Saturday, April 7, 2012


Photo from Jeremy Kai, Rivers Forgotten.

Cross-hatched across stretches of west central Toronto lies the web of another streetscape. It’s as real as the one I know intimately after years of walking and biking these neighbourhoods; but strangely disarticluated from the predictable, domesticated routes I habitually take to work, to the houses of friends, to shops along not-too-distant thoroughfares. These alleyways behind the streets occasionally extrude onto the named grid sporting streetsigns of their own, vestiges of a largely erased past when a two-story brick garage behind my friend Kim’s back gate in Little Italy was a poultry store; when the lone house opening directly onto an alley down the block from me wasn’t an anomaly.

Turning my bike down one of these alternate routes can be like going down Alice’s rabbit hole. Harbord Street vanishes behind me, and soon I have no idea where I map onto the familiar street that lies twenty meters to my right. Buildings jutting above the garage roofs reassure me that College Street is somewhere ahead, but none of those I’m sure I ought to recognize quite register as landmarks. Then I make a turn and come out near a familiar intersection of the main commerical strip with Grace.

I’m on the way to Kim’s house with a belated birthday gift, a collection of impulse buys: an orange silk scarf; a chocolate bar; a candle holder of Indian soapstone carved as the footprint of the Buddha; a CD of music from the South African townships; and a haunting little book the staff has placed insidiously beside the cash register in the bookstore I poked into on my way back to my bike from the earlier purchases.

Forgotten Rivers by Jeremy Kai (Koyama Press) is a collection of photographs of the culverts through which flow the city’s long-buried streams. Garrison Creek at one time ran above ground just a couple of blocks from my house; Taddle Creek through the campus of the University of Toronto, a few hundred meters from my office. And so on across the city. A few photos at the beginning of the collection show the portals to these channels, surrounded by reassuringly ordinary vegetation, the concrete around the iron grates sprayed over by street artists.

Then come the more unsettling pictures. The tunnels—sometimes claustrophic, sometimes cavernous—are eerily lit in contrasing colors as they branch off from one another. Sprays of water pour from apertures set high in the walls, or down a flight of steps, turned to a ghostly mist by the long shutter exposure in the dim light. Looking at these images, I’m poised on an edge between attraction and apprehension. In some pictures (as Kim points out when we go through the book together), the presence of a human figure buffers the uncanniness of the spaces.

Kai’s images, like the experience of turning off the familiar streets of my daily routine, but far more dramatically, lead through an ordinary, everyday portal into a parallel world. Think of medieval tales of the Welsh Otherworld, or of latter-day recapitulations like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon or Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Or think of the world of our own unconscious; of the silent water flowing underground through our own souls (with apologies to David Byrne and the Talking Heads).

I find myself strangely prizing this other city, this Otherworld; drawn to the portals where the veil between it and my ordinary perception of place grows thin. Losing myself for the moment—not without a whisper of primal fear that I might not find my way out again—I reemerge after all into a familiar landscape, and in that moment know the place as for the first time. All the more so on this first day of Passover, this first day of departure from Egypt's familar territory; on this Holy Saturday, in the darkness of a tomb that isn't the last word of the story.

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