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2005 11 25
Subterranean City
There are people beneath your feet. They are eating sushi, buying batteries and getting their backs rubbed. They emerge at night. A shiftless, transient lot, they drift and stumble outward, congregating on corners, waiting for streetcars to take them home. I'm not talking about the flesh-eating, underground dwellers of Omega Man - though that would be pretty cool (they did drive some pretty amazing zombie-mobiles). I'm talking about the hoards of Toronto professionals who call the PATH, downtown's underground network of tunnels, their home away from home.

As a vast subterranean shopping mall, it's ingenious, an oddity of reverse retail. It's not "location, location, location", it's basement of "location, location, location."

This from the City of Toronto: "PATH is downtown Toronto's underground walkway linking 27 kilometres of shopping, services and entertainment. Follow PATH and you'll reach your downtown destination easily in weatherproof comfort."

At 27 km and 4 million sq. ft it really is like an invisible West Edmonton Mall right in the heart of Toronto. With marble floors and walls, it evokes a shimmering cavern of treasures of some ancient sheik or Dwarf king (sorry, LOTR geek alert). I've often wondered what visitors think when they accidentally enter our cellar of affluence. Perhaps the PATH isn't as opulent as Moscow's subway, but it is in, correction: below the financial core of the city. The people wandering around here are monied. They've just come from the Adelaide Club, or they're looking for a toasted club. All can be found in the climate controlled comfort of the PATH.

The PATH's signage, a custom system with a quality look and finish offers little help to the uninitiated as every destination is denoted by a commercial building name rather than major intersections. When first revealed, the system garnered quite a bit of attention from groups like the SEGD (Society of Environmental Graphic Design), but as time wore on, people who experienced the PATH for themselves saw little value in the wall mounted maps or the compass points marked at major collision points. In truth, a sign system could no more help you than a blind match girl inside those anonymous tunnels. It can only be navigated by experience, and the occasional glimpse of landmarks. Those landmarks are the shops. You don't find your way by following directions, but by knowing if you enter at the Cafe Supreme, the Canada Post outlet will be to your left. You get to the Shopper's Drug Mart by knowing where the Second Cup is.

On those afternoon jaunts through the path when I've really had to get somewhere, I've often thought how great it would be to ride my bike through the system. In the winter I could commute by TTC part of the way, and ride through the PATH the rest. You could zip between Metro Hall and City Hall in no time. There may be some stairs but a few portages never stopped the Voyagers. Better yet, why not install a sort of golf cart tram that would compliment the TTC. Commuters arriving at Union Station could be delivered right to their building. East West links between the Yonge and Spadina lines would be a snap.

Yet, would Petula Clark ever have sung about going "under" downtown? She did caution about sleeping on the subway so I doubt it. I've wandered the system for years and occasionally challenge myself - how far can I go? I usually don't make it past King Street before sweat, panic and a granite covered wall force me to surface. Surfacing from the PATH is a bit like a looking at the city in section as you pass from basement to street level. Especially when taking an escalator to the surface, you feel as though you are emerging through layers of pipes, ductwork and wiring. Again, I have to remind myself "this is underground, I'm walking beneath streetcar tracks." Yet, I'm not surrounded by glue sniffing urchins or any other "underground" element. I'm walking amidst the lawyers, and bankers who are the architects of our economy's house of cards. On second thought, maybe there are more bottom feeders than I think down there. Which might explain my uneasy feelings (that or the fact a street car might crash through the ceiling at any moment - completely wrecking my smoothie). I don't really belong amongst the suits. Their Blackberry holsters hang from their belts, at the ready, as they joke about golf scores, annuities and office politics. They stride confidently between book store, Baby Gap, and the new Harry Rosen and all the while silently mapping their route. For every step taken, a new neural connection is made. The PATH is not only a place for the well paid, but also a place for the mentally nimble.
[email this story] Posted by P. Rogers on 11/25 at 05:52 AM

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