Lost Rivers Divided Bodies

Lost Rivers Divided Bodies

By Evan Pavka

Sexuality is expressed in both tangible as well as intangible ways, defying binaries such as gender and orientation. Our gender and sexual orientation do not have to correspond to our given genitalia or culturally prescribed heterosexual pairings.  The heteronormative conventions that prescribe behaviours specific to our gender and genitals can be rejected in favour of a broader view of sexuality. We may identify with certain genders and orientations at various points throughout our lives or reject classifications altogether.

When physical gender and heteronormative binaries are decoupled from our identity, language and action become critical in articulating our sexuality. We employ language to reveal orientation, or lack thereof, while our actions function as implicit markers of heterosexual or non-heterosexual desire. As the boundaries of sexuality are not strictly defined, articulation and action are required to perform and re-perform our sexual identity. These performances leave traces of sexuality that both others and ourselves can comprehend.

These articulations of our sexuality resonate in the spaces and places we inhabit, the public and private environments where our sexuality is performed. But if our gender, sexuality, and cities are all constructed, then where do they meet? While performances of sexuality disrupt the borders of heteronormativity, urban contexts are built to reinforce or isolate binary conditions. Boundaries between public and private, indoor and outdoor, residential and commercial neighborhoods are clearly demarcated in our cities. How then do the performances of sexuality, which extend beyond established borders, accumulate or imprint the city, which is constructed on the basis of limits and edges?

A queer space or queer community may refer to various conceptions of architecture from those overtly eroticized to those that transgress expectations of heteronormative behavior. A leather bar and a home that forces users to operate outside of domestic or gender norms may both be regarded as queer. However, queer spaces are better defined by their performative, relational, and temporal elements, not simply their opposition to the status quo. Is a bar only “gay” when occupied by specific users? Without these individuals, can the building simply be a bar? Though queer culture circulates through places intended for other purposes, there exists a series of spaces visibly marked by the presence of sexual minorities (1). Therefore, a space may be considered as queer when the traces of sexuality disclosed in the repeated actions and articulations of individuals or communities remain in that particular environment.

In his seminal essay “Closets, Clothes, Disclosure”, Henry Urbach explored the space created by the doors of his closet, addressing the architectural object that is an underlying metaphor of queer sexual identity. Urbach concludes that the “ante-closet” created from the door-swing is a product of his physical interaction with the built environment, influenced by an explicit erotic desire (2). Queer spaces, similar to Urbach’s closet, are informed by the accumulated performances of sexuality. Though influenced by invisible and ephemeral actions, queer spaces manifest in visible and tangible ways. Queer communities then are not spaces but “ante-spaces,” places that exist in the realm our lived desire. As our bodies occupy space, the manner in which we engage with our physical surroundings and the lingering erotic desire of our actions leave traces in the the built environment. Like queer spaces, queer communities must be performed and re-performed until the architectural traces accumulate in distinct territories of sexuality. These visible accumulations of community manifest in public spaces such as community centres, healthcare facilities, streets, nightclubs or bars, artistic venues, and parks that collectively form queer bodies in the city.

Rivers, similar to queer spaces, are defined by their temporal presence. The movement, volume and boundaries of these water bodies are constantly shifting. These ephemeral actions leave traces of their presence as physical markers in the landscape. During the industrial expansion and development of Toronto, many rivers were buried or drained. Despite being empty and invisible, these buried rivers are still influential in establishing geographic borders of certain communities. Where the immateriality of the performance of our sexuality marks the built environment, rivers mark the physical landscape with their flow. When both disappear, we habitually engage and interact with their traces as if their physical presence remains. The shores of the river continue to act as geographic borders while queer spaces, in turn, remain to establish territories of sexuality. If both of these ephemeral influences on the urban landscape operate between material reality and immaterial traces, where do they intersect? Do rivers, either exposed or buried under years of development, influence the psychogeography of queer communities? I argue that the rivers of Toronto play a role in shaping the accumulated borders of sexuality within the city and as a result affect the visibility of these borders.

The Don River is located within the broader landscape of the Don Valley, a large fissure in the geography of Toronto. Much of the infrastructure connected to the river surrounds its lower portion. The Don Valley Parkway runs along the river’s eastern side while Bayview Ave and the Lower Don River Trail run along its western shore. The river’s shores are joined by a series of five bridges, the northernmost of which—the Bloor Street Viaduct—provides a connection for the subway to cross the valley. The Don River is a physical and psychogeographical divide; as if its eastern shores slip into an abyss which none are willing to cross (3). Bloor Street transforms into Danforth Avenue as we cross from east to west, and Adelaide changes its name to Eastern Avenue, reinforcing this psychological divide. Though the street itself does not change, its name and identity transform in the space between the shores. The division created by the river renders the east too distant and divorced from the hubs of the west side (4).

Map of Queer Spaces in Downtown Toronto (Survey Range: North at Dupont, East at Woodbine, and West at Roncesvalles). (By author)

Numerous minor creeks once spread from the Don dividing the landscape north of Bloor Street. The Garrison Creek began near Eglinton Avenue and drained downward through what is now Queen Street West towards its terminus at Lake Ontario. The Creek created a distinct border in the natural landscape south of Bloor Street where much of the city the was built (5). Two bodies of water, referred to as the Ashbridge’s Streams, once stretched north from Lake Ontario dividing the east side of the city into three distinct sections. 

Though the Don River’s role as a psychogeographic divide is apparent, what is less clear is the influence the vestiges of the lost rivers have on the geography of the city. How do the networks of rivers, either visible or buried, affect the boundaries of sexuality in the city? The Don River cuts through the city of Toronto dividing the east end from the west. Yonge Street is the meridian of the city, but the river creates a distinct division between communities; specifically the queer communities. While this divide initially appears arbitrary, the allocation of LGBTQ spaces, resources, and visible traces of queer groups reveal the physical impact the Don River has on the formation of queer community borders. While the communities west of the river, including the Church Street Village and the emerging Queer West Community, appear to be consolidated in distinct bodies that are connected to the rapid development of King and Queen Street West, the communities east of the river lack these defining spatial markers. This renders the communities of the east invisible compared to their visible sisters west of the river.

Without any architectural traces of community, performances of sexuality appear confined to the domestic sphere east of the Don. This prevents their traces from accumulating in this geographic area of the city. The only gay bar on the east is WAYLA, short for “What Are You Looking At?” This name aptly describes the queer spaces and queer communities of the east. WAYLA has a small unassuming street-front facade that once operated as a cafe. A long corridor connects the space in the front to the bar in the rear. This configuration prevents direct views into the interior of the bar and obscures its relative visibility. Therefore, the activities and performances of sexaulity within the bar are concealed by the facade of the cafe/lounge space.

Wayla Bar + Lounge (photograph by John Severino)

WAYLA’s most notable semi-monthly event, the “Daddy Next Door” party, is concealed deep inside the bar due to this configuration. This event caters to subcultures within the homosexual male community, subverting the father/son heterosexual familial pairing and fetishizing the normality of the family unit. The playful subversions accumulated in this subcultural event remains hidden, failing to drag the transgressive pseudo-domestic activities of the queer community to the streets of the east side. Without physical traces, or anything to look at, the queer communities of the east remain without material claim to the city. It is almost as if the Ashbridge’s streams, which once divided the landscape of the east, continue to create boundaries within the queer community and restrict their relative visibility.

The Don River also divides a major public space: Riverdale Park. Parks have long been associated with sexual deviancy in the city, providing space for explicit acts (6). The fragmented nature of Riverdale Park, straddling both sides of the Don River, appears to amplify this deviancy. The park provides spatial conditions that support illicit acts at the fringe of a liminal public space. Sections of the park have become loci for sexual activity, leaving immaterial traces including rumours, blog posts, and first-hand accounts, which could define the park, if not portions of it, as a queer territory in the city. However, these activities do not lay claim to space in the city, as they operate in the safety of the night (7). Instead of asserting their presence or visibility in the public sphere, the accumulations of sexuality are hidden in the shadows—similar to the concealed activities within WAYLA.

Map of Riverdale Park West, Riverdale Park East, and the Don River. (By author)

Riverdale Park East with Riverdale Park West Beyond (photograph by John Severino)

The Don River cuts Riverdale Park into two disjointed segments, with the buried streams further preventing the consolidation of community borders.  On the other hand, the Garrison Creek’s former shores are found within Trinity Bellwoods Park in west Toronto.  Here, traces of the Creek’s movements assist and support the presence of distinct queer territory. The central gathering point of the park, the dog bowl, was formed by the erosion of the river. Unlike the disjointed nature of both Riverdale Park West and Riverdale Park East, which appear to restrict the performances of sexuality to the shadows, the dog bowl becomes a hub for public performances of sexuality. The natural amphitheatre supports programmed cultural events and temporary informal gatherings. Not restricted to the bushes, the shores of the dog bowl as well as fields of the park are populated with individuals from various communities, most evidently the queer community.

Where the bushes of Riverdale Park conceal transgressive behavior, enclosing or shaming sexuality, Bellwoods Park becomes a locus for activities focussed on exposure as opposed to secrecy. Traces of the gatherings and temporary communities within the park appear in photographic evidence littering the pages of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Resources supporting the queer community almost orbit the park, becoming an anchor for an emerging community. Not all performances of sexuality are defined by the sex act: those present in Bellwoods bring the domestic activities of queer individuals into the urban environment, resonating and accumulating in the surrounding architecture.

Map of Trinity Bellwoods Park with Garrison Creek Line. (By author)

The Dog Bowl in Trinity Bellwoods Park (photograph by John Severino)

The architecture surrounding Bellwoods supports temporal expressions of queer sexuality that differ drastically from the “Daddy Next Door” party of the east. Events such as “Business Woman’s Special,” “Her,” “Fit,” “Yes Yes Ya’ll” and “Big Primpin” cater to a spectrum of individuals who identify as queer. These events run monthly or semi-monthly in new locations throughout the westside, although some have found permanent residency. They primarily occur in venues adjacent to the park in neighbourhoods such as Kensington Market, Dundas West, Queen West, and Parkdale. Queer directed or friendly art spaces such as VideoFag, Younger Than Beyonce Gallery, and The Gladstone Hotel reside in the west, providing opportunities for visible communities to emerge. These spaces, clustered around Bellwoods Park, occupy distinct territory in the city much like the Church Street Village. Though relatively dispersed and elastic in comparison, they create broad, expansive community borders that commingle with many others present in the city’s cultural landscape.

Eldon Garnett’s 1995 addition to the Queen Street Viaduct, the bridge running across the Don River connecting the east and west, resonates deeply with the conditions of the lost rivers and the communities they define. The 18” high metal text, welded to the steel beam across the bridge, states “This River I Step In Is Not The River I Stand In.” (8).  The river we step in, the Don and the Ashbridge’s Streams, continue to divide the natural landscape as well as the borders of sexuality in the city creating dispersed, fragmented, and concealed communities. However, the river we stand in, the basin left by the Garrison Creek, embraces as well as supports a visible community, reconciling the fragmentation and assimilation of the east into distinct urban traces of sexuality. This exposes their borders and claim to space in the city. Though eclipsed by the manufactured, do traces of the natural landscape continue to influence the formation of particular communities, their borders, and our engagement with the constructed environment? 

The locations and relative visibility of queer communities in Toronto appear to be influenced by the lost rivers that once defined the shores of Lake Ontario. If queer identity is both a particular and universal concept, connected the sexual identity of an individual while simultaneously acknowledging that desire is inherently unstable and unpredictable, what does this mean for the borders of sexuality? Is a community that alternates between visibility and invisibility dependent on a certain claim to the city? Or, in contrast between the invisibility or visibility of queer communities presented in the east and west sides of Toronto, are borderless conditions preferred altogether? According to Hannah Arendt, the shared public space, where the traces of queer communities accumulate, is the space of appearance—the space where we manifest our unique, individual, and irreducible self to the world (9). Perhaps these borders are not simply visible areas of accumulated performances of sexuality, but places inscribed with the memory of our communal and self-revelation.

Queen Street Viaduct (photograph by John Severino)


(1) Castiglia,Christopher and Christopher Reed. If Memory Serves: Gay men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), p.87

(2) Urbach, Henry. “Closets, Clothes, Disclosure.” Assemblage. No.30 (Aug., 1996) pp. 62-73.

(3) Kaufman argues that psychogeography is primarily an experience of mobility, which is connected to both space and time. Kaufman, Vincent. Guy Deboard: Revolution in the Sense of Poetry. Trans. Robert Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), p.111.

(4) Angus notes, “A lot of people have a weird mental block about crossing the Don River.” In Angus,Kate. “27 Things You Learn After Moving To Toronto.” Jan.13, 2016 http://www.buzzfeed.com/katangus/we-pronounce-it-turonno#.umYBWLv1m.

(5) Taddle Creek and Russell Creek (shown dotted on Fig. 1) were located in the West. However, their scale and geographic influence was minor in comparison to the others. Few traces of the streams remain today. Lost Rivers. “Lost Rivers Index,” accessed February 3, 2016 http://www.lostrivers.ca/content/sitemap.html.

(6) Gandy, Matthew. “Queer Ecology: Nature, Sexuality, and Heterotopic alliances.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol.30 (2012), p.745-747

(7) “Lots of frequented paths in well-hidden areas. Enough spaces to roam around while you choose...Crowd: All sorts, young and old, gross and hot.” Cruising Gays: City Hookup Guide. “Riverdale Park.” Accessed February 5, 2016, http://www.cruisinggays.com/toronto/areas/4098-riverdale-park/; Henderson, Paul. “Riverdale by Night: the police say they only want the prostitutes not the cruisers,” Daily Xtra, July 21, 2004, accessed February 3, 2016, http://www.dailyxtra.com/toronto/riverdale-night-54554.

(8) Garnet, Eldon. “Time & A Clock” Eldon Garnet, accessed 16 April 2016 https://eldongarnet.com/public-art/time-a-clock/

(9) Arendt, Hannah, Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p.198-199

Evan Pavka is a designer currently pursuing his Master of Architecture in the History and Theory of Architecture at McGill University where his research explores the intersection of sexuality, architecture, memory, and urban space.