I should’ve listened to that bus driver at Jane Station.
It was May 23rd, 2006. Two weeks before, I’d decided that I wanted to photograph all of Toronto’s subway stations. Jane was only the fifth station out of sixty-nine, and by the end of the project––including travel time, shooting, and editing––it would suck up more than 300 hours of my summer. At the time, however, I was blissfully unaware of how consuming the project would become.
Motioning towards my camera as I got on the bus, the driver––young, wearing orange sunglasses with a black baseball cap on top of his shaved head, and a light blue TTC collared shirt––asked if I was “taking pictures of all the hot girls.”
“Nah, I’m doing this project over the summer where I’m taking pictures of all the TTC stations.”
“I don’t know, it seemed like a cool idea.”
“Sounds pretty boring…”
I’ve lived in Toronto’s west end since I was born. I’ve moved twice: once, in grade nine, a block east of my old house, and, four years later, downtown to live in residence on the U of T campus. My Toronto – the part of the city that matters to me – has never extended further west than Kipling, further east than Yonge, or further north than St. Clair. I felt stuck, and at the start of a 3½-month long summer, I decided that I wanted to get out and see more of the city.
The TTC’s subway system seemed like the best way to go about it. Its four lines––Bloor-Danforth (Green), Yonge-University-Spadina (Yellow), Sheppard (Purple), and Scarborough Rapid Transit (Blue)––stretch across most of the city, covering sixty-two kilometres in total. Confining it to the subway route also prevented it from getting too out of control. I didn’t expect to return as a well-travelled Torontonian, just as someone who’d seen a bit more of the city.
The TTC also serves as an interesting subject, since it’s rarely a destination in and of itself for Torontonians. Though we used it half a billion times last year, it’s still an obstacle between where we are and where we want to go. Few of us enjoy the ride; at best, we cope with it. The only people who seem to genuinely like the system are tourists and kids––and then, only the kids who get to stand at the front of the subway trains with their faces against the glass or pull the cords to request a stop on buses or streetcars.
I decided to shoot the stations in order, starting at Kipling on the Bloor-Danforth line and heading all the way East to Scarborough, before taking the Yonge line (from Downsview, heading south, around at Union, then all the way back up to Finch), and finishing with Sheppard.
Starting the project and shooting the stops on the west end was painless. Though few of the stations are particularly photogenic (with the notable exception of Old Mill, which is half-above ground over the Humber River, and tiled with windows), I knew every single one of them well, and had plenty of personal stories to connect me with each––friends, girlfriends, family, school, work: here was the bus that used to take me to school, the first I ever took by myself; here was the station I had to go to to get to my first real job; here was where I had to wait to go out to Mississauga with my best friend.
I found out the morning that I planned to shoot Keele Station––May 29th––that the TTC had gone on strike. Because of the heat and humidity, I had considered not shooting at all, but I knew that I couldn’t avoid the system on its most news-worthy day. So I biked. Keele was quiet: a “Station Closed” sign was pasted onto the window, and even at 10:30, bundled newspapers still leaned against the entrance. I spent most of my time at the station talking to people as, one by one, they walked up the front doors, tried to open them, swore (mostly “shit”), and turned to me for an explanation. After about thirty minutes, I biked south to the Roncesvalles Streetcar Terminal, where a few dozen TTC employees had gathered. While local TV stations filmed, some stood in the sun and answered questions from people walking by, while most were content to sit in what little shade there was at mid-day, drink water, and talk to each other.
June was less eventful; I shot at a regular pace, walked around the Danforth, took a day to complete the Scarborough line, and headed to the Yellow Line. My enthusiasm was slowly replaced by fatigue.
I was spending so much time inside and underground that any glimpse of sunlight was a huge relief, and I looked for the brief moments that the TTC rose out of mundanity: catching the graffiti along the backs of buildings between Dundas West and Keele; heading east of Warden alongside a huge parking lot that is packed at 3 PM and completely abandoned by sunset; the whole Scarborough line; and flying over the Don Valley Parkway on the bridge between Castle Frank & Broadview, something I hadn’t done since I was young enough that my mom had to lift me on to the seats to see.
I started to choose different, longer routes home. Speed became unimportant, replaced by the need to fend off the monotony of the system and see something new. To get back home from the east end, I started using one of the Dundas West-bound Broadview streetcars. If I was heading east, I would get off at Spadina, transfer to the University line by walking through the beautiful long passageway, go one stop over to St. George, and transferring back to Bloor-Danforth––anything to change the routine. I tried to see as much of the life outside each of the stations as I could to really get a sense of some of the neighbourhoods that the subway ran along. Occasionally, I took photos when I walked around, but most of the time I didn’t––it’s easier to see when you’re not behind glass, and I didn’t want to feel obligated to document something that was pretty personal for me.
From about mid-June into early July, I flirted with stopping the project altogether. When I started, I couldn’t have imagined how tedious and time-consuming it’d be. It was getting really boring, just as the Jane bus driver had warned me it would, and trying to capture something unique with each station was incredibly frustrating when so many of them were nearly identical. Worst of all, it was quickly eating away at my summer, to the point where I’d begun cancelling plans with my friends to stay home and edit or go out and shoot. I’d never done something like the project before, and wondered if it might’ve been too ambitious. At the same time, there was something great about investing myself into one project so much, knowing that I was working towards a goal. If I could finish, I’d have something to be proud of.
The decisive point of the journey, after which I had to choose whether to continue or stop, came out of nowhere on July 17th. As I was shooting on the Northbound Dupont platform near the Designated Waiting Area, a voice came out from the tall metal box against the wall that has the “Push for Assistance” button on it.
“You, on the northbound platform with the camera, can you hear me?”
Out came my iPod headphones, and I paused, still sitting on the rounded orange bench.
“No photos. Photography’s not allowed on the platform.”
It was surreal. Without thinking to hit the ‘Talk’ button on the DWA box to reply, I desperately yelped “but it’s non-commercial!” in the direction that I heard the voice coming from, which was––of course––met with no reply. The ticket collector watching me on the security cameras probably enjoyed that one.
I hurried upstairs to the ticket booth, and spoke with the operator. He warned me that my camera could be confiscated by the TTC’s special constables if an employee chose to call them, and he told me that I’d have to contact the TTC’s head offices to pick up a permit if I wanted to continue shooting. I tried to object, but it didn’t help; the train bombing in India less than a week before had put the entire system more on edge than they normally were about terrorism. I’d been asked what I was doing before, and was used to explaining myself (at Chester Station, all I had to do was give the collector my name and Torontoist’s website address––he promised that he’d check the photos out that night after his shift and wished me luck for the rest of the system), but this time was different: I was being ordered to stop.
Though the TTC’s bylaws currently state that “No person shall operate for commercial purposes any camera, video recording device, movie camera, or any similar device upon any vehicle or premises of the Commission without authorization,” and although I could’ve avoided TTC employees for the rest of the trip, I decided to put the project on hold.
It took me a few days to decide if I wanted to pursue getting the permit. This would, after all, be the perfect excuse to completely stop if I wanted to; I could blame stopping on the TTC, enjoy the rest of my summer, and consider finishing another time. Two things convinced me to finish. First, I knew that I would let myself down if I quit. I was so far in––44 stations done, with 25 left––that stopping would have meant the majority of the work I’d put into it would be wasted. Second, some people actually seemed to enjoy the shots I was getting. And what kind of story would I have to tell if I’d stopped? I committed to finishing, no matter what.
The process of getting a permit was a bit of an ordeal. I got in touch with a few different TTC employees in the Marketing & Public Affairs departments, playing phone and e-mail tag over two weeks. By the time, I was finally granted one and picked it up at the TTC’s head offices at Davisville Station, it was August 1st. Now two weeks behind, to be able to finish in time for September and school, I’d have to shoot and edit one station a day for the rest of my summer. The pace got hectic quickly.
Some things made August a bit more tolerable than I was expecting. I’d left most of the stations that I was completely unfamiliar with until the end, so that I could do some exploring of the city. I completed the stations south of Bloor relatively quickly (since I knew them all), then took my time when I hit Rosedale on the way back north, walking through the quieter neighbourhoods as I got closer and closer to the suburbs. I began to see why we were still Toronto the good: for all the hours I had spent in and around public transportation with my camera out, often at night, I wasn’t robbed, assaulted, yelled at, or threatened (well, except to have my camera confiscated). The more dangerous areas I’d been told to be careful of were no worse than the quiet, richer neighbourhoods.
And then, on August 15th, I got a phone call from Howard Moscoe’s office. Moscoe, the TTC’s chair, has been in hot water for one reason or another for almost a decade. I’d sent his office an e-mail about the project a week before, but hadn’t expected a response. The bizarreness of hearing someone talking to you over a DWA box is nothing compared to picking up your phone and hearing Howard Moscoe’s rumbling voice.
He wanted to talk about the photos. Moscoe, for starters, confessed that he hadn’t been to all of the TTC stations. He called the project a “great idea,” but only after I explained how I’d gone about it (initially, it was only “kind of a good idea”). The conversation, luckily, quickly drifted away from the project and onto the TTC’s operations as a whole. The biggest problem for the system, he acknowledged, was money. No surprises there. Many stations have had unique features removed––the neon lights at Yorkdale, the moving walkway at Spadina––because of the cost (though Moscoe never liked the walkway, and it was passed on the one day that he missed a TTC meeting). He wants to raise the TTC’s budget for art from 0.5% to 1.0%––which would be terrific, since the stations that have art, especially ones like Eglinton West’s terrific streetcar mural, are always more interesting than those that don’t. Finally, the mundanity that I had been fighting on the TTC, he said, wouldn’t have been so bad if they had built more stations outside as they had originally planned to. At the time, however, the cost was incorrectly assumed to be too high, when it would’ve been much cheaper over the long run to have done it the other way around.
The rest of the conversation was more in bits and pieces: Dupont Station, Moscoe told me, will eventually be renamed to Casa Loma, and he’s excited about the renovations at Museum station. He reiterated that I needed to have a permit to keep shooting, but told me he’d overlook it just this once. He seemed pleasantly surprised when I told him that I already had one granted. I thanked him for his time, he thanked me for mine, and we hung up. For the TTC’s biggest “bully,” a label hung on Moscoe by Bob Kinnear after the strike, he didn’t seem so bad.
It’s worth noting that I wasn’t the first to do something like this––others have blogged, photographed, and video-taped similar adventures before. Plenty of Toronto’s citizens have visited all of the TTC stations for other projects––Sean Lerner, who did so for his excellent TTC Subway Rider Efficiency Guide, started the Every Station Club for that purpose. Completing my TTC trip felt like I was the last person across the finish line in a marathon: I was exhausted, utterly defeated, and knew that everyone else had done it before me…but I still crossed the finish line.
At Don Mills Station, the last station I shot, I spent most of my time on the roof of the Fairview Mall parking garage, looking south. The weather had been overcast the whole day, and the CN Tower was a barely-noticeable toothpick on the horizon, standing against darkening clouds. On the roof of the garage, twenty minutes apart, two strangers came up to me and asked what I was doing. As with almost all of the other people who had approached me since the start of the summer, they weren’t asking out of confusion, fear, or annoyance––in fact, there was nothing close to antagonism on their part. They were just curious.
If anything, that’s what I can take away from this project: a genuine curiosity for the city that I thought I knew everything about. There will always be more of Toronto to explore, always be more people to find and places to escape to. Eventually, there will even be more TTC stations to visit. For now, it’s reassuring to know that there’s so much more out there, far beyond my finally-growing borders.