adventure #1 – the prince edward viaduct

joy bistro at queen st e

as i start to write this, i’m sitting in the Joy Bistro at logan and queen street east. the last time i was here, it was a coffee and juice bar (called “joy java” or “java joy” or something). it seems to have done well in the last four or five years because it has evolved into a fairly upscale bistro/wine bar. i stopped here because i was in the neighbourbood five years ago and i heard working with fire and steel by china crisis and remarked that i’ve never heard them anywhere else on the planet except from the record i borrowed from the library so many years ago. but the bistro is not the adventure – just the setting where i start to record it. a place to rest after a three-hour walk, to have a gourmet burger and an iced tea, to listen to the philosopher kings… lol…

anyway, my adventure began yesterday evening. i had actually been despairing over my new years resolution – how would i find 52 adventures in 52 weeks in a city where the dominant pastimes seem to involve (in no particular order) eating out, drinking (alcohol/coffee/bubble tea), clubbing and shopping? in addition, this weekend being my very first adventure should be something significant, colourful and multi-layered. by friday afternoon, even after polling most of my colleagues at work, i had no plan and was starting to grow concerned that my adventure would constitute going to some shopping mall to which i had not yet been.

in the skin of a lion, by michael ondaatje
the prince edward viaduct

after work, there was a mixer to welcome a new co-op student to imason, and my mentor/buddy, victoria came to my rescue with what surely must have been the most obscure but unexpectedly perfect suggestion that one could make. victoria asked me if i had read michael ondaatje’s in the skin of a lion, and before she had finished her sentence i knew exactly where she thought that i should go – to the Prince Edward Viaduct, also known as the Bloor Street Viaduct.

“The Bridge” is one of the most memorable parts of the book, describing some of the drama around the construction of the viaduct in 1917. this was the first of ondaatje’s books that i had ever read. but that’s not the reason that the recommendation was so perfect. in 1987 or 88, i went to a reading by MO in edmonton with a very dear friend of mine. it was the first or second time that i’d gone to a reading by an author or poet, and it was an incredible experience. it was a cold winter night, and i can still remember the thrill of the evening and the excitement of partaking in such an inspiring and challenging literary activity. i loved that evening; i loved the book (there's even a reference in this section of the book to northern ontario – to copper cliff of all places – that never would have had meaning to me until now!!); i loved my friend for opening my life up to that new experience. ondaatje gave a reading from “The Bridge” (the second part of in the skin of a lion), and that memory flooded back into me when victoria made the suggestion.

my diner at bloor and jane

i woke up late and went as i normally do at least once during the weekend to the bloor and jane restaurant, located… at bloor and jane. i used to go with my roommate, kyle, when i lived here last. the food fairly drips with grease, but the coffee is surprisingly excellent, the potatoes are perfectly seasoned with paprika, and their bacon is top-notch and always perfectly prepared.

i didn’t finish breakfast until about 12:30, so i decided to fast-track the adventure by taking the subway to the viaduct, as opposed to walking across all of downtown toronto along bloor street as i had originally planned. i got on the subway at jane and took the bloor-danforth line to yonge station. i knew that somewhere around there, bloor crosses the don valley parkway at the viaduct and becomes danforth avenue – but i wasn’t sure where. everyone who knows me knows that i have a terribly crippled sense of direction and sense of geography within 5km of my present location. as it turns out, i could have gone two more stops on the subway and saved myself 20 minutes of walking – but then again, i had planned to walk for 2 hours and given that up, and now, i had learned that new lesson.

are you distressed?
the
commemorative plaque

the thing that i noticed first upon viewing the bridge (because at street level, it really just looks like a road or a simple bridge) is the steel framework at the sides carefully constructed to prevent suicide jumpers – i guess they call it the “luminous veil”. at each of the four corners of the bridge, you will find large and prominent signs offering distress assistance and a pay phone – apparently, these are ready assets meant to snap you out of your suicidal intent – i suppose the spirit of it is the important thing. the veil was only completed in 2003, and in the time between 1997 and 2003 during which construction of the veil was delayed due to funding problems, there was a suicide ever 22 days! over 400 recorded suicides have happened at this bridge, making it the second most popular bridge for committing suicide behind none other than the golden gate bridge in san francisco! what a legacy! the steel struts and slender cables that form the veil form a virtually impenetrable but nearly transparent barrier. this suicide angle is all the more interesting to me because my 27-storey apartment has seen its fair share of jumpers as well. i was riding down the elevator just last week and a woman entered the elevator complaining that she was moving out because her neighbour smoked and it bothered her, and someone on her floor had jumped to his death (although i hadn’t heard anything about it) – it may have happened before i moved in. anyway – it seems that it would be an attractive feature for many high-rises with conveniently un-barricaded balconies like mine for suicidal maniacs looking to avoid the complications of ending their own lives at a civic landmark.

more toronto graffiti
belly of the beast - with subway passing through it
stairway up

as i mentioned, at street level, the bridge is barely evocative of much other than the need to prevent suicides from public places and the need to get to the other side. so i decided to trudge into the muddy valley along side of the viaduct to get a better look at the underside. as soon as you descend below the plane of the road, a veritable gallery of graffiti presents itself along all of the lower portions of the bridge. brave, bold, fluid, vibrant, indecipherable symbols and sigils layered upon layer of each other create a beautiful, cacophonic symphony of urban expression. i’ve said it before and i stand by this claim – toronto has some world-class graffiti.

staring up at the belly of the viaduct, you get a sense of the technical and logistical challenges that its construction must have presented. not only was it a lofty bridge almost half a kilometer long rising 40 meters over the don river (hardly more than a babbling brook today at this point of the river), but it also was designed to transport water and yet unbuilt streetcars and subways across the river to connect eastern toronto with the core of the city… almost 90 years ago. the effort to loft vast slabs of concrete and steel into space, to pin it all together – the pain and the suffering to construct in such a day and age… this was an age of titans of courage. no such similar enterprise would be able to emerge today for lack of whmis compliance and threat of law suits! here is the point at which my adventure resounded most emphatically with the reading that ondaatje gave of the sacrifices and heroism that occurred on the most mundane levels by the most ordinary of characters in canada so long ago.

what the hell is this place?
omg - it's a freaking school!

coming up the other side of the bridge (still on the west bank of the river) was made far easier and less muddy by the wooden staircase situated on the south side of the bridge. i came up alongside a seemingly abandoned, graffiti-laden building, and i wondered what it might have been? some museum commemorating the building of this historical structure? some municipal centre of some importance? as i ascended closer to the building, the squalor intensified – empty beer cans, empty energy-drink cans, and empty potato chip bags seemed to be everywhere. light fixtures were broken and smashed. i began to think the building must be some kind of half-way house or to-be-condemned tenement building. something out of trainspotting perhaps. when i finally got around to the street-level front of the building, i was utterly astonished to discover that it was a school, the rosedale heights school of the arts!!

the site of castle frank

apparently, this was the site of sir john graves simcoe’s summer residence, castle frank (for which the TTC subway stop is named). the school still bears the dedicational corner stone salvaged from the residence. so during the course of my adventure, i managed to go from a reading by a great canadian author in my early years as a university student to the site of the residence of the first lieutenant-governors of upper-canada, to fast-forward 100 years to view the utter squalor and lack of regard for the past and for heritage that is our 21st-century.

 

and this is the real spirit of these adventures – to reach back into the past and recognize that everywhere you go, no matter on what patch of land you stand, life has happened there before you arrived. great things have been done, great feelings have been had, great thoughts have been explored, and desparate decisions have been made. everywhere one goes – there is history and life to be explored. these are the things that i want to find in these weekly adventures. to learn more about myself and the world that i inhabit and who has inhabited it before i got here.

i finally made my way across the actual bridge of history and souls after an hour of putzing about the valley and the school. it was not so easy to experience the spirit of the workers who built the bridge or the governors who had lived so close by (in earlier times still) when porsche cayenne’s and bmw’s were whizzing past on the windy bridge. the day’s foggy, cloudy, rainy weather and gray, moody midday lighting did nothing to evoke the past up top.

it wasn’t until i reached the other side of the bridge that the realization hit me that i was at danforth avenue… for those of you who might not have spent much time there – the danforth is a pretty fabulous district comprised of lovely boutiques and fabulous restaurants… predominantly greek by prejudicial generalization, but speckled with representation from all around the globe by my estimation. actually, visiting danforth is on my list of other adventures, but i did spend another hour or so strolling east along the danforth up to jones street, then i head south to queen street east to revisit the south riverdale community. and that is how i ended up at the joy bistro, writing all of this into my new notebook.

i doubt that these adventures will be of any value or interest to anyone other than to me. who would slog through the 2000 words that i’ve just written? why would you? to learn something about me? to learn something about toronto? there are obviously far easier ways to do both. however, i do this for myself, and today was a most excellent adventure for me. i look forward to the next one and trying to tie together lines of new and old aspects of my past and current life, and learning more about this amazingly rich and complicated city!

– g

 

adventure cost:
breakfast at bloor & jane: $8.50 ($6.50 + handsome tip)
new copy of "in the skin of a lion": $21.50
two TTC tokens: $5.50
lunch at joy bistro: $25.38