Goin' down the road

Goin’ down the road

It feels like months since I’ve gotten out for a good ride but I was finally able to hit the (dirt) road yesterday, heading out into the farthest reaches of Scarborough. With the country roads, fields of corn, tangled meadows, and overgrown forests, you’d never know that you were still inside Toronto on the municipal street grid. But then you pass one of the familiar bike route signs (seen here at the rural intersection of Beare Road and the wonderfully-named Plug Hat Road) and you know that you’re still within reach of civilization:

Bikeway network signs at Beare and Plug Hat

This isolated corner of the city is plagued by illegal dumpers and it shows in the informal signage along the roads:

Informal signage on Reesor Road

In the last couple of years, northeastern Scarborough and neighbouring northern Pickering has become one of my favourite cycling destinations. The best thing about riding there (or almost anywhere) at this time of year and in cool, rainy weather is that you basically have trails and roads to yourself.

"How do I know you're not some kind of…weirdo?"

Warped perceptionI stood on a North Toronto street earlier this week pondering the question that you had just tossed in my direction. If only I hadn’t left my “Non-Weirdos of Canada Club” membership card in my other pants.

This was the second time in about three years  that someone has challenged me for taking pictures on the street. The previous occasion involved a business owner on the Danforth who became quite belligerent after I took a picture of a ghost sign directly above his establishment. By the time he said he was going to call the police on me, I said that I was feeling threatened enough to call them myself, and pulled out my phone to do so. Unsurprisingly, he skulked away when I started dialling. Also unsurprisingly, the business—new at the time—lasted less than two months.

That experience came flooding back into my mind as you continued, “I’m going to go inside now and call the police…” If you’re serious, I’ll wait right here for them. You’ve essentially handcuffed me anyway; if I use this as my opportunity to walk away from your accusations,  it’ll just heighten your suspicions.

Why is it exactly that having a camera and taking pictures in public places marks someone as a weirdo? Or, more commonly these days, a terrorist? Good thing I didn’t have a “professional camera” with me. And even if I am some kind of weirdo, what exactly do you think I’m going to do when I get home with my illicit booty consisting of a picture of a quiet residential street?

“You can’t just go around taking pictures of people…” Actually, yes I can. If I’m standing on the sidewalk, I can take a picture of anyone or anything I can see. I may or may not be able to publish it, but there’s no law preventing me from taking it. That said, there are almost never people in the on-the-street pictures I take, simply because some people don’t like it and I really don’t want to deal with the hassle. Cars and rocks don’t usually get offended when they find themselves in front of my lens. I frequently go out of my way to keep people out of my pictures, and there certainly weren’t any in the two pictures you just watched me take.

“It’s an invasion of privacy…” Cars and grass have no privacy rights. Sorry.

“I can’t just let you come around here, taking pictures of kids…” Excuse me? Do you see any kids anywhere around here? I certainly don’t. I understand that you’re concerned for your children, but don’t accuse me of endangering them by taking a picture of something else entirely while they’re inside a school at least two blocks away.

“Our house was robbed a couple of months ago…” I’m sorry to hear that. Mine was broken into a few years ago and I know how terrible it feels. But I don’t see what that has to do with me unless the guy who broke into your place was armed with a point-and-shoot camera.

“If I see you in the neighbourhood again, acting all weird…” Can you define weird for me? I work just a couple of blocks away and this is on one of my regular commuting routes, so you’re pretty likely to see me again. Carrying my camera and stopping every once in a while to take pictures, is that weird? You might as well just call the police now and get it over with.

“How’d you like it if I took a picture of you?” How do I know you’re not some kind of weirdo? But seriously, go ahead. I’ll even pose for you. You’re welcome. We really should have turned around so that the sun was in front of me; you won’t get any detail in my face with that shot. Oh well.

“Where do you live? How’d you like it if I came to your house and harassed you?” Five minutes ago, I would have been happy to introduce myself and tell you all about what I do with the pictures I take in residential neighbourhoods. I even would have pointed you to this blog. But now that you’ve announced your intention to harass me, no thanks.

“Next time, you should just take your pictures and then leave.” Hmm, that’s exactly what I was doing when you drove your car in front of me and started treating me like a criminal for having a camera. If I’m guilty of anything, it’s of attempting to respond to your questions even though it’s clear you’re not interested in the answers.

But now that I’ve had some time to think about it, let me get back to your original question. Simply put, you don’t know that I’m not a weirdo. And you never will. But I can assure you that carrying a camera, or walking in a residential neighbourhood, or riding a bike, or wearing a purple t-shirt, or even not shaving for a week (guilty!) doesn’t make me any more or less of a weirdo than if I didn’t do any of those things. It’s a sad statement on the state of our society when the mere act of taking pictures is enough to make me a suspect in some imagined crime. Anyway, I’m sure I’ll see you around the neighbourhood again, but it won’t be by my choice.

I'm from the government, and I'm here to…

 Greenwashing

expropriate your farm, board up your house, and let much of your land lie fallow while we spend 40 years trying to justify building a huge and unnecessary airport on prime agricultural and ecologically sensitive land. Um, I mean, I’m from the government and I’m here to preserve your green space.

(Doublespeak at its finest, as seen on the site of the still-on-the-books Pickering airport.)

The perfect way to spend a Saturday night

Robert Cray brings it at the Kitchener Blues Festival

Robert Cray headlined a rainy Kitchener Blues Festival on Saturday night, belting out a 90-minute set to the soggy faithful. After a day of off and on torrential downpours and thunderstorms (which apparently scuttled some acts earlier in the day), the skies cleared for good about half an hour before Cray was scheduled to begin his set. After more than 20 years of listening to his incredible guitar playing in my headphones, usually late at night while working on the computer, it was a pleasure to finally see him perform in person.

Pedestrian infrastructure, suburban style

 Boldly going where no pedestrian has gone before

I’ve long thought that there must be some provincial regulation requiring municipalities to install pedestrian signals whenever they reconstruct a signalized intersection. I’m all for the idea, but implementations sometimes trend toward the bizarre.

Take, for example, the intersection of Highway 7 and Westney Road in rural Pickering. It’s near the hamlet of Greenwood, with Valley View Public School just down the street and the Pickering Museum a country block away, but I highly doubt that more than a couple of pedestrians grace the intersection on the busiest of days. There are no sidewalks anywhere around here. Yet pedestrian signals and their activation buttons stand guard over each corner of the intersection, just waiting to be pressed by the hapless soul who finds himself lost here. So far so good. But when you look closer, you realize that with no sidewalks and corrugated beam barriers sheltering the buttons at three corners, the only way to activate them is to stand on the road. On the fourth corner, pedestrians have to climb a small weedy hill to press the button:

An inconvenient button

But even better than the activation buttons are the curb cuts, dutifully guiding people in wheelchairs and with baby strollers into the guardrails and onto non-existent sidewalks:

Curb cut to nowhere

Curb cut to nowhere

The whole thing smacks of some bureaucrat following the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.

Signs of velleity

No access to LCBO

An old article in Slate declared that the Random House Dictionary contains the best definition of velleity:

1. volition in its weakest form
2. a mere wish, unaccompanied by an effort to obtain it.

That is precisely the word (and definition) that came to mind when I first saw this sign guarding a driveway leading to the LCBO store on Yonge Street north of Davisville Avenue. The driveway joins two small parking lots, one that serves the LCBO store to the north and another that serves a smattering of other stores to the south. At some point, someone must have decided that they no longer wanted LCBO customers using the southern lot and the connecting drive. But in the place of an actual barrier to block access, this sign was erected to declare what is quite demonstrably untrue, as both cars and pedestrians regularly cross the unbridgeable (yet smoothly paved) chasm to access the LCBO store’s main entrance.

The bilingual nature of the sign indicates that it was almost certainly erected by the LCBO. Bad attempt at traffic control, or psychological experiment? You be the judge.

A version of this article originally appeared on Torontoist.

House on the hill

Lonely house on a hill

I came across this curious sight out near Guelph this past weekend. The old house, no doubt saved from demolition by a heritage designation, sits in the middle of a large lot that has been scraped clean of soil and flattened for what is sure to be a completely unremarkable subdivision. The patch of soil the house sits on is now maybe 8 feet above the surrounding terrain. The interesting thing is that there’s absolutely no sign of action here: there’s no equipment on site, no sales pavilion, no signs, no building material, nothing. It’s almost like someone just wanted to cart away all the topsoil and leave behind a moonscape.

The view reminded me of this spectacle last year in China.