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.

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