from CFC Media Lab

Do certain things you learned at the CFC stick with you today?

Micallef: I think being at the CFC gave me a head start in understanding how humans and technology can interact with each other. As technology changes faster and faster, my early deep dive into technology, human behaviour and human consumption gave me an advantage in other projects I’ve worked on since, whether it’s digital publishing, or things like having fun with Twitter and using Twitter as an interesting tool as a writer. It’s given me an inherent appreciation of technology rather than a fear of it.

It also taught me how to be a little entrepreneurial about things, to make things happen and seize opportunities as they come up. Before I went to the CFC, I hadn’t an entrepreneurial cell in me. It just wasn't part of my upbringing. So I think being comfortable with taking risks was another thing that it taught me.

Cover of Frontier City book
Any interesting projects on the horizon? What are you working on right now?

Micallef: I just published a book in February called Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness, and that kind of consumed two and a half years. I had just come off another book before that, so I went from book to book. This summer is actually this really wonderful time when I’m not overloaded for the first time in a few years. Right now, I’m thinking about what the next book project will be. I’m reading a lot this summer, which is that thing that always gets squeezed out, despite being what I do. I actually feel really guilty to do that. I have to remind myself that this is work. It’s luxurious work, but it’s work.

How do you envision your career evolving in the next few years?

Micallef: I see myself, ideally, continuing to write books. In the last couple of years, I’ve also had pangs of wanting to do something in the digital realm again. We retired [murmur] about two years ago, after a decade’s run. We gave it an elegant retirement. And I kind of miss it. I miss that world. I really like writing books and writing in the newspaper and teaching, but there’s a different kind of excitement about putting creative energy into a digital project. So that’s somewhere in the back of my head. I’m always wondering: is there somebody to collaborate with on a project like this? Is there interesting technology that might make something I’m interested in get delivered better? I kind of have a vision of where I’d like to go, but I’m also open to whatever opportunity might come down the road, and it’s thrilling and exciting to be in that position.