Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

City Murmurs

Magazines and New Media Are Tapping into Our Cities’ Unconscious

You are standing on St. Laurent Boulevard in Montreal and a young guy named Lam-Thu tells you about the time a large banner advertising the film festival he works for was blown away by the wind, ripping brick out of the supporting wall and crushing a Volkswagen-the festival's main sponsor-that was parked underneath. On Bloor Street in Toronto, a woman named Jaclyn describes to you her crush on the man who changed the letters on the Bloor Cinema's marquee every night.

You don't actually know Jaclyn or Lam-Thu. In fact, they're just voices on your cell phone as you stand underneath a sign inscribed with a local telephone number and one cryptic word: [murmur]. An innovative initiative that aims to unearth the millions of personal stories and experiences that hide in the corners and crevices of our cities, [murmur] joins Toronto's Spacing and Montreal's Urbania as media projects taking a fresh, holistic look at our urban environment.

[murmur], which so far has a presence in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal (where it's known as [murmure]), sprang from the fertile minds of James Roussel, Gabe Sawhney and Shawn Micallef, then students at Habitat, the Canadian Film Centre's new-media lab in Toronto. "We wanted to create something that wasn't on a computer screen, something related to the daily life of people in Toronto," says Micallef. Armed with funding from (a Canadian Heritage/Canada Council pilot project), Micallef and friends turned their attention to Kensington Market, a tight-knit compact neighbourhood just west of downtown Toronto. Collecting audio clips was surprisingly difficult: "I thought it would be easy, but it totally wasn't," Micallef recollects. "People really undervalue their own stories."

Public response has been great: one person sent a letter to a Toronto weekly thanking [murmur] for finally giving him a good reason to buy a cell phone.

Canvassing the market's business owners and residents, seeking stories from friends of friends of friends, the [murmur] team finally found and recorded enough to launch the Kensington Market phase of the project in July 2003. Small signs mark the site of each story and passersby can phone the number inscribed and listen in. Soon, Kensington Market was followed by Vancouver's Chinatown (with stories in English and Cantonese), Toronto's Annex and Montreal's St. Laurent Boulevard (with stories in French only-there wasn't enough funding for translation). Public response has been great: one person sent a letter to a Toronto weekly thanking [murmur] for finally giving him a good reason to buy a cell phone. Ideally, says Micallef, it would be easier for ordinary people to record their stories without having to contact [murmur] and arrange an interview. "The only thing holding it back is money to pay for signs, phone lines and servers."

[murmur] may make you think of a museum audio guide, but in reality, it's entirely different. "What's unique about the way we've done it is that we've tapped into human storytelling," says Micallef. Instead of having the facts read to you by a voice actor, [murmur] is subjective and highly personal. "Toronto doesn't have that much of a mythology yet. What we have is tourist-level mythology. You don't get to hear about daily life on the street," he adds. [murmur] is exceptional in that it requires one to wander around aimlessly on foot, thus demanding close exploration of the city. The signs are not numbered, so there's no right or wrong way to explore. "It's a human-scaled narrative," adds Micallef.

Spacing is dedicated to Toronto's public space.

[murmur]'s philosophy is echoed by the Toronto magazine Spacing. Its message is evident just by glancing at its front covers: "We bring the city to life when we use it," declares one; "Everyone is a pedestrian," affirms another. Dedicated to exploring Toronto's public space, Spacing contains articles and photo essays documenting the streets, subways and hidden corners of Canada's biggest city. The public realm "is the place where we all bump into each other," says Micallef, who joined the glossy a month after it was launched. "If there were no public spaces, there would be no city." In one article, Matt Blackett, Spacing's creative director, bemoans the fact that Toronto recently outlawed the playing of games in public streets. He remembers when he and his childhood friends whiled away weekends playing street hockey. Now, "whenever I pass young kids playing hockey on the street, I internally salute them. They are some of the bravest revolutionaries we have."

Unlike [murmur], Spacing is overtly political. It challenges the ongoing privatization and commercialization of public space, affirming the importance of keeping a city's streets, squares and parks as dynamic places where all different kinds of people can congregate, interact and make their voices heard. "[Public space] has an effect on everyone and we should all have a say over it," Blackett says over the phone. And so far, people seem eager to do just that. At the Word on the Street festival last year, Blackett and Micallef were surprised by the diversity of people interested in protecting Toronto's public space. Both relate the story of a seemingly unlikely contributor to the discourse they're trying to foment: a soccer mom who complained about an inconsiderate neighbour who parks his SUV in the middle of her street's landscaped median. Part of the magazine's success, Blackett points out, is that "public space" is an umbrella issue that covers a multitude of different matters, from public transit to the quality of streets and sidewalks or laws that restrict loitering in parks.

Spacing encourages its readers to make the most of their public space by wandering aimlessly through the city and discovering hidden gems like the old bridge that is buried beneath a Toronto park. "We want to break people out of the usual way they look at the city," explains Micallef. "A well-written article can change the way you see what's around you."

For Locomotion, the magazine capitalized on an ongoing discussion about whether or not Montreal's taxis should be painted a standard colour, such as New York's yellow cabs or Tokyo's green ones. Urbania's suggestion? Hot pink.

That sentiment is echoed by Urbania, a two-year-old magazine based in Montreal. Initially founded as a design project, it was inspired by Colors Magazine's focus on people and communities around the world and soon became something more. "We would go and interview the people that give Montreal its colour," explains Philippe Lamarre, one of Urbania's founders. "For every issue we try to look at an aspect of the city that people don't really know about. Le feeling d'Urbania, c'est qu'on sort dans la rue [the feeling about Urbania is that we go out on the street] and we go straight to the people," he says. "There's no filter."

So far, the magazine has covered six themes: locomotion, commerce, sound, odours, vice and style. Each issue features interviews with Montrealers encountered on the street and in the metro, and each relates to Montreal's urban environment in some way or another. In the Vice issue, Urbania's European correspondent wrote about Amsterdam's red-light district and another writer mused about the creation of such a district in Montreal-maybe in the form of a big sexy theme park on Île Notre-Dame, not far from the casino. For Locomotion, the magazine capitalized on an ongoing discussion about whether or not Montreal's taxis should be painted a standard colour, such as New York's yellow cabs or Tokyo's green ones. Urbania's suggestion? Hot pink. "We received letters of complaint," chuckles Lamarre, but at least it got people thinking. "We need to communicate to people that the aesthetic is part of the character of our city."

A perfect example came when the street artist Roadsworth was arrested in December. Urbania was about to publish a story about him when they received news of his arrest. In response, they launched a petition to have the charges against Roadsworth dropped and published a photo essay of his work on their website. "He gives a very unique character to the neighbourhood that is his and his alone," says Lamarre. "When he was arrested we realized, 'My God, there are some really stupid people in Montreal who don't realize that he is an asset, not a fault.' As many visionary people as there are [here], there are just as many who are 'by the book.'"

Tiles in the St. Clair West subway station, Toronto.

When you think about it, what Urbania, Spacing and [murmur] do isn't all that different from Roadsworth's art: they add layers to the city, giving one a new perspective on the ordinary and the everyday. They're resolutely human-oriented, raising awareness of the need for public space, an environment that values its aesthetic and, above all, the need for a humane city. But their real message is this: Why sit here? Grab your coat and head out for a walk. Explore the back alleys and peer into backyards and courtyards filled with garbage cans, clotheslines and idle children's toys. Ride the subway and consider the faces of the people around you; take a closer look at the tile work of the stations, the subtle aspects of design that make a place unique.

And if you happen to find yourself in front of Urbania's studio on St. Laurent Boulevard in Montreal, head a couple of doors down, to number 3684. Give [murmure] a call. You're standing in front of where Café Méliès used to be, the voice on the phone will tell you. It will invite you to look through the big picture window, over to the left, where the famed French writer Marguerite Duras once sat, penning a ritornello: "Je t'aime, je te tue. Je t'aime, je te quitte" (I love you, I kill you. I love you, I leave you). The voice continues: "In 1981, she drank for ten days, sitting at the table, summoning all of her friends, her lovers, those who loved her, those who loved her sentences. ... In 1981, ten days gave us a mass, a mob, a gang of people marked for life. You're there before the window. She's sitting there, for a long time. Ten days."

You hang up and walk on, away from the ghosts of Café Méliès and Marguerite Duras, suddenly come alive.

Listen to Jaclyn or Lam-Thu's stories at the [murmur] Toronto and [murmure] Montreal websites.

When not wandering our streets, Christopher DeWolf is the editor of The Urban Eye appears every second Wednesday.