Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Presentation Time: Writing About History

Last Friday (March 7), I gave a lunchtime presentation on writing about Toronto history at the Arts & Letters Club. The following is the text of my talk:

Canadian Authors Dinner at the Arts & Letters Club, 1930s. Photo by George W. Latta. Toronto Public Library - see their website for a larger version.
Looking up “history” in my desk dictionary, the first meaning listed was “tale, story.” It’s a meaning sometimes lost when people discuss history. To some, our past is little more than facts and statistics. That’s fine under certain circumstances—compiling appendices for a larger work, refuting the claims of politicians, cramming for trivia night. But having piles of factoids and numbers lodged in your head isn’t helpful without the contextual stories behind that data.

There was a point in my writing career where I fretted about being called out by online commenters who harped on minor facts I overlooked in an article, or nitpicked about obscure details. My girlfriend at the time, who often proofread my work, asked who I was really writing for: the nitpickers, who will complain regardless of what I write, or the wider audience, who is more compelled by colourful stories and engaging storytelling? The answer was the latter. She knew that while historical accuracy is important, so is finding resonances with readers.

Which leads to one of my first questions when I start an article: why am I telling this story? In my work, the news cycle often dictates this: an anniversary, a festival, a death, a major project announcement, an idiotic uttering from city hall. In other cases, I’ve stumbled upon an interesting tale and hope others will be just as fascinated. There have been pieces I’ve researched but abandoned because I couldn’t find any compelling reason to write about them, or failed to find any interesting tidbits. Just ask the files for the Golden Lion department store which have sat on my computer for years.

Future Story Ideas Folder
A fraction (and I mean fraction) of my "Future Story Ideas" folder, which drew a stunned reaction. Hey editors, if any items you see here appeal to you for an article, drop me a line!
Many good story ideas come by accident. There are days where hunkering down at the microfilm reader yields nothing for the story I’m working on, but provides seeds for half-a-dozen future pieces. It can be as simple as a catchy headline, an editorial cartoon, or an unusual advertisement. I store these finds in a “future story ideas” folder on my computer, which rescues me when inspiration runs dry, or when the current news cycle suddenly makes these stories relevant.

Here’s an example of a story I stumbled upon. I was flipping through Toronto Life’s year-in –review roundup for 1985, and found a story about a “patty war” in Kensington Market. Seems a keener government food inspector tried to prevent several vendors from marketing Jamaican patties as beef patties because they don’t fit the federal criteria for a pattie (aka a hamburger). Crazy story, right? I investigated, and it turned into one of my favourite articles. It was the kind of absurd tale no comedy writer could invent, eventually involving diplomatic staff, provincial politicians, and a “patty mediator.” 

Speaking of politics, it’s a godsend to historical writers. Gaffes, disagreements, major development decisions—all of these are great opportunities to provide historical context. Talk about tearing down the Gardiner? Create a gallery post depicting the genesis and construction of ourbeloved elevated expressway. Potential battles over Porter Airlines’ expansion demands? Discuss the evolution of the Island airport. Flip-flopping on how to provide public transit in Scarborough? Review the history of the RT.

Early in the Ford administration, I was stunned by how many local historical parallels I found for the latest round of Crazy Town (but not so much post-crack video—folks, we’re in uncharted waters). Doug Ford wants a monorail in the Port Lands? Write about councillors who tried to convince theTTC to build one along Bloor Street during the 1950s. Council rebels against Mayor Ford? Write about times where other city councils tried to oust a mayor or vote against them en masse. Giorgio Mammoliti spouts off about opium dens? Cue a piece about a lengthy investigative series from a 1890s newspaper.

A sample screen capture used in the presentation.
With the upcoming election, this year is going to be a busy one in terms of historical political stories. Currently, I’m writing a monthly series for Torontoist profiling our past mayors, and have plans for other one-off stories—for example, I’ll likely write an installment of Historicist covering the mayor’s race in East York in 1966, one of the first local contest where the two main candidates were women, set against a backdrop of the amalgamation of East York and Leaside.

I feel the political stories help inform the public about what has shaped our pressing issues, and why it feels like we tread the same ground over and over and over and over…honestly, writing about Toronto’s political history feels like a broken record at times. People making the same mistakes over and over again to save a buck or their seat. I cry every time I see proposed TTC expansions from the 1950s through 1970s and realize the unbuilt lines on all of the maps are the same lines we’re still dithering over.

Heritage architecture is a prime source of material, especially when it’s threatened or integrated into new developments—projects like Mirvish+Gehry, the conversion of the Concourse Building into the Ernst and Young Tower, and the proposed Loblaws near Fort York. It also spurred regular writing assignments for me, such as the Ghost City column I wrote for The Grid for a year. Digging beyond address and facades reveals so many hidden layers—like the old cliché goes, if only buildings could talk…

All of these stories are tied together through the use of historical context. I cannot emphasize how important it is for me to provide readers with proper context. There is nothing I hate more than seeing historical photos posted online with little-to-no background provided. Sure, they look cool, and you can let your imagination run free as to what might be going on, but a little more detail, a little more colour commentary would be appreciated. Back in university, there were times I felt like a freak—more in my English classes than History courses—compared to peers, and the occasional professor, who believed in deconstructionist theories which separated works from their context. Bull. Our actions, our thoughts, our environment shape our thoughts. Actions don’t happen in a void.

When Kevin Plummer and I launched Torontoist’s Historicist column in 2008, there weren’t a lot of regular history columns about Toronto published online. Nowadays, there are all kinds of great resources and storytellers out there, each with their own unique take on Toronto’s past.

(At this point, I showed images of other local historical websites, including The Toronto Dreams Project, Toronto in Time, and Historical Maps of Toronto.)

As all of us who chronicle our city’s past have learned, anyone who thinks Toronto’s history is boring, and that nothing ever happened here has barely scratched the surface.

Star Archives Search Page
The basic search page for digging into the Toronto Star's archives, via the Toronto Public Library.

One element helping the boom in local historical writing is the increased availability of research material online. There is no way I could crank out as much work as I do without resources like the digitized archives of the Star and the Globe and Mail available via the Toronto Public Library. These databases allow research to occur at any time, rather than an institution’s normal service hours. I wish Google News’s brief experiment in uploading historical newspapers had happened, given it was inching into Toronto-related material, and I would love it if a philanthropist would fund an effort to digitize the Telegram. The Toronto Public Library is rapidly improving its online historical resources, via improved scans of photos and ephemera, and PDFs of documents like 19th century city directories. The City of Toronto Archives does great work with the photos it has uploaded—it also has a great system for creating lists of material I want to view when I need to drop by for a visit.  

Fort Malden, early 1970s
Fort Malden, 1970s. Photo taken by my father.
I suppose it was inevitable I’d end up writing about history. I grew up surrounded by the past. My hometown, Amherstburg, played key roles in the War of 1812 and the Underground Railway. To the north lies Detroit and the legacies associated with the automobile age, racial tensions, and urban decay. My father was a high school history teacher who collected a personal library whose size was on par with a small Toronto Public Library branch. A newsstand flowed into our home—up to five daily newspapers, tons of magazines—which he clipped and filed for future research use by his students. To store the material, he helped local supermarkets recycle their leftover cardboard boxes after they were emptied of fruit and formula. I won’t mention how many rooms of our high school his clipping collection filled over the course of 30 years. I was the only person in my family who didn’t enter the education field…yet in a way I did, teaching my readers the importance of understanding Toronto’s present through its past.

I'd like to thank Lloyd Alter for inviting me to give this presentation, and Andrew Simpson for providing technical assistance. 

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