"Oh look, the clock is working again," exclaims Eldon Garnet, clearly pleased.
He's the Toronto artist whose enigmatic three-part work flows along Queen St. E., starting at the 100-year-old bridge over the Don River, moving to the sidewalks at the corner of Broadview and ending just past the railway overpass at DeGrassi St.
"Time: And A Clock" greets those who venture into the once-wild east side, where tanneries, glue factories and slaughterhouses were sited away from the genteel noses in the west end. Bandits who hid out in the Don Valley would harass all those who passed. And there wasn't much money for the constabulary back before the town of Riverdale was annexed to Toronto.
The clock, almost two metres in diameter, stopped short sometime after it went up in 1995. It has now resumed its heavy rounds, illuminated at night like a moonrise over the horizon.
Above it, a graceful crown of text: "This river I step in is not the river I stand in."
"Most people get it in the emotional sense," says Garnet, adding that he borrowed the phrase from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who understood that change is a constant.
And change this area has, time and time again.
The original bridge was operated by the Scadding family, whose 1794 cabin, the oldest building in Toronto, now sits at the CNE. They owned all the land from the lake to just north of present-day Gerrard.
When that bridge proved insufficient, yet another river-level bridge was built. But, in 1906, after a Queen St. car met a Grand Trunk freight train in a most unfortunate fashion, the city thought it wise to build a viaduct over the railway tracks.
And so the present-day bridge went up in 1911, lasting until 2002 when it was rebuilt, almost from scratch.
Garnet's artwork was preserved, once again giving passersby something to ponder.
"I was really proud to get text in the city," he says. "All the text you see tries to sell you something, or orders you to do something, like stop. This is poetic text in the city."
At the intersection of Broadview and Queen sits the historic hotel that houses Jilly's, the strip joint at the end of the career-line for professional peelers. Opposite, a convenience store on one side, Dangerous Dan's cardiac-arrest-inducing diner on the other. Kitty-corner is The Real Jerk, the colourful Caribbean restaurant that belches the smell of curry and coconut into the street.
Embedded in each of the four corner sidewalks are Garnet's 48-centimetre-high steel letters, cutting into the concrete and curving into the curbs. They announce: Better late than never; Time = distance x velocity; Time is money: money is time; and finally, with a boarded-up funeral home in view, Too soon free from time.
The words have worn well, all seasons considered.
"Maybe when I'm 85 and have nothing to do, I'll come here and scrape the gum off my piece," laughs Garnet.
From here it's a short stroll past the newly opened boutiques and restos that have replaced the seedy stores and pawnshops of the newly rechristened Riverside District to the south end of Jimmie Simpson Park.
Four steel poles stand guard, their steel banners forever frozen in the pretend wind. Coursing, Disappearing, Trembling, Returning, they say, their messages now partly obscured by the yellowing leaves of the nearby trees.
"Nature is taking over my piece," says Garnet, who has had a second welcome surprise this morning. "It's integrating with the environment."
But it always had.
For on this storied section of Queen, where the streetcar has rumbled past for more than a century, it has always been about passage: from farmers to working-class labourers to urban professionals with several hundred thousand to drop on one of the lofts now taking over the area.
How much of Toronto has flowed through here?
How much water under the bridge?
Artist Eldon Garnet's "Time: And a Clock", a trio of art installations he created for Queen Street, starts at the bridge over the Don River.
STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR
Last-minute shoppers at Yonge and Queen St., Christmas Eve, 1924.
TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO
Across The Great Divide, just grab your hat, and take that ride/Get yourself a bride, and bring your children down to the river side.
— Robbie Robertson (The Band, 1969)
A hundred years ago, it's been said, the heaviest pedestrian traffic in Toronto went from one side of Queen St. to the other, just steps west of Yonge.
That's where shoppers crossed to compare prices at Eaton's department store to the north and Simpson's (now The Bay) to the south.
That the rival retailers would set up shop across the street from each other — both growing to dominate their entire respective blocks — was hardly surprising since, at the time, Yonge and Queen was the centre of the Toronto universe.
Not for nothing did both stores set up west of Yonge. So did most hotels, banks, offices and government buildings. Indeed, most everything of consequence was west of Yonge.
That despite John Simcoe's original plan for his town. His intent was to build it at the mouth of the Don. But Ashbridge's Bay, then around 1,500 acres of malarial marsh, sent the city's founding fathers fleeing west.
They only ventured back for the cemeteries, jails, asylums, public houses and bordellos.
And so much of the east became an industrial wasteland centered around the river. That's where Gooderham and Warts built its Dickensian distillery and where slaughterhouses stood next to tanneries, soap factories and sausage makers.
The east was populated mostly by poor immigrant workers as well as the homeless and outlaws who roamed the vast ravine.
Everybody else stayed safe and upwind.
"The east end became a place for things that were unsightly, that didn't smell very good," says the University of Guelph historian Jennifer Bonnell, an expert on the Don. "And where King and Queen Sts. meet at the Don was historically a very dangerous spot."
Today, west-end folks still turn up their noses at the east end. The west end, they claim, is hipper, trendier, more alive. In fact, the old Queen West has moved further west to "West Queen West" to escape the mall store transformation of East Queen Westand maintain its cool cred.
West-enders say the east, what with the postcard-perfect Beach shops and baby stroller-jammed Leslieville, doesn't have the grit and character of the west.
True, you probably don't see as many piercings and tattoos in the east end.
But then, the 19th-century hotel Jilly's, a booze-and-boobs joint, and the bar The Duke, both east of the Don, have yet to be gussied up and gentrified like the west end's Drake and Gladstone.
It's easier to get a good picture of the west end on the 501. That's because of the congestion caused by the traffic. Not so in the east, built mostly after the invention of the automobile.
In fact, many parts east of the Don are now filled with spanking new townhouse complexes, including the infamously genteel "Pleasantville" on the old Greenwood Racetrack.
Also, the east end, thanks to the vast areas around the Moss Park Armoury and housing complex, is greener. And as the 501 trundles further along, you can catch actual glimpses of the lake. There are no looming towers of glass and concrete to cut off the views.
Which brings us to The Great Wall of Toronto, both cultural and physical.
Culturally we know that Queen West, with its music venues and Four Seasons Centre, may have the edge on Queen East — although the latter is where the artists who made Queen West trendy are now being driven by the soaring rents and condos.
On Queen East where it's still possible to find relatively inexpensive industrial space suitable for a studio loft.
As for the physical wall, that's plain to see from any seat on the 501. On the western edge of Yonge, the highrises erupt, ever taller, ever closer together. On the east side, they stick out, literally, like sore thumbs, here and there.
Fort York lives still on the west side.
And Simcoe's dream has returned to the east.
Standing in the doorway of Artatorture Tattoos & Piercings Studio, owner James O'Donnell can spot outsiders as they prepare to set foot on the northeast sidewalk at Queen E. and Sherbourne.
"When people start to get off the streetcar, they're scared — you can see their faces," says the 43-year-old, who has tattooed and pierced clients for 15 years near this intersection. It's a downtown corner where a slice of the city's homeless and hurting mill, most with no particular plans for their day.
"They want to look — everyone's intermingling — but it's like (they're thinking), ‘Is it a train wreck? Or is it after the train wreck and they're fixing things up?' "
A streetcar unloads. Some alighting passengers seem to stiffen. Others look completely relaxed. An older woman with weather-beaten skin and missing some front teeth scurries among the arrivals. She begs for coins that are not given.
O'Donnell inks skin full-time, embedding "sleeves" along the arms of patrons such as Michael Templeton, 22, with dark lettering or pastel fantasies. But it's the people outside his business who put the most memorable, often heart-breaking, stamp on the neighbourhood.
O'Donnell won't accept business from area people he knows or suspects are impaired by booze or drugs, or who suffer from mental illness.
"The ones who are selling their medications, maybe for drugs, you can spot them," says the married father of a teenaged daughter. "I see people deteriorate. That's bad. I can see them get better too — and they'll be the ones who maybe become the social worker for the next guy. It's good because they've been there on the street."
As for his customers, O'Donnell says, "You see all types." He has tattooed musicians, NHLers, walk-in customers and loyal generations of families — from grandmothers to their grandchildren. "They'll come in and you have to get a sense of them and it takes some time."
O'Donnell lives on the street too — sort of.
Four years ago he bought the building that houses Artatorture, a whimsical space with ancient sword collections, faux warriors in armour, goblins and dragons peering over shelves. He and his family reside in a spacious three-bedroom apartment above the store. It's got a rooftop deck, a spectacular view of the city and the steady, edgy pulse of the gritty inner-city corner.
"I wouldn't want to sell it, even though there's all these guys out here," O'Donnell says chuckling as he strolls along the sidewalk on the north side of Queen, looking at small groups of men and women talking, smoking, laughing.
A friendly female voice rings out, unsteadily: "Jaaaaaaaames! Jaaaaaaaames!" O'Donnell waves.
If Queen and Sherbourne is a train wreck, there's humanity amid the survivors.
Tattoo artist and owner of Artatorture Tattoos and Piercings, James O'Donnell tattoos the ankle of Mike Templeton while assistant Phillip Yee looks on. O'Donnell has tattooed musicians, NHLers, walk-in customers and loyal generations of families — from grandmothers to their grandchildren.
TARA WALTON/TORONTO STAR
The Donald D. Summerville pool, named after the former mayor, is known famously to locals as "The Olympic."JIM RANKIN/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO
To travel east from Yonge St. aboard the Queen St. streetcar is, nowadays, to feel the need of a passport, trundling through the branded neighbourhoods, and (as the street signs would have one believe) distinct societies of first Corktown, then the Riverside District, then Leslieville.
Still, the oldest frontier crossing lies perhaps at Woodbine Ave., gateway to the Beach, a stretch of upscale real estate, semi-bohemianism and street-names of dignified Old World vintage — Hammersmith and Bellefair and Waverley and the like.
The corner of Woodbine and Queen is where walking tours of the Beach often begin, the iconic red firehouse just down the road the first major landmark announcing entry to that favoured realm.
Once upon a time, Woodbine was where some of the city's rough-and-tumble rubbed up against the quaintness of the Beach, where punters poured out of the Queen streetcar to play the ponies at Greenwood Raceway, until its lamented end in 1993.
South on Woodbine from Queen St., across Lakeshore Dr., remains the approach to east-end summertime — to the waterfront strands, the sandy beaches, the fabled boardwalk and also the Donald D. Summerville pool — known famously to locals as "The Olympic."
Summerville, an RCAF pilot during World War II, was the son of a Conservative MPP and himself became an east-end alderman in Toronto (as councillors were known in his day) and mayor in 1963.
Mayor Summerville, just 48, suffered a fatal heart attack while playing goal in a charity hockey tournament and died the same year.
The three-storey outdoor pool was built in his memory — at the time pretty much a state-of-the-art facility, Toronto's aquatic Taj Mahal, and the place to see and be-seen for young people on the make.
It had a 50-metre Olympic pool, a 25-metre training pool and a diving pool with 5- and 10-metre boards that, on more than a few occasions, made or ruined reputations.
If it is scruffier now than then ("the showers are pretty gross," according to one entry on a website review), the Summerville pool — home to such attractions as the national cannonball championships — remains an anchor at the foot of Woodbine Ave., and a place of blessed respite in the heat of a Toronto summer.
The three-storey outdoor D. D. Summerville pool had a 50-metre Olympic pool, a 25-metre training pool and a diving pool with 5- and 10-metre boards.
TARA WALTON/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO
The streetcar stop at Glendale Ave. and The Queensway. You could hold a flash mob here and the place would still seem barren.KENNETH KIDD/TORONTO STAR
If you were to leave St. Joseph's Health Centre at the south end near Glendale Ave., you'd do so via the oddly named Tranquility Entrance, from which the only tranquility without lies nearly a kilometre away, under the old forest of Sunnyside Beach.
And no, you can't get there from here, or at least not by anything less than a wildly circuitous route, turning the forest into, not just enticement, but rebuke.
Still, that beguiling sight in the distance might induce you to try, in which case you would first cross a two-lane hospital roadway and come to a metal fence, which you'd then follow west until a little earthen path takes you down to the sidewalk on the north side of the Queensway.
Just there, across two westbound lanes of traffic, sit two strips of concrete on either side of what may be the city's most forlorn streetcar stop. You could hold a flash mob here and the place would still seem barren, everyone squinting as the dust rolls in on the west wind.
Across another two lanes of (eastbound) traffic, there's a little patch of grass, flanked on the south end by flourishing colonies of goldenrod and milkweed, on which a row of five trees has been planted, only one of which has taken to its new home with any conviction. The others are all dead, save for a few suckers emerging from the base of spindly grey trunks.
A nearby sign announces that Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation is "Working Together to Double Toronto's Tree Canopy," in this case in partnership with Enbridge. Just beyond the sign, to the west, sits the Parkdale pumping station, its circular brick edifice as forbidding as a Martello tower.
Still, there in the distance is Sunnyside, all come-hither green, until the view suddenly vanishes behind a speeding GO train travelling one of four tracks. Beyond that: six lanes of the Gardiner Expressway, three lanes of Lake Shore Boulevard West, then a green boulevard, then three more lanes.
In this world of petroleum toing and froing, the streetcar seems such a fragile and lonely interloper.
But squint again into that west wind, and salvation seems almost at hand. There, on the horizon, is the lushness of High Park, toward which the westbound streetcars race down a hill until, 100 metres on, the streetcar tracks come to resemble those of a railroad, rails laid atop wooden ties surrounded by gravel.
From which arise wild daisies and the little, yellow glories known colloquially as "butter and eggs," winking at us as much as the sun.
Multimedia artist Michael Toke used to have a studio space in the last of the artists lofts at 48 Abell St. He painted happy faces on the building so that the workers will feel sad taking down the building.
STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR
No building better represents the transformation of West Queen West than the three-storey warehouse at 48 Abell St.
For years, it was home to many of the artists who turned a once derelict neighbourhood into the city's most vibrant and creative community. Today it sits empty, a short block south of the streetcar stop, awaiting the wrecker's ball. It's making way for yet another condo tower.
In this part of town, the condo boom is concentrated in a triangle between Dovercourt and Dufferin Streets, south of Queen. It's the biggest blast of a gentrifying process ignited a decade ago.
For multi-media artist Michael Toke, among the last to vacate 48 Abell this fall, it's the end of the kind of neighbourhood that attracted the boom in the first place.
Demolition and high rents have forced artists out, except for the few who landed work spaces in the new towers. Some scattered across the city; others moved right out of the country.
"It's a creative drain," says Toke, 47, who was ready to follow the exodus until he got a teaching offer from the Art Gallery of Ontario. "It's a sad thing to stay to the end and watch it implode."
Worse, high rents make him pessimistic about West Queen West's once dynamic art community sprouting "organically" elsewhere in the city.
Toke moved into 48 Abell St. in 1991. "It was a really rough neighbourhood — lots of drug dealers, lots of prostitutes, lots of crime," he says. "The Drake and the Gladstone (hotels) would close down every once and a while, and the main brothel would move from one to the other."
At its peak, the Abell building was home to about 100 artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians and faculty of the Ontario College of Art — all attracted by its cheap rent and large spaces. The building wasn't zoned for residential use, so tenants were technically there illegally. But nobody cared.
There was no avoiding creative interaction. The best place for it was a cabaret called The Cave, a "raw space" in 48 Abell where performers and artists could test or exhibit new material.
"It became famous across Canada and the U.S.," Toke says. "I remember Mike Myers coming out and testing some of the songs and jokes for Austin Powers before the (movie) series came out.
"If you were a young comedian and you could make it through the gauntlet of heckling at The Cave, that was something," he adds.
Some of the building's residents would eventually become key organizers and participants of Nuit Blanche, the city-sponsored, dusk-to-dawn celebration of art.
The building, like the neighbourhood, had its seedy side.
"Of course there were also brothels and drug dens in there over the years, and lots of other nasty businesses, people running booze cans and some long hallways where people averted their eyes because they didn't want to be seen there," Toke says.
In time, the concentration of artists attracted art galleries. Toke gives credit for sparking the movement to curator Katharine Mulherin, who in 1998 opened BUSgallery. Later, the Drake and Gladstone hotels were renovated, restaurants flooded in, and the neighbourhood's transformation was complete.
It became trendy. Real estate prices skyrocketed, and developers with condominium projects swooped in.
In 2004, the Hollander family, which owned 48 Abell and ran a lamp store there, approached the city about adding a fourth floor and making the building a residential and work space. The Star's Christopher Hume reported there were doubts it could be brought up to building-code standards, and underground parking would have to be added. So the owners turned to a developer, and the condo plan was designed.
Saving the building from demolition became a local cause célèbre. For many, it embodied the spirit of the neighbourhood. But in 2006, city council rejected a motion to designate the Victorian-era building a heritage site.
The city was also slow to respond to Active 18, a residents' group that wanted to influence design plans for the whole triangle area. By the time then-mayor David Miller decided he was opposed to the condo plans, developers had already gone to the Ontario Municipal Board, which eventually ruled in their favour. Several towers in the triangle have since been built and more are going up.
Particularly galling for Toke was how developers used the neighbourhood's artistic identity to sell condos — the very identity created by the artists the condos were pushing out.
One ad for the Bohemian Embassy condo used the image of a sexy young woman dressed like a groovy '60s character in an Austin Powers film. It became fodder for a Toke video parody.
He projected his video in a booth across the street from the condo's ad. It showed his then-wife dressed as the woman in the campaign, drinking wine until she threw up. He called it Bohemian Embarrassment.
"It became very popular," Toke says. "People would stay there all night and drink in front of it."
The developer wasn't laughing. Lawyers sent Toke a cease-and-desist order, but eventually dropped the legal skirmish.
Toke has moved into a smaller, dingier place three blocks west of his old studio. He's busy with the latest installment in a series of artworks based on a vacant lot behind the Abell building. The lot used to be a hub of activity: prostitutes offered their services on an abandoned couch, a guy made wine in a broken-down trailer, local kids moved mounds of earth to build a BMX track, and a small shantytown rose up over the years.
His work makes a simple point: even a vacant lot is full of culture and human interaction — more, Toke argues, than in the condo tower that replaced it. But the point is made obliquely, with a study of the colour blue in the pictures, paintings and videos that make up the installation.
"I like things to be ambiguous and strange," he says of his work. "I think it will be creepy as well."
Just like the neighbourhood used to be.
Artist Michael Toke moved into 48 Abell St. in 1991. At its peak, the building was home to about 100 artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians and OCAD faculty.
STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR
At the Longbranch terminal, passengers say the waiting room smells of urine, which is why Ani, a private nurse, sits on a stone wall.
AARON HARRIS/TORONTO STAR
It is the end of the line. For westbound travellers on the Queen 501 streetcar. For the Kingsboro cab drivers, idling without fares. For the vagrant slumped in the waiting room.
There's a blankness in this waiting. The mind wanders. Gaze at: townhouses, a fading wall mural showing the march of transportation through the ages, the traffic speeding to the Mississauga border.
Even the flags near Brown's Line hang listless.
A place for the immortal words of Boyz II Men: "Yes, baby, my heart is lonely."
A moment's distraction. What is that futuristic light pole, with its space-age style and why is it . . . so fresh and forward looking and improbable in a landscape that has faded to despair.
The pole had once stood at the Eaton Centre. Removed during Dundas St. redevelopment, it lay in a public works yard until it was rescued to be a feature of the Brown's Line/Lake Shore revitalization. That was a decade ago.
There is an even more pressing need for revival of this loop. Track repair is underway and earth lies exposed and grey.
The paint is peeling in the shelter. There are holes in the roof. Passengers say the waiting room smells of urine, which is why Ani, a private nurse, sits on a stone wall. "In winter, it's terrible." She shakes her head.
Her commute is 90 minutes from Mississauga to Bay St.
Walk south for 10 minutes and there is another world: million dollar lakeshore houses. Marie Curtis Park, with a sandy beach and gentle waves. And a fresh breeze.
The majestic R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant sits across from the modest Neville Park Loop. With no bus or subway connections, it is quite literally the end of the line.
DICK LOEK/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO
"Neville Queen." For generations, it was the destination on the roll-sign of the eastbound Queen streetcar, a name so compelling it was adopted by well-known Toronto novelist Hugh Garner as a nom de plume for some of his magazine writing.And how fitting that is — endings, new beginnings, fresh starts, the circle of life being the very essence of all good redemption stories and legends.
The Neville Park Loop is as far east as the Queen St. streetcar goes. With no bus or subway connections, it is quite literally the end of the line.
The little turnaround is actually located at Nursewood Dr., just past the last stop at Neville Park Blvd., a pretty little street running down to Lake Ontario in a part of town where the wayfarer is ever mindful that Toronto was built on water.
The street, and the loop, bestow immortality on Frances Jane Neville, daughter of former Toronto mayor George Monro, whose family occupied a substantial estate in what once was Toronto's cottage country.
If the Neville Park Loop is modest as a terminus for a journey as epic as that of the 501 Queen streetcar, what lies not much farther than a good three-iron to the southeast is as glorious as infrastructure gets.
The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, named for Toronto's long-time public works commissioner, was built in the 1930s on a site that was once an amusement park.
Looking more like a museum housing national treasures than a venue of such utilitarian purpose, it became known as The Palace of Purification and has been featured on a postage stamp, designated under the Ontario Heritage Act and named a national historic civil engineering site by that profession.
So the Queen St. streetcar reaches the Neville Park Loop and sits a spell, the operator taking brief respite, perhaps, or possibly a bite to eat, musing maybe on the symbolism of the place, life being nothing, after all, if not a ceaseless series of beginnings and endings, people walking into, through and out of our lives.
With a tidy bungalow sitting just over the cedars bordering the loop, a water plant atop the hill so striking that it's appeared in movies and in novels, and the sound of the lake audible in the distance, it's a fitting place for reflection.
Whatever begins, also ends, said Seneca. And life's carousel goes round and round.
The destination roll spins.
Long Branch, it says now.
A streetcar of an entirely different name.