April 16, 2013

How often we forget, as we rush through our daily lives, that buried worlds lie underfoot. Beneath the asphalt and the built form, waterways meander, whether as groundwater, soil moisture or as buried streams.

Our cityscapes often chart topographies defined by rivers. In fact, the abundance of streams in Toronto–originally the Town of York–was the reason for the settlement’s nickname, “Muddy York.” The story of one of the largest drainage basis in the area, Taddle Creek in downtown Toronto, reminds us of this taken for granted presence of water in our cities. It also reveals a story–one that is increasingly prevalent in other cities–of a community’s efforts to “daylight” such streams. It is a tale of enhanced environmental awareness and a re-awakening of the legacy and spirit of forgotten waters.

As with most Canadian landscapes, the stream was originally the gathering place for local indigenous communities. Known as the Ziibiing, Taddle Creek was for the Ojibway people an important spiritual source of power and draw. The naming of the creek remains a subject of controversy, although the university’s 1980 Graduate magazine concludes that it derives from the large populations of tadpoles that populated the area.

Geographically, the source emerges at the northern section of the central core of Toronto, on the edge of what was formerly the Glacial Lake Iroquois shoreline. Traveling for six kilometres, it moves from Wychwood Park, a heritage status neighbourhood, through other residential localities, as well as the University of Toronto campus, past the Royal Ontario Museum, through to the trendy Distillery District and finally, into Lake Ontario.

For some time, the waterway was valued as a pastoral oasis within an urban core. Few realize that the central hub of the University of Toronto–today a roadway at Hart House–was originally a brook, dammed to form McCaul’s Pond in honour of the university’s first president, John McCaul.

Throughout the 19th century, the creek was revered for its beauty, lending itself to the poetic renderings particularly of students, who actively interacted with Taddle Creek and McCaul’s Pond, fishing for trout, sailing toy boats, tobogganing on the creek’s banks and immersing first year colleagues into the waters as part of a hazing ritual. “Thy classic flow,” mused one student writer in the Varsity magazine, “thy poetic surroundings, are an education in themselves!”

However, as much as the university students celebrated Taddle Creek, it was through their initiative that tides eventually began to turn. By the 1880s, the student-run newspaper began to report on the pollution that was accumulating through the sewers and drains that fed waste from the surrounding community. This was the time when Canadian cities began to experience the pressures of growth and development, with new challenges for sanitation, waste disposal and overall infrastructure upgrading and a growing awareness of the impact of pollutants on public health.

So, capturing the spirit of the times, the Varsity paper declared that “the stench arising from the Taddle is very pronounced. The prevalence of so much fever in the city is surely a good reason for the prompt abatement of this long-standing nuisance.” Others echoed these concerns. Francis Collins of the Canadian Freeman newspaper lamented that “all the filth of the town–dead horses, dogs, cats, manure–drops down into the water…”

Accordingly, after increasing outcries about the impact on public health, by 1884, the entire creek was buried as part of an underground sewer system. A student poet now mused in the Varsity newspaper:

“O mighty streamlet! All who have known thee have learned of thee and loved thee,
except the Board of Health…
Farewell…a long and last farewell to all thy greatness!”

So, for some time, the creek remained forgotten.

Over the last few decades, however, there has been what one might call an on-again, off-again appeal for restoration of Taddle Creek. A local group of residents of the Annex, Grassroots Albany, is said to have expressed a desire to daylight the creek through their backyards to link “a community of people… trees.. groundwater and warblers.”

On a larger scale, since 1995, Lost River Walks have been organized by local environmental groups. In the words of founder Helen Mills, these walks “are part of an education process” to remind people of “the connection between what’s under our feet and what’s coming out of the tap.” Her aim is to “tell the fascinating story of the city when it was a place of deep ravines, babbling brooks and primordial forest.” In collaboration with the Toronto Green Community and Toronto Field Naturalists, over 15,000 walks have been organized through city neighbourhoods, in an effort to inform residents about the historical roots of their local environments, raisie the profile of places like Taddle Creek, and remind people of their connections to water systems to inspire new conservation initiatives.

Over the years, the Toronto Waterfront Regeneration Trust has also helped to publicize the fact that the plants and water systems of the city’s buried creeks might contribute to natural water purification. An umbrella organization called the Taddle Creek Watershed Initiative was formed to “create, encourage and coordinate partnerships and projects between and within communities, business groups and institutions, with the goal of regenerating the Taddle Creek watershed” particularly along the University’s Philosopher’s Walk, where the meandering path and shifting landscape mirror the former course of the stream.

The story remains to be resolved. Due to the fact that water was redistributed through new building construction, water may itself now be in short supply. As Elizabeth Sisam, the university’s former director of campus and facilities planning, reports in the June 11, 2001 issue of the University of Toronto’s Bulletin, “the subterranean level under the walk is now a combined sewer and storm-water pipeline. Therefore, any resurfacing of water through complex infrastructure re-design would simply be a symbolic reinstatement of what the creek used to be” and, one might conclude, a false and empty testimonial to times past. To be sure, it appears that reconstructing McCaul’s Pond would be technically more feasible but, in the words of Sisam, “all of this is still in the preliminary planning stages and subject to available funding.”

At present, virtually the entire length of the creek remains buried. It surfaces only in the testimonial naming of artifacts and landscapes. There is a Montessori School on Spadina Avenue carrying the name of Taddle Creek; a magazine carries the creek’s name; the Annex neighbourhood Taddle Creek Park hosts a recently-constructed sculpture of a water jug, designed in honour of the hidden stream. And there are the public and private conversations that come and go about the possibilities of daylighting the creek once again.

Taddle Creek’s hidden waters, it seems, refuse to remain submerged, at least within the power of the public’s imagination.

Ingrid Leman Stefanovic is a professor in the department of philosophy at the University of Toronto. Remembering Taddle Creek is the first part in a five-part series about one of Toronto’s most famous buried waterways.