Part of a series, walking the main streets of Toronto
One of the streets I wanted to walk in criss-crossing Toronto is Spadina Avenue. It’s interesting for several reasons. For one thing, it was laid out as one of the grand boulevards downtown, where it’s about 60-70 m wide. For another, it’s been a draw for immigrants from around the world for more than 100 years, again especially downtown, where successive waves of newcomers to Toronto have left their mark. And finally, selfishly, it ends close to my home in mid-town, so in walking the length of it from the Lake I am basically walking home.
It starts right down at the Harbour, at Queens Quay, and on a January day it was pretty chilly down there. Come back in June and there will be people everywhere enjoying the sun, but on this day it just looked a bit bleak.
Looking north, the view is even less inspiring, since you are staring at the Gardiner Expressway, which Spadina has to cross under.
Going under the Gardiner, there’s a sense of a lost opportunity – all that land hidden away and under-utilized in a city that needs more housing, more parks, more green-space, more bike infrastructure, more community space. There are plans to do something with this – further west near Fort York there’s a cool new park area – and it will be interesting to see how this evolves given all the priorities the city faces.
From the gloom under the Gardiner, you emerge onto the bridge over the train tracks – quite a lot of them in fact, with many commuter lines leading in and out of Union Station. These railway lands were originally along Toronto’s waterfront, and development over the past 100 years has moved the water’s edge south. We’ve compounded that by allowing a wall of condo towers on the south side of the tracks, so that we’ve cut off our old downtown from the lake. There are ambitious and expense plans to build over the train tracks and create a park connecting the condos to the core – all part of the evolution of the city I suppose.
Finally, north of these barriers past Front Street, you feel like you’re in an actual busy, humming, urban neighbourhood. The area from Front Street north to 1 Spadina Circle near College is packed with shops, bars, restaurants, markets, people, streetcars, bikes, scooters, buskers, hipsters, students, and hawkers. There’s a lot of energy here, whatever the weather.
There are also some interesting little nods to history. Up until about 30 years ago, the area between King and Queen was Toronto’s Garment District, and it’s still known by that name and is commemorated by a giant thimble sculpture at the corner of Richmond and Spadina.
Between Queen and Dundas, you walk through what is still sometimes referred to as Chinatown, though these days it’s a more eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. Further past that, north of Dundas, you pass Kensington Market. This stretch, between Queen and College, is a great place to explore at leisure – it’s often said you can dine around the world in these few blocks. It was inner-city working class for a long time, and over the past 40-50 years has become first seedy, then bohemian, and now more hipster. The venerable old El Mocambo club is still there, and is soon to re-open. When the El Mo gets gentrified, you know the whole area is going that way.
As I was walking through here, I thought of a tune from the 80’s by a group called the Shuffle Demons – check out Spadina Bus and tell me you don’t think it’s catchy.
Continuing north, if you stand in the middle of Spadina at one of the streetcar stops, you get a great view south back towards the lake,
as well as north, towards the old hospital at 1 Spadina Circle that is now the University of Toronto Daniels School of Architecture.
North of Spadina Circle, coming up towards Bloor, you are on the west edge of the U of T campus, where some of the residences present a bold look.
Past Bloor, you keep climbing, subtly at first and then, when you get to the Baldwin Steps, quite steeply. The steps look pretty daunting – I was walking through here one summer day when I passed a bored personal trainer who was working out a poor slob (i.e. a middle aged overweight guy like me), making him do reps up and down the stairs. I thought of that as I slogged up on this day.
But, the view you get looking back south over the city from the top of the stairs is great, one of the best in the city. You can tell yourself when you are standing here that, 20,000 years ago you’d be on the beach overlooking Lake Iroquois which extended to this point – the Baldwin Steps are basically climbing to the ancient shoreline.
And of course, when you get to the top, you’re right next to one of Toronto’s most famous landmarks, Casa Loma. This ornate pile is now owned by the City, and is also home to a schwanky restaurant as well as lots of free events throughout the year. Whenever I go past, there’s always a swarm of tourists taking selfies.
Spadina keeps going north past Casa Loma, and you soon come to the bridge over the Nordheimer Ravine, part of the park/trail system that is today where the infamous Spadina Expressway would have been had it been built. I’m so glad that never happened.
On the other side of the ravine, you come to St. Clair Avenue. This is a residential area, and the gateway to Forest Hill, one of the more upscale neighbourhoods in Toronto. That said, the area around Spadina and Lonsdale is home to Forest Hill Village, a cozy little shopping area that’s just “the village” to those in the hood.
Spadina keeps climbing through here, and the village gives way to more houses and blocks of flats as you progress towards Eglinton. When you get to Eg, it looks like Spadina ends at a T-junction, and a pretty ugly junction at that, what with the Eglinton Crosstown construction underway and an auto repair shop on the corner. But, if you keep going east about 100 meters to Chaplin, you can turn north, cross Chaplin, and find the remaining few hundred meters of Spadina.
The Avenue here finishes its journey with houses on one side and Memorial Park on the west side.
My son played baseball here when he was in little league, and that image stuck in my mind despite the snow over the diamond.
Many times, walking Toronto’s streets is a journey through time for me, and Spadina captures that perfectly. The shops and markets, the Garment District, U of T, Casa Loma, and Memorial Park at the end are all reminders of different eras, personal and civic.
I like Spadina for what it is today as well as what it has meant to our city. It’s a timeline and a time tunnel, and a time-saver for getting down town. Walk it and see.