Fri, Sep
18
2009

Behind the Scenes in Toronto's Financial District

Fri, Sep 18, 2009

A Corridor

The picture above may not look like much. After all, it’s just a corridor. It is, however, an empty corridor, located not twenty feet from another corridor through which thousands of people walk, and shop, every day.

In this picture, I’m standing in a service corridor on the retail concourse level (officially “P1”) of the Sun Life Financial Tower at the corner of King and University. The doors on the left lead to the back rooms of shops and services catering to the workers of Toronto’s Financial District. And I’m allowed to be here. I’m on a tour.

When I first started writing “The Night Girl” and posted the first scenes where Perpetua walked through a utility area of one of the skyscrapers packing Toronto’s Financial District, a friend of mine commented that given the setting, Perpetua should pay a visit to the massive receiving docks and service corridors that exist out of sight of the thousands of workers who travel through Toronto’s PATH Network every day. ‘It’s like a whole other city there,’ he said, paraphrased. And so I played up this setting, along with others after another reader suggested that more details were required to make Toronto itself more of a character in the book.

But I didn’t know exactly what I was talking about. I’d based my images on glimpses of receiving areas and service corridors I’d happened on in the past (such as when I worked for McDonalds at the Skydome from 1989 to 1991), but that sometimes misses the concrete details that tie a setting to a particular place. So, on a whim, I contacted the building management company for the Sun Life Financial Tower, explained who I was and what I was doing, and asked if I could be given a tour. To my surprise and delight, the property manager wrote back saying ‘yes’, and I booked an appointment.

Steve Ellis and Andrew Boughner were kind enough to take time to show me around the service rooms supporting the Sun Life Financial Tower, and for a 29-storey building, these can be massive. The Sun Life Tower hosts thirty tenants and 1,600 workers. It’s also packed rather tight with every available space taken up by tenants — an encouraging sign that this economy still has a lot of life in it. Every one of these workers have to be kept warm in winter and cool in summer. Think of all of the water that has to flow through the bathrooms, sinks and water fountains for these individuals, not to mention the shops and services in the concourse below. I visited the machine and pump rooms near the roof (a massive two-storey room), I saw the private parking garages, and also the receiving docks area, which I’m pleased to say is close to how I imagined it in the narrative, notwithstanding a few minor details that I’ll have to add.

What always fascinates me about these service areas is the contrast between the spaces where the public gets to walk, and the spaces that stay out of the public’s sight. Shifting from one space to the other, you lose the noise, and the lighting changes. It’s like entering another world. These spaces don’t have to put their best face forward for shoppers; they only have to serve. And yet some of these spaces are used by important people. I was told that prime ministers have used the receiving docks and the freight elevator to get to meetings rather than the very posh and very public set of elevators in the front lobby. Building workers park their cars or bikes in special garages, and areas change from utilitarian concrete to soft light, beige drywall and pictures in frames just by opening a door and stepping into another room. And there are areas out of the public eye where workers have made it their own, such as lunchrooms for the security personnel, locker rooms for those who wear uniforms, and the building managers themselves.

There are little details that I need to include, such as how there’s a coffee smell in some of the garages, over the tint of concrete dust and exhaust, wherever there is a Tim Horton’s or Starbucks nearby. I also forgot to mention the many little lifts in the receiving dock area, which ensure that large freight palates can roll to wherever they need to go. Then, of course, there’s the unguarded feel of those who work in public buildings out of the public eye, how they’re slightly surprised to see you when you get off the beaten track.

I only scratched the surface of what’s available throughout the Financial District. As I walked down Adelaide Street after my tour, I noticed delivery trucks pulling into vehicular elevators, to reach receiving areas underground. Truly, the underground city has another city alongside it, keeping the first one functioning.

I didn’t take many pictures, out of respect of any security concerns my hosts might have had, but Steve and Andrew were happy to have me take a few photographs, which I post here. Again, I’d like to thank these two for honouring my unusual request, and giving me a sight of the city that many of us don’t usually see.

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Another view of the corridor above, opening onto stores serving thousands of workers walking not twenty feet away.

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One of the storefronts setting up for a new salad restaurant business.

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Twenty-eight storeys higher, one of the boardrooms shows off a view that makes this office space so much in demand.

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A view down University Avenue.

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How the other half lives. Perpetua may find herself here in The Night Girl’s sequel, The Day Boy, as the business takes off and becomes more public.


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