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Ample Parking and a City's Soul: A Tour of What Is Buried Beneath Toronto

Ample Parking and a City's Soul: A Tour of What Is Buried Beneath Toronto

The Decanter

Illustration by Ellie Moss

Toronto takes a lot of flak.
In fact, one of the few things that unite Montrealers, Haligonians and Vancouverites is mocking the country’s most powerful town the way pipsqueaks might whisper about a bully’s size, or creative writing students might bitch about Giller Prize winners (who, by the way, tend to live in Toronto). But the fact that Hogtown always stands its ground—strong, unavoidable, welcoming, resilient and evolving—usually forces critics to take a second look. With this in mind, Maisonneuve asked me to take this issue’s “underground” theme to a literal level and peek at what goes on underneath Toronto. As it turns out, a city’s subterranean secrets reveal a good deal of its terranean character. Metaphorical shovel in hand, I found a metropolis that is at once unassuming, Victorian, innovative, commercial, annoying and just slightly adventurous. In other words, thoroughly Canadian.

It is no secret that Toronto is a money town. It’s known as the financial centre of Canada, but not necessarily because of greed—the city just has a knack for melding practical advantages with commercial ones. Take the PATH, for instance, the spidery underground shopping maze that spreads beneath the downtown core like a retail-adventure version of The Legend of Zelda. Not only does it provide twenty-seven kilometres of capitalistic bliss, but it provides them in gloriously weather-free comfort. The PATH dates back to 1900, when the T. Eaton Company linked its main department store with its bargain annex. Over the decades, tunnels burrowed out in every direction, but it was only during the city’s building boom in the 1970s that the PATH exploded into its present form, which connects over fifty buildings to subway stations, hotels, the CN Tower, Union Station and countless cobblers, Second Cups and overpriced luggage stores.

This question is asked—rhetorically, one hopes—on the city’s website. “Well, we’re about to get cooler,” it continues, referring to an environmentally friendly air conditioning system currently being installed under downtown streets. Developed by the Toronto-based company Enwave, this new system takes advantage of the fact that water is densest, and so heaviest, at 4ºC. When Lake Ontario’s chilly H20 sinks, Enwave’s pipes are there to greet it—five kilometres from the shore and eighty-three metres from the surface. But it’s not the water itself that chills the air. Using heat exchangers, the coldness of the water is transferred to Enwave’s cooling circuit, which then circulates the chill to individual buildings. The lake water—now at 12.5ºC—eventually makes its way to faucets all across Toronto. When it reaches full capacity, the Deep Lake Water Cooling project could potentially eliminate 40,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide and reduce electricity use by 35 megawatts—that’s enough to service 4,200 homes for a year. Construction is ongoing, but massive complexes like the Air Canada Centre and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre are already being cooled with this revolutionary technology.

Toronto’s underground also contains some embarrassing artifacts (and I don’t just mean Harold Ballard, who’s buried in Park Lawn Cemetery). Hidden beneath the pristine streets are various urban treasures that were sacrificed as the city sprawled. Garrison Creek, once large enough to carry boats the four kilometres from Lake Ontario to Christie Pits, became so polluted by the late 1800s that the city decided to bury it. The water, once ideal for beer brewing (hence the location of the Molson brewery on Lakeshore Drive), is now routed through a sewer; the creek’s valley has since been filled in with trash, piping and dirt from the expanding subway. A lovely triple-arched bridge built in 1915 to cross the Garrison is still buried under Crawford Street, more or less intact.

Other treasures were given watery graves. Many of downtown’s original buildings, for instance, were reduced to rubble and dumped into Lake Ontario. This created a breakwater designed to protect Toronto Harbour and allow for an expansion of the port, in anticipation of an industrial boom that never came. There is no record of which buildings were chucked into the lake before 1980, but “it’s safe to say that of all the construction sites in the city, most brought material down here,” says Tamara Chipperfield of the Toronto and Region Conservation. But this story is not all tragedy and loss. When the shipping surge didn’t materialize, the breakwater lost all commercial value; the city, asserting its Canadianness, turned the space into a park. Known locally as the Leslie Street Spit, this clever combination of industry and nature stretches five kilometres into Lake Ontario. It is an “accidental wilderness,” home to over 400 plant species, more than 290 bird species and, according to Toronto Life magazine, snake orgies every spring.

Toronto’s subway, which opened in 1954, has three lines, sixty-four stations, sixty-two kilometres of track and one celebratory ditty. What is most revealing about the system, however, is what is not there. Perhaps the worst kept secret in Toronto is its two abandoned subway stations. Beneath the present-day Bay Street stop lies a “Lower Bay,” where trains once switched from the Bloor-Danforth line to the Yonge-Spadina line. The station was open to the public for just six months in 1966 before being shut down due to service snafus and public confusion over which trains went where. Lower Bay is now used primarily for collecting grime and shooting movies. There is also a semi-finished station under Queen Street West that was to be the terminus for an underground streetcar line. Although approved by voters in a 1946 referendum, this east-west tunnel was never completed and the dug-out cavern continues to rot uselessly. Also absent are the Eglinton West and York University subway projects, both initiated and then cancelled. Such examples suggest a city long on imagination, but short on guts and funding. Perhaps a line from Mel Hamill’s earnest 1950 song about the subway could prove inspiring for future developers: “Modern history’s in the making with this hallowed undertaking… Excavation so extensive will doubtless be expensive, but who cares about expenses anyway?”

Underground Toronto is home to several urban exploration organizations—like Angels of the Underground, Midnight Exploration Crew of Canada and Vanishing Point—devoted to exploring city areas closed to the public. Infiltration, “the zine about going places you’re not supposed to go,” shows off Toronto’s rarely glimpsed adventurous side. The journal documents the exploits of associates Ninjalicious, Pyroartist, Persephone and others as they navigate sewer mazes, break into abandoned factories, run the length of the subway tunnels and watch the gay pride parade from below street level; the most recent instalment tours the Toronto General Hospital. “I think the reason some people are depressed and wander around in a daze all the time is because they don’t feel connected to the things around them,” Ninjalicious told the National Post in April 2004. “I do…I walk down Bloor Street and I have a relationship with every third building.”