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Taras Grescoe

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Mover and Shaker

How Globe-trotting Montreal journalist Taras Grescoe recast himself as an urban transit expert

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, Bogotá, 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.

“It’s a transition he’s come by honestly,” says Jim Gifford, executive editor for non-fiction at HarperCollins Canada and Grescoe’s Canadian editor since The Devil’s Picnic. (Prior to that, Grescoe had been published in Canada by the defunct Macfarlane Walter & Ross, a former imprint of McClelland & Stewart.) “He lives what’s in these books. He’s not just looking for a new topic and thinking, ‘Oh … I’ll find a way to write about it.’”

Grescoe also notes the change in his recent work. “The last two books [Straphanger and Bottomfeeder] have been these polemical ­travelogues in a way, where I try to mix some of the virtues of travel writing – being observant, doing pen portraits of people and sketches of scenes that will keep readers engaged – but also try to bring in some substantive ideas and come to a conclusion.”

“I like a lot of muckracking journalism,” adds Grescoe. “But I think I did that more in Bottomfeeder, where I was trying to get to the underside of an industry. [In Straphanger], I’m poised between despair and hope.”

Whether despairing or hopeful, Grescoe’s conclusions are underscored by copious amounts of research. The bibliography for Straphanger cites nearly 300 articles and books, and Grescoe enlisted his wife (an instructor at a Montreal CEGEP) for what he describes in the book’s acknowledgments as “the thankless task of transcribing.” Over the years, Grescoe says he has accumulated “huge stacks of file folders filled with papers and articles,” though the recent move to an office seems to have been an opportunity to purge. “They started taking over our home, so now I’ve started donating them to Concordia [University]’s archives,” he says.

In recent years, Grescoe has cut down on some of the pileup by going digital. “I used to keep a travel journal but no longer seem to have the time,” he says. Now, he travels with notebooks and a digital voice recorder, as well as “a little Flip camera for recording film clips, a digital camera, and, increasingly, an iPhone, because I’ve started Tweeting my experiences.”

With the release of Straphanger, it seems inevitable that Grescoe will spend even more time on the road. In the years he spent researching and writing the book, the zeitgeist has shifted again, and urban transit has become a hot topic – especially in Canada’s largest city.

“When Taras first started talking to me about this book two or three years ago, Toronto was one of the stars,” says Gifford. “I remember Taras saying [that] Toronto and Philadelphia – older cities with some really good infrastructure – were the cities to look to as models for the future.”

However, as his research progressed, Grescoe, who was born in Toronto, realized the city was no longer the transit leader he remembered. By the time he was ready to submit the book to Henry Holt, he’d dropped the Toronto chapter in favour of entries on Vancouver and Montreal.

Since then, Toronto has elected a suburban, pro-car mayor whose vision for transit in the city has provoked an angry backlash. As a result, Grescoe reinstated a revised Toronto chapter for the Canadian edition.

“It would be pretty hard to do a book like this in Canada and not address what’s going on in Toronto,” says Gifford. “He just couldn’t afford to not write about it. It would be a big outstanding question in the media every time he spoke about [the book].”

In the meantime, Grescoe is taking advantage of what little downtime he’s going to get this year. Near the end of our interview, Churchill and Desmond, asleep in his BabyBjörn, drop by for a visit. Cars seem to be an inevitable part of parenthood, but Grescoe, who considers himself reasonably representative of contemporary urban fathers, resists the notion that he’ll eventually have to own a car.

“I spent half my lifetime as a pedestrian and a cyclist and a transit user,” he says. “Now I’m a dad pushing a stroller around. And you’re not going to get anyone more passionate about defending his neighbourhood than a new dad being run down by minivans and SUVs.”