What lies beneath that sheath of urban banality

After reviewing John Cameron’s score for After… (2006), we managed to track down the film and give it a spin, since urban spelunking may be a uniquely 20th century activity; that isn’t to say curious ancient Romans may never have taken field trips to explore disused aqueducts, taken walks along abandoned military walls, or hiked to Pompeii or Herculaneum after their volcanic disasters and looked for artifacts poking through the hard lava, but with traveling to another city or country being rather pricey, people can sometimes find a good mystery in their own home town, hidden beneath the city concrete.

Take Chicago, for example, and its 60 miles of original tunnel routes used to ferry goods and coal to various businesses from 1906-1959. Built by the Chicago Tunnel Company Railroad, the abandoned and extremely narrow passages share a rare glimpse into a revenue plan that followed the old ‘if we build it, customers will come.’

As Phil O’Keefe, creator of a superbly detailed and fascinating tribute site states in his FAQ:

“Although the freight tunnel concept superficially appears to be a great idea, it really was not... cars had to be loaded with freight at a railroad freight station on the surface. Each car would be lowered to the tunnel by elevator. The train was assembled and run over to another elevator. The train would be broken up, and each car was raised to the surface one by one to the final destination at a warehouse on the surface. The cars would then be unloaded. It would just be easier to load up a wagon or motor truck on the surface and drive it over to the final destination!”

There’s a handful of clever movie thrillers one could concoct incorporating the tunnels (The Relic, The Blues Brothers, and the 1950 Rudolph Mate film, Union Station apparently made use of them as locations), but the rediscovery of the tunnels unearthed an archaic transportation network known only to rail enthusiasts, a prior generation, and the telecommunication cable workers who make sure the active lines bolted into the tunnel ceilings remain safe and functional.

Cincinnati’s abandoned subway tunnels also carry telecommunication lines and water mains, and while they apparently haven’t been used in any feature films, websites (see HERE, and HERE) and YouTube posts are filled with images and sparse video footage of urban spelunkers who’ve ventured into the tunnels, mostly out of curiosity for a piece of hidden urban history.

Urban spelunking isn’t an alternative to investigating natural underground caves. It’s taking a peek at remnants of our civilization that have been abandoned due to straightforward disuse, the disintegration of an urban populace, or simply forgotten and left to rot.

Imagine one of those old cars seen rusting in the yard of a home at the edge of a country highway, and wonder why a once functional machine built and used in its prime was left for the elements to tear it apart over time; how it was used; what may have been left inside by its last owner; and whether it may hold some oddball cultural secret from the not-so-distant past.

Now expand that rusty car into an office building, a silo, a sewer tunnel, a derelict train platform, a decommissioned power generation plant, a metal works station, a once stately hotel, a beached ship, a submerged WWII plane, a literally frozen encampment from Antarctica’s first European visitors, or a dusty and dimly lit subway station briefly glimpsed when the train you’re riding slows down and stops, allowing you to see a piece or urban history that’s long forgotten and resembles some beautifully detailed set from a post-apocalyptic movie.

A few years ago we reviewed Echoes of Forgotten Places, a far too short, but artfully photographed examination of major buildings in and around Toronto that are generally off-limits to the public, including the old brickworks, a large complex rusting and disintegrating near the end of the Bayview Extension. It’s one of several massive industrial locations in the GTA that people pass daily but whose history they know very little about; there’s more mythical urban locales like the Bayview Ghost (long demolished, but a creepy concrete skeleton remembered by generations), or current haunts like the ghostly ‘Lower Queen’ streetcar platform, and Lower Bay subway station that was used for a few weekends in 2007 when the upper Bay station needed some restoration work, and trains were rerouted to pass through a station unseen by TTC riders in more than 40 years.

(I’m using URLs for Google search results because over the years there’s been a growth of news, blog, and fan sites, each offering unique views, video footage and photo images.)

Toronto’s hidden urban hot spots – mythic and extant – are far smaller when compared to the massive remains in bigger cities (New York and London being major toppers), but the fact segments of the local population find these fascinating, in addition to devoted spelunkers, shows a populace that can be compelled to investigate a bit of its own past when enough details are brought forth.

It kind of wades into the ‘Did you know?’ pool of thought, but certainly in the case of Lower Bay, few riders knew that whenever they got off at the upper Bay platform, behind the green tiles that surround two fat support ‘boxes’ with double stainless steel doors are steps and cannibalized remains of escalators that took riders down another level, much like St. George station, to an interlined route that looped through the station before heading south.

Same goes for the strange black, white and grey signs reading “Next Train” on some platforms that informed riders which of the trains was coming next, and have displayed the same names for 40 years as obsolete beacons.

Lower Bay is used by the TTC for service trips, and the platform makes regular appearances in movies (mostly simulating U.S. cities, as in Mimic, or a generic city subway system, as in End of the Line) because the rails are fully functional and trains can be routed in to recreate a big city subway station.

It’s also a symbol of a city’s efforts to expand its transit system and meet the needs of its riders; in Toronto’s current cash-strapped subway system, the remnants of aborted plans are few; in New York City, the list is extensive, and the testimonial photos resemble stills from that aforementioned post-apocalyptic film set.

Some of the abandoned subway stops, loops, and old lines in New York City are still remembered by older riders, and it was admittedly thrilling to hear someone recall the few months when Toronto’s Lower Bay was in operation; he too recalled the confusion in terms of what train to take, the waiting times, and clutter of people on platforms during rush hour (this when the city’s population was a fraction of its current size).

Some of that was inadvertently recreated when, in early 2007, trains passed through Lower Bay to Museum station for a reroute and train swap; you had pasted maps and raspy-throated TTC employees looking tired from announcing oncoming trains and destinations routes to clusters of very confused people.

The chance to retrace and re-experience part of the abandoned route was a more genteel and less messy form of spelunking for some, and right after the first day, YouTube was filled with more video footage of people riding the trains through the now filthy station, showing what it was like to pass from every vantage: front, back, side, and at variable speeds, including a rare pause.

(The only detail rarely mentioned was the painfully loud metallic screech that vibrated from the wheels into the passenger chamber when the train went north and turned east towards Lower Bay; it was the loudest racket I’ve ever heard, and it never took long for riders to cover their ears after trying to stomach the shrill longer than they should have. Amazing no one hurled up a full lunch.)

The movie After (2007) deals with a trio of thrill-seeking spelunkers primarily in search of Stalin’s secret subway, and while the movie’s remaining 2/3’s wobble and kind of implode, the first third is a pretty gripping simulation of what it’s like to infiltrate a building, the dangers of skulking through subway tunnels, and wandering down creepy stairwells with blocked passages.

Even photographs can convey the haunting qualities of abandoned station platforms, not to mention the above-ground ghosts of a city’s past.

Perhaps the most hypnotic and tragic are the stills chronicling Detroit’s gorgeous offices, hotels, factories, and movie palaces (see the heartbreaking site, Forgotten Detroit) that stand abandoned and stripped of their riches. For every Fox Theater, there’s the tragedy of the United Artists, and the images of disintegrating beauty – from neglect, owner apathy, and vandals – remind us of how urban venues and structures are alive only as long as they’re in use, and of use to their owners.

In Toronto, there also losses and victories for urban venues: you have the demolition of the old University Theatre – the last single theatre that had the misfortune of resting on extremely valuable real estate – and the community that supported the new owners in their quest to save the Review Cinema in Roncesvalles Village. There’s also the Regent Theatre that doubles as a high-end audio mixing house by day, and neighbourhood movie theatre by night.

Even the old Uptown (like the University, also murdered) had its own secrets, and most likely, few patrons knew of its old vaudeville history, the fire that led to its multi-screen overhaul in the sixties, the hidden doors that allowed staff to pass between multiple screening rooms, and the disused rooms that sometimes held vestiges of its past.

In fiction films, an authentic, ghostly location and its history will always be subjugated in favour of story (some major exceptions include Bernard Rose’s visceral Candyman and its chilling use of Cabrini-Green, and the graffiti artists who venture into the New York City subway system in Style Wars), and unfortunately, urban spelunkers (including After’s writer and director in their own YouTube featurette) have yet to create video diaries with technical proficiency and pacing that help us experience their journeys.

That leaves documentarians as the potential storytellers of their local secrets, but it’s a pity so few have taken a good investigative stab as these vestiges of urban history either disappear in the mind, or are obliterated when a new subway, condo, or shopping venue is erected in its place.


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Toronto homes said...

I have been living in one of the Toronto houses for several years and I must confess I still don`t know enough facts about its history. However this city is really striking with full of excitements and I love the bustling cultural life here. This city has its own charm with its elegant buildings and in some terms this place is more favourable comparing to New York or London.

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