In the May 2012 issue of Q&Q, Montreal writer Juliet Waters spoke to globetrotting journalist Tara Grescoe about his latest book, Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile (HarperCollins Canada), which was nominated this morning for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction.
Last November, Taras Grescoe and his wife, Erin Churchill, then nine months pregnant, boarded the number 80 bus en route to Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital for a routine ultrasound. When it turned out that Churchill’s amniotic fluid was dangerously low and labour needed to be induced on the spot, one thing the couple didn’t have to worry about was the exorbitant cost of parking a car in the hospital lot.
It’s a story that could easily have been taken from the pages of Grescoe’s latest book, Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, published in April by HarperCollins Canada and by Henry Holt in the U.S. In advance of its release “ and four months after the birth of his son, Desmond “ Grescoe and I are at a café on St. Viateur Street in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, a few blocks from the office he has started renting since becoming a father. It allows me to focus, he says. And I even enjoy the tiny commute.
The café is packed with artists, video-game developers from the nearby offices of Ubisoft, young families, and Portuguese soccer enthusiasts. Best known as Mordecai Richler territory, Mile End is a streetcar suburb built in the early 20th century, a living example of Straphanger’s thesis: that cities which expand naturally through train sprawl are more livable, safer, and communal than the suburban sprawl created by freeways. It’s an insight that took Grescoe to Shanghai, Tokyo, Moscow, Copenhagen, BogotÃ¡, and Paris, to name fewer than half the cities featured in the book.
Gresoe’s globe-trotting approach has served him well in his career as a writer and magazine journalist. Sacré Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Trough Quebec (2000), which appeared soon after he had moved to Montreal from Vancouver, was an ironic and irreverent take on his adopted province. His two subsequent books, The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists (2003) and The Devil’s Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit (2006), remained solidly in the travel-writing mould.
However, his previous book, Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood (winner of the 2009 Writers’ Trust Non-fiction Prize) set out in a somewhat different direction, marking Grescoe’s transition from travel writer to travelling writer. The book, an investigation into the huge environmental costs of overfishing, was as filled with adventure and vivid (albeit sometimes stinky) detail as his earlier work, but it also contained a prescriptive element, as Grescoe tried to establish “ as much for himself as for the reader “ guidelines for eating sustainable seafood. The ethical turn dovetailed nicely with the zeitgeist, benefiting from and helping to fuel interest in the locavore movement that had been touched off by books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The 100-Mile Diet.