Toronto art duo chart out Don River’s historic channel for eco-fest
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Back in the 1800s, proponents of straightening part of the meandering Don River said it would clean up the polluted waterway and curb the flooding that plagued local residents.
In the end, alteration of the river might have benefited industry but didn’t end the flooding — as recently as June 25 portions of the Don Valley Parkway were submerged after a heavy rain.
Now Labspace Studio, a local creative agency, is using an “art intervention” to delineate the river’s historic banks for visitors to this summer’s Eco-Art-Fest. Those hiking along the Lower Don Valley Trail can look for the markings which include a river-like squiggle and the words “Don Was Here.”
Taking data from historical maps and assisted by GPS, Labspace’s John Loerchner and Laura Mendes used a template and paint to indicate approximately where the river’s historical channel intersected with the trail in the area south from Todmorden Mills.
“Before Europeans even came over here, natives were living off of salmon runs and stuff … So there was a pretty vibrant ecosystem there which is now essentially destroyed,” says Loerchner.
He hopes that making people aware of how much the river changed in the past two centuries will lead to better decisions in the future.
“There were some very different priorities at the time of industrialization than we have now, and we’re kind of realizing some of the consequences of those decisions,” he says.
Jennifer Bonnell, who teaches at McMaster University’s history department, has written a book on the social and environmental history of the Don Valley (to be published this fall).
“The whole idea was to create a sort of industrial hub at the edge of the city,” she explains. “And it was partially because the Canadian Pacific Railway was seeking an eastern entrance into Toronto.”
The widely held belief by locals that straightening the river would curb flooding and reduce pollution gave momentum to the project in the later half of the 19th century, she says, though it wasn’t the last time that part of the river would be straightened.
Bonnell says ongoing urbanization of the overall watershed in the Toronto region is causing problems: “The more you pave the watershed the less water it can absorb.”
And contributing to the problem was the removal of the original wetlands in the river’s lower reaches — those wetlands used to help absorb excessive flow on the river, she says.
Not everyone has been thrilled with the art project so far. One Twitter user complained that the “Don Was Here” markings were not properly affixed to the trail and created a slip hazard.
However, Mendes said their original vinyl marking that have not stood up to conditions in the Don Valley, like the flooding, are being removed and replaced with paint markings.
Eco-Art-Fest, put on by No. 9 — a charitable arts organization that draws attention to environmental issues — in collaboration with the city, runs through Sept. 21 at Todmorden Mills.
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