Pluralistic: Portraits of Queen West (13 Sept 2023)

Today's links

Page 8 of Kevin Steele's 'Portraits of Queen Street West,' showing a two panoramas of 471-499 Queen St West in Sept 2004, along with insets of Graffiti Alley.

Portraits of Queen West (permalink)

Portraits of Queen West is Kevin Steele's extraordinary photo-book, a work of "sequential art" featuring time- and space-series of a single – rather glorious – stretch of Toronto's Queen Street West:

Steele himself is as extraordinary as his book. I first ran into him through Mackerel Multimedia, the pioneering Canadian multimedia shop that he co-founded in the early 1990s – one of those art-school kids who discovered the Mac, fell in love with the radical possibilities of digital art, and changed the world:

Steele's pioneering work – in Hypercard, then CDROMs, then Flash – helped define the look-and-feel of the old, good internet; an urbanist feel that owed a debt to Toronto's most beloved adopted urbanist, Jane Jacobs. Steele and Mackerel made things that were beautiful and human-centered, human-scaled and human-adaptable.

Not for nothing, Hypercard presaged the web's critical "view source" affordance, which allowed people to copy, modify, customize and improve on the things that they found delightful or useful; this affordance was later adapted by other human-centered projects like Scratch, and is a powerful tonic against enshittification.

Mackerel didn't survive the first great multimedia mass extinction, but it launched the careers of a whole generation of talented web-writers and builders, and not just its former employees, but also the millions who were touched by its work.

I haven't seen Steele in person in decades, but I follow his work – not as a multimedia artist, but as an urban photographer. Kevin and I follow each other on Flickr – the once great and great again photo-sharing site that survived decades of abuse from Yahoo and Verizon before being taken indie and rescued by the Smugmug folks.

Back in November 2010, Kevin started posting photos of individual storefronts on Queen Street West to Flickr. They were painstakingly labeled and dated, and they multiplied. By the end of the year, there were a couple dozen of them:

A year later, there were hundreds:

Today, there are over 1,200 of these:

Now, I know Queen Street West very well. It was once one of Toronto's most bohemian neighborhoods, where my paternal grandfather's fellow refugee Benny Yack has his schmata shop and where my maternal grandfather took my mother and her siblings to trade in their comics for credit at cramped, crammed used bookstores.

I discovered Queen West as a pre-teen, thanks to Bakka Books – now Bakka Phoenix – the oldest science fiction bookstore in the world. I haunted Bakka, and, on the way, found myself drawn into the other stores around it:

There was Silver Snail, a massive comics shop, but a bounty of used bookstores, vintage clothing stores, thrift shops, the indescribably great electronics store Active Surplus and, later, nightclubs like the Rivoli, the Diamond, the Bovine Sex Club and the Zoo Bar.

For a critical decade of my life and more, the stretch of Queen Street that Steele obsessively documented in his Flickr feed had been the center of my life. I watched it thrive and grow – and then collapse into a kind of self-parody, as the original landlords (like Bakka's landlord) died, and their failsons and faildaughters kicked out longstanding tenants and replaced them with multinational "brands" that turned Queen West into a less-convenient, open-air version of the sterile Eaton Centre mall.

Steele, it turns out, was having similar feelings of dismay as the organic, grown, chaotic delight became groomed, sterile and homogenized. After a 2008 fire wiped out an entire block of Queen West – including Duke's Cycle, a city institution that eventually shuttered after more than a century of service – Steele began his documentation project.

Steele had started documenting the street in 2001, but that fire turned a hobby into a project. Over and over again, Steele returned to the street, meticulously photographing the same storefronts, capturing a time-series that eventually spanned 16 years, from 2001-2017. Steele gradually stitched these photos together into panoramic collages, reproducing whole blocks:

It is these "linear panoramas" that form the backbone of Portraits of Queen West. The book runs 162 pages, and it's meant to be read forwards and backwards – start from the front cover and turn the pages to see the north side of the street, along with insets showing details (like the storied Graffiti Alley), and then flip the book over and start again, seeing the south side.

For more than a decade, I've thrilled to my unexpected trips through Steele's time-machine, as he posted his space-and-time-series images of a vanished urbanism, an old, good city that paralleled the old, good web. I got a peek at a PDF of the new book that collects these extraordinary images and immediately pre-ordered a copy.

Steele and his publisher Black Eye Books are crowdfunding presales of the book on Crowdfundr; the book is CAD40 with shipping (there's also a deluxe edition at CAD55, which comes with a signed bookplate and six postcards):

After a string of ghastly mayors – each finding new depths of depravity, selfishness and mismanagement to plumb – Toronto just elected its first progressive mayor in a generation, the wonderful Olivia Chow, for whom I used to ring doorbells support of her city council campaigns:

Anything that can't go on forever eventually stops. The enshittification of the old, good web continues apace, but there has never been more energy to build a new, good internet – and banish the enshitternet of Big Tech to the scrapheap of history.

In the same way, Toronto's much eroded urbanism, pluralism and livability are both at their lowest ebb in my lifetime – and also at their most hopeful moment of the century. In 1998, the dead-eyed Romneyoid Premier of Ontario Mike Harris "amalgamated" Toronto with its suburbs, putting it at the mercy of car-addled out-of-towners in an act of gerrymandering that all-but-guaranteed that city residents' political choices would be swamped by suburbanites who could be convinced to vote for laughable Tory bumblefucks like Rob Ford.

Overcoming the gerrymander required a massive turnout – not merely a supermajority, but an ultramajority of politically motivated, organized, committed, pissed off Torontonians; Chow's election is a minor miracle that is part of the wave of other historic reversals, like the DoJ awakening from its coma to drag Google into court on antitrust charges.

We are a long way away from making a new, good internet that's a worthy successor to the old, good internet, and at least as far from a new, good Toronto that the people of the old, good Toronto would have built but for Tory wreckers and the Christmas-voting turkeys who elevated them to office. But both are possible – and both demand that we fight for them.

Steele's beautiful photodocumentary of one slice of that old, good city doesn't just memorialize the world we lost – it is inspiration for a world that is ours to win.

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

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