My fascination with Toronto started in the late 1980s on early trips to the city with my family.
The small town we lived in held nothing that could compare to the entire floor of toys in the former Eaton’s store. The massive parking structure, at the corner of Bay and Dundas, was one seemingly always full except for the roof, and became for me a visual that meant we had arrived. Since I’d usually sleep my way into the city, missing the sight of the CN Tower from the Gardiner, the concrete curves of that parking lot were as distinctive to me as any of Toronto’s more photographed landmarks.
Years later I began visiting the city without my family and with bigger plans than just shopping. As a skateboarder, I would explore the darker corners of office buildings and parks and parking lots. Our group was searching for marble ledges and stair sets and we found that some of the best skate spots were the ones just out of view of the street. Hidden, but in plain sight.
I learned early on that down almost any alley in Toronto there is life and action that remains almost completely out of the spotlight. To this day, Toronto’s alleys still hold nearly secret lives and these lives make up some of Toronto’s most interesting aspects of our bicycle culture.
Our first stop was the former coach house that has held everything from horses to fine furs and is now the home to CineCycle a bicycle repair shop and event space.
Inside we met Martin Heath hard at work fixing a bicycle using the late day light from two large skylights, a tandem frame near his feet, behind him a large projection screen that adds the “cine” to CineCycle.
This location is only the most recent home to CineCycle, as explained on the 410 Richmond web site:
In the early 1990’s Cinecycle’s space on Spadina was becoming too expensive and Martin was in search of another building to house the venue. At the time Christina Zeidler, then a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), was a regular attendee and contributor to performances at Cinecycle. Her sister, Margie, had just bought a building, 401 Richmond St. W., and Martin Heath’s Cinecycle came up as a possible tenant. Originally there were grand plans for Cinecycle’s residence at 401. Martin had been granted $30,000 from the Toronto Arts Council with the additional promise of another $300,000 to build and operate a 200 seat theatre in the basement of the building. As Martin explains “while this was all going on the NDP government got kicked out and we got the Tories and the program that the $30,000 was coming out of evaporated. So, the Coach House was Plan B. “
Lovingly referred to as Plan B, the coach house is a small building behind 401 Richmond accessed by the back laneway. It has no address, a detail that apparently confounds many visitors, including a young woman coming to see a punk band play on the weekend who called during our interview. This is one of Cinecycle’s latest, “punk bands love the place. They’re always very polite and they’re always gone by 1:00.” Cinecycle will also host the next installment of Trampoline Hall, the monthly lecture series, previously held at the Cameron House and Gladstone Hotel.
With our bicycles locked in the alley behind 401 Richmond we were nest taken inside by Janet Bike Girl who gave us a quick tour of her studio.
Janet’s bicycle-themed stencil work is easily recognizable from any cycling event. Bicycle couriers and Toronto Cyclist Union members all seem to have one of Janet’s patches sewn on bags, t-shirts and other prints.
From here we made out way to Kensington Market, home to Function 13, part of a unique building combining retail, gallery and workshop space for Toronto’s art and technology community.
Further north along Augusta we pedaled down another laneway leading us to Parts Unknown. Out front of another coach house a shop tech was inflating a bicycle tire, and once we stepped inside we discovered the “Parts” of Parts Unknown. A skylight above shined down upon an endless pile of bicycle parts. Wheel sets and frames and tires and tubes everywhere you looked. Could there possibly be method to this madness? Owner George, who has been in Kensington for 18 years, told us that he had been given his walking papers and the shop could soon be relocating to The Junction. We imagined a team of friends loading the bits and pieces of bicycles onto pick up trucks and cargo bikes, what a sight this will be.
Exiting Kensington Market we pedaled past the “in your face” architecture of the recently renovated Art Gallery of Ontario. A full bike rack to the side of the building revealed to us a connection between art and bicycles, one seemingly inseparable from the other in Toronto.
Our final destination was to be 52 McCaul and the Life Cycles Photography & Custom Vintage Bicycle Exhibit. A Bike Month event, Life Cycles features photographs taken by local artists and showcases the custom bicycles within each photo.
Bicycles are made for the outdoors, yet when they are taken inside we can see just how important they are to the lives of their owners. In a shop, a technician works on a vintage bicycle whose aging parts are bent and reshaped into working order. In another shop, a pile of used rims awaits a new bicycle frame to set them back in motion on the city streets. And in an art gallery, a bicycle hanging from the ceiling or one featured in a photograph takes on a life of its own, showcasing how a relatively simple tool has the power to shape the life of its owner.
Toronto’s bicycle culture cannot be defined by a single group or revealed in a simple image. Bicycles are a part of our daily lives here, sometimes right in front of your face and at other times right around the corner and down a back alley.
CineCycle is located behind both 129 Spadina Avenue and 401 Richmond, bicycle repairs by appointment only, events hosted on a semi-regular basis.
Janet Bike Girl‘s studio is located in 401 Richmond and her work can be viewed by appointment only.
Function 13 is located at 156 Augusta Ave in Kensington Market.
Parts Unknown is currently located behind 218 Augusta Ave and has no regular hours while accepting bicycle repairs by appointment or drop in.
Life Cycles is currently running at 52 McCaul Gallery until June 19, 2010.