Since moving to Toronto nine months ago, I’ve found serendipity hard to come by. I’m only here for two years, so if I’m going out to eat, or grab a coffee, or meet a friend, I’ll look up endless lists of the ten best restaurants or pubs in the area, trying to make sure no trip is wasted. I plan my journey door-to-door using local transport app My TTC, leave my flat so that I’ll arrive at the bus stop just as it pulls up, and, when I hop off again, I walk the route I’ve memorised, head down.
But Toronto’s PATH system – a network of tunnels and walkways beneath the city’s Downtown – remains an enigma. It stretches for 30km in total, and each section is like a mini shopping centre, with restaurants and shops piling in from all sides. I never fail to get lost when I dip in, losing all sense of direction in its many food courts and courtyards, most of which look the same.
An extract from the official PATH map. Click to expand.
The hundreds of thousands of dollars the city spent this year on a new “wayfinding system” – basically signs and maps – haven’t helped me much, but that’s probably because I’m happy to ignore any guidance and just wander. The independent hole-in-the-wall coffee shop or the one-man tailor’s you can find in some of its passages would be unremarkable above ground, but there’s something pleasing about coming across them in this confined space, not knowing they’re there until you turn the corner.
I know that can’t last. Learning how to navigate it will be useful in summer, when its air-conditioning calls people down from the streets above, and after a wrong turn made me late to meet a friend last month, I decided it was time to get my bearings. I set aside a day to plod its tunnels and get a feel for what sort of place it really is.
Two minutes in, I’m lost. I start at Union Station, to the south of Downtown, with the aim of swinging past the Hockey Hall of Fame to the east on the way to Commerce Court. On the map it’s a straight-line path that shoots directly from the station, but I can’t find it after 10 minutes of searching. (It later turns out that it’s unhelpfully through a door marked ‘Exit’.)
Instead I walk up the PATH’s centre, towards the Toronto-Dominion Centre. To the left is a passage to the Fairmont Royal York hotel, one of the fanciest in the city. The Royal Family stay there when they visit. It’s one of the oldest parts of the PATH system, built in 1927 after the hotel sprung up, and at that time there were just a handful of tunnels under the city, the first built in 1900. The downtown grid wasn’t filled out until the 1970s and 1980s, and it’s still expanding today: in 2011 local government revealed plans that would see the PATH’s footprint double in size long-term.
Not two minutes from the hotel, a long escalator runs down to a food court, adjoining a doctor’s and dentist’s surgery. The network, I find as I walk around, is full of offshoots that don’t tell you where they’re leading, presumably untouched by the new “wayfinding system”. The only way to find out is to explore, and I’m rewarded by, on separate occasions, an art studio, a chaplaincy, and a shoe-shine stand.
The presence of a doctor’s surgery, one of many in the PATH, might seem surprising, but it makes sense when you consider the hundreds of thousands of people that pass through here every day. Most of the city’s largest office buildings link into the PATH, as do the subway stops in the downtown core. That means that, in the cold winters (and it was a real whiteout this year), a lot of people don’t even venture outside. They drive to a station, get on the subway or train, and don’t get off public transport until they’re in the PATH. They walk undercover to their building lobbies, go straight up to their office, and only appear again for lunch, which they buy in one of the many food courts below.
Because those people never leave, they attract foot clinics and gyms, opticians and pharmacies, dry cleaners and newsagents. Nobody can say that the PATH has a neighbourhood feel, but the presence of businesses you might expect on high streets makes it at least more interesting than most shopping centres I’ve been to. And it has a few more major points of interest along the way, too: I walk to the western extreme and take a long escalator up to the CBC broadcast studios, where Will and Kate are smiling on a big screen with their new baby, and a few people watch from the comfy chairs in the lofty atrium.
And then there’s the food, which you can’t get away from. Smoothie shops, upmarket wine bars, dine-in pubs, donut stalls, Scandinavian bakeries, bubble tea counters – they’re all here. Most of the places are forgettable chains like Jimmy the Greek or Tim Hortons, but there are enough quality shops to make coming down here for lunch a worthwhile trip on its own.
A lot of it is down to the active management of landlord Oxford Properties: in 2015, for example, it tempted one of the top patisseries in the city, Nadège, to open a branch here, despite PATH not having previously been on the retailer’s radar. Gourmet grocer McEwan, which is packed when I visit, opened in the same year as the second branch of the store from celebrity chef Mark McEwan. The PATH also links into Assembly Chef’s Hall, a new venture that houses smaller versions of some of the city’s most celebrated restaurants like Khao San Road (Thai, and delicious) and Cherry Street Barbeque. In other words, you can get much better food here than you can in a regular shopping centre.
For the most part, the PATH is a sterile place of polished white marble and bright lights, but it’s just about makeshift enough to avoid being completely dull. There are sections where you have to ride an escalator down to a walkway with wooden boards on either side, only to ride another up again thirty seconds later. Later on, I have to cross the bottom floor of a multi-storey car park to stay in the network, and at another junction I’m forced to pop my head above ground to circumvent a closed section.
I work my way from the west to the north, under the Eaton Centre, the largest mall in Toronto. It feels like an extension of what’s above, with luggage shops adjoining tourist traps selling bottles of maple syrup. My legs ache, and the prospect of getting stuck behind a group of slow shoppers makes me turn back south, and head for home. I get lost again when I try to find the Bay Adelaide Centre – but this time the “wayfinding system” saves me with an interactive map that tells me where I need to go, and even directs me to a coffee shop I’ve been meaning to try.
At the end of my walk, I’m staring at another map, trying to figure out how to get back to Union Station. “Do you want some help there, sir?” a security guard asks. Very helpful, but I really don’t. I’m sure the PATH will lose some of its charm as I spend more time here, and for the thousands of people that pad under the streets of Toronto every day it probably seems as familiar as their front room.
I know I should take the time to learn the best routes before summer sets in, but for now it remains an indecipherable rabbit warren. And that’s just the way I like it.
All images author provided by the author.