Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Minor Street Art On Major Street

Today I was walking home from Kensington and came across these cute decals pasted onto the sides of utility poles between College and Ulster on Major. My favourite has got to be the tiger because she just looks so damn majestic.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

9 Observations About Toronto By a Visiting Vancouverite

Recently, I had my friend Robyn from Vancouver come to stay. She was here for a week. Now that I've lived here in Toronto for four months, I was curious to see what an out-of-towner who had never been to Toronto before thought about the city.

Without any further introduction here are Robyn's 9 observations about Toronto:

1. Liquor. Where are all the LCBOs? Apparently there are approximately three locations in the greater Toronto area and if they deign to open on Sunday it is from noon to 1:30pm. Apparently, if you want to have liquor in your home for the weekend it's prudent to start planning three business days prior.

2. Perhaps this is because THERE ARE BARS EVERYWHERE. A bar on every corner! And each with its own individual personality. And the patios! If you want to sit on the patio in Vancouver show up 2 hours in advance or in November.

3. Early 20th century housing. Not being a student of architecture or design I have no idea how to refer to the beautiful Victorian, bay-and-gable and annex type houses that can be found throughout Toronto's neighborhoods. These buildings have been around long enough to see dozens of residents come and go, giving them each their own little history. I imagine that most of them are haunted. Believe me, the ghost of Margaret Atwood will not come to rest in some Concord condo down by the waterfront.

4. I know I just praised your historic buildings, but seriously when was the technology to build bathrooms above basement level invented?

5. Public transit. Your style of transit is confusing to me! I can have a transfer, but only if I swear to continue on in the same cardinal direction at the earliest opportunity. If I should stray even one stop forward the whole deal is off and I have to spend another three dollars. I suppose this is useful if you have to commute to Toronto's outer limits, which I believe are now somewhere around Detroit.

6. ROB FORD. What is this thing? At first I assumed it was a piece of intentionally antagonizing performance art commenting on the encroaching Americanization of the Canadian political landscape. I later came to find out this is a REAL PERSON. Although, unless you are an immigrant, a minority, gay, a woman, under age 45, a cyclist, homeless, use public transit, a city contracted employee, a lefty socialist or Italian his possible win should not affect you.

7. In some circles throughout the rest of Canada, Toronto enjoys a reputation of some super urban, treeless concrete moonscape (city governance is conducted from the belly of an alien ship, after all). This leads me to believe that those commenting spent the entirety of their time in Toronto at the downtown Sheraton and did not once hie themselves to google maps. It seems like every building in the city has a few trees out back, many with fruit ready to pick!

8. Terrifyingly whimsical architecture. The ROM: I think I could actually cut myself on this building. The AGO: I am slowly ascending into the belly of a snail and the snail is full of art. The Sharp Centre for Design: I always wondered how I was going to die and now I know it is crushed from above.

9. And finally, Pizza Pizza. How did this chain become so ubiquitous? I checked wikipedia, and did you know that when in the GTA you are never more than 8 meters from a pizza pizza? Have you considered converting some of those pizza pizzas into liquor liquor stores?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Walking Through Toronto's Laneways with Graeme Parry

This past Sunday I had the pleasure of attending a free walking tour of Toronto's laneways led by Graeme Parry. We met at the corner of Queen and Bathurst and soon the group had amassed to more than 60 people; the largest group for a tour yet, Parry said. The tour took us on a winding route through the graffiti-filled alley just south of Queen West and then north-west up to Dundas and Ossington.

I have always had a bit of a love affair with alleys, jump-started, I think, by an interest in the street art found in Vancouver, a city I explored as a suburban teenager and eventually moved to in 2003. Alleys were always my best bet to get a glimpse of colourful murals and quickly-drawn tags that were too often scrubbed clean from any wall facing a more public area.

Soon, however, I began to appreciate more than just the thriving graffiti in the alleys. There was something else intoxicating about wandering the back-streets of a city. A feeling of being off-the-grid, even though you are very much still on the grid. It's a private space that is still public, quieter and, as this Spacing article points out, less commercial than walking along the street. Alleys can be dirty, filled with garbage, and not well lit, but they also challenge your view of your city, force you to acknowledge the existence of a different part that may not always be displayed or sanctioned.

Vancouver always had a bit of a scrubbed-clean feeling to me -- a toy recently removed from its shrink-wrapped packaging -- and the alleys showed me a different, grittier side to the city. A side much different than the world-class clad-in-glass image Vancouver attempts to portray. Vancouver's alleys, especially in the Downtown Eastside, can be home to sleeping bodies, needles, and drug deals. Once, photographing the graffiti in an alley running parallel to Granville Street I encountered a man smoking crack who identified himself as "Bent Brent" because his arm had been partially severed and reattached at a strange angle. He lifted his t-shirt to show me the scar, then told me to be careful with my camera.

Walking with the tour through Toronto's laneways, we were shown examples of laneway housing, a type of residence being built inside laneways. In cities looking to increase density, it seems a good idea. Vancouver passed a motion allowing laneway housing in 2009 and saw the first opened in 2010. Objections to privacy, access to city utilities, and fire and garbage truck access have become issues and barriers to laneway housing; however, we came across several successful laneway housing projects, including a townhouse complex built on a former parking lot. One, more sleek example of a laneway house, is even featured on page 74 of the Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Toronto and can be found pictured here. Laneway architecture needs to be more inventive, using a smaller space ingeniously. There were some strange buildings, but the one pictured below, with its folded-over peak like a flopped Orca fin, caught my eye.

Parry led a casual, but informative tour and managed the large group well. The laneways we travelled through were mostly empty of people, except for a few curious residents who came to check out the strange mass of people taking pictures of their houses. However, there was one traffic jam created at a laneway intersection where we had to negotiate space with several large cars.

At the end of the tour, Parry explained that one of the things he loves about laneways is how you can get lost inside them in your own city. He asked us how many of us had felt disoriented in the laneways only to dump out at an intersection or street we knew. It was this exact experience that I find so compelling about laneways and one of the reasons why I walked them so much in Vancouver. It seemed a way to renew my vision of the city, wipe away the fog that builds up when you live in a place too long and allow yourself to be surprised again.

all photos taken by me on September 5, 2010 on walking tour route.

Friday, September 3, 2010

30 Days of Biking: West Toronto Rail Path

September 1st marked the first day of 30 Days of Biking, which aims to see participants bike everyday for the month of September. Seeing as biking is how I get around, this should be pretty easy. However, I decided on the first day to bike somewhere I'd never been to before in Toronto, so my biking partner and I went on a trip to the West Toronto Rail Path.

First, I can't believe I've now lived in Toronto for four months and didn't know this pathway even existed. Second, "trip" is probably a misnomer as the path is only 2km long and hardly takes any time to ride from start to finish. Be that as it may, it's still an interesting and worthwhile ride.

The path starts at Dundas Street West and continues north along an old rail line up to Caribou Street, which is a few blocks south of St. Clair. This section, called Phase One, was completed in October of 2009. There is a Phase Two, but it has been delayed due to the Georgetown South Project and the Pearson Air Rail Link. Phase Two would see the rail path extend further southeast toward the edge of Liberty Village. Both the Toronto Cyclists Union and a group called the Friends of West Toronto Railpath are pushing for the completion of the project.

The path reminded me a lot of the bikeways in Minneapolis, a lot of which are paved over old sections of rail. To me, these are the perfect spots for urban bikeways as they are already separated from the grid of the city. Just put down some smooth asphalt over the old rail lines and bob's your uncle: a perfect separated bike lane that hardly interferes with the street system. I believe Vancouver is looking at turning the old rail tracks through the Arbutus corridor into a bikeway as well. Also, it was nice to be off the ball-busting, utility-scarred roads of Toronto and ride on a surface that didn't rattle my teeth too much.

But the best thing about the path is not where it takes you but what you see along the way. It follows an industrial area, with a plethora of brick buildings and factories, their old uses still stamped onto their fading sides (what is oiled clothing?).

Smoke stacks point up into the sky, while graffiti provides a colourful mural along the pathway in places where both sides aren't dripping with vegetation.

Riding through the rail path feels almost like you have been transported to a different place. The sounds of the city virtually disappear and there is no car traffic to contend with. It's a view of Toronto I hadn't had before. We encountered only a few other cyclists. One lady was out walking her dog, who ambled on ahead of her. As we passed from behind, her dog unknowingly began to veer left into our path and she shouted out, "Riley, right! Right," leaving us both to wonder if you could actually teach a dog right from left.

Sculptures by John Dickson line the path, an homage to its industrial legacy. The first one I came upon just confused me: a big, mesh triangle extending out of the ground like a shark fin.

However, the others are reminiscent of factories and smoke-stacks.

At the north end where the rail path ends at Caribou Street, there is what appears to be a car repair/junk yard where there are some interesting decrepit cars filled with broken glass, beer bottles and various other garbage.

At the south end where the unfinished rail path rudely dumps you out onto hectic Dundas Street West it can take a few moments to reorient yourself into the city riding frame of mind. It was hard to go from the blissful rail path to being squeezed between a coughing city bus and the curb. Hopefully the city continues the project because it would be a great, safe and quick ride through Toronto. Also, the Junction neighbourhood is a short ride away on Dundas West and we found it was a good spot to have a cold beer after Day 1 of 30 Days of Biking.