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The PATH: More than just a place to eat lunch & escape the cold?

White marble polish of First Canadian Place. YONGE STREET/Tanja Tiziana

I’m sitting in the food court in the Toronto-Dominion Centre. It’s 5:07pm on a Tuesday, and you’d think the place would be packed with 9-to-5ers. But the area, hived off down a side passage away from the main flow of underground traffic, is quiet. A white man in his 40s in a blue suit is ordering a doughnut at Tim Hortons. A white man in his 30s in a shirt and tie is getting something from Thai Island to take back to the office where his jacket’s waiting for him. The Filipino cleaning staff is talking to the Filipina who’s working at McDonald’s behind me. The rest of the kiosks are quiet. They’ll be closing soon.

My editor sent me an email a couple of weeks ago wondering whether I thought the PATH system might actually be a sort of community or neighbourhood of its own. I said I’d never thought of it that way but, now that he mentioned it, maybe it might be worth checking out. So I’ve been spending a lot of time down there, doing the usual things I do every day—which mostly involves drinking coffee, writing and reading—entirely underground, wandering around from café to café, food court to food court, developer-or-bank-branded décor to developer-or-bank-branded décor.

By the time I’d run into one friend for the second time in three days, I was convinced not only that it was a neighbourhood, but that it was an old-fashioned neighbourhood, the sort Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers told me about when I was a kid.

The origins of the underground network go back all the way to 1900, when Eaton’s dug a tunnel to connect its main store at 178 Yonge to its bargain outlet. When Union Station was built in 1927, a tunnel was dug to connect it to the Royal York. That was pretty much it until the 1970s, when the Richmond-Adelaide Centre was connected to the Sheraton. Other connecting tunnels followed, and in 1987, city council decided some co-ordination was needed, so they took over, and by now, there are about 35 different companies whose investments and maintenance cohere through their efforts.

The distinctive PATH signage was developed in the 1990s. It’s often confusing and sometimes useless: the red P stands for south! H is yellow and means east! (If only the directions North, East, South and West could somehow be formed into an acronym of their own.) Currently, there’s a masterplan to extend the system to include Ryerson University, and to go southwards by 2015 to connect to Waterpark Place III on Queens Quay at Bay and therefore Harbourfront in general, possibly introducing more of a tourist element to the subterranean neighbourhood.

On Thursday at noon I was sitting at a table for one eating my Wikki chicken from Wikki Hut in the Scotia Plaza and looked up for a couple of minutes to watch the people in my neighbourhood stream past. Without thinking about it too much, I had assumed most people down here would be business types. There are a lot of them. But I also saw two very tall TTC workers in their full pale red regalia, arms around each other, one with metre-long grey dreds, walk swiftly by, as well as half a dozen construction workers of various races and ages (though only one gender). There was a very white boy of about 19 with platinum spiked hair (who got Wikki’s mango chicken), two 50-something Chinese men in jeans and anoraks and a Filipina with a steaming bowl of what looked like soup from home that she’d convinced someone at the food court to heat up for her. There were security guards and cleaners, women loaded down with early Christmas shopping and men in their 70s who seemed, like me, to just be strolling.

I spoke recently to Antonio Azevedo, the lawyer-turned-developer behind the Abacus condos on Dundas at Ossington. He grew up in that neighbourhood in the 1970s, a time when, he told me, people from all over the world lived on that strip, densely packed, three or four families to a house, none with cars, doing all their daily shopping and chores and much of their socializing on Dundas Street. That’s what this corner of the PATH system felt like.

But head over to First Canadian Place, and it feels quite different, an underground version of toney Bay and Bloor, all shiny in its white marble and open for your upscale business. Commerce Court North is like Forest Hill Village—small, not ostentatious, but clearly well-to-do, with its marble and limestone inlay floors, its detailed ceilings, its soft lighting and its Sloane Tea. Bay-Adelaide is wide and white, open and mostly unoccupied, like Mississauga. Scotia Plaza is more Rosedale, with its sombre red stone, its gold trim and its Truefitt & Hill.

I could probably go on. The variety is charming in its way, but what struck me more forcefully was PATH’s essential unity. Though one bit may have higher-end shops, and another be weighed down somewhat by infelicitous design (I’m looking at you, Richmond-Adelaide Centre, or rather, trying not to), everyone goes everywhere. Though few would make it all the way from the bus terminal to the Convention Centre, the tight radius of the entire place, less than a kilometre, means that whether you’re down there to check out Marks’ Work Wearhouse, to see your dentist or buy some excruciatingly expensive flowers for your neglected spouse at Pistil, you’ll probably mosey and multitask a bit, which will bring you into contact with everyone else.

And of course, it’s a pedestrian-only zone, the biggest in the city, and likely the biggest in the world (Copenhagen’s Strøget, generally considered Europe’s largest, is 100,000 square metres; PATH is 370,000).

For its history up to this point, the PATH system has been anchored by its role as a workplace hub. It connects people at work to amenities they need during the workday, But with the city’s condo boom sprinkling condos all over the surface of the system, there are now thousands of homes within metres of the system. When the Aura tower at College Park dug its foundations, the city required it to put in a knock-out wall so it could connect to the system, adding to the condos and apartments at Maple Leaf Square, 8 Park Road, College Park, 110 Bloor West and the Manulife Centre that are now connected to the system either directly or by subway line. So the PATH is becoming a place where people can actually live.

But what about public space?

Though some of the passageways are owned by the city, for the most part, PATH is privately owned. And to adamant advocates of the value of public over private space, this may present an insuperable obstacle to seeing PATH as a neighbourhood or a community, For them, a better analogy may be a gated community.

Aside from the fact that these spaces are open to anyone, including the homeless, they are often used precisely like public space. They even have hubs, public squares of sorts, like the square around the bank of elevators at First Canadian Place, where they even have free public performances, or the Scotia Plaza square where they put the annual Christmas tree. Rockefeller Plaza is private space, too, but their tree and skating rink, make it, practically, as public a space as any. You could argue that true and useful public spaces are open 24 hours a day, which PATH is not. Then you might remember all curfews in public parks all over the world and possibly change your mind.

The ingredients are all there. To what extent PATH is, remains or becomes a neighbourhood, or a series of neighbourhoods, depends on how we treat it. Like any publically used space, it’s only as good, as inviting, as entertaining as those who use it make it. It’s a wonderful urban resource. And I’m pretty sure it’s the only place you can get Wikki chicken.