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Don Valley Brick Works

The Don Valley Brickworks was a huge industrial hub for Toronto. The property was perfectly situated along the Don River, old Pottery Road, the Toronto Beltline Railway, and the Canadian Pacific Railway. The site was originaly used as a mill in the 1830s. It was owned and operated by John Taylor and Brothers, who also owned other mills in the area, including Todmorden Mills.  When they  found clay while digging, clay was tested and plans were made to build a quary. In 1889 the quarry and brick manufacturing plant were completed, and so became the Don Valley Pressed Brick Company.

For years the brothers invested in new kilns and equipment, enabling different processes, quality, and faster production. The Taylor brothers produced quality bricks, and tens – even hundreds – of thousands per day. The plant won an award for the bricks at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and another the next year at the Toronto Industrial Fair. The Great Toronto Fire of 1904 made for a lot of business for the plant while much of Toronto’s downtown was rebuilt. The factory was sold to its second owner, Robert T. Davies, and the name was changed to Don Valley Brick Company Ltd. It was changed again in the 20s to Don Valley Brick Works Ltd. Electricity was installed, and yet another process was added. In 1928 the property was sold again to Strathgowan Investments and took on the name Toronto Brick Company. During the second world war, prisoners of war housed at Todmorden Mills across the Don worked at the plant making bricks. In 1956 the plant changed ownership to the German company United Ceramics Ltd. They operated the plant until there was no useable clay left in the soil. In 19thrall operations shut down, and the quarry, factory, kilns, and everything else sat unused.

Today, the buildings still stand as a symbol of Toronto’s industrial past, and as a tribute to adaptive reuse. Evergreen has been in charge of the restoration since 1994, a huge job including filling the quarry, assessing the integrity of the buildings, removing hazardous materials, industrial archaeology, and renovations. A decade and $30 million in government investments later, Evergreen leads weekly farmer’s markets, tree planting and other ecological seminars, and much more out of the factory. The new site also features office space, event space, Bike Works – Evergreen’s own bike shop where you can work on your own bike – as well as the newest location of West Toronto’s and more recently the Annex’s bike store, Sweet Pete’s. The architectural design, which was done by Era Architecture, and in collaboration with Architects Alliance, could not have done a better job preserving the building. To take from Era’s concise portfolio entry on the Brickworks, the studios used “…a framework philosophy of “light touch” and “loose fit.” This framework seeks to conserve heritage fabric as “embodied energy” and intervene only when necessary to make the site safer and ready to be used.” The ’embodied energy’ is indeed conserved, with many rusted pieces of industrial equipment still about the property, sheer cuts from decrepit brick walls to clean straight lines of glass and aluminum, and much of the graffiti from the building’s time as an abandoned place still left on walls.

I am incredibly grateful to see these developments transpire, and Evergreen’s property, as well as the adjacent parks are a wonder to explore. In particular, ‘Building 16’ to this day makes me feel I am wondering through another forgotten factory. The building housed the kilns in its time, with long narrow brick hallways and rails for quickly moving large cars of brick or clay. It is now used as a contemporary venue, in which I had the pleasure of attending a beer festival, often holds semi-permanent displays covering topics from renewable energies to urban planning. The Evergreen Brickworks is a valuable feature of our city that we as citizens, Evergreen, Era, the restoration workers, volunteers, and countless other groups of contributors can all be proud of. It is a strong model, not only of practical adaptive reuse, but of the ideology behind the concept. To once again borrow from Era, the “project demonstrates clearly the deep relationships between heritage conservation and sustainable practice.”

Building Nine, Kodak Heights

The Eastman Kodak Company was founded in 1888 in Rochester, NY. The company is probably best known for their development of Kodachrome film, one of the first successful colour films on the market. Kodachrome was made for both still photography and cinematography. Kodak grew to huge new sizes with their innovative film products, holding 90% of the film market in the US until the 70s. Kodak began operating in Canada in 1900, with an office in downtown Toronto, where 15 employees performed hand work cutting film and fitting lenses. The company then moved to a location on King St, employing about 400 workers. In 1913, Kodak built an industrial campus with more than a dozen buildings in Mount Dennis, known as ‘Kodak Heights’.

Mount Dennis was a very small town when Kodak first moved in; the huge plant brought new business to the community. Kodak, along with a few other new major employers to the area, built new residential developments in the area for the quickly growing number of employees. Because of this sudden growth, Mount Dennis became known as an ‘unintentional suburb’ of Toronto. Kodak Heights had a seemingly strong connection with the community, offering competitive wages and compensations, and even having several clubs for the staff of the facility. Employment reached its peak in the 70s, with more than 3000 people working daily. Times were good for Kodak Canada and its parent company, though this success in part led the company to its (near) demise. As the change to digital came to the world of photography, Kodak was either unable or unwilling to make changes for the future. The company’s past success seemed to make the owners think they were unbeatable or unstoppable.

Kodak Heights was closed in 2005. For about a year it rested, undisturbed other than by occasional trespassers. Looking through photos of the complex taken by urban explorers, I wish I had the opportunity to have looked around the campus for a while. In 2006, the entire site was sold to Metrus Properties, which flattened the factory except for building nine, the Employee’s building, which was given heritage status earlier the same year. Building nine rested, along with the rest of the empty property, with no concrete plans for its future. Slowly the building deteriorated, as countless numbers of explorers, punks, and junkies found there way into the last standing feature of Kodak Heights.

Seven years later, and the destruction has amounted such that there is nothing recognizable left inside the building. Wandering the Employee’s building, there was nothing that hinted towards the community I read about. The gymnasium, which features a stage and lighting room, is where the Kodak Theatre Group put on annual productions. Today the wooden floorboards are missing and scorched from an arsonist’s afternoon leisure; the stage is covered in debris from the caving ceiling. The building desperately needs a new life.

Metrolinx has just the answer for us: It sees building nine as potential for the new Eglinton Crosstown. Metrolinx wants to use it’s prime location beside the GO line to build a transfer station between the GO line, Eglinton LRT, and TTC Busses. Proposed plans for how the station might look within the neighbourhood described building nine as the “heart of the station”. Although these plans are not final yet, I think they would be a very worthy new use for the Kodak lands.

Urban Decay, Death, and New Life

When writing about the Symes Transfer Station in the stockyards, my conclusive thoughts were of the building’s past, present, and its uncertain future. After hearing news that Symes was sold by the city to a private developer, I looked to Build Toronto, an organization in charge of finding new uses for the city’s surplus property, to find more information on Symes’ future. I had a conversation over the phone with an employee of the organization, and though he was reluctant to give me much information on the subject, he informed me that the building was sold to be repurposed into an architecture studio. A very suitable use, considering the building was designed by some of the city’s most well known architects of the era. He also informed me that the building is now a heritage site, though I think I may have misunderstood that. It does not show up yet in the Heritage Property inventory on the city’s website.

The historical value of buildings (abandoned or otherwise) is often overlooked, and city councilors are quick to tear them down to make way for new shiny hi-rises. This has been seen too many times, not just in Toronto but around the world. This being said, what’s happening at Symes seems to be an indication of a newer trend for Toronto. Starting with the beautifully repurposed Evergreen Brickworks, the city is now seeing three more of its classic explores given the breath of life. In addition to Symes, the hugely historical Tower Automotive plant is facing mixed use redevelopment, and Kodak Building 9 will become a Metrolinx station, connecting the Eglinton LRT with a new bus bay, and the adjacent GO line.

As an urban explorer, a part of me is very sad to see these places go. They were all among my first explores. The Tower Automotive plant was my very first explore, and I’ve had many different visits over the years. Also as an urban explorer and photographer, I aim to preserve the past as well as I can through the lens of my camera. Of course, I can no longer do this when a building is reopened. Ultimately, the repurposing preserves the building and its history better, and more tangibly than my photos ever will.

So, this may seem to be an ending of an era to some, and I think it is. However, the end brings a new beginning where we can appreciate heritage in our city’s infrastructure, and where new abandonments may face similar and more constructive fates.

St. John’s

Last December I made the decision to move away from the big city life in Toronto, and try my luck in Newfoundland. I came to this decision for a few reasons. I wanted something new and challenging in my life, and I also wanted to see some of my family background. My father was born and raised in St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, and has taken me to visit the province a few times in my childhood. I’ve had fond memories of the place since I was a kid, and always wanted to spend time living there.

Just getting to Newfoundland was an adventure. I went the long way, taking the VIA train from Toronto to Halifax, and crossing by the ferry in North Sydney, NS. I met very many new faces along the way, some of who I may not forget soon. Others, I have already forgotten their names but their faces are still fresh in my mind. I sat beside a very kind Québécois woman on my way to Montréal. We spoke of lots of things; where we were going, my music and photography, her daughters, and a bit about what I was doing, and what I wanted to do. I dropped out of grade 12 around last November, so people often ask me what I want to do with my life. Honestly, I cannot yet answer this question. It’s a subject where I have a lot of difficulty articulating my opinions. I live for the day, not the morrow. The train rolled into Montréal as it was getting dark. The French woman got up to leave the train and put out her hand. As I shook it she wished me good luck, and told me she hoped I find what I was looking for. I thanked her and wished her luck, but that has stuck with me since.

When I got to Halifax it was late, and stormy outside. I got my pack from the baggage claim and went to the bus booth while I waited for my guitar to show up. I needed to get a bus up to Sydney in Cape Breton Island where the ferry connects to Newfoundland in the winter. The lady there told me there were no more buses running that way until the afternoon the next day. I bought a ticket, and she helped me look for somewhere to stay for the night. I knew there were a few hostels, but didn’t know my way around the city. I found the hostel just down the road from the train station in the wind and rain. Luckily there was an extra bed, and I had a place to stay for the night. I shared a room with a few men, mainly Canadians, one Australian who was living in Toronto. I initially asked him if he was from New Zealand, and he got offended. What’s the difference, anyways?

I spent the next morning wandering Halifax with my camera, since my bus wasn’t leaving until the afternoon. I was considering hitchhiking to save some money on the bus tickets, but I didn’t want to miss the bus between stops and put myself behind another day. Halifax is a beautiful city, and home to quite a lot of interesting history and culture. However, this was not my final destination. The bus took me up the coast of Nova Scotia, right to the ferry terminal, just north of its last stop in Sydney. The bus arrived at the terminal around 11:00 or midnight, and I thought I had missed the ferry service for the day. I was beginning to think of places where I could stay for a night in Sydney, but as it turned out, the ferry was still waiting for less stormy weather before crossing to Newfoundland. I bought a ticket and found myself a seat to sleep in for the night aboard the ferry. It docked in Port-aux-Basques early the next morning – I was in Newfoundland!

I lived in a hostel on Gower St. before finding a job dishwashing, and renting an apartment. I met lots of interesting people at the hostel. It was a popular place for foreign students at Memorial. I bunked with two students, one from Russia, and the other had just moved to Canada from Nigeria. He had a very very strong accent; I barely understood half of what he said. I also met some Newfoundlanders in the hostel, and some mainlanders like myself.

My first impressions of the city, and of Newfoundland as a whole, were as you may expect. This is a place full of friendly people, who generally want to help you. A city bus driver helped me find my way to the hostel after passing it earlier on in the bus route. Later on in my visit, just down the road from where the bus driver had pulled over to radio in to the dispatcher for me, I was wandering downtown when I came across a man in a dark alleyway. I had seen him before begging in that alleyway, and he was lying on the ground holding his chest in pain. Knowing first aid, I immediately came to his side to help in any way I could. Another passerby stopped to help me, and we began trying to figure out what was wrong with the man. I think he was likely overdosing on something, and asked if he wanted help from a doctor. The man with me said he was from out of town, and didn’t know where any hospitals were, to which I (half)laughed and said I was also from out of town. The man left to get a coffee for the homeless junkie, and I waited with him to make sure he was okay. I asked him a few times if there was anything I could do to help him, which I regretted afterwards. He slowly turned his head to me and looked me straight in the eyes, pupils dilated enough to hide his irises. “Be my friend” was the slow, shaky response he finally formed for me. This memory has haunted me since, and I don’t think it will be leaving me anytime soon, either. His request stabbed through me like a spear. I was speechless. I was also bothered by the fact that both myself and the other bystander were from out of town. Despite the friendly and caring nature of most Newfoundlanders I met, not one stopped as they walked past.

IMG_0024IMG_0026Urban Exploration in St. John’s proved to be quite a challenge, though there were many different places I tried. The intersection of Duckworth St. and McBride’s Hill is right in the middle of downtown, and has three larger abandoned buildings in the area. The photo on the left shows the old Bell Aliant building (closer), and the CBC building behind it. The old Newfoundland Telephone Company building can be seen in the photo on the right, across the street from the other buildings.

Though I never found any ways into any of these buildings, I had more success elsewhere. St. John’s was once home to an abandoned hospital known as the Pleasantville Janeway Hospital. It was the city children’s hospital until it was joined with the medical center at Memorial. Sadly, this hospital was demolished before I came to Newfoundland to make way for the Janeway retirement homes, but some of the buildings from the complex were still around. The Janeway Hostel was part of the hospital complex, but was left behind for whatever reason during demolition. Perhaps this is because it is not in the way of the new developments. The building was small, a center atrium, and a hallway going out either side, making an ‘L’ shape. All the rooms off the halls were dark and empty, like the halls, but the atrium was lit by a large skylight. Within the first few minutes of my visit, I was shooting the skylight and the rest of the atrium, when two voices came up to the back door. One person opened the door, and peeked inside. “There’s someone in there…” he said to his friend, who clearly thought the place looked pretty cool. It was obvious I wasn’t making the guy feel very comfortable, so I nodded and said hello, trying to appear friendly. They left right after and didn’t come back while I was there. I thought it was sort of funny that I had scared them off. I certainly wouldn’t have minded them around. Maybe I look scarier than I realize.

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I had an incredible time in Newfoundland with all the great people I met along the way. It was nice to spend some time outside of the big city here in Toronto, though most of my time in Newfoundland was in St. John’s. I plan on returning here, and when I do, I’ll be taking lots of pictures of the beautiful rocky landscapes. As for if I found what I was looking for – I’m not sure I did, but I found lots of unexpected lessons, and that whatever it is I am looking for is out there somewhere. So, here’s to exploring!

Symes Transfer Station

Many years ago, before the days of environmentalism, concerns for global warming and sustainability, this city had one simple solution for waste: incineration.

Symes plant, circa 1934

The above photo, from City of Toronto Archives, was taken in 1934 upon completion of the Symes Road Incinerator. The station was built by the city to be a new site for incinerating garbage, featuring two towering smokestacks, and wonderful art-deco architecture of the time. The brick building has a very unique style to it, that in my mind sets it apart from other buildings and city infrastructure remaining from its time.

IMG_0435The city stopped burning its garbage in the 1970s because of air pollution and health standards, so the need for a new purpose arose. The twin smokestacks were torn down, and the Symes Incinerator became the Symes Transfer Station. The building operated as such for about another two decades before the city closed the plant completely.

Today, little remains from Symes’ past. Notwithstanding some broken windows, and some crumbling bricks, the exterior is much the same as it was when built. The inside, however, is stripped and bare. One of Symes’ two garbage compactors remains inside the building, but beyond this almost nothing is left to suggest its history. It has been about 15 years since the city left the site to rot, yet the presence of man has all but gone.

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IMG_1093Over time, Symes has essentially transformed into a hidden gallery of anonymous artwork. Graffiti cover the walls, bringing new life to an otherwise very dead place. Many notable names in Toronto’s street art scene are splashed over the bricks in an explosion of colour. There is not a room left untouched by the hands of vandals.

IMG_0441This wasn’t always the case for Symes, though. Such is the outcome of many years of neglect. Though the building is being driven further into the ground with each passing year, one can’t help but appreciate the beauty within all the destruction.

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The basement is home to lots of peeling paint, lockers, mold, and old records kept by the staff, some dating back to the 70s and 80s. Further up, the top floor has two cranes and two very large garbage chutes for loading trucks with garbage. Light shines through the iconic round windows that line the walls of the top floor. Outside, the roof gives a great view of West Toronto and the distant downtown cityscapes.

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From incinerator, to transfer station, to urban gallery. Symes is a building of many faces, and a long history. As for its future, my guess is as good as yours.

These photos are linked to my Flickr page. You can find the set here.

Korex Soap Factory

Early one afternoon, two years ago in late September, I met up with a small group of photographers and explorers in a little cafe for a monthly meetup. People chatted, and for a while we discussed potential sites we could explore around the city. Someone mentioned a decommissioned soap factory, and we settled for it. This was the first time I had ever visited the Korex Soap factory. I returned with some friends about a year later, but our visit was cut short by a patrolling security guard. He insisted that I erase all my photos of the complex, so these photos are only from my first visit.

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IMG_0332 The factory was left behind by the Goliath corporation Unilever in full functionality. With much of the power in the building still running, walking around inside felt like the workers were there the day before. In 2002, Unilever sold the plant to Korex Don Valley. However, the new owners could not match Unilever’s high wages, and after five years, Korex had to rewrite their contracts. About two thirds of the factory’s staff went on strike. The remaining staff continued to work for almost a year, but the reduced output caused the company to loose its consumers, and file for bankruptcy. That May, in 2009, two hundred and seventy workers lost their jobs. The complex was left as it was at the end of the day, giving it a very deserted and ominous aura. Light switches wait to be flicked off one last time, messes left for tomorrow still remain untouched years later. Pallets of soap pellets still wait to be made into consumer cleaning products of various name-brands. Lever, Dove, Sunlight – the factory was decorated with their advertising. A very old looking Sunlight poster hung on a wall next to a more recent advertisement for Lever, and I laughed to myself, realizing how many different products are made by the very same hands.

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IMG_0382The locker rooms were an invasion of privacy, and I was the convict. I had wandered away from my explorer companions, not knowing what I was walking into. Spare clothing, family photos, books, company forms, files, and letters all left behind by former workers of the plant led me to realize at the time exactly what had happened here a year before. One could almost imagine a worker on the bench, putting away his work boots after another day at work, unaware this would be his last. How will he take the news? What will he tell his family? Where would he work now? Questions were beginning to fill my head. I had peered, perhaps too deeply, into the lives of others through a one-way mirror.

IMG_0327I rejoined the group, and we continued to browse the various soap-making machines, guessing what their purposes may be in the production line. At this point, we had crossed over to the main building on the complex. Snaking through the hallways and dodging any security cameras in the building, we passed directly across and above the security hut, where the guard was very likely napping.

After finding the last of what the factory had to offer us, our group decided to call it a night. A door took us outside, where an old set of tracks run right between two buildings, through the center of the complex. The darkness provided us with good cover as we crept through bushes and under fences back towards the city streets.

The group disbanded for the most part; it was late and nearing the next day. I went with a few others who still hadn’t got their fill of exploring for the night to get some skyline shots from the Canada Malting Co.

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These photos are linked to my Flickr page. Any photos from an inevitable return(s) to this location will be added to its Flickr set. You can find the set here.

If You’re Going to San Francisco

San Francisco is an interesting place, with a lot of history to it. I never really traveled anywhere with my family much. We went out to BC once, and also out to Alberta, and I’ve visited Newfoundland with my father, but nothing too recently. This was my first time leaving Canada, so this was a pretty new experience for me.

The Spanish settled in San Francisco in the late 1700s and it grew during the California Gold Rush in the mid 1800s. Now the San Francisco Bay Area is the 6th largest Combined Statistical Area in the US.

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge is a popular tourist attraction, and was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was built in 1937. It’s now the second longest in the Us, and the 9th longest in the world. I, along with my mother, made a common choice to rent a bike and ride from near Fisherman’s Wharf to the bridge, across, and back to the bike store. It was definitely an enjoyable ride, but it took longer than it should have since I was stopping so frequently to take photos.

During the ride back we saw a Great Blue Heron in a city park. Definitely a strange sight for me, considering I’ve only ever seen them for a moment before they take flight around my cottage. It waited long enough for me to walk past it and get the Golden Gate Bridge in the background of a shot.

If you were to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, and then continue further down a highway (don’t ask me for directions…) you’ll end up in a national park called Muir Woods. It protects the few remaining Coast Redwood trees along the west coast of the US.

The gargantuan size of these trees was very hard to capture through the lens of a camera. One solution was to take panoramas, but since I have yet to replace my current panorama program, which significantly decreases the quality, they have not been uploaded yet.

My favourite part of San Francisco would have to be Alcatraz Island. The island lies right in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, where the city expands out from; the shoreline of the city’s harbourfront curves around the island. It was first used as a Military fort in 1858, and began to grow more in 1861 during the Civil War. Since the island was so separated from the city, it was used as a military prison for the Civil War, and inmates were kept in the basement of the guardhouse.

In 1867 it was arranged to be primarily a prison, and a jailhouse was built. In 1933 it was turned into a Federal Penitentiary, which is what it’s now famous for. It ran as a penitentiary until 1963, and has had its fair share of probation-era gangsters with some awesome nicknames (my favourite would have to be George “Machine Gun” Kelly).

What I did not know, and I found fascinating, was that from 1969 to 1971, Native Americans had taken over the island from the US government. It was at a time when native rights in the US provoked such actions. It was at a time when native American activists all over the country were fighting for equal treatment, and this, I guess, was a good way to grab the attention of the government, and the public.

Graffiti left behind from the native occupation is protected along with the rest of the island as a historic landmark.

Another very significant part of San Francisco’s history is the earthquake and fire of 1906. Three quarters of the city was destroyed, and the death count is estimated to be around 3000. It is considered one of the worst natural disasters of American history.

This fountain was one of the few structures left standing after the earthquake and fires, and was used as a common meeting place for families that were separated during the disaster.

Besides an interesting history, San Francisco features an endless amount of of spectacular architecture. Compared to my hometown of Toronto, it’s amazing how much detail had gone into each house, office building, and store – both old and new.

I regret not taking more photos of the architecture of the city. I don’t know why I didn’t take more, considering I spent so much time focusing on it.

The whole city seemed quite iconic, and had some charm to it. Not to mention, I surely enjoyed the warm pacific weather, even if it did rain for a while.

These photos are linked to my Flickr page. You can find the set here.

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