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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The island of Markland Woods

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There are islands in Toronto that aren't surrounded by water. Instead they're communities that are isolated in some way from the rest of the city. Sometimes it's clusters of apartment towers surrounded by ravines and highway, where the only entrances are via bridge or underpass. Other times it's simply a railway line that divides one community from another, which, though relatively narrow, can be as psychologically dividing as the Berlin Wall (the "wrong side of the tracks" means what it does for a reason). Toronto's neighbourhood islands aren't in complete isolation, but they lack the urban cohesion other parts of the city have, where one neighbourhood blends into another seamlessly.

One such island, on the western edge of the city, is Markland Woods. Toronto neighbourhoods tend to be known for being either superstars — the ones that get all the attention like The Annex, Kensington, or Parkdale — or for being the spots where crime happens, so their name gets repeated on the evening news too often. Markland is neither, and is wrapped nearly entirely by the Markland Wood Country Club that follows the lowlands around Etobicoke Creek (which also divides Toronto and Mississauga). There are only four entrances to the community, one of those being Bloor Street, which bisects Markland and continues into Mississauga. Like a lot of places at the end of the city, only one TTC line goes there: the 49 bus, which makes a circle of the neighbourhood and returns to Kipling station, a lone bus with no connections once inside the community.

Bloor Street first crosses Highway 427 before heading into Markland. The 427 is short, fast, and wide here, and doesn't have the same identity that the 401 and Gardiner/QEW have in Toronto. It's the route in between places: you're either almost at the airport or you're just arriving back in town, and you wonder which lane you need to be in to get where you're going. It's a profound sense of nowhere standing over the 427, a big-sky interzone that nobody owns but thousands pass through ever hour, underneath and overtop. The West Mall that runs adjacent uses the odd British street name convention that translates, roughly, into "wide road, not much going on" (think of Pall Mall in London — fancy, but boring). To be fair to Etobicoke's West Mall, for a highway service road it's better than most, as it has a fine example of one of Toronto's remarkable stripmalls at Bloor, full of the mom-and-pop mix of shops.

A few blocks further on Bloor, Markland Wood begins. It's a subtle entrance — the ranch and split-level homes that line the street don't seem much different than what preceded them. Walking through a community like this is a challenge when trying to get a handle on the area without having a reason to be there — such as an appointment or, better, plans for visiting somebody — as it's hard to "read" the neighbourhood. It's private and quiet; people live behind big garage doors and likely travel in their cars more than on foot. Not all of Toronto's outer neighbourhoods are like this — some post-war areas see lots of pedestrian activity even though the urban planning was designed for car use.

But here, I felt extremely conspicuous walking along the residential streets alone, save for a few grandmothers walking very young children from school. I was certain if people looked out the window and saw me walking slowly along the sidewalk at the end of their lawn, they would be, at the very least, somewhat suspicious. When I lived in a neighbourhood like this, a stranger walking down the street was so odd an occurrence that everybody outside noticed. Though Markland's community spirit is hidden when walking around, it certainly is there as it has one of the oldest community papers in circulation in Toronto — The Marklander, started in 1963, not long after the community was established. Today the homes are over 40 years old and show signs of a mature population: a remarkable number of porches have been glassed in, a particular quirk of retirement-living renovation.

This area along the banks of the creek was previously the Silverthorn farm that was established in 1807 on land granted to the Loyalist Silverthorn family of New Jersey. It stayed in the family until 1958, when the 400-acre farm was sold for $3 million. A few years after the destructive waters of Hurricane Hazel ripped through this lowland, residential homes were built on the area deemed high enough above the flood line, with the rest given over to the low-risk golf course. The Markland Wood

residents' association website describes the remnants of an old bridge over the creek that can be seen from the 12th tee of the country club, though non-golfers miss out on this sight, and on many other ravines and watercourses in Toronto that are part of golf course private property. If liability laws allowed, perhaps right-of-ways could be established along here and elsewhere.

The plaza at the centre of Markland may be the heart of the community, but apart from a McDonald's, it lacks the coffee-shop type of public-private places where neighbours can bump into and overhear each other (perhaps a reason the community paper has been so successful). Across Bloor in Millwood Park, the "wood" of Markland Wood is a small thicket of forest, tamed and civilized by streetlights that keep the forest bright at night. North, along Mill Road (that once led to the Silverthorn's grist mill on the creek), concrete brutalist towers rise above the 1960s houses, marking where Markland ends and the rest of Etobicoke begins. The 49 bus rolls by and I get on, a little antsy to leave the Markland island, and I'm shuttled back to mainland Toronto.

Shawn Micallef writes about cities, culture, art and whatever is interesting in books, magazines, newspapers and on blogs. He co-founded [murmur], the mobile phone documentary project, and the Toronto Psychogeography Society. His upcoming book Stroll will be released in 2010 by Coach House Books.