Shawn Micallef is a columnist, co-founder of Spacing magazine, and urban-affairs commentator who writes about the charms and vibrancy of cities. This excerpt is from his new book, Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness. Here he delves into the stories behind Toronto's hidden waterways.
The Greater Toronto Area has many creeks and rivers. Some, like the Credit, Humber, and Don rivers, are open-air, but others are buried or put into concrete channels, like much of Black Creek, Toronto’s smaller version of the Los Angeles River. Garrison Creek is the most well-known of the buried lot, but there are dozens across the GTA, and every dip in the landscape could be hiding one. Some have names, others don’t, and they can be difficult to follow as the modern city is built overtop of them.
“It’s like a syncopation, back and forth between the street grid and the meandering creek,” said Helen Mills, one of the people behind Lost Rivers, a project by the Toronto Green Community that has been mapping and advocating for buried creeks since the mid-1990s. “It’s a kind of music, but you can lose the beat and forget which creek you’re on.”
I had asked Mills to go for a walk with me to trace Lavender’s course through the area, which was in part an effort to understand where all the water goes and why places like this can flood. Lavender’s headwaters are found around Fairbank Park on Dufferin Street, a few blocks south of Eglinton, where it’s buried among the houses.
“These are all drumlins,” said Mills — rolling hills created by glaciers. Long after the glaciers receded, working-class folks built their own houses in these hills, developing a kind of feral suburb in the early 20th century. An unplanned neighbourhood, the homes here have a magnificent variety of looks and styles as they climb the ridges of what were Lavender’s ravine walls.
The name Lavender suggests it could be Toronto’s most beautiful creek, but modernity hasn’t been kind to it. The creek might for a spell have flowed by these homes when they were new. Mills says it’s likely that the creek then became quite foul with sewage and other matter, so that the municipality decided to bury it in a sewer pipe as they did with so many other watercourses.
During our walk tracing the creek we came to Charles Caccia Park. It sits at the bottom of a residential valley, where a massive basement-flooding protection program project was underway, with a skyscraper-sized hole dug and a giant crane lowering materials deep into it. The new sewer overflow tank being installed here is meant to relieve both surface and basement flooding during storms and to reduce the amount of untreated water that discharges into Lake Ontario. The flooding here has been Lavender’s revenge, what we’ve reaped by bulldozing and paving natural systems that once took care of the water and moved it to where it belonged.
West of the park and construction, the creek crosses Prospect Cemetery, still buried underground as it was as unsightly for the dead as it was for the living, with bodies now buried in the fill above it, a kind of urban layering that seems like something out of Poltergeist. At Bert Robinson Park a long corrugated-steel pedestrian tunnel allows passage underneath an embankment carrying the Barrie GO Train rails, after which the creek continues in a southwest direction, crossing under the Rogers and Old Weston roads intersection, and flowing under Hillary Avenue.
Here, according to Ian Wheal of the Lost Rivers project, when the houses here were first built, they had plank bridges crossing the then exposed creek to reach their front doors. In 2015 the street was completely torn up to lay new sewer pipes, because flooding has been a problem here too. Around the corner, past a Beer Store built atop the creek on the corner of Lavender Road and a dead-end segment of Keele Street, is a chain-link fence at the exact southern edge of [Lekan] Olawoye’s ward. And just behind that lies the first exposed part of the creek, ingloriously oozing out of a sewer grate through trash.
On one of her maps, Mills pointed out that a brickworks had once been here adjacent to the creek — now there’s a massive junkyard instead, its fence seemingly heaving out from the weight of all the cars piled behind it. Lavender trickles through this ugly looking place, beautiful sounding if you close your eyes and listen to the birds chirp, then disappears again under the old Grand Trunk Railway embankment, eventually emptying into Black Creek a kilometre or so to the west.
Infrastructure investment is hardly a sexy big-ticket item, but as Olawoye heard from residents when he was canvassing, a flooded basement gets people’s attention quickly. Projects the size and cost of the one in Charles Caccia Park can just seem to happen, without the opposition that projects usually receive. Homeowners, when under threat, make politicians listen to them.
“When I go door to door, people complain about neglect,” said Olawoye, pointing out potholed streets and some derelict houses in the area that haven’t been dealt with. “We work hard, just pay attention to us, they tell me.” It’s the same sentiment heard across many of Toronto’s outer wards. “We don’t have representatives that understand the new, post-amalgamation Toronto,” said Olawoye. “People here don’t take an us-versus-them position, but there is a feeling here of being left out. ‘We know we’re entitled to stuff’ is something we hear a lot at the door.” Entitlement to stuff created the Scarborough subway extension, but here there’s something more useful coming: the Eglinton Crosstown LRT.
Back on Eglinton, Olawoye pointed out places that are busy along the strip by his campaign office, such as a Jamaican Bakery and a Portuguese barbecue restaurant that draw people in from other neighbourhoods and are robust businesses despite the general decline of area retail. Change is coming soon, though. We walked by Eglinton Crosstown construction, part of a 19-kilometre-long project that will see trains run from Black Creek Drive and the Mount Dennis neighbourhood in the west to Kennedy Station in Scarborough to the east. It will essentially function as a subway would (except with smaller cars), travelling underground from Keele to Laird stations.
Where this kind of transit investment occurs, development is sure to follow. “I know some business owners have already had visits from developers asking to buy them out,” said Olawoye. “How do we keep diversity on the street and maintain the York-South vibe?” He’d like to see the local Business Improvement Area strengthened, to keep local businesses intact and provide the kind of services the neighbourhood needs. As development pressure increases along the new transit line, retail rents are sure to go up, because there are no commercial rent controls in Toronto as there are for some residential buildings.
When he was a community activist, he was also involved in trying to keep the TD Bank branch at the corner of Eglinton and Keele from closing. Although it eventually moved north to Lawrence, he said the bank compromised by leaving ATMs in the area so seniors wouldn’t have to travel to another neighbourhood to get their banking done. Full-service neighbourhoods are something we take for granted when we have them. “TD was there for 60 years,” he said. “My frustration was also that the cheque-cashing places start to come in when they leave.”
Those cheque-cashing outlets, with the promise of quick and easy money, are neighbourhood vultures, in the long term sucking out wealth like a casino but without the thrill of a possible jackpot. Spotting them on retail strips is a quick way to gauge the general economic health of any neighbourhood.
Keeping the neighbourhood a place all people can afford to live now and after the LRT is finished is a continuing challenge, illustrated when I followed Olawoye into the Syme Woolner Neighbourhood and Family Centre on Eglinton near what will be Caledonia Station. Around noon on the day we visited, the drop-in centre was crowded.
“We have an affordable-food shortage here,” says Olawoye. “This ward has one of the highest child impoverishment rates in the city.” The centre has food and clothing banks, meal programs, employment services, harm reduction and other programs. It’s one thing to look at poverty statistics in the city, but being inside one of the many centres like Syme Woolner across the city puts faces to the numbers. The busyness of these places drives home the need in Toronto and a sense of just how many people have been left out of the city’s prosperous story. Like London and Paris, Toronto follows a European pattern in which communities in the inner city are wealthier, and poverty, and its attendant problems, orbit around the inner city, often out of sight.
While Toronto has not suffered the kind of civil unrest that the inner suburbs of Paris and London have experienced, the same potential for trouble exists here, when youth face diminishing prospects in their lives.
Olawoye led me down the Eglinton Hill to the busy Keele intersection where there are constant lines waiting for one of the buses going by, evidence of the need for the higher order of transit that is coming. We went into a barber shop on the north-west corner. It’s a time-honoured tradition for politicians to wander into these kinds of places: getting a haircut is a chatty experience, and a captive one too. You have to talk, or listen, whether you want to or not.
The man in the seat didn’t say much, because the barber, “Captain” — or Kirk Stephens, as he’s otherwise known — chatted with Olawoye about the neighbourhood. “This area needs representation for the youth,” said Captain, with warm concern. “There’s nothing for them to do here, they just stand around like fungus. It’s hard enough for parents to just put food on the table. Nobody represents the youth.”
Captain’s place is directly across Eglinton from York Memorial Collegiate Institute, a public high school, so there are youth hanging around the front of his shop at lunch, when we were there, and after school. Barbers, when not cutting hair, do a lot of looking out the window, and they’re some of the keenest observers of neighbourhood life. And like bartenders, they’re some of the best listeners too, amassing a kind of institutional knowledge of the local area. Captain watched the construction of the Keele LRT station in front of his shop. “I know it’s going to change here, but we need it to change with the people,” he said. “It’s not about poor or rich, the potential is here. We need somebody fuelling the community though.”
From Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness, by Shawn Micallef. Published by Signal Books. Copyright © Shawn Micallef. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Photo of Garrison Creek sewer courtesy of ebt47563 and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version)
Photo of Garrison Creek insignia courtesy of j. and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version)
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