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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The bungalow horizon of Willowdale

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If you look at a map of Toronto, you'll see two bands that run across the top. One is the fat and wide 401 that we're all familiar with. The other is the Finch Hydro Corridor. It runs roughly just north of Finch Avenue, hence the name, and is generally a continuous green line bisected at predictable points by longitudinal streets. I started my walk at Finch Station at about 2pm on a nowhere, no-time Sunday afternoon. I was going to exit at the kiss-'n'-ride, because I've never done that, but it seemed presumptuous so I exited on the east side of Yonge.

To the east of the northern exit is an expanse of parking lot that rivals the one found at the Canadian National Exhibition. If it wasn't for the power lines an Airbus A380 could land there — or at least crash without much collateral damage. Except for the spots closest to the subway, this commuter lot is nearly empty on a Sunday afternoon.

There is a lot to notice in an empty parking lot, such as the tight black rings of rubber tire tracks (what else can one do, with a small front-wheel-drive car in an empty lot, but make donuts?), the massive footprint of power towers (about the size of a downtown duplex), and the puddles of broken glass (smash-and-grab surprises at the end of the day). Perhaps most striking is the skyline to the south. Here, Toronto's Yonge Street Skyscraper Spine begins to sputter out. To the north is a bungalow horizon.

After the parking lots ended I walked along a suburban street that runs parallel to the grass. The grass here is taller and wilder than a lawn, but is not exactly a prairie. The houses all have garages with opaque glass transoms over the door. So many Toronto subdivisions have an admirable trait, like this one, that shows that some unsung architect cared. Like a lot of Toronto, there is a small town Ontario feel here, almost exurban, with a braided metal wire fence attached to rough wooden posts marking the perimeter of the hydro area. It's hard to tell if we're allowed to walk here or not, but the fence is passive and Canadian-looking enough to not scare anybody off.

After passing some community gardens, I moved into the middle of the corridor, walking along the beaten path along rolling hills. This is about as close as I've ever come to feeling like one of the early romantic peripatetics like William Wordsworth, who wandered through the Lakes District in England. However, Wordsworth never had the buzz of the power lines above to keep him company as he ambled along. Though mostly a solitary walk, there were other lone hikers — mostly dog walkers — out along this passage through the cul-de-sacs. We greeted each other with a "Hello" like people do on trails in Algonquin or the Bruce Peninsula, so perhaps it's more like a bucolic Wordsworth ideal than not.

There is quite a bit of hilly terrain in North York that Mel Lastman's boosterism didn't seem to celebrate. After climbing down a muddy path, I was blocked by a (kind of) raging brook that I could not cross. Had I been wearing rubber boots I could have made it, but then I would have had to wear rubber boots within the city limits, which seems wrong. I retreated and headed south along the top of the ravine but soon found myself on a manicured lawn with Costco-style lawn furniture. Figuring I had wandered into some kind of suburban backyard annexation of public space, I backed out before somebody saw me from their kitchen-sink window and got upset. After feeling like a creep lingering in the northern bushes on the edge of a playground, trying to find a makeshift creek crossing, I made my way around the ravine by walking along Gustav Crescent where I noticed (by way of a public school name) that this area was called Cummer Valley.

I found a passage back to the hydro corridor and was accidentally in the middle of a huge dog park with what seemed to be the biggest dogs in Toronto (they grow 'em big in North York). Once I crossed Bayview, I followed a nearly continuous single track path by abandoned Essos, Swiss Chalets, familiar Toronto 1960s apartment clusters, and continuous backyards. The rhythm of the path is broken only when it intersects with the Don Valley trails and stops at the Old Cummer Go Station (where I broke the law crossing the tracks so I didn't have to break my stride), and by a giant power substation, where that electric hum was buzzing as loud as the planes in the Pearson flight path above.

My walk ended when I hit the sound barrier of Highway 404. Backtracking through the Seneca campus brought me to Don Mills and Finch, where I sat with a Tim Hortons coffee and waited for the bus down to Pape Station. I was 8.4 kilometers from where I had started, at Finch Station, near the top of Toronto's spine.