So you think you know the history of Toronto’s water? Taddle Creek used to flow down Philosopher’s Walk, Garrison Creek used to flow through Trinity Bellwoods Park, all of the land below Front Street used to be in the lake, and R.C. Harris built everything; what else is there to know? Well, how about the mighty Laurentian River that flows from Georgian Bay to Lake Ontario right through High Park? That’s just one of the surprises exposed by HTO: Toronto’s Water from Lake Iroquois to Lost Rivers to Low-flow Toilets published late last year by Coach House Books. The book’s two-and-a-half dozen essays and accompanying photos document our changing relationships through time with the natural and artificial watercourses that flow through the city.
For almost all of the 200 years we’ve been here, Toronto’s builders have been obsessed with controlling or burying our water: bricking up polluted streams into sewers, filling in ravines with construction detritus, extending industrial land into the lake, and channelizing, damming, and diverting rivers for industry and aesthetics. Somewhere along the way, our water was transformed from playground to industrial dump, eventually becoming something to be feared rather than enjoyed. Where our rivers and streams used to be swum in, now they are only walked beside, if they still exist at all. The transformation of water in our civic consciousness has been so complete that even though Toronto sits on the shore of one of the largest lakes in the world, we don’t see ourselves as a waterfront city. While we have plenty of beaches, most citizens are still wary of taking a summer dip in anything but a chlorinated pool. The lake is meant to be enjoyed from the shore, not to be embraced as part of our culture or celebrated as a resource that few cities around the world can claim.
Only recently have we begun to pay attention to our water again after decades of neglect. Organizations like The Toronto Green Community trace the social and physical history of Toronto’s buried streams, while events like the Human River help to cement our connection to buried watercourses. Urban explorers and photographers reveal the sewerized rivers to be hidden works of art. When part of our waterborne past is revealed, as was a portion of the old Queen’s Wharf in 2006, people flock to see it. And sometimes our infrastructure makes headlines for the wrong reasons, as when it was revealed last month that the Coxwell trunk sewer requires emergency repairs to prevent it from possibly failing completely and diverting its flow of raw sewage into the Don River.
HTO explores all of these themes as it traces Toronto’s hydrological and social history from the tumult at the end of the last ice age 11,000 years ago to the massive public works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the 2003 discovery of the Laurentian River in High Park, modern conservation campaigns, and current plans to revitalize the waterfront. Reading through many of the stories—the covering up of Toronto’s reservoirs, the filling in of the Garrison Creek ravine, the explorations of Taddle Creek watershed, the ongoing efforts to rehabilitate the Don River—an overriding theme is of how we are trying to rediscover the very water that’s been hidden from us for so long. Whether the barriers are physical or mental, we’re slowly learning to embrace our watery heritage and celebrate our plentiful resources rather than using them as conduits for waste.