A brilliant Sunday morning, and a crowd dressed in their Sunday best are pouring out of the service at the Ukrainian church with the heavenly blue and gold chandelier-lit interior. A dog is soiling the sidewalk just a few metres from the official dog toilet, Trinity Bellwoods Park, where pails heaped with plastic bags of excrement are heating in the sun, sending a foul odour down to the corner of Gorevale and Queen. Graeme Parry is getting the names of those gathered to ride bicycles on his Laneing Toronto laneways tour. A cartographer by trade, Parry wants to share his appreciation of alleys with anyone who cares to ride along. He says they are "more than just a means to access a garage" and can be "beautiful, intimate, green." He gives us a little history. Queen was Lot Street, back in the 1800s, and the various-sized lots distributed to early settlers, military men and such were cut up and sold at different times, leaving seams of back accessways that tend to run north-south rather than east-west.
We roll up behind Bellwoods on one of the few named laneways, St. Mathias Place, where there's a row of cute little cottages, one of which is the object of the real estate fantasies of a friend of mine. He's always wanted a little alley home, but original houses on laneways are rare. Instead, there are a lot of clever conversions of former industrial buildings. Most of these have been executed by architects who have the bureaucratic wherewithal to undertake the difficult task of getting sites rezoned for residential use and building plans accepted. The trick with these converted buildings is that they have undergone massive restructuring while remaining inconspicuous. A lot of money is hidden in back lanes.
North of Dundas, Parry takes us past a wall of corrugated metal, the classic alley blend-in material, then around to the other side, where windows of what looks like a block of smart apartments open onto another lane. He's commenting on the beauty of this spot, an island in the alleys, while a resident casts a skeptical gaze across the gaggle of cyclists stopped in front of her oasis. She calls down a friendly greeting - "May I ask how we got on your list?" - and asks Parry to leave his card on a ledge. No doubt she wants to discuss whether to have a pot of tea or a pitcher of lemonade ready for next Sunday.
It's not just the leafy mystery ways that make this tour refreshing, but the almost complete lack of burdensome historical information. I find it endearing when our guide stops in front of a big old bricked-up barny place to say, "I wonder what this was." Wondering can be more fun than knowing. This is the inaugural trip for a tour that's bound to get richer over time. One thing Parry does know is that Croft, the lane east of Bathurst, north of College, was named after a dynamiter who died blowing stuff up after the great fire of 1904. I notice that sanctioned "graffiti transformation projects" have been reclaimed by independent taggers.
The alley running parallel to Queen, west from Portland, has recently been dubbed Rush Lane. A CBC-sponsored spray-can party last summer made it the most intensely painted graffiti gallery in town. My favourite image is a scene of a couple having a spat, so effectively rendered in shades of blue that I can feel the tension. Down this alley Parry shows us something I've never noticed before. Behind the iron bars in the narrow space between two buildings is a swing. The bars are bent back to permit entry. I'd like to try the swing, but I'll come back alone.
When we reach Spadina, Parry asks if anyone's disoriented, not quite sure where they are. When no one answers yes, he seems a little disappointed. So I tell him about the professional courier I once got completely lost in these alleys. Parr rhapsodizes a bit, and I know what he means. How you get somewhere is just as important as getting there. For me, taking the back way is a habit. Cats and plants and castoffs and surprises.
For more information on laneway tours visit www.graemeparry.com/laneways/index.html