& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Rivers run through it – II

Continued from the post above

Knowing a city makes a difference in comprehending it.

One of the most fascinating discoveries in my (half-hearted) attempts at knowing Toronto better happened accidentally.

A couple of weeks ago when the Luminato festival’s Literary Picnic at Trinity Bellwood was washed out, I went to the Harbourfront Centre to see Nine Rivers – Toronto’s Extraordinary Waterways.

I didn’t know the city that is by the lake has in the past found its sustenance through rivers. Moreover, I had heard of just the Don and the Humber. Which were the other six rivers? At the exhibition I discovered that the city has three rivers and six creeks. The rivers are Don, Humber and Rouge. The creeks are Etobicoke, Mimico, Duffins, Petticoat and Carruthers. The photographs are aesthetically appealing. The exhibition is on for a year. Read about it here, and then go see it.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim The Black Creek
1pm December 19, 2012
Highway 407 and Jane Street
Then, earlier this week, I read Anya Moryoussef’s piece Judith Vogelnest / Alice Coe, The Cartographer in Descant (Issue 160 – The HiddenCity). Moryoussef’s memoir about her grandmother traces her chequered personal history and her deep and abiding interest in tracing Toronto’s lost rivers. The author, an architect by training, share her grandmother's interest in Toronto’s rivers.  

Here’s a passage that describes their meeting.

“From her stack of papers, Alice extracted page after page of lightweight vellum covered in lines like veins. Every line was accompanied by a monologue delivered with urgency and agitation, each monologue accompanied by a series of dramatic hand gestures. Her finger nails looked like they had been stretched too long and too fine for her small palms and plump forearms. The skin on them was thin and polished, like satin pulled taut over branches of bones and tendons. They were translucent and they shook, and as they moved through the air, illustrating how rivers had been rerouted and covered over, encased in brick tunnels and buried by layers of dirt and sod and other waste, they trailed ghosts behind them. Her fingernails were dirty.

On pages with earlier dates, the lines were prominent, creeping across the paper in all directions. On later ones, the lines were fewer and shorter, drawn with less conviction. Solid strokes were replaced by dotted lines, smudges and hatchings some of which began and ended with question marks. Graphite was smeared across the pages from years of handling, covering them in a dull sheen of grey.

The maps illustrated the rivers disappearing. The first started to go around 1800s, Alice explained. Taddle Creek, she said. See here? She pointed to one of the lines, indicating that between 1800 and 1833 the creek had been interred as far as the University of Toronto campus. From about 1850 until 1900, settlements and industries that grew along the creeks used the water as a dumping ground. Creeks became corridors of plague and pestilence, and the city was forced to turn to the lake for clean water. In time, she said, the creeks were systematically reduced to sewers. The last to go was Mimico Creek, in 1935.”

Occasionally cities die. Death is a slow, protracted process. Cities die when growth ceases, but also when there is rampant, unchecked growth. 

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