This Public Art in Corktown Gives a Glimpse of Toronto Through the Ages

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This Public Art in Corktown Gives a Glimpse of Toronto Through the Ages

"Site Specific" provides a sense of history to an ascendant neighbourhood.

Photo: Beatrice Paez

Photo: Beatrice Paez

BY: Scott Eunson and Marianne Lovink
LOCATION: Corner of Eastern Avenue and Sumach Street
INSTALLATION: 2015

Long before Pan Am athletes made their way through the streets of West Don Lands, the area was home to the city’s resident trailblazers, Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, former slaves who fled from Kentucky via the Underground Railroad.

The Blackburns thrived in their adopted home, where they set up Toronto’s first taxi service, a horse-drawn cab that was simply known as “The City.” They settled on the site where the Inglenook Community High School now sits.

On the corner of Sumach Street and Eastern Avenue—adjacent to their former residence—you’ll encounter an elaborate fence that portrays Toronto’s lineage. “Site Specific” traces the city’s roots from the Ice Age to the modern age, weaving in the Blackburns’s story in between images of a recognizable cityscape filled with birds, skyscrapers, trees, and cars.

Photo: Beatrice Paez

Photo: Beatrice Paez

With a sharp eye, you might spot the silhouetted figure of Thornton atop his carriage. Lucie’s presence looms, too, through the depictions of her lace dolly and silver spoon threaded in the narrative. Those items were recovered from the site of their former home, which had been excavated as part of an archeological dig in 1985.

“Site Specific” adds a sense of history to its new surroundings, an ascendant neighbourhood fashioned from the rubble of an industrial wasteland. And with its intricate shadows cast against the open sky, “Site Specific” feels like Toronto’s version of the Mexican banderitas, or papel picado, colourful perforated flags strung along the streets during festivities.

Like the banderitas, the installation depicts beautiful patterns and icons that are easily identifiable. But the real beauty of “Site Specific” lies in the subtlety of its homage to the Blackburns and the lives that came before us.

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