Research Diaries: Entry 1

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Kind of funny how coincidences work out… no sooner do I sit down to finally reflect on my recent experience digging up the history of some bridge in my hometown than a blogger I follow does kinda sorta the same thing. I guess we both hopped on the zeitgeist.

I recently embarked on a personal project, the kind of thing that indie filmmakers like to pretend also leads to unexpected love, a heartwarming cast of quirky characters to fill in the margins and some kind of personal revelation about the small yet fulfilling pleasures life holds. It also makes for great blog fodder, which I suppose is a good consolation prize in case that other stuff doesn’t work out. Stupid reality.

There’s this bridge near by grandmother’s house. It spans one of Toronto’s many ravines, has a wooden deck and is pedestrian-only. I’ve always enjoyed biking over it for the earthy clatter my wheels make passing over the beams, and passing under it for the view of its gently curving support trusses on tapered concrete pillars.

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About a month ago, I started wondering about it. When was it built? Why is it pedestrian-only? It occurred to me that with a topography of ravines, valleys and creeks, Toronto is more likely than most cities to have bridges. A relatively high number of builders, architects, developers and politicians are going to point to where a bridge currently isn’t, declare “No, this will not do,” and start putting one there. What this winds up meaning is that Toronto, for my money, contains a huge number of small, humble bridges and a relatively small number of world-class megaprojects. No Golden Gates or Brooklyns for us; maybe the Bloor Viaduct qualifies. Invisible bridges that get the job done, sans muss and lacking fuss.

So, my grandmother’s bridge. Glen Cedar bridge. I figured there had to be a story behind it, and when you want to look up civic history in Toronto, there’s really only one place to go: the Toronto Archives.

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You want a hardcover book of City Council minutes from the 1970s that’s thicker than your thigh? The Archives has that. Fancy a banker’s box of historic Toronto postcards from the 1930s? They’ve got that too. How about a view into a filing system that looks like the inspiration for Indiana Jones? Archives.

I’ve visited a few times now, and learned the following: this kind of research is hard. In my mind, a bridge represents a fairly significant investment. City Council has incredibly fractious debates over them. Of course, back when Glen Cedar was built in 1912 (I found out that much), record-keeping was a bit more… haphazard. What is now Toronto was several independent towns, each with its own governance structure and rules about records. Few of them have a handy document entitled “Everything you need to know about that bridge a developer is building in a part of town nobody lives in.” Following the annexation of these town into modern-day Toronto, records were invariably collected, mis-filed, moved, and perhaps most distressingly, lost and destroyed.

A senior archivist took pity on me that first day, showing me the ropes of this kind of research. You don’t dive in; you nibble around the edges. Look at historic maps, many of which show a street grid that has either changed over time or was only hypothetical and never actually existed. Search for historic street names in the vicinity; at one point, he showed me a multi-volume set of Township of North York historic by-laws. Spanning over a century. He recommended I search for ones related to bridge repairs and maintenance; maybe I’d find some mention of the bridge there.

Yeah. Maybe in a century’s worth of research. In the meantime, I’m learning an incredible amount about topics I never expected to find: massive folios containing detailed development plans for far-flung parts of the city, timelines of when various townships coalesced into modern-day T.O. The fact that streetcars used to be called “civic cars,” and that proximity to them was considered a plus in real estate advertisements.

I’ll be keeping a research diary here on Inspiared. Even if most of what I find is completely unrelated to that damned bridge, it’s entirely engrossing, and I can’t wait to get back there. As it stands, I can only schedule it in every other Friday afternoon, so this promises to be a slow-cooker of a project. Because when all you’ve got to go on is a gorgeous, undated landscape architect’s plan for the neighbourhood that clearly didn’t pan out as documented, you take any semblance of a clue you can find.

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~Mike!

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One thought on “Research Diaries: Entry 1

  1. You know, we’re not technically supposed to be riding our bikes over such bridges; the resonance could hypothetically break it (emphasis hypothetically) and we could plummet to our deaths (emphasis could, meaning might. see first emphasis and ask if you actually care.) 🙂

    An interesting note about the street cars being called civic cars. Being a part of the TTC was once a matter of pride and honour, serving our fair city. Now it’s viewed as commonplace, and neither the operators nor TTC patrons really show it the respect I feel the operation deserves.

    I really enjoyed today’s post. Let me know how the research turns out!

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