Waypoints and Feelings of Home

The Lansdowne carhouse was demolished in 2003. That GE water tower is so comforting. Image: Howard Wayt (1965); Transit Toronto.
The Lansdowne carhouse was demolished in 2003. That GE water tower is so comforting. Image: Howard Wayt (1965); Transit Toronto.

Although I have never actually lived there, Toronto has always felt like home to me. Even Ottawa, a city for which I have a deep love and have lived in since 2000, has never really felt like home in the same way. Surely, there are a number of fairly simple reasons for this. One is that much of my own family history is situated there. As part of a forthcoming story, I have mapped out the houses in the city that the Pulford branch of my tree lived in the city. Another ancestor, Daniel Ehman, was parish priest at St. Patrick’s on McCaul during the Second World War, when it served a primarily German congregation and he undertook pastoral work with German POWs at Mimico.1See Paul Laverdure. Redemption and Renewal: The Redemptorists of English Canada, 1834-1994 (Toronto: Dundurn, 1996): 185. Also see Sister Mary Agnes Pitzer. As Ever… Rev. Daniel Ehman, CSsR (Toronto: Multi-Tag, 1977). Still others, the Bradleys, lived in a number of homes around the city’s east, including in a home on Condor Avenue near what is now the TTC’s Greenwood Yard.

Ehman organized the first Deutscher Katholikentag in Ontario as a sort of show of respectability, relative to what was brewing in Germany. Image: Pitzer (1977).
Ehman organized the first Deutscher Katholikentag in Ontario as a sort of show of respectability relative to what was brewing in Germany. Image: Pitzer (1977).

Another reason is that it was one of the destinations for summer road trips when I was growing up. Each summer, we would normally pile into the family K-Car and head down Highway 11 for the 8 hour journey south. Our ultimate destination was Guelph to visit my grandmother, but we’d always have to stop in The Big Smoke. For someone growing up in a place like South Porcupine,2700 or 1,100 people, depending on how you count it. Toronto was exciting. It was big. It was busy. It had a subway! A subway! This is the sort of thing I only got to read about in books as a kid or see on television.3And even then, most shows, if they dealt with urban transportation at all, it was usually how scary and bad it was. Better get back to your suburb or small town. This is to say nothing of the tall buildings, the countless businesses with loud and exciting signs, and by gosh, hotdog carts! We had none of that at home and I knew early on that there’d be no way for me to stay in a small town.

Then there is, of course, the sort of political-cultural relationship between Northeastern Ontario (hinterlands) and the Golden Horseshoe (metropole). Toronto is where the government was. It was where you’d either shake your fist or go to shop. If that wasn’t enough, it was where your NHL team was – the Leafs.4Although thanks to the likes of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr I was a Penguins fan, I retain to this day a deep well of sympathy for the Leafs. Of course, if you were Francophone in Timmins, then chances are you cheered for the Habs. Nevertheless, it was sort of The Big City™ for most of us up there.

Road trip! It often necessitated a stop at Weber's.
Road trip! It often necessitated a stop at Weber’s.

In any event, during my last visit to the city this past October, I stayed in an Airbnb in the Junction Triangle. Aside from being a nice neighbourhood filled with children, home to a great brewery, and I was near friends. Moreover, I am a sucker for older industrial buildings. The sorts of building that we swept away here in Ottawa as being “not befitting a capital city.” There are a number of these that remain in the Junction Triangle, and the old GE plant that now houses Ubisoft is not only a great (if sometimes controversial) example, but it also happens to have a water tower. And it’s not just any water tower. Like the subway, it’s also the kind of water tower – complete with a pointed lid – that I had only encountered in books growing up.5This is not strictly true. There were some old mining properties that had similar towers, but most were demolished quickly and those that weren’t demolished had largely collapsed.

Whether it be from Lansdowne, the Wallace bridge, or in this case, on my way to Halo Brewery, it's a welcome sight.
Whether it be from Lansdowne, the Wallace bridge, or in this case, on my way to Halo Brewery, it’s a welcome sight.
The site as it appeared in 1965, when the picture above was taken. The GE plant is at the top left, and the Lansdowne Carhouse at the bottom right. Image: City of Toronto Archives, Series 12, Image 83 (1965).
The site as it appeared in 1965, when the photograph at the top was taken. The GE plant is at the top left, and the Lansdowne Carhouse at the bottom right. Image: City of Toronto Archives, Series 12, Image 83 (1965).

So: the water tower as a sign of home and a waypoint. I think most of us make use of a feature in the built environment when we’re new to an area to help us find our way around. When I first relocated to Ottawa from South Porcupine and lived in Glengarry Residence at Carleton, it was Dunton Tower I looked to to get my bearings when wandering. Not only did it orient me correctly after parties off campus, but it was also a feature that made me feel close to home. It’s the same feeling I get when I see Carleton Place or the exit to Panmure Road on the 417 when returning to Ottawa from Toronto or South Porcupine. It also applies to the stop on the Ontario Northland bus in Ramore on the way to South Porcupine. I see it and know I’m close. This was the role played by the GE water tower on Wallace. In October when I’d return to my room after a long day at the Archives of Ontario, the tower, visible either from Lansdowne or the Wallace Avenue Foot Bridge, would be my sign.

We’ve all got these of course. They’re part of the urban fabric. They are sometimes difficult to track and difficult to understand. They may be individually defined or collectively understood. Sometimes we only get to know these important features when they’re threatened by change or even after it’s too late. We will often use the language of planning or psychological science to explain the value or justify the love (and protection) for these features. Sometimes we don’t. More often than not, our reasoning is emotionally motivated. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. We can desire things to remain just because we want them to remain. Or because we find them neat, welcome, or attractive. Moreover, our neighbourhoods are absolutely filled with features and items that we don’t notice on a regular basis: even when they disappear. There are some, however, that are central to our understanding of place. To me, this disused water tower is absolutely central to my understanding of the Junction Triangle and is now tied into my own definition of Toronto.

Notes   [ + ]

1. See Paul Laverdure. Redemption and Renewal: The Redemptorists of English Canada, 1834-1994 (Toronto: Dundurn, 1996): 185. Also see Sister Mary Agnes Pitzer. As Ever… Rev. Daniel Ehman, CSsR (Toronto: Multi-Tag, 1977).
2. 700 or 1,100 people, depending on how you count it.
3. And even then, most shows, if they dealt with urban transportation at all, it was usually how scary and bad it was. Better get back to your suburb or small town.
4. Although thanks to the likes of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr I was a Penguins fan, I retain to this day a deep well of sympathy for the Leafs. Of course, if you were Francophone in Timmins, then chances are you cheered for the Habs.
5. This is not strictly true. There were some old mining properties that had similar towers, but most were demolished quickly and those that weren’t demolished had largely collapsed.

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