Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
TORONTO, ONTARIO — For as long as I can remember, mentioning “the Gardiner” to anyone from the Greater Toronto Area was akin to uttering a curse, a slur, or words that would knowingly provoke rage. Nothing in the past half-century — not taxes, real-estate prices, the Montreal Canadiens, or winter storms — has created more fury in Canada’s largest city than the mention of the thoroughfare that knifes through the southern edge of it. If you’re a driver, the Gardiner Expressway is a headache of constant construction and congestion, with rush-hour waits often lasting longer than an hour. If you’re a pedestrian, the elevated highway is an eyesore that cuts off the city’s beautiful lakeshore from the rest of Toronto’s downtown. Almost since it was erected political and civic efforts have attempted to tear down the Gardiner. A few years ago, critics seemed to get their wish when parts of it even began to crumble. All that did was create more construction, however, and more congestion too. And more vicious comments about the mass of concrete and asphalt that rises above the city’s Lakeshore and Fort York boulevards.
In the context of what the Gardiner has come to represent in Toronto, it is all the more remarkable what is happening beneath it. Driven by a philanthropic donation of $25 million, the Gardiner is now an art and culture project that has brought — of all things — a sense of whimsy, fun, and cheer.
“One of the ways to transform space and get people to think of their urban environments in different ways is through art. When you get people thinking of art and how it can bring a different kind of energy to a place, you can have positive changes made,” says Julian Sleath, CEO of The Bentway, which is the name for the corridor created by a series of cathedral-like pillars holding the Gardiner up to the sky.
Sleath, whose background is in theatre, has approached The Bentway as if it were a series of stages. He notes that each archway — of which there are 52 — creates a space that is larger than the stage of a typical theatre.
“We’re trying to activate them and animate them,” he says. “With the property development in the area, there will be about 77,000 people living within a short walk of here, and about 2,500 of them are children. We want to keep them close to their homes, enjoying their neighbourhoods. This is a new kind of backyard that we hope is developing.”
The Bentway is the one of 19 collaborative projects — and the only Canadian one — happening across North America where urban planners, artists, and entrepreneurs are tackling challenging infrastructure problems to create imaginative and playful spaces for the public to enjoy, whether they be residents or travellers. The multi-city effort is named after the project that inspired such metropolitan reinvention, New York’s High Line. It transformed a former railway line into an elevated pedestrian-only path that covers more than 20 city blocks on Manhattan’s west side. While The Bentway isn’t as much of a destination as the High Line, it is certainly worth a visit.
Located near Fort York National Historic Site, The Bentway’s primary space features murals that Sleath’s team curates and plenty of activities, including musical productions and skateboarding competitions. For winter, it features an ice-skating trail between the archways, turning sidewalks into playlands. There are pop-up kiosks selling hot chocolate, and sweet and savoury treats, bringing a sense of warmth to a most unexpected place.
The Bentway is one attraction where Toronto is showing winter in the city can be exciting and unique. Here are three others:
Not far from the Bentway is the relaunched Ontario Place, which has created a unique year-round ice-skating rink made of synthetic material. It’s located on the shore of Lake Ontario and provides visitors with a magnificent view of the city’s skyline. The rink features weekly skating parties that include DJs, beer gardens, and food stations.
When you’re ready to head inside, the facility’s iconic theatre, Cinesphere, opens its doors to moviegoers who want to watch classic films on a 70-millimetre screen that has won over many in the filmmaking world. “Die Hard”, “The Sound of Music” and “Purple Rain” are among the films available for viewing in the 600-seat theatre.
The Distillery District is home to an annual European-style extravaganza that keeps improving each year. Musicians, plenty of hot drinks and delicious treats, and lots of artisans bring the holiday spirit to the fashionable Distillery District. The market has existed for less than 10 years but is already one of the best winter traditions in Toronto. It runs until December 23 and is free to enter from Tuesday-Friday afternoons ($6 Friday evenings, Saturdays, and Sundays; closed on Mondays).
If you go, be sure to dine at Madrina, an outstanding restaurant with authentic flavours of Spain. Its entrance is in the heart of the Distillery District.
If you love ice skating and want to enjoy the activity close to nature, head to Toronto’s far west side for a fantastic experience gliding on a trail within Colonel Samuel Smith Park. Shaped in a figure 8, it is the city’s first ice-skating trial and one of the most exhilarating places in southern Ontario to strap on your blades and go for a spin. (Free to skate; free parking during the week.)