In fiction, back alleys and lanes are dark, sinister places for drug deals and dumpsters, and that may be a reality in some cities, but not in Toronto. Our lanes are safe – and full of surprises. Hosts to some of the most innovative homes in the city, lanes are also a rich repository of historical buildings, and caretakers of secrets and stories. Join me as I explore Toronto’s lanes and alleys. This, the fifth Back Alley Adventure, features an alley art gallery and a fantastic pink and red flexi in the west, and Cabbagetown’s boozy history in the east.
Hidden behind formidable iron gates at the end of a shared private driveway off Clinton Street (above) is a unique, three-storey home that can be divided into “opportunities,” according to owner Astra Burka. An architect and filmmaker, Ms. Burka (below) designed her “two pink squares and a red rectangle” to be flexible, so that with a few changes (a wall down or up here and there), her home can accommodate one or several people.
Built in 1998 on a 32×135-foot lot that was formerly a storage yard for drainpipes, the house is an experiment in colour, space, light and living in a square rather than a rectangle. Ms. Burka, inspired by Amsterdam’s canal homes, built in the “spirit of Bauhaus” and used Luis Barragán as her influence for colour. She took down a book to show me his pink and red home in Mexico. Hers is just about as interesting.
The inside is completely open and light-filled, thanks to columns of windows, glowing wood floors and white walls. There is also a two-storey atrium that catches every last drop of sunshine. And the outside is just as lovely.
Both the east and west sides of her home have outdoor spaces. On the west there is a carport that opens to the laneway behind Clinton, and a patio sheltered by feathery pines she planted herself. Herbs and flowers keep her company, as do her two cats. Provence was her outdoor design inspiration.
I asked Ms. Burka about the pitfalls of lane building and living. She cited only the costs and hassles of servicing the lot (close to $ 50,000) and the city’s inconsistent numbering system. Her address is 118R, but it could also be 118 1/2 or 118A. There are also advantages to living on an alley. “It is quiet. I like the mishmash of housing styles and the fact that all kinds of things happen in laneways. I love living here.”
Did you know Toronto has an art gallery alley? It runs parallel to Queen Street West on the south side, behind the stores between Spadina and Portland. This is also the area where Rick Mercer films his famous walking rants. Whereas graffiti elsewhere in the city has to be removed or painted over by city bylaw, the art in this strip is allowed to stay – thanks to Mayor Ford.
The result is a few blocks of “paintings” that are mostly respected by other artists and taggers. It changes up, though, so walk the alley gallery often (see also opening photo).
Graeme Parry takes curious cyclists and walkers on lane tours, and introduced me to Art Alley on one of them. Find him at GraemeParry.com, and in byways everywhere.
Crossing town, Cabbagetown has a warren of laneways worth exploring. Many, such as Prohibition and Mickey lanes, refer to colourful local residents. Prohibition Lane was named in reverence of a defiant (or kind) Cabbagetown doctor who allegedly wrote more than 700 prescriptions in one day for consented alcohol use during Prohibition. I bet he was as popular as Mickey Wilson.
Mr. Wilson was a rum runner who owned the Winchester Hotel during Prohibition, so patients of the prescription-writing doctor did not have far to go for their “medicine.” Mickey Lane “honours” Mr. Wilson, but in an unusual, and highly amusing move, his first – and not his last – name was chosen. Cabbagetowners have a great sense of humour that also extends to the Mickey Lane sign. It lists like a drunk after way too many.
At the junction of Prohibition and Schawlow lanes, I spoke with James Metcalfe, who told me that, these, like most lanes in the area, are locations for residents’ parties in the summer. He assured me that although Prohibition once dampened spirits, they certainly flow now at party time. Mr. Metcalfe also introduced me to regal Milo, “The King of Schawlow Lane.”
Next time, we discover Toronto’s best fries when we nosh in a Kensington Market alley.