The Art of Walking thru Geographic Space
> Von Bark

Part Two: Some random notes on some urban geographies...

I enjoyed a relatively unsupervised childhood growing up on a ramshackle farm near the site of the Black Donnely Massacre in Lucan Ontario. When not clambering among discarded farm implements or dilapidated haylofts, I diverted myself with long aimless hikes across fields and meadows, a habit I retained into adolescence, for which I acquired the reputation as an eccentric: for where I came from, normal people simply did not wander the countryside for no apparent reason. (although many years later I spent some happy hours 3000 miles away in Waltham St. Lawrence, England, entranced by the quaintness of the rustic footpaths among arcadian groves maintained by generations of hikers who, quite foreign to my upbringing, had inherited a sense of value to the concept of rambling. Whilst there I read Thomas Hardy's 'Far From the Madding Crowd', one of the few books of his with a happy ending.)

In school, my study of geography was painfully limited to the dull memorization of mining stats. Upon graduation I spent some time in suburban London, Ontario, where I was introduced to the science of 'Urban Geography' by the eccentric student Mark Piggot, formerly of Aylesbury, England, who revealed an inter-relationship between land-use, zoning, architecture and human existence which seems obvious in retrospect but was enlightening in my youth. London (with a sprawl density roughly proportionate to greater Los Angeles) had a reputation as a smug burg with a superficial attitude of complacency, concealing a handful of somewhat less-tasteful but more-interesting less-affluent neighbourhoods. London possessed several gems of Victorian architecture which real-estate developers delighted in obliterating virtually unopposed. At that time the local music scene spawned a number of Punk bands which were easily more deeply suffused with suppressed rage than more recognized artists from other urban centres, but which sadly eventually dispersed due to neglect and lack of access to larger markets. Punk bands from Victoria, BC made a bigger splash out of a city which could easily be described as 'London with a harbour'. Somewhere around this point I make a PsychoGeographic reference to the map of Swindon, England on the inside sleeve of XTC's 'Go2'.

When I first moved to Toronto I often wandered amongst the neglected industrial wastelands at night, and not having had spent much time around factories I was impressed with their dark foreboding inhumanity, as well as their dormant sombre dignity. Over the years I revisited the vast structure at 9 Hannah Ave, a former munitions plant which had been transformed into a multi-purpose complex of workshops, band rehearsal spaces and artist studios, ranging about the cathedral-like space of the cavernous central gallery, interspersed among the wreckage and debris of various abandoned offices. It was a building with a deep psychological resonance; its demolition a few years ago evoked a sense of regret, a reminder that the passage of time was not always generous in nature.

However, the best thing about Toronto architecture is the quasi-Egyptian post-Victorian grandeur of the massive Harrisonian public works projects. Distinctive works of this class include the cryptic Pharonic grace of the Churchill Reservoir, the severe looming facade of the High Level Pumping Station, and the solid impenetrable majesty of the R.C.Harris Water Filtration Plant. When Michael Ondaatje displayed his intuition in capturing the spirit of its effect in his novel 'In The Skin of A Lion', his talent was as much evident in his ability to recognize the enduring ambient potential of this structure as an incubator of dreams as in his technical skill. (For those from outside of Toronto perhaps I should clarify that R.C.Harris was an autocratic early 20th century politician who left the city greater than he found it; M.Harris was a late 20th century politician who has mostly succeeded in doing whatever he could to humiliate this city).

Since the original Harris era, the significant major public developments in Toronto have been the cute flying saucer launching pad of the New City Hall and the C.N. Tower, which despite its awkward symmetry was remarkable for being probably the last and possibly the only construction mega-project in my memory to have been completed on-schedule and on-budget. I could make an obscure reference here to M.Jordana and the Poles if required.

At this time in the 1970's, Toronto was known as "the city that works", presumably in comparison to the traffic-choked decaying major American megalopoli. The construction of the bloated over-priced Skydome Stadium marked a transition point when Toronto's leaders began striving for the designation of "world-class city", and began to transform it into a sort of filthy grid-locked smog-ridden dysfunctional emulation of those questionable American models.

Contemporary urban planning in Toronto currently takes the form of a chaotic dystopian cautionary tale. A befuddled attempt to create an interactive urban space in Dundas Square is revealed as nothing more than an incredibly ugly parking lot; Billions are spent on a subway which goes nowhere, yet to suggest building one which might go somewhere useful, like Pearson Airport or York University, might possibly offend the wrong interests; Copious preaching and millions in planning devoted to trying to do something constructive with the waterfront lands have merely choked it with a disorderly thicket of tacky condominiums; Sheer madness proposed with a straight face by seemingly moderate politicians endorse the construction of a fixed island bridge and the expansion of Toronto Island Airport, as if that is what is needed downtown at this point in history; Commentators fume about traffic congestion, while the obvious solution, increased funding for public transit, remains ignored, and the Oil interests nod quietly: gridlock is good for business.

To actually consider the possibility of livable urban space or fiscal responsibility is regrettably unavailable to a population of voters twitching like drugged lemmings under the hypnotic mantras of zero-taxation & hardline law'n'order offered by our current demagogues. I live in a province where the re-election platform of the ruling party is nothing more elaborate than a promise to harass those employed in the education profession. I do not look forward to what we deserve.

>>Onward to Part Three