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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Where the lines blur Brown

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I once heard Browns Line described as the ugliest street in Toronto, but I didn't bother to confirm this until recently. Browns Line is rather famous, as obscure arterial roads go, because hundreds of thousands of commuters pass by its Queen Elizabeth Way and Gardiner off-ramp signs every day. It's one of those landmarks on the way in and out of the city that are noted automatically, but rarely examined. Browns Line stands out because it's not a street, avenue, or boulevard, but a line; it's a throwback to farm days, the kind of lonely country road where Southern Ontario Gothic-genre dramas might unfold.

On a humid-hot early summer day, we started a walk down Browns Line at Sherway Gardens. The only thing Gothic at this mall are some of the teenagers, as this is Etobicoke's mink mile; it has a Holt's and a Sporting Life. As we walked through the latter, my ambulatory consort for the afternoon remarked that he grew up being jealous of the other Thornhill kids whose moms brought them to the North Toronto location. His memories, and the oddball combination of Prada, snowboards, and Birkenstocks, were weighing heavily on us, so we escaped into the heat of the parking lot.

Few places in Canada get as hot as mall parking lots, so the thin band of green at the edge served as encouragement to head south and east towards Browns Line. Sherway is currently sprouting numerous tall condo towers at its periphery. Like Square One in Mississauga, this mall has turned the area into a kind of urban centre. Not exactly a downtown, but more somewhere than nowhere. One condo presentation centre says "We're building Etobicoke's most fashionable address" — and that has to count for something.

Evans Avenue starts just south and runs east across the QEW concrete trench. Just a few metres beyond it, relatively new suburban homes surrounded by grass and garages are followed by apartment buildings that date to the late '50s and early '60s. They evoke the great postwar age of the automobile, when Browns Line finally lost the remnants of its rural beginnings.

Browns Line itself begins as a massive off-ramp, a continuation of Highway 427, rising out of yet another Detroit-style freeway trench. Maybe this is why somebody said it was ugly. But, if you look at it right, it's not. The car is king on Browns Line today, and the stripmall landscape is certainly dowdy, but it's never boring. As with Toronto's other stripmalls, the variety of stores and restaurants operating next to each other is a completely urban mix. The inner and outer suburbs have an undeserved reputation for being bland and "all the same," but unlike many downtown neighbourhoods where the chains repeat every block or so like the background in a cartoon chase scene, the strip-malls here are full of unique, independent, and small-scale businesses.

Just south of the freeway interchange, Adult O'Rama (with private viewing booths) is next to Veroli Ristorante, Allegro Café, and the Chesterfield Factory. In the plaza on the other side of Browns Line a giant Chinese "Top Food Supermarket" is next to the Alderwood Café, a golf academy, and something called "Honey World."

This is, as the café's name suggests, the community of Alderwood, nestled in a corner of Etobicoke largely isolated by industrial land to the north and east and the Mississauga border to the west. It's also where, on a rainy Saturday night this past July, an SUV riddled with bullets and three bodies was ditched just a block from Browns Line. Alderwood had little connection to the murders other than its being a convenient place to get off the highway when bad things happen.

There is lots of activity along Browns Line here, but we didn't bump into very many people. We saw a few sitting on their porches, watching the traffic, but the sidewalks were all ours. Tiny postwar bungalows, some with their entire front lawns given over to paved driveway, mixed with the occasional monster home and commercial enterprise. After a few blocks, the east side of the street turned industrial.

The hot-dirty wind was blowing so we stopped at Timothy's Pub. It's always a bit strange to walk into a bar in the middle of the afternoon: it takes a while for your eyes to adjust and you can't shake that guilty matinee feeling. It was a quarter full, filled with mostly early-retirement-age men nursing pints and watching one of the many plasma screens. We sat at the bar and did the same. A couple at a nearby table talked in hushed tones and leaned into one another. "They are having an affair," suggested my consort. Hot and anonymous Browns Line is where the clandestine romance goes down, with 18-wheelers rolling by outside, golf on the television, Bryan Adams playing in the background, and somebody else asking the Russian bartender if she's on Facebook. She's not, but the adulterous couple probably didn't care.

Back outside, tipsy in the sun, we continued south, up and over the railway tracks where Browns Line comes to an end at Lake Shore. This is Long Branch, where the 501 streetcar ends. Just to the west of the terminus, before the Mississauga border, we headed into the bush and back up towards Sherway Gardens following the path along Etobicoke Creek. Typical of Toronto creek and ravine parks, signs of the city quickly disappear. Near the QEW we got off the black asphalt Yellow Brick Road and headed down a dirt path that leads underneath the highway; there we saw signs welcoming us to Mississauga and Toronto, luring us from the cavernous, almost-subterranean space below.