The Dunes, the Bogs, the Progress, the Barns, & Usonian Design

30 May 2015 – Sometimes a punchy little title just doesn’t cover it. This long lumpy one does, but not in the order you’ll find below. Never mind. We’ll make it through.

So here we are, last 2 days of the trip, hitting the edge of “Oh damn, let’s just jump on the Interstates & get to Toronto.” We had been so proud of our wiggly small roads all through all those states, hardly a sniff of Interstate. But, finally, it is time to go home.

Except that Danna, bless her, has one last delight up her sleeve. We’re going to nip up to the south-east curve of Lake Michigan, and visit the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (part of the U.S. national park system).

Some 15,000 acres along the shoreline and, yes, it has dunes.

Lake View site within Indiana Dunes

I tell you, this park is a triumph of stubborn citizen will — not once, but often, as each new development threat took shape. First praised in an 1899 scientific article by botanist Henry Cowles (an article, that, it is said, established him as “the founder of plant ecology”), the area was repeatedly proposed for protection, given some, threatened anew, and on the dance went, until a 1966 act of the U.S. Congress established the first national-level 8,330 acres, since expanded.

There is a very industrial Port of Indiana plonk in the middle, presumably the price paid for the protection otherwise gained. (Nothing I found quite states that quid pro quo; I am here drawing conclusions.)

But life’s benefits always have prices, and the port is invisible unless you are actually driving past it. Certainly not visible, or injurious, from here — the Lake View beach, with its splendid dunes & squealing kiddies running in & out of the waves.

beach at Lake View, in Indiana Dunes

We picnic here, wander the beach a bit, read the signage with its recipe for creating a dune: take 1 receding glacier, preferably advancing/receding in cycles, add strong wind & wave action, stir & tumble for a millennium or so & voilà, rippled shorelines & dunes.

Fed & at least superficially educated, we turn back along this road, to regain the main road and our next target, the Cowles Bog.

No, next target but one. Our immediate target is right out here on Lakefront Drive, where we saw, goggled at, almost stopped for, but decided to visit after lunch … this.

1933 Century of Progress,  Lakefront Drive

Yes, really. The Century of Progress Historic District. The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair featured a group of homes under the banner, “Century of Progress,” each one a showcase of innovative building materials & designs.

In 1935, a developer barged five of them over here.

Including the Florida Tropical House …

Florida Tropical House, 1933 Century of Progress Historic District

and the Armco-Ferro House …

Armco-Ferro House, 1933 Century of Progress Historic District

and the House of Tomorrow.

House of Tomorrow, 1933 Century of Progress Historic District

All are now publicly owned & administered, but leased to private tenants. While several are clearly under further restoration, the impact of the group is so unexpected & surreal & glorious that you just giggle with joy as you hop around during your 15 minutes of permitted parking.

On to the bog.

Cowles Bog, of course named for Dr. Henry Cowles, and who more worthy of tribute? Three interconnecting loops offer 4-5 hours of steady hiking, but we don’t have that kind of time. We have dawdled quite a while already, it is mid-afternoon, and, alas, an Interstate does beckon.

So we spend an hour. Long enough to enjoy stretches on wooden paths over the bog …

Cowles Bog, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

and to admire huge, happy ferns …

Cowles Bog, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

and also some equally happy but more delicate yellow-bog-iris-plants-we-guess.

Cowles Bog, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Then back to the car, oh sigh, and we think the fun is over, but you can’t count on that, can you? Because smack at Hwy 12, which runs its ribbon through the park, we see this:

house on Hwy 12 within Indiana Dunes

How silly can you get?

It’s boarded up, but we still can’t quite bring ourselves to trespass, so we admire from relatively afar.

Back to Frank Lloyd Wright

I am grateful to reader John Panning, who commented on my previous post, noting another FLW house open to the public in Iowa. It is Cedar Rock, an outstanding example of the architect’s Usonian design (“his version of the average American home”), located in Quasqueton, Iowa.

So there you go: two FLW homes open to the public in Iowa, each a prime example of a different style: Stockman House = Prairie School, Cedar Rock = Usonian.

Why on earth don’t these two organizations cross-promote?

Back even farther, to Wisconsin Barns

Well, that jump is enough to give you whiplash. Back at least a week & multiple states in this trip’s chronology. Don’t care. I want to show you these barns, and they just didn’t fit in earlier on.

I had already seen U.S. barn art, decades ago in Pennsylvania and (I think) closely linked to the Pennsylvania Dutch community. Starting in Wisconsin, and on through the other mid-West states, we saw many examples, all part of the mainstream farm culture.

Here’s a close-up of one, evening shadows picking out the design …

barn Hwy 22 s. of Shawano Wisc

and here’s a long shot of another the next morning, with that fresh early light and that big sky just rolling on & on. (Made me remember my Alberta days.)

backroads Wisconsin

Aren’t they terrific? Art as part of the mainstream culture. Not needed for function, not interfering with function, just loved for its own sweet sake.


Prairie School Architecture. Plus.

26 May 2015 – Let’s start with the Plus, because it really is very, very nifty. In the parkland in front of the Mason City Public Library stands this status: “Circle of Friends,” by Karen  Crain.

"Circle of Friends" in front of Mason City Public Library

Charming without being saccharine & entirely appropriate for a public library, you think. All true — but the story is even better than that. Each year, River City Sculptures on Parade, Inc. (not-for-profit, despite that “Inc”), in partnership with Sculpture One Network, invites artists to lend the city one of their works of art for one year. The sculptures are displayed in a big walking-tour loop around the city, and are available for sale. So: good art for the city; good marketing opp for the artists.

On top of that, each year people are invited to vote for the People’s Choice award. Whichever sculpture wins, is purchased by the city and kept on display.

Back to “Circle of Friends.” In 2014, someone purchased it, and donated it to the library.

Danna & I lingered at another reading-related sculpture, also in front of the library. “Oh look,” says Danna, such delight in her voice, “look at the dolly hanging off the scooter handle…”

"Summer Distractions II" in front of Mason City Public Library

This is “Summer Distractions II,” by Lee Leuning & Sherri Treeby. It won People’s Choice in 2013, was therefore purchased by the city, and now also stands near the library.

We wander over to one side, drawn by this powerful bear. “Beetle the Bear,” by Cedar Mueller, is built entirely from recycled pieces of metal, cunningly fitted together.

"Beetle Bear" by the Mason City Public Library

Did you notice that hapless salmon, hooked in the raised paw? Here’s a better view of the underside, the pad & claws, of that paw.

the salmon hooked in Beetle's paw

He is a 2015 entry. Danna & I agree he’d get our People’s Choice vote, hands down. (Paws down.)

There is a lot more, but alas we didn’t get to much of it (though we did study each image in this year’s pamphlet). If you’re in Mason City, go find the art. It is a treat.

Prairie School Architecture

I already knew some very basic basics about the Prairie School — balance, horizontal lines, Frank Lloyd Wright. I did not know about FLW’s presence in Mason City, or about other great architects of that same school.

Herewith the world’s shortest primer, first with two FLW buildings — each deserving the abused adjective “unique” — and two buildings by another architect, whom many prefer to the “starchitect” whose name we all know.

First unique building: the 1908 Stockman House, an early example of the Prairie School by Frank Lloyd Wright — and the only FLW house in Iowa open to the public.

Stockman House, 1908, FLW

I find, with Prairie School buildings, that I become mesmerized by the details, all carrying through the same great themes, in perfect harmony.

Stockman House windows

Second unique building: the Historic Park Inn Hotel, completed in 1910 and reopened (after a $20-million restoration) in 2011 — the last remaining FLW designed and built hotel in the world.

Historic Park Inn Hotel, FLW, 1910

This shows just one end of the structure, which originally housed a hotel at this end, a bank at the other end, and a set of law offices in between. All are now part of the hotel.

Restored tiles in the entrance pillars welcome you inside. (You can glimpse some window & light fixture details as well.)

restored tiles in entrance pillar to hotel; note also window detail

Inside, the restored skylight, a very FLW kind of detail I am told, but one that had been lost — now back in place, complete with the original 25 panels of art glass. See the furniture below? Mission-style, of course.

skylight, with the 25 original panels of art glass

The entrance to the bank section of the building originally had two imposing FLW-designed “Spirit of Mercury” statues flanking the door. This one and its partner are inside, and are reproductions, but faithful to the original.

"Spirit f Mercury" repros of FLW originals

But. But.

Prairie School is not all about Frank Lloyd Wright. Among its other practitioners you’ll find Walter Burley Griffen, who also had considerable impact in Mason City and seems to have the respect shown him mixed with real affection.

Here is one of his buildings, the 1913 James Blythe House. (Something else I really admire about Mason City: they have informative plaques embedded in the sidewalk outside each architecturally significant house.)

James Blythe House, 1913, WBG

Can’t go in .. but I can still fall in love with window detailing.

windows in James Blythe House

And now, my friends, for a very special Walter Burley Griffen house: the 1915 Sam Schneider House, which backs onto Willow Creek.

Sam Schneider House, 1915, WBG

Here is what’s so special. It is for sale, by the bank that holds title, for USD $285,000.  So if you have a spare 285-grand lying around, doing nothing special for the world, why don’t you buy the house — and donate it to the River City Society for Historic Preservation?

They’d be very grateful, they really would.




“76 Trombones…”

23 May 2015Sylvie Greeniaus commented on my previous post about Mackinac Island, noting I was on my way to Mason City, Iowa, and asking: “What’s going on there?”

Think trombones, Sylvie.

trombone in streetside flower bed, in hour of the parade

Think 76 of them.

Since 1938, Mason City has been home to the North Iowa Band Festival. No wonder composer/playwright/songwriter/etc. Meredith Willson, born in Mason City in 1902, grew up to write book & music for the Broadway hit, The Music Man.

Which introduced and made famous the song, 76 Trombones (led the big parade)…

Which explains why the yearly Big Parade is now led by exactly 76 trombones, playing that song.

76 trombones, playing "76 Trombones..."

Then all the regional marching bands get to strut their stuff.

Some 60 of them this year, lots and lots from middle and high schools, showing that the tradition is alive and very well. A Clear Lake band, for example, complete with twirling flags.

the Clear Lake marching band

Then there’s everything else that makes up a Big Parade.

Marching horses …

in the Mason City parade

a vintage fire truck …

old fire truck in the parade

vintage automobiles …

with an "ouga-ouga" horn!


and a vintage steam engine. Oh all right, this one is made of cardboard, but it’s a splendid replica of the beloved real thing, over in East Park.

replica of steam engine in East Park

Balloons on trucks …

in the Big Parade

and costumes on people …

in the parade

and kids on roller skates, doling out candies (Batchild checks his haul) …

just two of the roller-skating candy tossers

and a kid on a unicycle, intent on his own balance, not candy for the moppets.

the only unicyclist

People marching with dogs …

biggest dog in the parade

and with kids …

lots of kiddies, getting a ride

and moms holding entranced, happy kids along the route …

on the sidelines...

and entranced, happy adults along the route.

my friend Danna...

A serving of barbecued corn on the cob, awash in butter & salt (the only time I pile on the salt), while we watch the parade …

oh that corn on the cob!

and then, finally finally, the parade is over.

I follow my friend & travel companion Danna (whose hometown this is) to a post-parade picnic.

family friends & their annual picnic

And that, Sylvie, is what brought us to Mason City, Iowa!

But we’ll be doing lots more here as well. As you will see.


Mackinac, UP

20 May 2015 – That “UP” may give it away to a few people — but just a few, in a tight geographic cluster. I only learned today that “UP” is local slang, meaning “Upper Peninsula,” with the further explanation “– of the State of Michigan, USA” neither provided nor needed.

All of which may suggest I am not at the moment tucked up in my usual Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

And I am not. Could I have taken this photo in Toronto?

outside the Mackinac Island police station

See? I am definitely elsewhere. I am, in fact, spending the day on Mackinac Island in that curious northern peninsular bit of Michigan that butts against Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

No cars on Mackinac; transportation instead by bicycle or horse-drawn carriage. I’ve always been curious — as I am about almost any island — but not at all informed about the island’s history.

A plaque provides that history, pared down to the essentials. (Well, no, not quite all the essentials. It does leave out the aboriginal history.)

historical plaque on Mackinac

When my very dear friend Danna & I were plotting our spring get-away to Mason City, Iowa — home of the North Iowa Marching Band Festival every Memorial Day weekend — we decided to included Mackinac Island in our itinerary. It meant a 12-hour drive from Ottawa (her home) to St. Ignace (ferry jump-off for the island) on Tuesday, a feat requiring us to “get up before we went to bed” as one friend likes to put it.

But totally worth it.

Group-of-Seven-scenery all along the Canadian portion of the drive; a U.S. border guard who lit up with delight when she learned we were headed for a marching band festival (“I was in a marching band in high school myself!”); and a cheerful motel room next to the ferry docks, with a lake view.

So I will not complain about the fact that, on May 19, it was only a degree or two above freezing. (Anyway, as a Canadian, I’d be embarrassed to complain about feeling cold in a country south of my own…)

This morning, onto the ferry, and on to Mackinac Island.

map of Mackinac Island

Choices galore. Jump into a tour-carriage; yield to the gob-smacking array of shopping opportunities; perhaps spend our time in the butterfly conservatory? We don’t do any of that. We decide we are there to walk some trails. So we do.

We start from the ferry docks in the bay in the south end of the island, & follow the main drag east toward Mission District out there where the island curves to the north-west. The barrage of tourist shops fades away as we walk east; other island characteristics become more apparent — the horses, the bikes, the grand, grand homes.

Lake Shore Blvd, approaching Mission District

A tour-carriage is heading toward us, pulled by the usual troika of heavy horses; a workman’s bike  (with some plumbing supplies in the boxy cart) is propped up outside one of the homes; tourists fill the sidewalks; fine homes line the street; the spire of Ste. Anne’s Church (1874) rises in the distance.

This is what I mean by a “troika of heavy horses.”

horses pulling tour carriage, Mackinac Island

Aren’t they wonderful? Team after team, patient & strong, steady of nerve. Sometimes smaller carriages with just two horses, but most of the ones we see have three.

I mentioned grand homes, and that’s what they are. Many are now some variety of tourist accommodation — enough of them that, presumably to avoid confusion, private homes often have a neat sign to that effect at the gate. This home, for example.

private home on Lake Shore Blvd

No confusion about some tourist accommodation, however! Mission Point Resort was purpose-built to be exactly that, a resort in the grand tradition.

Mission Point Resort

We pivot around the point of land, head north-west on up Lake Shore Blvd., along the shores of Lake Huron. Lots of rocks, which here — as in Canada, as in Iceland, as I suspect everywhere else — means inuksuks. Where there are rocks, people will pile them up.

inuksuks on Mackinac Island

More shoreline, then up many-many-very-many steps to Arch Rock high on the bluffs. Given the formation, the name was inevitable.

Arch Rock, Mackinac Island

We visit one more of the tourist destinations up here in the woods, a limestone stack given the equally inevitable and descriptive name of Sugar Loaf Rock.

But, mostly, what we do is walk trails. There is a lot of forest up here, entirely another world from the retail/tourist world below. And just as beautifully presented: good trails, maintained but not over-groomed, and well sign-posted.

And, oh, the names!

Just one of the Mackinac Island trails

Plus Juniper Trail, Tranquil Bluff Trail, Crooked Tree Road, Beechwood Trail, Watch-Your-Step Trail, Soldier’s Garden Trail …

We meet only two other people, as we weave around, and both live here. Each provides further tips about favourite trails and secluded parts of the island. The friendly residents and enjoyable trails lead to wonderful discoveries, none of which bears a price tag.

For example, trilliums up and down the slopes …

just a few of the trilliums in the woods

two Jack-in-the-Pulpit …


and a tree trunk with the most glorious fungi I’ve ever seen. Danna tells me the nickname for this particular one is Artist’s Conk …

Artist's Conk (fungus)

because, she explains, you can incise a design on its underside when it is fresh, which it will retain  when it dries.

Finally, we leave the wooded heights, drop down to town via Garrison Rd., and Custer St., and Turkey Hill Rd. (with its warning that its steep slope is dangerous and not to be attempted by bike or in a horse carriage without brakes).

There is time for one more turn around a few lower-level streets before catching the ferry back to St. Ignace.

And one more bit of proof about how deeply these heavy horses are part of the island psyche. Even grand, lakefront homes show their love.

door with horse motif wreath, Mackinac Island

Confession: at first I think it is a misshapen, left-over Christmas wreath. Silly girl, of course not! It is a very deliberate, very elegant, silhouette of a horse’s head.

Itinerary: we leave St. Ignace Thursday morning and, within hours, “UP” Michigan — in fact, all of Michigan — as we head farther south-west and inland.

On to Mason City in a day. Or two. I’ll let you know what happens.



Talking Woman …

9 May 2015 – Sometimes, I am doing a whole lot more Talking than Walking.

For example, on May 7, when I get to add steel-toed boots & a hard hat to my usual tool-kit of notepad, pen & camera. I will be exploring, all right, but up on a roof, not deep in a ravine. And not just any old roof top, either: I’m talking about the green roof now being built, with volunteer help, for the new Cooper Koo Family Cherry Street Y in Toronto’s east end. I’ll be there, interviewing some of the day’s participants for profiles in the new Y’s newsletter.

I have to be at the gates at 8:45 a.m., I’m eager & ‘way early, so I kill a bit of time by cycling into the nearby Distillery District.

It’s so early the café chairs around the big sculpture at the foot of Trinity St. have yet to be set straight. I prop up my bike & prowl for a few minutes, enjoying the strong lines of the sculpture, a tribute to the activities that gave this site its original purpose as the Gooderham & Worts Distillery and linger in its name, the site now repurposed for retail & entertainment.

sculpture in Trinity St. courtyard, Distillery District

To one side, the oldest building in this complex of Victorian industrial architecture, the 5-storey Stone Distillery, built of limestone shipped from Kingston, Ontario and completed in 1861. The limestone gleams in the early rays of sunlight, the elegant severity of the structure in complete contrast to the whorls of the courtyard sculpture.

Stone Distillery, 1861, Distillery District

To the other side, the c. 1895 brick Pump House, wonderfully reinvented by Balzac’s Coffee Roasters as a café in the Grand Parisian, fin de siècle style. (The huge wooden chandelier, rescued from some vaudeville theatre, is somehow the perfect final touch.)

Only Balzac’s has temporarily decamped to Gristmill Lane, while some further restoration work takes place on the old pump house.

restoration work, 1895 Pump House, Distillery District

My cue to get going! Time for me to get up on a roof myself!

So off I cycle, arriving at Cherry & Front streets to peer once again with such anticipation at the building, still a work in progress. It will house Pan Am / Parapan Am athletes this summer before going back to the developers for final tweaking & its ultimate unveiling as the city’s newest YMCA.

I’ve shown it to you through chainlink fence from the Front Street side — here’s a glimpse of those same strong lines, this time punching their way above the Cherry Street white hoardings.

Cooper Koo Family Y, Front & Cherry streets

And in I go, and — after well-focused safety training with the day’s other volunteers — up I go to the roof. Where, April 27-May 22, Restoration Gardens staff & many community & corporate volunteers will together bring a 30,000 sq. ft. green roof into existence.

Everybody else is doing serious things with tools. Not me. Instead, I get to talk with them, see what they’re doing, learn why they have volunteered, share their excitement.

And wear my very own hard hat!

Penny Williams after interviewing

Penny Williams after interviewing

Important note: I had worn the regulation safety vest all day, and had just that moment removed it in the stairwell, since I was about to leave. Then I suddenly decided I wanted a souvenir vanity shot, and stepped back onto the roof, far from any action & right next to the stairs. A colleague took the shot, and I was gone. They are dead serious about safety up there, and people follow the rules.

Curious about the roof? About the new Y? (Or just about another of my adventures?) Sign up for the newsletter. Click here, and then, on the Cooper Koo Family Y page, click again where indicated, inside the “Stay Updated!” box.

Spring on the Spit

4 May 2015 – And all the way to Leslie Spit as well. We suddenly have warm weather, warmth we can count on, and this Saturday, the city is giddy with joy.

We are celebrating.

At Cherry Beach, for example, where people flop right down on the sand, knees & faces toasting in the sun …

Cherry Beach Park

And just east of Cherry Beach in Jamieson Kuhlman Field, where zillions of kids are tearing around in soccer practice. An Irish-accented coach explains a move in detail to his charges & cries, “I want to see your brains in action!” as he turns them loose to try it for themselves.

soccer practice, in Jamiesdon Kuhlman Field

All fun, but my target is Leslie Spit. As I have confessed before in this blog, I am a Leslie Spit junkie.

Five kilometres long & some 500 hectares in size, it is a Man/Nature joint venture project that began in 1959 as a lake-filling operation off the foot of Leslie Street — for port-related facilities they later decided they didn’t need.

From the start, Nature was busy developing an eco-system on all that clean fill. Humans caught up with the idea, & now the entire site is officially known as Tommy Thompson Park. Roughly half is already managed as an “urban wilderness” park (accessible weekends only); the rest is still a week-day dumping site, but contoured and managed with eventual park use in mind.

I have time to think about what I hope to see, as I cycle east. Yes! Today Walking Woman is Wheeling Woman — nothing fancy, just my sturdy old clunker, but I’m happy as I explore the day’s route from a slightly different perspective than usual.

map in TTP visitor centre

South on that left-hand orange line (Sherbourne St.) to join the yellow Martin Goodman Trail as it hugs assorted roads across town. South with the yellow line down Cherry St. to Cherry Beach, east again along the lake to the Spit. And on out the Spit.

Here’s my wish list:

  • Birds – it’s an important birding area, with over 300 species sighted & 55 known to have nested here. I will observe with a friendly, if ignorant, eye.
  • Bridge – There’s a funny little bridge mid-Spit, a good place to see birds, talk to fellow walkers & cyclists, look out over the ponds & landforms.
  • Beaver Lodge – Every visit, I hope it is still there. And inhabited.
  • Sculpture – What else to call it? All this rubble & rebar, people make art. I have seen magic out here.

Native shrubs & grasses are just beginning to wake up, but birds are already in high gear. Screeches bounce through the air. I know there are gull nesting areas on both sides of the Spit and, I tell you, the sound carries.

So does the cry of the Red-Wing Blackbird, one of whom preens for me on while I stop the bike & pull out my camera. He is in full display, red and yellow stripes both, very dramatic — thus all the more fun for him when he flies off exactly as I raise the camera.

Never mind. Moments later I’m cycling past a line of Bluebird boxes and — I think for the first time ever — I see a bird posing atop his box. Who stays there.

Eastern Bluebird on Leslie Spit

I’m still pleased with that happy gift from the Spit when I receive another.

There’s the beaver lodge! I don’t see any beaver, I never do, but the grasses to and from the water edge are flattened in what I hope is a beaver trail. (Later, in the newly opened Visitor Centre, I learn that beaver are indeed active in the park.)

beaver lodge on Leslie Spit

Just left of the lodge & mostly behind the grasses, you can see a flash of white. That’s one of the Mute Swans that also live here in considerable numbers.

And then … the bridge. I’ve crossed this bridge in all seasons, snow & glinting ice, summer warmth, fall colours. It’s like a little mid-Spit break in the trip, a place where people easily fall into conversation.

bridge partway up Leslie Spit

I remember standing here once, hanging over the railing to watch Long-tail Ducks eddy to and fro, trying to memorize their call. No ducks this time — but there is another bird, another reason for people to stop in their tracks, point in amazement, and smile at each other with the discovery.

Canada Goose atop piling, Leslie Spit

The City silhouette is quite handsome from here, but who cares? We only have eyes for the Canada Goose, peacefully settled atop the old wooden piling. Nesting? We don’t know.

I’m ticking my wish list very nicely: birds, check; beaver lodge, check; bridge, check.

Ah, but. Sculpture. True, I haven’t been up and down every single trail or along every shore edge, but I’m surprised that I haven’t yet seen anything much. Just a few rebar & rubble pop-ups along the eastern shoreline …

rebar & rubble art, Leslie Spit

Well, maybe there’ll be something interesting right out at the tip.

That is where, in January 2013, I saw a brick & cement “bed,” with a loving diary carefully inked into its concrete “pillows.” I called that post Magic and Found Poetry in its honour, and — though it is long gone — I have never forgotten it. (Visit the post for more images.)

the 'bed' at the tip of Leslie Spit

So I am slightly awash in nostalgia as I approach Lighthouse Point, and hopeful.

Hah. Piles of rubble, all right, but each mound is just as the dump truck left it, claimed by noisy gulls rather than creative human hands.

gulls at tip of Leslie Spit


And then I see it.

Not a great creation, not even very good, frankly — just some bricks that have clearly been shoved around & roughly organized into a big circle. There is a slightly more developed ante-chamber to one side, but it’s still not that terrific, not really.

I am trying to persuade myself it deserves a photo, though I know perfectly well it doesn’t, when — suddenly — the whole thing is transformed.

A child flies in from one side, yipping with delight, and flings himself down to play with the bricks.

at tip of Leslie Spit

And that is worth a photo. Not whatever it is he may create, just what it stands for: the sheer human urge to create, and the joy that act gives us in return.

Leaving the park, I see a street vendor & tick one final item from my list. I make my yearly springtime purchase of a Polish sausage in a toasted bun, and I love every bite as I lick escapee relish off my upper lip & watch swallows looping though the sky.

All good. Happy spring.

Old — Chainlink — New

27 April 2015 – Well, it seems that way, when you venture into Toronto’s rapidly changing West Don Lands neighbourhood. It’s exciting, but disorienting too. Construction, with attendant chainlink fencing, everywhere you look. There’s a moment when I laugh, thinking, “I might as well have just arrived from Oslo or Harare, it’s all strange to me…”

But before that moment, I do for a while know where I am. I’ve decided to head first for the Distillery District, and approach Chainlink City from there.

As I approach the Distillery District’s Mill Street entrance, my mind is very much on old & new, replacements & juxtapositions, so that’s what my eye notices as well.

towers in the Distillery District

Soaring new condos bracket the old Boiler House chimney, 1884-1891 era. I visit a couple of the side lanes within the now-repurposed complex of Victorian industrial architecture (once home to Gooderham & Worts). Down Tank House Lane, I get a foretaste of all the chainlink to come …

Tank House Lane love locks

Yessir, an ever-growing number of locks chained to the LOVE wire frame against a laneway wall. Swarms of people posing for pictures, and reading lock inscriptions aloud to each other. I just like the way all those locks cast shadows on the wall…

Now for Chainlink City, as I choose to call it — the old industrial area roughly south of Eastern Avenue & east of Cherry Street (which is just behind the Distillery District). The big catalyst for all this renewal is the upcoming Pan Am/Parapan Am Games, which will be concentrated around here.

I walk back up Trinity Street (Cherry Street being fenced off) and discreetly eavesdrop as I pass a small knot of people, with an energetic young woman in the middle gesturing & explaining something to the rest of them.

Trinity St. south of Eastern

“The medals will be here,” she is saying, “and you …” I am out of range. I can only guess that she is instructing some Games staff or volunteers about medals logistics, which — another guess — will be handed out in what at the moment is still fenced-off shambolic space.

But what I really want to peer at through the chainlink is a smidge farther east, right at Cherry & Front streets. Though the building will first serve as residence for Games athletes, its legacy owner is the YMCA, and it is therefore already branded as the Cooper Koo Family YMCA Centre.

Cooper Koo Family YMCA

I feel ridiculously proprietorial as I peer through the fence. I’ve just begun doing some volunteer writing for the new Y’s newsletter, and in a week or so I’ll actually be in the new building. Correction: up on its roof, helping to document the collaborative project of installing its new green roof. I did this for Central Y; I’m eager to do it again.

I start east on Eastern Ave, seeing & thinking about the old/new contrasts all around. Humble old brick structures on Eastern, with the sassy balconies of a new condo complex jutting out at the far corner. (“Me! Look at meeee!”)

looking east on Eastern Ave

It’s just beyond here that I ask someone to tell me where I am. Bayview & Lower River Street? Thank you … (Then I spot street signs. Where were my eyes?)

Another good place for contrasting photos, though this time the contrast is city/nature, since both views are new/new.

To the north, more mixed-use new towers flying up, tucked behind their chainlink fencing of course …

Byview & Lower River, looking north

… while, to the south, Corktown Common, the 7.3 Ha park that opened in 2013. Talk about transforming old industrial land! Now it features a central raised landmass (flood protection), woven through with marshland, ponds, native species trees & shrubs, and a play/community pavilion.

Corktown Common, from Bayview & Lower River

We’re having a late spring, everything is delayed — except for the birds, madly claiming territory & building nests. Except for toddlers as well, almost as noisy as the birds and, under their mothers’ watchful eyes, claiming slide/swing/play territory of their own.

I think of starting back north on the trail along the Don River from here — the park borders the west side of the river — but no, the trail is inaccessible, locked away behind a chainlink fence. Temporary, I hope.

So I zigzag north a bit on assorted streets & find myself in Underpass Park. It is well-named. Play equipment & a skateboard area are tucked under three (count ’em) converging overpasses: Adelaide East, Eastern, and Richmond East.

in Underpass Park

In I go, out I come. On up Lower River St. for a bit, fascinated by the very, very black motif of much of the new architecture. Particularly fascinated by all the pale punctuation on this tower, though enjoy it while you can: once they paint or otherwise clad the underside of all those balconies, the contrast will surely disappear.

underside of balconies unfinished

Enough city! Queen St. East is just ahead, which means access to the trail along the Don, and I get myself onto it. Lots of cyclists whizzing by, some runners, not many other walkers. I smile at the Merchants of Green Coffee Cafe & Jam Factory across the river, just south of Dundas.

Merchants of Green Coffee, from trail on west side of Don River

It really was a jam factory, back in the 1880s, and had at least one subsequent industrial life before its rescue and reinvention as home to MGC. We not only drop in every Saturday morning, I am now doing some volunteer writing for them as well, about their Cafe Solar project.

What fun, two of my new affiliations in the same walk, one in a 21st-c building that has yet to open and the other in a 19th-c building that preserves our industrial past.

More old/new architecture as I walk under the Gerrard St. bridge — Bridgepoint Health, completed by Diamond Schmitt Architects in 2013, and, tucked between its bulk & the edge of the bridge, a glimpse of the Don Jail, completed in 1864.

under Gerrard St. Bridge facing east, with Bridgepoint Health & old Don Jail

The old jail is now all spiffed up & serves as the admin centre for Bridgepoint. Until very recently, it was totally unspiffed & still housed prisoners.

I leave the trail at Riverdale Park. I am grateful I only have to carry my own two feet up the stairs to the pedestrian bridge, not a bicycle.

access steps to pedestrian bridge across the Don, linking  Riverdale Park East & West

Not quite the last stairs of the day. This bridge swoops down, either side of the Don, to flood plain level. From there, on the western side, you climb some 80-odd steps back up to the park proper.

Somebody was obviously very proud of climbing those stairs!

top of steps, Riverdale Park West

Let us all now contemplate our goals, as here instructed, & vow to turn every staircase we see into our very own personal piece of fitness equipment …

Secret Handshakes (& more)

23 April 2015 – The Douglas Coupland exhibition is partly at the Royal Ontario Museum (see Art With an Echo), partly at MOCCA — the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art out Queen West near Shaw.

So here I am on a sunny day, back amid some stacked-up Coupland plastics, then suddenly face to face with something else — something I immediately recognize, even though it isn’t really that something.

Thomson Lone Pine Variant, 2011

“Thomson’s Jack Pine,” I mutter to myself, even though I know it isn’t by Tom Thomson, obviously not. I read the label: Thomson Lone Pine Variant, it says, created in 2011 by Douglas Coupland.

Right Got it. But here is what I have bouncing in my mind:

Jack Pine, by Tom Thomson

The real thing, Tom Thomson’s Jack Pine, created in 1916-17.

Then I read the big poster for this part of the show. “Secret Handshakes,” it is called. It’s all about being Canadian, in a world that so often blurs us into kinda-American. The poster concludes…

… By using imagery and objects laden with symbolic meaning for Canadians, Coupland has created a ‘secret handshake’ not easily understood by others.

Well, I am into this. I take in more of the works (including a not-Lawren Harris that is so very Lawren Harris), enjoying the concept.

I move into the next room. More Secret Handshakes, including a sculptural work that has a whole cluster of laughing admirers. We must all be Canadian. We are all, as t’were, in on the handshake.

part of Secret Handshake exhibit, MOCA

I’m not sure you can explain a joke without being really, really pompous, but — for the sake of non-Canadian readers — let me try. That’s the CN Tower, emblem of Toronto, toppled and burned at the base. A good Canadian joke, since — right from Lester Sinclair’s 1946 radio play, We All Hate Toronto — hating this city has been seen as a patriotic duty, a unifying force from sea to sea to sea.

So there is the tower, aka Toronto, SPLAT. With a very apologetic, so-very-Canadian “SORRY” writ large beneath it. That’s right! Even our vandals are polite!

And — my favourite bit — the numbers “905” above the SORRY. This may reduce the whole thing to a Toronto secret handshake, not a national one. Perhaps only we know that 905 is the area code for the suburban horseshoe around the 416 inner city core, with each set of numbers used with pride or derision depending on which code you inhabit. (I hear a woman practically choke with laughter when she sees the 905.)

The smaller images are anticlimactic for me, but I do immediately recognize them.

in Coupland's Secret Handshake exhibit, MOCCA

The still young (but front-toothless even then) hockey player Bobby Hull peeks out from behind a big RUSH poster, a Canadian band of the 1970s that sold more than 40 million records worldwide and ended up with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, so perhaps not totally a Canadian-secret handshake after all.

It’s all pure Canadiana once I’m back out on the streets & poking through the alleys.

RUSH has me still thinking music, and I eventually find myself in what I call “Music Alley” for complicated reasons — anyway, an alley south of Queen West, between Niagara & Bathurst. Appropriate to find a musician painted into a doorwell, don’t you think?

alley s. of Queen West, between Niagara & Bathurst

After that, the images dance to other beats. And beasts.

Here’s a Birdo-beast, for example, along with a beast by a colleague whose tag I can’t decipher.

Birdo & friend, "Music Alley"

There’s a secret handshake of sorts about mid-alley, as I catch a band of red & white blocking my view up the cross-alley.

cross-alleys with TTC

I know it’s a TTC streetcar, maybe you do too. If so, we’ve just exchanged the secret handshake.

I linger a bit here, find myself chattering with a doorstep-sitter who opens the conversation with a fairly aggressive “You like graffiti?” that turns friendly when I answer “Yes!” We throw names around like old pals, he directs me to look at all those canaries over there, we agree that Uber sure can draw little yellow birds … and it’s all swell.

Across Bathurst, heading east into another alley south of Queen that I have just learned in fact has an official name: Parry Lane. Well, I’ll be darned. I find that on-line, not on the street. (But it might even be true.)

Under any or no name at all, this lane also coughs up some art along with boring scrawls. I am taken with this bit of art criticism, not that I totally understand it …

in Parry Lane, s. of Queen e of Bathurst

… and I nod in sympathy with Mr. Sugar Daddy Penguin’s lament.

alley s of Queen, e from Bathurst

Maybe he bought her the wrong designer?

Milling About

Abrupt change of topic, no attempt at a segue; you don’t mind, do you?

I hope nobody tried to follow my off-hand subway reference as directions for our Tuesday walk (River to Lake) down the Humber River. “Don Mills subway station” will never get you there — not least because it doesn’t exist. Try “Old Mill.” That will do very nicely.

My thanks to my friend Kay for spotting the error — what was I thinking? — and my shame-faced apologies to the rest of you.


River to Lake, No Ice

19 April 2015 – Finally warm! Look, no gloves! The Tuesday Walking Society is all girlish giggles of joy as we set out from the Old Mill subway station & start south along the west side of the Humber River. New growth is beginning to appear, but last fall’s rusty leaves still carpet this marker in King’s Mill Park.

lookout west side of Humber R.,  just south of Old Mills subway station


The park is well-named: Toronto’s first industrial building was a mill — the King’s Mill — built here in 1793. It is long gone, though traces remain of subsequent mills on the same site. No traces at all, these days, of the Huron-Wendat villages that once populated this watershed, except for a map showing the locations of some archaeological digs.

This fact makes me grimace a bit at the next map, one of the colourful big ones that dot the route of any of the city’s Discovery Walks. We are following Humber River, Old Mill & Marshes, and the trail bears this name:

Discovery Walk map, posted on  Stephen Dr at Berry Rd.

My grimace is for the title. “The Shared Path”? More likely the seized path, given the typical course of European-indigenous interactions. (But yes, all that is long ago, and now is now. We cannot change then; we are responsible for now.)

At this point Phyllis & I are out of King’s Mill Park. We have to put in a few fairly boring blocks of city streets before the trail enters South Humber Park. Back to the river, back into nature, though always with the city dancing on the horizon.

view east from South Humber Park

The Humber River watershed is the largest in the Toronto area, an important corridor for migratory birds & monarch butterflies. (All the more reason to celebrate the Humber Bay Butterfly Habitat just west of the Humber, on the lake.)

There are marshes along this stretch of river, one of the city’s few remaining river-mouth marshes, prime breeding habitat for ducks, turtles & fish.

And prime wading grounds for Great Blue Heron.

GBH in the Humber Marshes

Down, down we walk. I tie my jacket about my waist, revel in the warmth. Nothing gradual about the transition from one season to the next, not in this part of the world: we jump straight from winter’s Full Stop to spring’s Fast-Forward, ka-boom.

The trail goes under two major expressways close to the lake: first the Queensway, then the Gardiner. Traffic overhead, concrete pillars all around, a few charmingly old-fashioned light standards along the way.

under the Queensway & Gardiner bridges across the Humber River

Painted in firm black letters on one of the pillars: “Retake the lake.”

Now a prettier bridge, one of my great favourites from any angle, the pedestrian bridge at the very mouth of the Humber.

pedestrian bridge at mouth of Humber River, from the north

We turn westward through lakeside parkland, a narrow but amazingly effective ribbon of peace & recreation between the lake on one side and soaring condos on the other. It is also a good viewing spot for the downtown silhouette, back there to the east …

view from Humber Bay Shores park toward city to east

You see that Mute Swan, gliding through the inlet? These guys are around all winter — not like those sissy Stratford (Ontario) swans, carefully relocated to protected habitat each fall & then ceremoniously paraded back to the Thames (still Ontario) in spring!

Sorry, I got distracted there, smirking at the Stratford swans. The thing we notice about our local tough-guy swans is that, today, they are all fluffed up as they cruise around. As if they’d watched one too many Michelin Man images in the tire commercials, and got ideas. (“Hey look, I bet we could be even rounder than that!”)

Mute Swan, all fluffed up

I’m sure any ornithologist could explain the phenomenon, but I prefer to think they’re just having fun. They look like they are, as the wind catches all those surfaces and propels them this way & that.

Not fun at all, our next stop, but one I always make. We walk out the east lobe of Humber Bay Park, jutting into the lake, and stop for a moment at the monument to Air India flight 182. The flight originated in Toronto; so did the terrorist bomb that, on 23 June 1985, exploded over Ireland, killing all 392 passengers & crew.

Air India 182 memorial, Humber Bay Park East

Terrorism is commonplace, a chilling truth. Yet each act of terrorism matters, each lost life matters. I once stood at the wall of victims’ names, by chance next to a young man who gently touched a name, and said that fellow had been his work colleague & his friend. I see people come upon this memorial unawares, chattering happily about other things; they halt, first puzzled, then — always — touched. I am also touched, in a world of so much violence, to see the power of remembrance.

A happier finale to the walk, symbols of life not death. We head back to the main shoreline, & start weaving our way east through the Humber Bay Butterfly Habitat along the lake.

Our path angles through the HBBH Home Garden, with its great metal ravens standing guard. Each hollow sculpture is stuffed with straw — real birds with real nests, tucked inside the artwork. Their backdrop is a line of waterfront condos. Everybody like a lake view!

Home Garden, Humber Bay Butterfly Habitat

Then off down Marine Parade Drive, the ever-busier roadway between condos & park, for a bistro with a patio and our first outdoors latte-&-something of the season …

Art With an Echo

14 April 2015 – I don’t mean echoes of sound (BOOM! boom-boom-boom), but of memory. The bounce-back of one image being overlaid with an earlier image, or even with a cluster of emotions. Either way, just for a moment, time & space fly wide open all around you.

And so I stand just inside the Doug Coupland show at the Royal Ontario Museum, and blink at what I see, and at what I “see” superimposed on what I see.

I see stacks of bright plastic (Meditations in Plastic), in front of patchwork walls of slogans (Slogans for the 21st Century).

Coupland show, ROM

The plastic columns are beguiling, and signature Coupland. My mind’s eye leaves the ROM, and revisits Concord CityPlace where much larger variations on these columns fill a kiddies’ splash pad.

Bobber Plaza, Concord CityPlace, artist Doug Coupland


Back to the ROM. Past Meditations to take a closer look at those towering walls of slogans, each in its own glowing plastic square. Some I find silly, some clever-boots, & some thought-provoking, especially ones touching on the technology/human dynamic. (This, after all, is the man who defined a whole generation, and launched his own career, with his 1991 first novel, Generation X.)

I linger, picking out slogans I want to think about. Other visitors do the same, some practically bumping the wall with their intensity.

Slogans for the 21st C., Coupland show, ROM

This time the echo takes me to another wall, not plastic & definitely not in a gallery.

I’m remembering one of the murals that fill “Graffiti Alley.” It’s a Toronto alley but known nation-wide, because this is where CBC-TV’s Rick Mercer films his rants.

in "Graffiti Alley" (s. of Queen St. West)

One final ROM echo, a deliberate detour on my way to the (relocated) main doors. There, still soaring up one of the stairwells, is the first totem I ever saw — long before my visit to the great totems of Ninstints, in Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), a long-abandoned village now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

ROM totem pole

Back out to the sunny day, more walking north & west before turning homeward again, and I think I am done with echoes. But I’m not.

Eyes flick right from long habit as I pass an alley heading south from Harbord St. just east of Bathurst. You never know what you’ll see, do you?

I see a mural on the convenience store’s side wall. Goofy-fun-silly.

Croft St. at Harbord St.

Then I see it’s signed “Buck-Teeth Girls Club” — and BOOM! (boom-boom-boom), there’s the echo.

Phyllis & I followed the West Toronto Railpath one day, goggled at all the murals, and giggled at this one.

mural in West Toronto Railpath

Then I discover this alley has not only coughed up another Buck-Teeth Girls Club mural for me (only #2 in my collection), it seems full of interesting garage art all the way south.

Next I discover it isn’t an alley, though it sure looks like one. It is Croft St. where, long ago, through murals at the southern (College St.) end, I learned about the eponymous John Croft, the one fatality in the Great Fire of 1904, still the worst fire in Toronto’s history.

So I start south with anticipation for the far end, as well as curiosity about what might lie in-between. First up, an echo of something we have never seen, but should remember even so, and honour.

garage door, Croft St.

Nothing lost about the subject of the next mural! These guys are all around us.

garage in Croft St.

Also not lost, Harbord Street, half a block to the north.

Croft St. garage art

I am just finding a good position for the next shot, realizing I need to take in a double garage, wondering which owner persuaded the other to make it a joint project, when — Zzzzzzz — up goes the right-hand garage door. In rolls the car. Out comes the driver, smiling at me & my camera. Zzzzzzzz — down goes the door.

Turns out he owns both properties, so no persuasion necessary. “My wife hired the artist, & it was a great idea. If you have a mural, you don’t get tagged.”

garage in Croft St.

He raises a cautionary finger. “But it has to have street-art style, you know? If it’s too pretty, they’ll tag it.”

detail, double-garage, Croft St.

His is not “too pretty.” His wife chose well.

Farther south, there begin to be a few residence doors on the street, rather than just garages. Still lots of garages, though, and a continuing back-alley feel to the street.

garage, Croft St.

Good-news / bad-news about the Great Fire murals. Bad news: The ones facing onto the alley have been defaced: some clown has used opaque silver paint to obliterate the story with his own ID in giant script.

Good news: for the first time in my visits here, there are no cars parked in front of the fire mural on the north wall. Hurray! I can finally see it whole.

part of Great Fire of 1904 murals, Croft St.

I’m happy. I’ve seen new art, I’ve played with my echoes of art,  the sun is shining …

… and it is almost warm.



    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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