The Rivers That Once Ran Through It
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The Rivers That Once Ran Through It

In his new book of photographs, Rivers Forgotten, Jeremy Kai reveals the underworld of Toronto's long-buried rivers and water systems.

The sewers that need the most strength, like these under Fort York, take on an egg-shaped curve.

Just south of Dundas on Crawford Street is a series of faded blue waves connecting a pathway that runs from Shaw to Gore Vale Avenue through Trinity Bellwoods Park. On a snowless winter day, runners still nonchalantly jaunt across it, their minds focused on their pace or the music coming from their headphones—unaware that if they were taking the same route in the 1800s they would be crossing the Crawford Street Bridge, which would be keeping them from falling into the Garrison Creek.

OCAD grad (and Torontoist illustrator) Jeremy Kai, however, is well aware of the underground stream that flows from Christie Pits to Fort York. In fact, he’s been down there himself. Though he doesn’t consider himself a thrill seeker, he’s been exploring Toronto’s sewer systems, storm drains, and buried rivers for the past few years, teaching himself photography along the way. The combination of these two interests lead to a new book of photographs published by Koyama Press, Rivers Forgotten, which officially launches tonight.

“I’ve always been interested in going behind the scenes,” Kai explains as we walk along Trinity Bellwoods’s dog bowl, which was created when the creek was filled in. Back in the 1880s, the creek was a cesspool of stench, pollution, and contamination; caused cholera outbreaks in nearby residents; and drove down property values. It was even a hot topic in the elections of that time, Kai says. With the burial of the creek came more development in the area, and today the only reminders of the river are a faded sidewalk mural, a plaque, and a manhole near the tennis courts where you can hear the underground water rushing towards the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant. It’s clear as he’s speaking that through his explorations, he not only goes behind the scenes, but back in time.

Fortunately, Kai says underground sewers aren't nearly as foul-smelling as one would imagine.

“When you’re down there, you’re seeing things for the first time. It’s a place where no one’s been for years, not even city workers really go down there anymore,” he says. Except for a few pieces of graffiti, often the only evidence of human activity in the sewers are markings from the workers who built them.

“Not a lot of people know about the history here, there isn’t enough pride. We can do better than that,” Kai goes on. In some cities, like Brescia, Italy, underground rivers and tunnels are celebrated, even turned into tourist attractions. But as Kai points out, the importance of Toronto’s former rivers in shaping the city we know today is often ignored. For instance, early development around the Garrison Creek explains why Crawford Street and Montrose Avenue curve around each other between College and Harbord.

“Cities are basically fabricated ecosystems that mimic natural ecosystems, because you can’t change watersheds…To me, it’s interesting how we change the landscape to suit our lifestyle. I hope this [book will] add to that dialogue.”

However, that doesn’t mean he wants his photos to encourage novices to strap on their fishing waders and start exploring on their own. Kai usually goes underground as part of a group of three, prefers to have a gas meter on hand, and sticks to one golden rule: “Never go down when it’s raining or is likely to rain.” Flash floods are a real threat, not only because of the low ceilings but also the large pieces of debris that get carried along by the current. During his explorations Kai himself has dislocated a shoulder and broken a camera lens (arguably just as painful).

This metal grate was the victim of a strong current and large debris during a storm.

With Rivers Forgotten published, and tunnels spanning from Mississauga to Scarborough explored, Kai says he isn’t sure there’s much left in Toronto to keep him venturing underground too often anymore. But, he does hope that the book can unearth a sense of romance and bring it to the city’s surface.

“Toronto, as a whole—there’s no tangible mythology to it. There is an inherent mythology around rivers,” he says. “‘A city of lost rivers’ sounds enticing.”

The official launch of Rivers Forgotten takes place tonight at the Holy Oak Cafe (1241 Bloor Street West), from 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.