Mike Filey's Ninth Toronto Sketches Reviewed


Readers of the Toronto Sun will remember Mike Filey’s many columns on The Way We Were. Each week since 1975, Mr. Filey would provide us with anecdotes about a Toronto that had long since vanished under skyscraper construction, urban sprawl, and the relentless march of history.

Many of his stories were also topical. For instance, in 2003, with controversy raging over the proposed bridge to the Toronto Islands, Mr. Filey recalled previous proposals to bridge the Western Gap. When controversy raged over the proposal to rebuild the streetcar tracks on St. Clair Avenue into a private right-of-way, Mr. Filey helpfully pointed out that the streetcar tracks were originally built as a private right-of-way, and that they’d been paved in as part of a make-work project during the Great Depression.

Mike Filey has also published almost two dozen books, also on the history of Toronto. His book, The TTC Story: the First Seventy-Five Years, takes a similar approach to Toronto’s transportation history, chronicling the development of Toronto’s streetcar network and the TTC in a series of anecdotes, each centred around a particular year or special event in the life of the city.

If you were looking for an in-depth history of Toronto Transit, you moved on from Mike Filey’s works to the niche productions of railfans like John Bromley (Fifty Years of Progressive Transit is still a much sought-after history of the TTC, even though it ends at 1975) or J.W. Hood (The Toronto Civic Railways is a definitive work on this little known agent in the development of the TTC), but I don’t mind saying that as a schoolboy, wide-eyed and eager for any information about transit in Toronto, Mike Filey provided the first inkling I had that there was a history out there. His books were accessible and full of interesting facts and beautiful, archival pictures.

And for most readers, that’s enough. Mike Filey is the historian for the rest of us. He works hard researching his pieces, uncovering archival photographs, but he isn’t interested in producing an academic tome. Instead, he breaks history down into the way we like it: interesting stories about interesting people, or interesting ideas that never quite came about as planned. He allows us to ask “what if”, or say “I didn’t know that!”. He turns the exploration of our heritage into the aftermath of a great treasure hunt, where we all sit around and marvel at the things we’ve found.

Dundurn has published a number of Mike Filey’s books. Eight of those books are entitled Toronto Sketches, and compile Filey’s columns from the Toronto Sun in convenient volumes. About a month ago, Dundurn sent me a copy of the latest, Toronto Sketches 9, knowing how I felt about public transit and history books such as these. It’s one of those perks about being published by Dundurn, and I was not disappointed.

Toronto Sketches 9 compiles Mike Filey’s Toronto Sun columns from 2003 to 2004. The book is almost 240 pages long and is full of interesting pictures, and Filey’s uplifting style makes each anecdote an interesting read. The stories jump about, touching on what was topical for those years, including earlier proposals to build a bridge to the Toronto Islands, to proposed tunnels beneath the harbour (touching on a similar proposal raised for Toronto’s Expo 2015 bid). After an unfortunate spree of shootings in Rexdale, he composed a column on the birth of Rexdale, and how it was named after fifties developer Rex Heslop. During the 2003 blackout, the loss of electricity inspired Filey to write (probably on pen and paper) about the CNE’s brilliant electrical displays, and the technologies it introduced to the public.

There are other columns that he wrote that don’t touch upon recent events, such as an explanation of why streetcar tracks ran down Eglinton Avenue between Yonge and Mount Pleasant (betcha didn’t know they were the forerunner for a proposed streetcar line between Bayview and Bathurst!), but that, along with his engaging writing style, is how Filey connects with his readers. His stories are almost uniformly engaging; even the sting of the demolition of a 100 year old bank building at the corner of Wellington and Church into what is now a Pizza Pizza establishment is soothed by a pun so groan-worthy, I may have to slap Mr. Filey the next time I see him. It’s no wonder that Mike Filey’s formula has served him well for almost thirty years.

Dundurn has treated Mike Filey’s Toronto Sketches well, producing an attractive, well-bound paperback book. Hardly a page goes by without a black-and-white photograph. The book is easy to flip through, allowing you to land on a story at random and reenter the narrative. The colour images (of 19th and early 20th century paintings of Toronto) are well produced, although the fact that there are only two (on the cover) makes me want more. And if anybody at Dundurn is listening, I suggest that one of the next books they put together are a series of colour photos or painting reproductions, as much as possible showing early Toronto in colour.

Toronto Sketches 9 is a great book to have by your bedside. It’s style will engage serious historians looking for light reading, and the rest of us, who will be transported back in time. It is available at better bookstores everywhere and through Dundurn for $19.99 plus tax.

Now that I’ve seen Dundurn’s Fall/Winter 2006 catalogue, I’m pleased to announce that my mother, twice-published and Silver Birch-nominated author Patricia Bow, is joining the Dundurn fold. Her book, The Ruby Kingdom, a fantasy novel for ages ten and up, is due to be released in February 2007. I’ve seen the cover, and I think it looks great! Dundurn knows how to treat its publications well.

I’m also pleased to announce that my most recent article for Business Edge is now available in the June 8th Ontario edition. The online version of the article can be found here. The piece is about an intriguing Waterloo-area growth industry: think tanks. Amazingly, 150 operate in and around the Region of Waterloo and the City of Guelph, and they have no shortage of things to think about.

With luck, my next article will be on the role educational institutions have had in revitalizing the cores of southwestern Ontario cities. I’ll be focusing heavily on Brantford and Cambridge for this piece, which I hope to submit to the editor in the middle of next week.

blog comments powered by Disqus