Something to Build On: An Interview with Shawn Micallef

Part of what I discuss is how fluid definitions of class are; they’re more about relative social standing and self-perception than simple income figures.

Shawn Micallef is the author of The Trouble with Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure (Coach House Books, 2014), Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto (Coach House Books, 2010) and Full Frontal TO: Exploring Toronto’s Architectural Vernacular (Coach House Books, 2012) and a senior editor and co-owner of the independent, Jane Jacobs Prize–winning magazine Spacing. Shawn teaches at the University of Toronto and was a 2011–2012 Journalism Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College. In 2002, while a resident at the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab, he co-founded [murmur], the location-based mobile phone documentary project that has spread to over 25 cities globally. Shawn was the Toronto Public Library’s Writer in Residence in fall, 2013.

The following interview was conducted via email in summer 2014.

 Jason Freure & Tyler Willis: The Trouble with Brunch is a “book about class,” and you focus on three classes: the working class, middle class, and “creative class.” Can you summarize the differences?

Shawn Micallef: It’s difficult to summarize them. Part of what I discuss is how fluid definitions of class are; they’re more about relative social standing and self-perception than simple income figures. Class is a sensibility and by far most people feel they are middle class, even if they aren’t. In the book I point out that Obama once referred to people who might be sweeping a shop floor and the company CEO as all being middle class, so the term is almost meaningless. That said, “working class” jobs are, generally, more menial or have less agency and less control over the work. It means being told what to do, rather than deciding, in some way, what to do. That said, many working class people in unionized workplaces make what might be considered middle-class money. But their approach to the work, to the world, is different. Sensibility. It’s ephemeral and hard to pin down, and why writing this book was difficult. The creative class is a useful broad term to describe a subset of the middle classes who are in creative industries and who more than likely have precarious employment.

JF & TW: In the chapter “The Middle Class to the Brunching Class,” you write that creative workers are highly individualistic and reluctant to view themselves collectively. Partly, creative workers need to differentiate themselves to be competitive. Instead of organizing around the common concept of “intellectual labour,” you argue the creative class identifies with brunch. Can a labour organization form around consumer identities?

SM: This is the theory forwarded by Richard Florida in his book Rise of the Creative Class that underpins part of this chapter. His book is quite fact-based, relying on loads of rigorous studies that suggest identity formation happens through consumption in the so-called creative class. Once you read the book you quickly realize that many of Florida’s snarkier critics haven’t, in fact, read it. However, the suggestion is antithetical to traditional labour organization formation. Leftist politics have tended to reject or dismiss consumerism as a problem to be solved. Consumerism may indeed be insidious, but I try to make the point that everybody is doing it anyway, across the political spectrum. Traditional lefties often conspicuously identify with farmers markets and organic purchases and the like. I expect some push back from ideological lefties, but just look—nearly everybody constructs their identity, at least partially, through the things they purchase or the way they shop (and other “lifestyle” pursuits). Maybe it’s something to build on.

JF & TW: Richard Florida can be a contentious scholar to cite, but you use his book to understand how the creative class identifies itself around lifestyle more than work. Do you anticipate any backlash for largely accepting Florida’s creative/service class categorizations?

SM: Not as much backlash as the identity-through-consumer-lifestyle ideas, but I found his descriptions of the creative class sympathetic to those in the service class who have as much precarity in their employment, but much less control over what they do. I mention in the book that I don’t see why the service class couldn’t benefit from a stronger class identity and consciousness in a similar manner as the creative class.

JF & TW: On one hand, your new book is a criticism of urban pursuits of leisure. In the same book you criticize the opposition to condo developments, especially in Toronto’s already gentrified neighbourhoods. How would you respond to the charge that condo living is only part of the same middle class leisure lifestyle?

SM: I was careful not to condemn leisure pursuits, middle class or otherwise. They’re good things. We need leisure; it makes life worth living. Condos are certainly part of the middle class, but they’re just homes for people above all. Maybe they’re marketed via lifestyle images (condo marketing is some of the wackiest marketing there is), but they are the future of the city. We should stop calling them condos and call them apartments. We can’t build any more single-family homes. I brought condo opposition in because it’s a set of middle-class people, homeowners who can afford a house, trying to keep out other people who can only afford a condo and who simply want to share the same neighbourhood. It’s an incredible hypocrisy and why a more critical look at one’s own class is needed.

JF & TW: You often write in praise of public art exhibits and installations, such as “Gardiner Streams,” some of which are funded by The Percent for Public Art Program. Do you think the city could do as much to foster or fund the artistic process as they do the finished product? Should Toronto be working harder to support freely accessible public spaces where artists can work?

SM: I think so, yes. It’s a thing all economically vibrant cities face, where those rougher, affordable spaces get renovated and the the artists get priced out. There is the Artscape model in Toronto, where new spaces are created for artists, but it isn’t enough. (Editors Note: Artscape is an organization that facilitates the construction of affordable live/work spaces for artists.) Messy, less regulated space is needed. It does exist, but it’s in the inner suburbs, a little farther away from the epicentre of bars and galleries that artists like. But it isn’t that far out. Look to places like Weston and south Etobicoke. Sometimes you can go by a generic warehouse and hear a band playing inside. Also, all the unused space in apartment building parking garages could be repurposed. A band plays in a cinder block room in my garage. The reverb is wicked.

JF & TW: Do you ever write in public?

SM: I mostly write from home. Quiet, and there’s a dog to pet when needed. But sometimes cafes, and sometimes late nights at a local pub. The ubiquitous Firkin chain is actually a good place to write. Just sit there and type. I find bars are easier to type in than cafes. Loose.

JF & TW: Ossington Avenue’s gentrification and the proposed Kensington Walmart frame your discussion of how middle-class lifestyle values shape Toronto’s urban landscape. Is there any means to check privileged homeowners’ NIMBYism [“Not in My Back Yard”-ism] and open up downtown Toronto to a broader economic spectrum?

SM: The solution is multi-faceted. Certainly we need an effective and robust affordable housing policy in place to provide housing in an increasingly expensive city that prices entire populations of people out. But there needs to be a deeper change, or reflection, or realization of privilege, because condo developments will be opposed with the same language and with the same objections used against affordable housing. NIMBYism is one of the most conservative forces in big cities, one that (again) crosses the political spectrum. This isn’t about opposing bad developments and crappy design, but there is just such intense NIMBYism about everything in general, it’s like once anybody makes it, gets their spot in the city, they kick the ladder out from under them rather than helping the people behind them up. It’s destructive and misanthropic.

JF & TW: As much as developers literally build the city, there are other ways to shape the places we live. When Alistair McLeod passed, you wrote a piece for the Toronto Star in which you said, “great novels and novelists connect people and places in ways we may not have noticed on our own, but once we see those connections banged out in print they become permanent in our brains and real out on the street.” You suggest that a novel can change the way you interpret the city. What kind of effect did your experience of living in Toronto have on reading McLeod’s novel? Can this relationship between city and text be inverted?

SM: I think so, probably in ways that rub up against the world the author created. Fiction authors have liberty in creating the world their characters inhabit, even if based on real life places. Sometimes descriptions of place are vague, just light brush strokes that could be a number of nearby places, like the Spadina doorway that McLeod describes in No Great Mischief. So I found I was reading, or adding, the geography I knew into the book, making places fit where I wanted them to fit. Perhaps knowing the setting of a place is similar to how our imaginations fill in the parts that the author doesn’t mention.

JF & TW: Are there any other Toronto books that have had a similar effect on you?

SM: With fiction, there’s always In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. I can’t go over the Prince Edward Viaduct without thinking of the nun falling, an event that didn’t happen, but it might as well have. More recent is Michael Redhill’s Consolation, a book set in both Toronto’s early days and the contemporary city with condos going up along the waterfront. Passages from it linger around the city for me. Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For is very much about the living, breathing humans who inhabit the city, a book that really “fleshes out” the streets, lending back-stories to random strangers I see on the street.

JF & TW: Given the reciprocal relationship between a city space and its literature, do you notice Toronto literature being affected by any of the upscale trends you see happening downtown, like the proliferation of brunch and gourmet cupcakes?

SM: I don’t think I’m qualified to answer as I’m behind on my contemporary Tor-Lit reading, but you do see these lifestyle trends endlessly looping through the media. The same places are written about over and over, so it’s inevitable that it will seep into the literature. I recall a passage from Russell Smith’s 1994 book How Insensitive where he describes the hip early 1990s bar scene at Yonge and Eglinton. It’s the same sort of thing. The authors will follow where the people go, and write about what they do.

JF & TW: As literary periodicals are often intimately tied to the places where they are produced, magazines and journals are arguably a city’s best conduits for contemporary writing. Are you noticing any new trends in Toronto magazine culture?

SM: Toronto has always had a rich print history, with magazines coming and going. Now, though, it’s showing up online a lot more, with individual writers with their own blogs, and even Twitter, which I think can be included in all this, as some Tweeters provide incredibly rich ongoing stories of their Toronto lives. But there are old-school print start-ups like Little Brother magazine, which gives lots of space to up-and-coming Toronto writers. There’s also the Toronto Review of Books, keeping the tradition of the review alive in Canada with loads of reviews and essays, on books and beyond.

JF & TW: Returning to the topic of class, how do you imagine a creative class union would operate, if such a thing could be developed? Could it work like ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists)? What would be its goals?

SM: I was careful not to use the word union in suggesting some form of organizing between creative workers. I didn’t want to be prescriptive. Perhaps a union could work, but I’m not sure. ACTRA still functions like an old-fashioned industrial union as the film, TV, and radio industries are limited, where individual producers and productions are more easily regulated. Other creative types work across so many fields, from computer programmers to furniture designers to university instructors. I hope the book nudges people to think of their work and lives in ways that connect to other people in similar situations more directly, though they may do different things in different places.

The goals would be “fixing” or mitigating precarious employment. There are already some MPs working on this in Ottawa, particularly Andrew Cash, an NDP MP from Toronto, but I was mainly focused on getting people to think more critically about class, and their place in the class strata.

JF & TW: The service class is usually written about as a kind of underclass, but it can be as diverse as its creative counterpart in terms of income and lifestyle values. A “service worker” might be anyone from a single bartender who enjoys a three-hour brunch to a brunch cook supporting a family, or even a unionized LCBO clerk. Does the service class face challenges to forming a class-consciousness similar to those faced by the creative class?

SM: Indeed, and one that is even more fraught. In this sense, the service class has much more in common with the working class, as traditionally defined. With the decline in industrial manufacturing in developed countries, the service class is the de-facto working class. It might be helpful for the service class to identify as such.

JF & TW: Brunch, farmers markets, and “extreme food” like the CNE’s cronut are all examples you use of how food and shopping for food can become a conspicuous leisure. How do you see restrictive diets, like veganism, relating to class?

SM: I’m a vegetarian, not a vegan, so it’s relatively easy for me to find things to eat in big cities. It’s only when I go to places without a big middle class that I find it harder. At working class restaurants sometimes French Fries are the only vegetarian option. You need to already be somewhat comfortable in order to make a lifestyle choice like veganism. You need more time to shop, as appropriate food might be farther afield, and it might be more expensive. Again, I’m not condemning this activity, I’m just hoping the class privileges and restrictions around such things are recognized and talked about more.

JF & TW: In your first chapter, you describe an almost decadent ignorance of Toronto’s class divisions:

I moved to a city where I was suddenly consorting with a large population of people who rarely know how close that edge is, though there are many Torontonians who struggle, living lives like many people in Windsor do or did, in a city that’s even more expensive and hostile to those with precarious employment or limited income. Instead of worrying about it—instead of doing something about it—people were obsessing over brunch. If Nero were around today, he would have brunched as Rome burned. What is it about this class of people that keeps them from seeing the fire?

In your most damning passage on Toronto’s middle class, brunchers are not just blind, but also callous to the economics and politics of their leisure habits. Could greater class-consciousness in the creative middle class change its consumption standards?

SM: I don’t think people would consume less, but perhaps their choices would be better informed, led by both trends and fashion, but perhaps some critical thought to what those purchases are. Looking at the class implications of consumption patterns could only help us appreciate the lot of the people who make things for us.