It was strange for me to reach the Brick Works by car. Over a decade ago, I used to cycle daily near this area, between home and work, through the Don River Valley ravine park system when I worked up near the Thorncliffe Plaza area.
Several times when we lived in Toronto, we would cycle hesitantly into the derelict Brick Works area that languished among scrub, weeds, graffiti, wire bundles and half crumbling buildings.
From Brickmaking to Environmental Education Centre
Now I was keen to drop by this abandoned quarry brickmaking factory site nestled in the valley woods. I knew it had been transformed into an active environmental educational complex with public space for community events, art, cycling repair skills, weekend farmers’ market, garden shop and restaurant. They even cater to public and private events. While we were there, a group of students were learning rope-rappelling while trussed up in their safety harnesses.
This year during my Toronto visit, one of my sisters offered to drive and see it herself since she drove by daily to get to work between North York and downtown Toronto. She still wasn’t familiar with the correct road turn-off from the Bayview extension onto the bike path. I was no help either because after moving away from Toronto 13 years ago, I had forgotten my cycling path navigational points among the snarl of roads by Bayview near the Don Valley Parkway.
Site Location Encourages Cycling, Transit, Hiking
By the front entrance, there’s a stop for a Toronto Transit bus from the Broadview subway station. The bus shelter is a cute open green shed, fashioned out of recycled materials in front of the nursery garden shop.
Any car driver learns quickly that driving isn’t going to be the only option. In addition to the requisite bike racks for cyclists from the Don Valley bike path park system, there were 2 demonstration battery recharger stations for an electric car and 2 stalls for a car share.
Right by the bike racks, there is roof covered open space that is occupied by a Saturday farmers’ market during warmer seasons. The first time the organizers hesitantly opened the market in May 2010, the market (and parking lot) was overwhelmed by thousands of curious visitors. Clearly the message was not to get there by car if you could avoid it.
The Brick Works is operated by the non-profit organization, Evergreen, which supports some other projects. It was previously bounced around in its stewardship by City of Toronto and prior to that, private firms, including TorValley, a private developer that wanted to build condos in this green valley oases! That idea was nixed by horrified nearby residents and environmentalists.
Toronto’s Historic Red Bricked Buildings Hail from These Kilns
At peak production in 1907, Brick Works was pumping out 100,000 bricks daily which marked it the most productive brick factory kiln in North America. It took several days to bake the red bricks. The kiln operations provided Toronto, the bricks to rebuild the city after the 1904 Great Fire. Red bricked buildings in downtown historic Toronto and Rosedale can be attributed to the Brick Works. The kilns had been fired up since 1890.
Brick Works provided Toronto the red bricks featured in its key historic buildings.
Today, visitors can stroll along several aisles of semi-ghostly kilns adorned with some art graffiti and inner rail conveyor belts and cat-walks for hauling bricks through the production line. Here and there, are pieces of art work hung on the walls.
Fanciful Outdoor Art with Recycled Materials
While winding through the complex in the sun, we discovered some permanent art installations fashioned from recycled metal bars and other materials burnished to a terra cotta-rust patina. Near the front of the Brick Works complex, was fabulous wall metal fountain art work where it was literally a wall-map journey of twisted metal rails filled with sprouting green cover plants.
Running water rivulets fed the living pathways of plants –- a graceful paean to our urban greenways and other precious nooks and crannies of public green space. Another favourite was the gigantic pair of running shoes with untied shoelaces near the start of some walking trails.
The quarry area has been rejuvenated with flooded ponds, natural grasses, cattails and connected walkways. We saw baby black turtle triplets sunning lazily on a log while below the muddy waters, adult red-tailed green turtles peeped occasionally to the surface.
Only 8 metres away from a gaggle of chattering schoolchildren and their teacher, a blue heron bird, unruffled by the noise, stalked calmly for fish on its little man-made island.
Here one forgot that one of Toronto’s busiest expressways, the Don Valley was whirring with harried drivers from downtown only 10 km. south of this languid green space destination. When I return, I’m cycling back with more time to explore the hiking trails and to hang out to be placid as a turtle on a log.
Chapman, Sasha. Wild Thing: The Story Behind the Brick Works. In Toronto Life, Aug. 25, 2010.
Evergreen. Brick Works web site.