This post first appeared on the Koffler Gallery’s K-Blog, and was collaboratively written by myself, Mary Anderson, Mariah Hamilton and Jessica Dargo-Caplan. All photos by Mary Anderson. 

On Sunday, May 3, 2015, the Koffler Gallery organized its first Jane’s Walk, which explored the Urban Legends of our West Queen West neighbourhood. Our walk was created and led by Urban Geographer and artist, Daniel Rotsztain.

Inspired by the Koffler Gallery exhibition Erratics, (which explores the tensions between memory and fiction), Daniel introduced the walk by posing the question, “does Toronto have amnesia?”

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Daniel led our group on a 2-hour walk through Toronto’s West Queen West neighbourhood, attempting to reassemble the neighbourhood’s memory by uncovering its histories, urban legends, and everything in between.

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“What happens to a city’s notion of history when it has amnesia? A funny thing happens where the lines blur between fact and fiction. Without a strong historical tradition, urban legends emerge to fill the gaps and pass for that history. Strange historical blips, and anecdotal evidence emerge as what we remember. There are zones with strong historical memory, and others that people pass without a thought. But can’t we say that about all history? What distinguishes an urban legend – a story passed down through an oral tradition, from the random facts that become enshrined as historical evidence?” – Daniel Rotsztain

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Our second stop was in front of The Lakeview Diner, where Daniel told us about the legend of the Lake Ontario Sea Serpent, which was named Gaasynedietha by First Nations people.

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Our third stop was at Crawford and Dundas – where we explored the mystery of the green posts. Are they some sort of escape exits? Super Mario pipe replicas? Or are they berating tubes for a community of mole people, dwelling beneath Toronto? As Daniel explored these urban legends, he pointed out that the posts are actually ventilation stacks for a complex sewer system known as the Mid-Toronto Interceptor.

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Our fourth stop was on Crawford Street – the buried bridges of Garrison Creek. Here, we explored the the legends of Garrison Creek, Toronto’s most famous lost waterway, as well as some lesser known facts about the creek including lost visions for its future.

Did you know that you used to be able to navigate the creek by boat, well north of Bloor, and that it was 10 metres wide and 20 metres deep at its largest?

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Our next stop led us through the paths of Trinity Bellwoods to the park’s valley, or what it has become affectionately known as the Dog Bowl.

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We often hear that Garrison Creek is “dead” or “lost” – but is it really? Here Daniel described some of the legends of Toronto’s zombie rivers, rising from the dead. These lost and buried rivers make themselves known quite frequently – re-emerging during rainstorms and leaching ancient dump chemicals into waterways. “The creek is not dead, but was buried alive!”

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We continued our walk through the rest of Trinity Bellwoods to stop at our next location, the Trinity Gates. Just as the topography leave clues of lost rivers, Trinity Bellwoods’ gates are a clue of lost campuses. Here we explored the legends surrounding Trinity College, and other architectural fragments.

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On CAMH’s grounds we recalled the history of the provincial mental health institution, and how the original 1850 buildings were demolished, leaving only its walls. Here we also discussed the legend of failed architecture, and the truth of failed governance.

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Our next stop was at Dovercourt and Sudbury Streets where we remembered 48 Abell Street – an important building for West Queen West’s early art scene. It has since been demolished and replaced by condos.

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We concluded our walk at Queen and Dovercourt, in front of West Queen West’s iconic, You’ve Changed mural. Daniel invited Carrie Lester to lead this portion of the walk. Carrie is a Haudenosaunee storyteller who told us about the meaning of Toronto, the myths and history of the land on which the modern city is built.

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The walk brought to light many kinds of urban legends and histories. Stories were told as we attempted to untangle fact from fiction, and knit together our collective histories.

Over the summer, I’ve illustrated a few maps for my friends over at Craft Beer Passport, encouraging its users to fulfill the passport’s motto: “Explore Beer Through Toronto | Explore Toronto Through Beer”.

Each map takes cues from its neighbourhood and is themed accordingly. Downtown Patios is a film noir-esque jaunt through Toronto’s most Gotham like quarters. The Train-Hopper is inspired by the train tracks that dominate Toronto’s west end, especially the Junction. Day at the Beach and The Danny are pure explorations of the Beach and the Danforth East, while The Cozy Date crawl indulges in the whimsy of Bloor West.

Enjoy the maps and happy exploring!

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Field notes from Coast Salish//Cascadia/Lower Mainland, BC

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Along the Pacific Northwest coasts of Canada and the US, blackberries are growing everywhere. Come late Summer, there is endless bushes of free candy, available in total abundance.

Well, they don’t technically grow everywhere. As a “weed”/wild plant, they grow at the fringes of the city – industrial zones and left over spaces under bridges and back alleyways. In this sense, a copious amount of blackberry bushes is an indicator of inner city wilderness, a space or patch untended to and left to delicious transformations.

As Tom Robbins explored the landscapes of Seattle in Still Life With Woodpecker,“blackberries spread so rapidly that dogs and small children were sometimes engulfed and never heard from again.”

With the availability of such delicious and sweet fruit, how does anybody get anything done around here in July and August? It is taking me hours to bike around Richmond and Vancouver because I am stopping every few feet to chow down…. leading to inevitable blackberries stomach aches.

In one sense, cities are great machines of market-power efficiency. In this sense, the ubiquitous blackberry bush must act as something of a wrench and the great cogs. How would Toronto be different if blackberries grew everywhere?

These bushes of blackberries, of the Himalayan variety, are an invasive species here. But no one seems to care, further complicating the contentious world of plant migration politics.

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Exciting news, readers. Your Urban Geographer has been published in the Globe and Mail. Read my article on Toronto’s 100th library in Scarborough, the perfect contemporary library here.

And if you haven’t already, please visit All the Libraries Toronto, where my drawing of every library in Toronto are posted. Take a virtual trip around Toronto and experience its local flavour through its best institution!

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A few weeks ago, I finally did it. I took the train across America – from Chicago to San Francisco.

In the age of the airplane, it might seem confounding to op for a three day journey when the same can be done in the air in under 5 hours.

But I have a fascination with connecting places and watching landscapes melt into one another.

As longtime readers are aware, I pulled a similar move between Amsterdam and Rome, taking a bus between the two and watching the gradient of culture and landscape morph over every mountain and every river.

In the United States, the transformation as witnessed from Amtrak’s California Zephyr was much more landscape than culture. The vast spaces of Iowa and Nebraska stretch for thousands of kilometres with no perceptible change in architecture or land form. Here, vast oceans of farmland are punctuated by tiny homestead islands – little clusters of trees and sheds in a sea of green.

The train stopped briefly in the major cities: a half hour in Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno – giving witness to the reemergence of train travel – newly renovated and gorgeous central train stations that are manifestations of a renaissance of slow movement in line with the principles of slow food.

Going over the Rockies was thrilling, then down into the mesmerizingly beautiful deserts of Utah. When I’m older, I’ll go back. Another highlight was the Sierra Nevadas, then quickly into the agricultural coastlands of drought ridden California.

Yes, indeed, I took the train across America – and I’ll do it again when I get the chance.

Your Urban Geographer is in travel mode.

Heading west – I’m taking the train across America from Chicago to San Francisco, with a stop in Detroit on the way. A massive city weathering an economic storm, Detroit’s blighted urbanity forces you to confront social equity, racial justice and the tragedies of neoliberalism. The following is a short summary of absurd thoughts I had while visiting Detroit that don’t attempt to address the aforementioned conditions of the city. However, as an outspoken writer with a blog, I needed to get them out.

On comparisons with Toronto 

I must inevitably compare cities with the one I know best. As Great Lakes cities, the cities have lots in common: they are in the same forest, their residential neighbourhoods are comprised of detached houses with similar architectural styles. Their histories, of course, have been quite divergent. Detroit is infamous for relying on an industrial monoculture that eventually collapsed. Toronto is an industrial chameleon, adapting to global economic trends and relying on its centrality to the Canadian economy.

I did notice two quirky comparisons that might be stretching things but I have to share.

Detroit’s highway system, most prominently a north-south U transected by an east-west cross highway looks remarkably like Toronto’s Line 1 subway (Yonge-University-Spadina Line). It even has the same northwest jog around Eglinton West station. It’s even got a Line 4 (Sheppard) equivalent. The comparison is poignant as it highlights Detroit’s reliance on cars in the place of Toronto’s not-perfect-but-better-than-nothing subway system. But for all its car-dependency, Detroit’s system one up’s Toronto’s in one way: it has a Downtown Relief Line.

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Detroit’s highway system

Toronto's subway map has a surprisingly similar shape

Toronto’s subway map has a surprisingly similar shape

On another transit related note, Detroit’s People Mover, built with the same technology as Toronto’s Line 3 (Scarborough RT), sounds the same chime as the TTC when the doors open and close.

On Pizza

I went to Buddy’s Pizzeria and it was delicious.

On blight 

Detroit is massive. It’s often sited that Paris, London and Manhattan could fit within its borders, and there would still be space left. The population of Detroit peaked at 2 million, but today it’s more like 700 000 – 700 000 people spread through a humungous city. Detroit is too big.

Reasons for Detroit’s rampant abandonment and blight are complicated and systemic. They have effected every part life in the city, most prominently enormous skyscrapers with hollowed out windows that are completely empty. Thousands of houses are shuttered, partially demolished, caving in, charred or completely burnt down. The house in its classic form, two stories, with a pointed roof and porch, is a symbol of safety, domesticity, humanity. Seeing so many muted and destroyed by economic and social catastrophe is particularly poignant.

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Driving along the 401, it’s hard to miss the new cluster of towers that come into view just before the highway rises east toward the DVP/404 interchange. Towering over the 401 at Leslie Street is Ikeatown, one of Toronto’s newest neighbourhoods.

Just as the St Lawrence Market was the commercial heart of early York, Ikea’s energy brings life to the new precinct, attracting visitors from all over Toronto and much further afield.

For now, Ikeatown’s borders seem to be Sheppard to the north, Leslie Street to the east, the 401 to the south and Provost to the west, though with the completion of upcoming condominium projects, the neighbourhood will expand west to Bessarion Street.

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Okay. I admit that the neighbourhood isn’t officially called Ikeatown. It’s formally dubbed Park Place by its developers, probably due to its proximity to the East Don River valley. The name seems a bit contrived, however, as the immediate area has a lot less Park and a lot more Ikea.

The increasingly popular use Ikeatown – or Ikeaville – to refer to this part of town may alarm some Torontonians concerned about the appearance of corporate names on the city’s map. However, just as the Don and Humber Rivers have supplanted themselves in so many of the city’s neighbourhood and street names, it’s legitimate that that an area be named for the most dominant feature of its landscape.

Though Ikea has brought life to the brownfield site since the early late 70s, the residential towers were only built in the last few years, demonstrating an early application of “leading with landscape“. The urban design principle has since been used in other large scale redevelopments like the Sherbourne Common in Toronto’s revitalized Waterfront.

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I visited Ikeatown a few weekends ago to explore the city’s newest neighbourhood. Beyond anchoring the district, Ikea’s influence has made its way into other parts of the neighbourhood’s daily life.

Like the Liberty Village Express, the district has its own micro-transit line. A free shuttle (funded by Ikea) regularly operates from Leslie station, terminating in central Ikeatown, that is, right in front of the Ikea. As I rode the bus, I spoke with a few passengers. Many were residents of the neighbourhood who take advantage of the service to access the TTC as part of their daily commute.

Ikeatowners take advantage of the neighbourhood's micro-transit line

Ikeatowners take advantage of the neighbourhood’s micro-transit line

During my visit, I spoke with many Ikeatowners about their neighbourhood. Confirming my suspicions about how much furniture in their apartments came from Ikea, the answers ranged from “about 50 percent” to “almost everything”. I craned my neck upwards to let it sink in. The neighbourhood’s towers, visible on the horizon for kilometres – are literally full of Ikea furniture.

Even the neighbourhood’s public art is Ikea-ish. The public realm is decorated by enormous framed images of flowers that evoke the ready-to-hang stock images of Manhattan and Amsterdam that adorn apartments worldwide.

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Ikeatown is a name that is just catching on, but its novelty shouldn’t undermine its legitimacy. Toronto’s neighbourhood names are traditionally unstable.  Cabbagetown was originally called Don Vale until changed its name in the 1970s to evoke nostalgia when its neglected Victorian housing stock once again became fashionable. Across the river, Leslieville turned into South Riverdale before reverting back to its original moniker. The Upper Beaches and Junction Triangle, and now perhaps Ikeatown, are more recent cases of Toronto growing, re-inventing and re-naming itself.

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As part of Rising Tide Toronto‘s Earth Day Action to Stop Line 9, I illustrated a map showing how disastrous a pipeline failure would be for the city’s waterways.

Enbridge plans to have Line 9 operating by June, despite the fact that the legal challenge by the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation has yet to be heard in court and despite the City of Toronto’s recent motion requiring safety valves be installed to protect Toronto’s waterways.

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I had a meeting today at Jimmy’s Coffee in Toronto’s Kensington Market, a newish coffee joint in the former Roach-A-Rama space.

While considering the selection of pastries, muffins and sandwiches on offer, I recognized a very distinct bold hand-lettered signage, that I knew I’d seen before. The signs looked exactly like the ones at Java Blend, my favourite coffee shop in North End Halifax.

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Seeing a similar kind of hand-writing wasn’t too surprising. For the last few years, tall, thin block lettering has been popular, and it was no surprise to see this style in a self-aware and hip coffee shop in Kensington Market.

But things got stranger when I looked up to order my coffee and made eye contact with the very same barrista I had gotten to know at Java Blend.

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For a moment, space was bent.

Everything around me – the smells, the sites of the hand lettered sign, the friendly face across the counter – the warm lighting and amber colour scheme – the harsh churn of blending beans – served to collapse my sense of space bringing distant geographies face-to-face and space-to-space.

I snapped out of my space-bent daze and realized the recognition was mutual. We chatted.

Turns out Kate had moved from Halifax to Toronto a few years ago, and yes, she hand-lettered the signs.

It was a particularly strong case of geognitive dissonance.

Geognitive dissonance occurs when a combination of senses temporarily transports you to another specific space on the surface of the earth. It’s when notions of linear space collapse, and you can feel the connection between two places separated by vast distances.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve felt before, and every now and then it sneaks up on my, collapsing my notions of contiguous geography. It makes far-away places, past-homes, feel here and now and comfortably close.

In August 2011, I delivered a lecture titled Everything is Everything as part of the amazing Fuller Terrace Lecture Series in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

That night’s theme was The Nature of Things, and I thought it the perfect opportunity to distill the messages of my undergraduate thesis, transforming them into more accessible and whimsical language and visuals.

Fuller Terrace Lectures recently updated their archives, including the entirety of the 2011 season. Please enjoy my lecture, and check out the others too!

Daniel Rotsztain The Nature of Things from Fuller Terrace Lecture Series on Vimeo.

This post originally appeared on the Jane’s Walk blog

Geomancy, Fortune Telling with Maps, is a practice I developed to invite consideration on how our lives are affected by Toronto’s landscape. It goes deep into place-based identity, inviting reflection on how topography, ecology, history, cardinal orientation, infrastructure and the grid affect our existence and well-being.

For example: The Don River affects a lot of Torontonians, the same way the train tracks we pass over and under every day, the highways we travel along, the city’s waterfront, its buried rivers, and all its hills, valleys and hydro corridors do.

The Don is Toronto’s central river. Its creeks and tributaries criss-cross most of the central city before reaching Toronto Bay, where its flow embraces the electrically charged density of downtown Toronto. It has been home to a distinctly exuberant kind of Toronto culture; the city’soldest neighbourhoods have long perched at the edge of its wide valley. The Don has been the site of most of Toronto’s industrial growth too, especially when we tried to straighten its meandering curves, channelizing it to become a working canal. Further upstream, the Don has been where utopian visions of the city like Don Mills andThorncliffe Park have been dreamed up and realized. Today, it’s again a major site of development, with the construction of the Pan Am Athletes Village and continued efforts to re-naturalize the river’s mouth.

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Image of Toronto’s watershed system by Daniel Rotsztain

I think when people talk about Toronto, they’re talking about the Don River. Yet many Torontonians have lived their entire lives along the Don without realizing it. The ways we commute, on bridges over the ravines that keep the geometry of the grid intact, or in subway tunnels deep below the surface of the city, make it easy to forget that the river even exists. But the worldview the inhabitants of central Toronto has been shaped by the wind, water, climate and electric spirit that is undeniably Don.

Compare this to the Humber—the river that flows through the west Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. Though arguably more important to the city’s history (the site of the First Nation’s route to Lakes Simcoe and Huron, and the first French forts), the Humber has resisted the same kind of industrial exploitation. Its energy is calmer, and reflects the culture and atmosphere of Etobicoke’s bucolic inner suburbs.

Geomancy reminds us that you can’t opt out of geography. The paths we trace with our feet in the city, the ways we get around, the watersheds we live in, affect our perspectives and world view. What parts of your city’s landscape affect you?

Daniel Rotsztain is a Toronto-based urban geographer. Check out hiswebsite and his Geomancy blog to learn more, and say hello onTwitter!

This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto 

Last month, I joined a Lost Rivers walk within the PATH system.

Typically engaged with tracing the routes of buried creeks within Toronto’s topography, the Lost Rivers PATH walk was unique in its investigation of a part of the city so thoroughly urbanized that finding traces of what came before seems absurd.

In its third year of hosting the PATHology and Geology walk, Lost Rivers has once again invited a reconsideration of Toronto’s urbanized core. Our goal was finding proxies for — and true instances of — nature within the world’s largest network of underground pathways.

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Lead by geologist John Wilson, our group learned about the origins of the stone that clads the interior spaces and exterior facades of Toronto’s largest skyscrapers. Stopping to appreciate nature-inspired art along the way, we also found evidence of one of the many streams that used to flow through the centre of the city.

It turns out that most of the stone cladding in Toronto comes from very far away. Despite being just south of the Canadian Shield, Toronto’s skyscrapers are covered in stones from further afield, like red granite from Sweden (Scotiabank Plaza), travertine from Italy (the lobby of the TD Centre) and marble from Kashmir (the tunnel west of Scotiabank).

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Thinking about the sheer volume of stone mined from the earth, shipped across the planet and reconstituted as Torontonian skyscrapers, it’s easy to appreciate that our modern city is a geologic force as strong as those that created the Scarborough Bluffs and carved the ravines.

Sometimes, the geologic forces of urbanization are more subtle. When the initial construction of the Bay-Adelaide centre was delayed indefinitely in the early 1990s, the city was left with a 6-storey stump and an unfulfilled order of 35,000 tons of Norwegian granite. Without the 44-storey tower to be clad, the city was awash in free flowing Scandinavian stone that has since settled into hundreds of tables and floors in downtown Toronto.

Beneath the city covered in layers of stone from elsewhere, there are indeed remnants of historical watercourses. Though most of the waterways in downtown Toronto have been eradicated due to extreme excavation for infrastructure and subterranean parking levels, a proxy for one of the Market Streams that used to flow south east through the city does exist. 

A map of Toronto from 1817 shows many streams running through what is now downtown. From oldtorontomaps.blogspot.ca

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In the corridor between the Royal Bank Building and Brookfield Place, the stone below our feet was showing signs of water absorption. This would have been where Newgate Creek emptied into Lake Ontario.

Signs of groundwater in the stone between Union Station and Brookfield Place could be the last signs of Newgate Creek

Though dry to the touch, the off-coloured stone might be a sign of the groundwater that would have replaced the creek. Standing underground, surrounded by concrete, it’s powerful to feel this rare assertion of the landscape beneath Toronto — a sign of the city before the glass, steel and international stone of today’s internationally constituted metropolis.

Check out Lost Rivers‘ website for upcoming walks.
The idea that Toronto is a geologic force was inspired by Geologic City: A Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York City by Friends of the Pleistocene and Smudge Studios

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