The alleys of Toronto hold a very special place in my heart. They are like hidden pathways that get overlooked because of the graffiti, garbage, and urban grime. They are private, tranquil, and just plain magical in my eyes. So, I was immediately drawn to Michael Cho’s Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes when I stumbled across it at Page & Panel, the bookstore at the Toronto Reference Library. It’s a collection of sketches depicting Toronto alleys that Cho created between 2010 and 2011. I flipped through the pages and felt like I’d found some sort of kindred spirit — someone else who understood the underrated beauty of the city’s alleyways.
Cho captures the mood of every back lane he sketches with an adoration that puts a big smile on my face every time I open this book. While his subjects may all bare similar qualities, each alleyway is unique, and every detail is as lovingly crafted as the next, from the oddly pastoral residential backyards to the overflowing dumpsters next door. The sketches aren’t labeled, and even someone who has lived in Toronto forever would have a rough time figuring out which alley is where. Although each alley has its own special little quarks, these sketches look as if they could have been done anywhere, in any urban centre. Only someone really familiar with that alley would know where it was, and if you do find one you know, it will bring a calm knowing feeling to the surface.
As Spring arrives, I just can’t stop looking at these sketches and touching on that overwhelming sense of home. Unfortunately, Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes hasn’t been reissued and can be hard to find, but there are still a few copies kicking around at The Beguiling and Page & Panel in Toronto. To all of my fellow city kids, please do all you can to check out Cho’s collection. It will brighten your day, and you will immediately want to show all of your city slicker friends.
Rayna Livingstone-Lang is a writer and editor working as an editorial assistant at Broken Pencil for Spring 2016.