Toronto Parks Project

This summer, I have conceived a project whereby the sproglets and I visit new parks around the city of Toronto and then review them. I thought about starting a new blog for these reviews, but realized that they would fit fairly well into this blog, so over the next few weeks I will be starting a not-at-all regular blog series about Toronto parks.

These reviews will be really biased, highly personal, and very individualized. They will be based on my preferences and the way my children use the space. I will be asking my 5 and 2-year old to review the parks too, telling me what they liked and what they didn’t like, and will share their sure-to-be-fascinating insights!  However, I hope they provide some help to people looking to spend some time exploring all that Toronto has to offer in its parks!

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#ROMpeii Exhibit

Tourists taking photos of the casts at Pompeii

Tourists taking photos of the casts at Pompeii

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the display of human remains over the past year. I’ve written a few blog posts about it, and I’ve seen my views develop and change.

Tourists taking photos of the casts at Pompeii

Tourists taking photos of the casts at Pompeii

Visiting the ROM’s new Pompeii exhibit, #ROMpeii, gives me even more to think about. At Pompeii itself, I was first really upset by the way tourists seemed to not even be looking at the plaster casts of the victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. But then I realized that sometimes people need the distance that a camera provides to process horrifying things.  Similarly, some people are very conflicted about photography, selfies, and ‘disrespectful‘ behaviour at difficult heritage sites such as Auschwitz.

Discussions in the heritage community about the display of human remains can be complicated.  Exhibits need to weigh sensitivity and respect, with learning and knowledge, as well as keeping context on what happened and why.  Exhibits try to be sensational to draw attention, without being sensationalist and disrespectful.  It is a delicate, fuzzy line to walk.

Plaster cast of a dog from Pompeii, Royal Ontario Museum

Plaster cast of a dog from Pompeii, Royal Ontario Museum

The #ROMpeii exhibit, in my opinion, is walking that line quite tightly.  They are displaying plaster casts of victims, and some might argue that they have less context provided at the site of Pompeii, but that ignores the extensive description and explanation present in the exhibit.  Visitors to the exhibit walk slowly and purposefully through the space.  They are reading displays, contemplating the casts, and taking it seriously.  People are also taking photos.  But somehow I get the feeling that visitors are not simply experiencing the exhibit through their camera lens.

People visiting plaster casts from Pompeii, Royal Ontario Museum

People visiting plaster casts from Pompeii, Royal Ontario Museum

What’s the difference then?

Obviously the spaces at Pompeii and #ROMpeii are different, but both are excellent examples of thought-out, context-heavy exhibits that give visitors a chance to experience a past way of life and contemplate a horrifying disaster.  Is it the fact that the #ROMpeii exhibit has a surcharge associated with it on top of usual museum entrance fees?  Does this ensure that people take their time to ensure they gain the most from their visit?  It’s not like a visit to Pompeii is cheap though.  You need to get there, then pay entrance, you need someplace to stay in Italy, and everything associated with it.

Maybe the difference is scale.  The plaster casts are a tiny part of a visit to Pompeii.  People are trying to get the most from their experience, which means covering as much ground as possible.  Whereas in a museum, getting the most from your experience means going slowly and looking everywhere.

Should that mean that the casts should only be displayed in a museum then?  When people will take the time to go slowly and be respectful?

What does that even mean?  Be respectful?

Respecting the residents of Pompeii might mean standing and contemplating the plaster casts in silence, but it might also mean walking their streets and marvelling at how easy it is to imagine living there.  Maybe it means seeing the volcano in the skyline every time you look up, just as they would have.

The juxtaposition of the practical daily life that you can’t help but see as you walk the streets of Pompeii with the evocative reminders of the disaster that befell the residents is the most powerful thing that stuck with me after my visit.  Removing the plaster casts from the site and relegating them to a museum where they would be “respected” would remove that, sterilizing a visit to the city.

That isn’t ‘respectful’.

Forcing people to behave in a proscribed way isn’t respectful either.

What do you think?

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Respect and Remembrance

Yet another quick link to the difficult subject of respect and “dark tourism”.  This article discusses a personal reaction to seeing selfie sticks at Auschwitz.  The author had a similar reaction to my own on seeing tourists at Pompeii experience the plaster casts purely through their camera lens, as I wrote here.  Both of us were angered by what we interpreted as a lack of respect for the people killed, but slowly came to reassess our assumptions.

In the case of Auschwitz, the author points out that soon there will be no survivors of the Holocaust left, and people will only be able to learn about it from textbooks.  Does this mean that people marking their presence at these sites gains more meaning as survivors slowly disappear?  What does this mean for archaeological remembrance?  There are no survivors of the Vesuvius eruption – they are lost to time.

Really, the problem boils down to intentions.  We as heritage specialists philosophically understand that people learn and process difficult events and emotions in different ways.  The idea that people need to mark difficult events in our past in different ways makes sense, and we are open to that.  But as some of the specialists in the previous article point out that they are sceptical that people visiting Auschwitz in order to document the story and bear witness.

Does it matter what people’s intentions are?

Do we police behaviour based on intentions?

Are selfies always disrespectful?  Or are they ok if the subjects are processing the events?  What sort of timeline do we expect?  What if 15 years later, the selfie subject looks back and remembers their experience and has an emotional reaction to their visit, even if at the time it had no impact?

Does that make it ok?

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Colour Run 2015

Crowd at Color Me Rad 2015 Toronto

Crowd at Color Me Rad 2015 Toronto

Yesterday, I took part in the Toronto Colour Run, Color Me Rad 2015.  I’ve never done a race before, but I know that calling this event a race is really only possible in the most general of terms.  There is no timing of the event, no ranking, and no competition at all.  The entire point of this event is to get as covered in colour as possible.

Every 0.5K there was a colour station, where volunteers threw handfuls of colourful chalk or sprayed water guns filled with coloured water at the ‘racers’.  The atmosphere was closer to a festival than a race, with finishers gathering in front of a big stage to take part in ‘colour throws’.

It was a blast.

The weather was blisteringly hot, 29C with no shade, and a thunderstorm rolled in just as everybody was finishing.  But the mood was ecstatic, and the crowds were good humoured.  And crowds there were.  Apparently 14 000 people registered for this year’s colour run, and while the shuttles from the subway were frequent, traffic was bad, and lineups were long.  The starting chute was lengthy, with people waiting up to half an hour to get to the front and start the race.  Of course, many many people walked the entire course, but everything slowed to a crawl at each colour station as each participant attempted to get as much colour coverage as possible.  I saw people lying down and rolling in the accumulated colour on the ground, while standing directly in front of the volunteer was de rigour.

All I could think about while I ran though was how this event would mark the park in the coming days.

Color Me Rad is held at Downsview park in Toronto, and while I’m sure all the garbage would be picked up and carried out, I would really like to know how long the park would look ‘colourful’.  Some of the colour stations had plastic sheeting down on the ground in order to make clean up easier, but many of them didn’t.

Me at the finish line!

Me at the finish line!

As people finished the race, they got a ‘colour bomb’ to throw at each other.  This took place all over the place, and everything slowly got covered in colour.

Colour run shirt arm

Close up of my shirt and arm


My face

My face

Then, I took the subway home.

Close to the event, public transit was overrun with Colour Runners, but as I got closer to home, the effect was diluted until I was the only colourful/dirty one in eyeshot.  And I got eyeshot a lot.  I felt really conspicuous, but also really great.

I don’t think I’ll ever find out what sort of traces something like this leaves on the park, but I know I’m still washing blue out of my ears today

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Latrines and Public Toilets

Is there such a thing as a ‘private’ public space?  I’m not talking about privately owned space that is opened up to the public (will get to that someday), but rather spaces that are public, but provide privacy.  Is that possible?  Is it an oxymoron?

What about public toilets?

I certainly expect at least the illusion of privacy when I got into a public bathroom, though of course the ‘privacy’ walls between stalls don’t provide anything other than a visual barrier.  Even that is only the illusion if there is a child between the ages of 2.5-5 in there with you (hi under there!).  There is certainly no auditory or olfactory privacy!  I suppose men have even less privacy.  How does that even work at the urinals?  One of the great gender unknowables I guess.

I have this expectation of visual privacy though, and we in the modern West just pretend we don’t notice anyone else in there with us.

Pissoir, Paris 1865

Pissoir, Paris 1865 photograph by Charles Marvill

Is this true elsewhere though?  I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in various parts of the world, and am quite comfortable with the squat toilet.  However, while travelling in rural Cambodia we stopped at a small family-run roadside stop.  The guys I was travelling with just peed off the side of the road, but the threat of land mines meant I couldn’t just go into the jungle to find a handy bush.  The family that owned the restaurant showed me to their private toilet, which consisted of two boards to stand on, surrounded by a low curtain.  As the family children watched me, I demonstrated why locals wear skirts as the curtain wasn’t even as high as my hips and I couldn’t figure out how to pull down my pants while maintaining my dignity.  The existence of the low curtain shows that the locals desired privacy, though I didn’t get any.

Note to future self: when travelling in landmined areas, always carry a Shewee.

Roman toilets from Ostia Antica (by Fubar Obfusco)

Roman toilets from Ostia Antica (by Fubar Obfusco)

I’m not sure how prevalent this expected ignorance and imaginary privacy is though.  Certainly in ancient Rome, people had a very different view of elimination.  While people could relieve themselves at home in a chamber pot, and there were apparently a few rich folks with private toilets, there were also public latrines, where people would socialize and chat while seated next to one another on long benches.  This was clearly a public space and was clearly used for the creation of community.  People created and cemented relationships while on the john.  Can’t get more public than that.

So clearly public toilets haven’t always been ‘private’.  And in fact, there is the stereotype of the groups of women who head to the bathroom together in order to gossip, primp, and chat while out of the ‘public’ eye.

Interestingly, they have introduced ‘smoke toilets‘ in Japan.  These are public toilet cubicles with a transparent door.  The door goes opaque when someone enters, but if there is no movement for 35 seconds, the door goes transparent again.  Apparently, this has caused some concern!

No shit.


In many places these days, public toilets aren’t even freely accessible, requiring desperate people to pay to use toilets.  I have experienced this in Turkey, where captive bus travellers must pay to enter and use toilets at rest stops.  Theoretically, this money is used to pay people to clean the facilities and for toilet paper, but I have remained unconvinced.  This is also the case in many places in Europe, where electronic turnstiles keep people from entering until you’ve paid.  I do admit that this cuts down on the lineups and the gratuitous primping in front of the mirrors, but I resent scrabbling for a coin when I’m dying for a pee.

Does this make them less public though?  I suspect one of the main, yet unstated, reasons for the emergence of these pay toilets is to cut down on their use by homeless people.  This use of public architecture to control homelessness is something that has come up a couple of times on this blog (here and here, here), and I have struggled with the wider question of whether ‘public’ spaces that you have to pay to access are truly public (places like public pools for instance).  Does it change because bodily functions are necessary?

So when did we go from communal pooping to individual?  Should we have to pay to pee?  Are public toilets really public?


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Snow Clearing and Salinization

I have spent this past winter really angry with the management of my apartment building. Every other building on the street manages to get their driveway and sidewalk cleared of snow within a couple of hours, but pedestrians continue to struggle through the snow in front of my building all day!

As a Canadian, this makes me really angry. Clearing the sidewalk is a civic duty in my opinion, making it possible for people to move through the city despite the wintry weather. Today in Toronto though, many people and management companies just toss a tonne of salt down on the pathways and wait for the snow and ice to melt, but really only works to a couple of degrees below 0C. That just melts the snow, but is terrible for the environment, and stops working as it gets colder.  And then they have to deal with this in the spring.

Salinized ground

Salinized ground

Salinization beside walkway

Salinization beside walkway

Just dumping salt on the path means that the ground alongside becomes completely salinized.  Then they spend all spring and summer attempting to resurrect their lawn, before dumping salt on it over the winter.

Why can’t anyone just shovel anymore?

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Rainworks: Graffiti? Art? Who decides?

This morning, someone pointed me towards Rainworks, a company that has been decorating the sidewalks with art that is only visible when it rains!

What a fantastically fun idea!

What is interesting about this is that the creation of these pieces is not illegal, is not classified as graffiti, because it isn’t permanent.  If it were permanent, then it would be graffiti and would be removed.  How sad.

Does that mean that permanence is the only factor in deciding how people can contribute to their streetscapes?  It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, how it is perceived, or how it is experienced.  Only whether it lasts.

Do you agree?

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