Beatin’ Back the Uglies

8 March 2015 – Early March in Toronto is a happy time. Spring is coming soon! It can also be a darn ugly time. For the same reason. Exhausted, grubby snow starts to shrink, exposing more grime, old street salt & left-over fall litter in the process. And the warming days can be dull & raw, as well.

So, just as in dull, raw, pre-snow November, I go out looking for colour. Plus anything else cheerful that I can discover.

Here’s a start: the brilliant glass columns punctuating Ed Pien’s Forest Walk fence in Wellesley-Magill Park.

Ed Pien's "Forest Walk" in Wellesley-Magill Park

I’ve seen photos online that show the steel fence itself gleaming brightly in the sun. Someday I, too, may have that luck… Meanwhile, this is a start, and I head north on Jarvis toward Bloor St. with renewed hope that the day’s walk may yet be good fun.

Mostly, I’m not a fan of these great waving rods at the corner of Charles St. — but I’ve always seen them from a distance. Today, actively looking for things to enjoy, and crouching right next to them, I get into the spirit of the thing.

art outside buildig N/W Charles St. E & Jarvis

Predictably, a nice, soft-spoken lady stops beside me, peers upward to see on what on earth fascinates me, & offers the opinion that Jarvis has changed a lot in the 20 years that she has lived here. Yes it has, I agree, but change keeps us young. A roaring great platitude, but Old Wrinklies are allowed to say things like that to each other, and she laughs with delight and we part waving happy fingers at each other.

‘Round the corner onto Bloor East, get caught up once again in the Manulife complex with its mix of heritage & contemporary architecture and — especially, this time — with the way the mirrored new buildings catch reflections of their neighbours  & whirl those images back into space.

Manulife Financial complex, viewed from St. Paul Sq

I duck around a few corners & take Park Rd. down into the Rosedale Valley Ravine. A busy roadway runs through it, but it is also sheathed either side in parkland.

This bit is Lawren Harris Park, named for the great painter, a founding member of the Group of Seven and co-commissioner for The Studio, which lies within this park. The Studio, completed in 1914, was designed with great north-facing windows, ideal for the artists — including some other Group of Seven members and Tom Thomson — who in varying combinations lived and/or worked in the facility.

Now there is a backdrop of city towers and subway lines, but imagine how peaceful & natural the setting must have been, in those early days. And look how beautiful the building still is.

The Studio, 25 Severn St.

Last time I walked through here, I got all artsy-pretentious and took a photo of one of those foreground trees reflected in the windows, its branches still blazing with autumn leaves. I do it again today. Only bare branches now.

bare tree branches, in windows of The Studio

They’ll be bare for a while yet. But soon, the snow will be gone, these trees will start to bud, and scylla will rampage across the south-facing slope just the other side of the road. (I watch for it every year.)

Up out of the ravine, along the edge of Budd Sugarman Park at Aylmer & Yonge, and I see a fine hit of year-round colour. It’s one of the Bell equipment box murals, all the brighter against bare branches & today’s dull light.

box at Yonge St. & Aylmer (Budd Sugarman Park)

There’s a fine touch of The Uglies on display as well. The road-side snow is disgusting.

And around and around I go, tromp tromp, and eventually I’m looping eastward again. Waiting for a light at Wellesley and Jarvis, I look down at my feet. Yet more Uglies on display, but look what shows through:

plaque for 1858 Atlas of Toronto, corner Wellesley & Jarvis

I am charmed. An 1858 atlas of the City! I am always a sucker for maps. I am also a sucker for apparently gratuitous grace-notes, dropped into city life (or onto a street corner) just because. Later I look up the Atlas online, discover it was by far the largest (30 sheets) and largest-scale (1″: 100 ft) map to that date and the most detailed, listing both construction materials & use for each dwelling.

That’s not all I find. Two different Blogspot authors have lovingly brought the Atlas into our own century.

  • Would you like to call up any of those sheets? Click here.
  • Or perhaps zoom or scroll your way around it, as if the co-author Boulton brothers had had the advantage of Google-map technology? Click here.

At the time, of course, I have no idea how much fun lies in store for all of us, just because I take a photo of that winter-weary plaque. I’m obscurely pleased with it anyway, as I head on across Wellesley to Sherbourne. Where I wheel around the corner, ignoring all the colour jumping at me from the hoardings.

hoardings around S/W corner of Wellesley & Sherbourne

Yes yes, I do know it’s there. The mural was done by St. James Town kids in some Art City project ages ago, and it and those hoardings have been in place so long that I no longer see it.

Except that, under an influence I will discuss in a moment, I decide to look at it again. I stop, I peer, & I see that — for example — the little figures stencilled atop the skyscrapers are more varied & more fun than I had ever noticed.

Look. A car scales this tower …

SJT Arts mural

… and a rocking horse teeters on this one …

SJT mural

… and one nice person pushes the wheelchair for someone else, so both of them can have a good look at this one …

SJT mural

… and here’s fisher-kid, going home with today’s catch.

SJT mural

Which nicely brings me to the subject of:


The reason I I stopped and again really looked at this mural, I am sure, is that about a month ago I received a tip from a WordPress colleague. She urged me to look up a book by a New Yorker named Alexandra Horowitz, called On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. I thanked her for the tip, and now regret I didn’t write down her name so I could thank her again by name in this post. Ah, well, I can at least announce to her, along with the rest of you, that I have now read the book and recommend it.

Even if you’re trying to pay attention, you can’t see it all. So why not take essentially the same walk, but numerous times, each time with a companion who for assorted reasons sees & responds differently than you do? Horowitz does just that. I’ll tell you only that the results are as multi-dimensional as her experts are wide-ranging — from a geologist to a toddler to a dog to a sound-track specialist to a blind woman, and more.

Happy reading. (Or viewing — you’ll also find her on You Tube.) And happy walking.

You, too, can beat back the Uglies.


Leave a comment


  1. Loved this blog – and the Horowitz recommendations for how to “see” the same route with a new perspective – excellent!

    • Her book is a bracing reminder to use all our senses (well not all at the same time, we’d fall down dizzy, but to vary our emphasis beyond eyes) & gain so much more.

  2. Jack Leaman

     /  9 March 2015

    Penny… I am ENJOYING your ‘Walking Woman’ posts very much… and looking forward to have you and Danna here for this year’s Band Festival weekend… Our weather has turned ‘spring-like’ for the coming week and we are getting very anxious to ‘see some green’ !… Best wishes… Jack Leaman

  3. bobgeor

     /  7 April 2015

    I’ll have to look out for the map next time at that intersection. Really nice touch!


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    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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