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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Neighbours with a buzz

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Except for the constant thrumming of the 60-cycle hum, these Jekyll-and-Hydes make no other noise. Perfect neighbours, they go about their super-heated business inside while wearing their cool domestic camouflage on the outside — like an army of men in grey flannel suits with beating balls of fire for hearts.

Scattered across the city, they are the Toronto Hydro Corporation's 277 substations, and it's their job to break down raw electricity from power plants into something more palatable for our homes, schools, and businesses. Some look like grand late-Victorian public buildings ("Glengrove" at 2833 Yonge near Lawrence) and others like postmodernist boxes (Blackburn Street at Gerrard and the DVP), but the vast majority resemble something far closer to home: our houses.

Walking through the front door of one of these residential imposters is like being given permission to go backstage at a play. Windows from this rarely seen side are only holes in a wall, empty of meaning, like the back of a stage set (albeit without two-by-fours propping it up). Everything here is stripped of ornamentation and completely utilitarian. Then again, why dress up what only the actors see?

In two-storey residential substations it's stranger still. Above your head is only air, as there's no need for an actual second floor. In front of you — where the sofa should be — is the high-voltage switch-gear, an orderly row of refrigerator-sized cabinets with various meters and dials. Off to the side, there's a shelf with battery-box units containing DC power to protect the switch-gear if the power goes out.

Through the back door, there's an outside "room" where the ungainly transformers live. For ventilation purposes, this area typically has no roof and is walled in on only two sides, the rest enclosed by a chain-link fence. It's here, among the thick snake-like tangle of high-voltage wires, that small critters sometimes meet their end.

Bigger critters, such as people, are so comfortable with substations that they often use them as dumping grounds, throwing appliance cartons, garbage and yard-waste bags, and the occasional partied-out Christmas tree into their yards. Adding to this mess are all the mistaken deliveries of phone books and advertising flyers, which, while making more work for the City, remind us how successfully these "homes" blend in.