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Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown

by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall

At some point, most writers encounter The Travelling Writer. “I’m also a writer of sorts,” this person will usually say, “but I only write when I’m travelling to other countries because I find so much exotic material there.” Instead of a swift kick, I’d recommend giving any such person a copy of Down to This. Here is a book that proves travel writing is not always about other countries, it’s about discovery.

Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s debut is one of the best travel books of the year, even though he stumbled only a few blocks from an East Toronto flophouse to a waterfront shantytown full of crack addicts. The book is a rambling, diary-style account of the 10 months Bishop-Stall spent living in Tent City, a collection of shacks scattered on 27 acres of land owned and left unattended by Home Depot.

Why is he there? The author tries to spell out his reasoning, but it’s never completely clear. Partly he’s researching this book. Partly, it seems, he’s a self-destructive boozer bound for homelessness himself. Bishop-Stall is quick to point out he was well raised, well educated, and has loving parents. It’s obvious from the beginning he’s different from the other residents – his teeth haven’t turned brown.

Whatever his true reason for going, Bishop-Stall sticks it out. He stays. It’s this quality he shares with the great documentarians. His face is pulped by a German with a two-by-four. Rats scuttle beneath his shack, but Bishop-Stall hangs around and builds a roof over his head, detailing every step in his notebooks.

The complexity of Tent City life emerges in these writings. Like any office block, subdivision, or high school, there are heroes, idiots, power-trippers, and nutcases. Bishop-Stall has chosen to survive on nothing, which means a $195 homeless cheque and the occasional dip into less ethical waters. He’s scared of breaking his mother’s heart but still takes part in smash-and-grabs in order to form “a tricky sort of alliance” with his neighbours.

Perhaps the most interesting moment, at least from a journalistic perspective, is when Bishop-Stall lights his first crack rock. Research? Maybe not, but then, living in a shantytown doesn’t always provide for the clearest division between writer and subject.

The story of Tent City is not new and most know its ending: finally reclaimed by Home Depot in September, it was sealed off and destroyed. Regardless of the finale, the achievement of Bishop-Stall’s book is the details of day-to-day life, with its many reminders that real characters, especially those living the dramatic, turmoiled life on the street, don’t adhere to any type of script. The book is messy. People drift in and out and attain no easy redemptions. Those who promise to go straight drift back to crack.

Over the months Bishop-Stall is able to reveal the one character arc all residents of Tent City do adhere to – one that’s long, slow, postponed by drugs, but inevitably veering toward tragedy. Thankfully, the book never sinks with self-absorption. The author realizes early on that he is possibly the least interesting person in Tent City.

Bishop-Stall is not a master of the quick, concise profile – many of the massive array of characters seem opaque and interchangeable at first. Eventually friendships and individuals emerge in the vignettes. Like a strange sitcom, people are always bursting in, wanting to talk, drop off a kitten, or just stare listlessly at the gound. Each resident of Tent City has a few strong reasons for not talking about their own life, but Bishop-Stall sticks around, and the life stories come out in drips. The more time he’s there, the less anthropological the book feels. Finally, he’s writing about his friends, his world, without romanticizing either. At least not like Hawk, a gigantic man who acts as the camp’s de facto watchman and gatekeeper. Hawk has been on the street since age 14, and the line he feeds journalists is that the residents want to live “like folks in olden times – like the Mennonites.”

Luckily, Bishop-Stall doesn’t suffer from this same optimism. The author might get caught up in describing the community spirit that occasionally infuses the place, but there’s no hiding what Tent City is. Mennonites never have to postpone a barn-raising for a crack binge. It might have been a unique place, and it might become rosier in hindsight, but there’s no way to patch over the misery of Tent City.

At its worst, Bishop-Stall has the tendency to slip into bouts of macho purple prose, but this is a minor quibble compared with what he’s achieved in Down to This. It’s a book of warm, incisive, committed reportage. It’s inspiring for anyone who believes in non-fiction. And it proves that sometimes dispatches from the most exotic, depraved locations can come from the eastern corner of a World Class City.