Archives for posts with tag: lost rivers

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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Toronto is a city of ravines and river valleys — and it needs a vast system of bridges to stretch over them. While these bridges are built to maintain the integrity of our famous grid, they inadvertently create amphitheatre like architectural spaces that beg to be explored, along with other overlooked parts of the city. Likewise, Toronto is filled with interesting humans with captivating narratives who need a space to share their stories.

LW LogoWith this in mind, my partner Natalie Amber and I began hosting the Learnt Wisdom Lecture Series last Fall. Building on the success of 2013’s Under the Grid concert, Learnt Wisdom invites attendees to “explore the city as we explore our hearts”, by holding story telling events in interesting and overlooked spaces across Toronto.

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Each event features four speakers from a diversity of backgrounds, sharing stories inspired by a set theme. The event is accompanied by an illustrated map showcasing the lecture location, and a short walking route from a set meeting point. While Natalie waits with the speakers at the lecture location, I go and meet the attendees at the meeting point, creating a psychogeographic procession as we make our way to the lecture space.

At the beginning of each event I introduce the space by sharing a brief history, including First Nations history, lost rivers, poignant events and quirky trivia.

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The first Learnt Wisdom Lecture was held under the Mount Pleasant bridge along Rosedale Valley Road. Rosedale Valley Road, voted the best route for motorcycling by YouMotorcycle.com, is in a ravine created by the now buried Castle Frank Brook. It was the site of the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada’s mansion (Castle Frank), and one of the city’s first breweries.

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Inspired by the theme Thing Your Parents Never Told You, our lecturers regaled attendees with stories of finding roots, overcoming narratives of strength, and breaking into hotels. Sipping pay what you can mulled cider, it was an absolute pleasure to take in stories under the breathtaking arches of the Mount Pleasant Bridge.

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The second lecture, this time in the afternoon, took place under the soaring Dundas Street bridge by the beautiful Humber River. Despite the Humber’s eden-like qualities, many Torontonians have not explored this verdant paradise – a linear park that stretches, only somewhat interrupted, from Steeles all the way to the lake. I was excited to share one of the most breathtaking, but least known pieces of infrastructure in the city with friends and strangers.

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Before getting to the lectures inspired by the theme Over the Hill, I shared a brief history of the site with attendees, including the Humber’s importance to First Nation’s as a trading route, the River’s role in the naming of Toronto, and the flooding caused by Hurricane Hazel, remembered vividly by Anne Michaels in her Fugitive Pieces. The lecturers shared stories of epic travel, bicycle-based endurance, and the struggle of moving on from unhealthy situations. As the river flowed, we drank spiced chai under the soaring arches of the beautiful Dundas bridge.

Learnt Wisdom Lecture Series has been a huge success. Each event has brought out impressive crowds, and a chord has been struck by an event that combines storytelling and urban exploration. Natalie and I appreciate the support of our friends and collaborators in these early stages of Learnt Wisdom, and thank you for coming out!

For now, Learnt Wisdom Lecture Series is taking a little hiatus until the new year. We are actively looking for appropriate indoor space for our next instalment. This is harder than you may think! Many of Toronto’s indoor spaces are privatized, and require lots of money or business insurance to use them. Learnt Wisdom Lectures has neither. But we won’t give up our search, and hope to announce our next lecture somewhere in the PATH system, 2015.

See you there and then, under the bridge, in the ravine, or under the grid! 

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