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Toronto's Not So Ugly Underbelly

There is a secret Toronto that most of you have never seen. You walk, drive and bike beside it and over it every day without knowing it even exists. This is the hidden Toronto. The hidden Toronto is made up of the lost spaces under railroad bridges, highway basket weaves and drainage viaducts. These places are integral parts of Toronto's infrastructure. For the city to exist these places must also exist. They are the awkward corners and cubbyholes that have fallen through the cracks of urban planning but, to me they are hidden gems.

One such hidden gem is the Black Creek Watershed. The Black Creek was once a vibrant tributary of the Humber River which was rich in plant and wild life. Today, thanks to heavy urbanization the creek has been severely degraded in size and quality although The Black Creek Conservation Project is making efforts to revitalize the watershed. What remains presently is a sludgy rivulet which originates somewhere in the City of Vaughn and crawls its way southward following a path that roughly echoes Jane Street until it empties into the Humber river just south of Eglinton.

The creek in no way resembles anything of its former natural glory. The water flows through a series of concrete ditches and smells, well let's just say the aroma can be compared to that of the Humber filtration plant cooking under the mid July sun - BUT that does not mean it is not worth exploring, and that is exactly what I did.

A few weeks ago a friend and I (I would not recommend exploring this location without a partner) ventured underground. We gained access to the drain by veering off the path and under a bridge in an undisclosed park location in north Toronto. Once under the bridge it was immediately about 5 degrees cooler and quite pleasant. When our eyes adjusted to the shade we stood and looked around in awe. We were in paradise, all be it a stinky, dirty paradise.

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The creek it self is no more than 4 feet wide and, if you are willing to risk dipping a cuff in the murky water you can hop from side to side with ease. We followed the creek northwards and along the way we saw many a family of Canada geese with their chicks, ducks, and skunks and beneath every bridge we saw swallows gracefully skimming the surface of the creek. At times the concrete shores become slippery with slime and you have to be wary of your footing. There are also a few tunnels where the shore disappears and you have to wade through the water. If you are really gung ho on exploring you may want to bring some tall boots or hip waders.

Though the creek runs through an area of the city that has garnered a bad reputation for being 'rough' but we crossed paths with only one pleasant man who had made his home under a highway bridge. The only other evidence of human life (well aside from the concrete, of course) was the graffiti which adorned the bridge supports and sides of the tunnels which simply added to otherworldly ambiance. Some of the graffiti was quite old, ranging all the way back to 1988.

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Someone created a make-shift library under one of the bridges.

As the sun began to set we emerged blinking and dusty somewhere near Sheppard Avenue and lamenting the stifling heat and haze of topside Toronto we walked, above ground back to the car.

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There are many other neglected and under appreciated hidden gems and in-between places in this city just waiting to be explored. But how do I find these places you may ask? Well, what fun would it be if I gave it all away? The thrill of discovering your own private paradise, a place where no other denizen of this fine city has laid eyes, is part of what makes exploring the hidden Toronto special. So grab a friend, pack a picnic, yank on your hip waders and set out on your own urban safari.

Here are some clues as to where to begin:

The Vanishing Point: An Ontario Draining Resource

Infiltration: The zine about going places you're not supposed to go


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