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The Confluences of Confluence by Shawn Micallef

The ground we walk on in Toronto is untrustworthy. Was it left here by the glaciers as they retreated or altered by the thousands of years of human activity that have taken place here? The city has never stopped changing since then but underneath it all, Toronto’s hidden landscapes are still there, as memory or just a trace of what was.

The ground under the Gardiner Expressway was once shoreline, but now the lake seems impossibly far away for this to be true, as generations of Torontonians dumped fill into the water to create more land, first for railways and industry to expand across Toronto. There’s a buried creek nearby too, and the park-like spaces outside of Fort York and in nearby Victoria Square are actually graveyards, and there are Indigenous burial grounds across the city. All of this has evolved into places where people live, play, and relax, with tens of thousands of people living where few to none lived just a handful of years ago. New paths, like the one passing under Strachan, follow old railway right of ways.

The enclosed spaces, the “rooms,” under the Gardiner where Striped Canary’s Confluence is located are part of Exhibition Place, appear as a a remnant of the recent industrial past that is still a living memory for many Torontonians. Inside the cars and trucks thump-a-thump over the expansion joints above and the trains rumble on by. These rooms and The Bentway itself are also a confluence of many things. Land and water. Highways, bikeways, and pathways. The railway lines. Fort York’s deep colonial and Indigenous history. Open space and dense housing. Sunlight and shadow. City noise and muffled quiet. People of all sorts, from all over the region, pass over and by here on their way in and out of the city. A confluence of Toronto amid a confluence of picnic tables.

Picnic table design seems almost as old as the earth itself: an icon of leisure, instantly recognizable. With their classic proportions, one side balancing the other, they’ve brought generations of people together as communal gathering spots but they also connect this downtown Toronto geography with parks across the city, with provincial and national parks further afield, and with every backyard where one has been present. They’re a symbol of family, friends, community, and memories of past good times as well as anticipation of good times to come.

They’re also a symbol of an open and ideal kind of public space that comes with an implicit invitation to sit, eat, talk, and share. In Toronto more and more people live in apartments without backyards so our public spaces, whether parks or squares, have become a crucial shared space, akin to a communal, outdoor living room. The picnic table ought to be the symbol of a public space renaissance in this city. It’s fitting here as Exhibition Place is evolving into a year-round destination and Ontario Place’s future is still being decided, both of which have for dozens of decades been a nexus of very public leisure activity.

The connected picnic tables of Confluence are a continuity between all this, one that dives into and out of the very ground, natural or human-made, that holds all this history in place. They evoke the buried creeks and rhythm of the waves that once broke on this much altered shoreline. They remind us of what was here but also of how critical the future of these public spaces are and the shared moments they afford, especially after more than two years when such interactions were limited to outdoor gatherings, often around picnic tables like these.

Confluence is a place to think about the city and civic life, how we belong, and who has been left out of belonging. The city has always changed but the people here have been a constant, as has their desire to get together amidst that change. The tables represent that kind of conviviality and connectivity, but they are empty so it’s up to you to imagine who was here and who should be here, enjoying life in the city on a perfect day, the kind made for enjoying at a picnic table.

Graft your own memories and dreams onto them and find your own place at the table.

About the Author

Shawn Micallef is the author of Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness, Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto and The Trouble With Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure. He’s a weekly columnist at the Toronto Star, and a senior editor and co-founder of the independent, Jane Jacobs Prize–winning magazine Spacing. Shawn teaches at the University of Toronto and was a 2011-2012 Canadian Journalism Fellow at Massey College. In 2002, while a resident at the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab, he co-founded [murmur], the location-based mobile phone documentary project that spread to over 25 cities globally.