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A New Archaeology for the Leslie Street Spit: A history in photos, bricks

They used everything from the pig but the squeal.

That's how a representative of the Toronto Harbour Commissioners described to The Globe and Mail in 1970 the resourcefulness employed in building a peninsula off the southern edge of Leslie Street.

Truckloads of dirt excavated from city construction sites (including Commerce Court, the Four Seasons Sheraton Hotel and the Toronto-Dominion Centre) were used to extend a man-made finger into Lake Ontario. And the large chunks of concrete and rock? They were crushed and put to use as gravel surfacing for docks. Toronto was reconstructing, nothing went to waste and what we now know as the Leslie Street Spit was growing by leaps, bounds and six feet per day.

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Think about that the next time you head down to the Spit, a five-kilometre stretch of urban wild that attracts birders, bike riders and brick scroungers. And think about the rubble rimming the headland's exterior that protects the city's largest constructed breakwater from water erosion.

Ben Watt-Meyer, the landscape designer and artist, has.

For the month-long, citywide Myseum Intersections Festival, he has teamed up with preservationists Friends of the Spit to offer A New Archaeology for the Leslie Street Spit, his thoughtful conception of wall-hung archival architectural photos and, dominating the floor, a large spiral of bricks and rocks scavenged from the Spit's ultra-rugged beaches. If the photos represent the city's history, that goes double for the rubble – pieces of heritage that are at once a part of Toronto's demolished past as well as its evolving present.

Mr. Watt-Meyer's installation was first mounted last year (in a different form) for the Gladstone Grow Op, an annual salute to the culture of landscape. Now, it occupies a large sun-lit space at the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse, the oldest school standing in the city, and, this weekend, a place where you can still learn something if you're not careful.

Check out the photo on the wall of the Temple Building, an architectural beauty and arguably the city's first skyscraper. It stood high, handsome and Romanesque Revival-y, on the northwest corner of Richmond and Bay streets from 1896 until its unceremonious knock-down in 1970.

Now, turn around from the picture and look at the large stony circle occupying the centre of the floor. A red brick or piece of sandstone could have come from Georgetown, Ont., or Sackville, N.B., for use in the construction of the Temple Building.

On another wall, a shot of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, which stood for more than a century before it was torn down in 1975-76. Its yellow brick and Niagara limestone were dumped at the Leslie Street Spit, where Mr. Watt-Meyer found material for his installation.

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Do we see the Spit as a burial ground and mourn a heritage lost? We can.

Do we view the peninsula as a testament to the city's postwar urban change, and celebrate the resulting landfill as a peaceful place for naturalists? Absolutely.

Do we take the subway and make our way toward the Spit, which was built with the dirt that was excavated in order to build that same subway? Yes, and we should, because no cars are allowed on the Spit, bub.

And do we scavenge a brick that came from Nova Scotia or Pennsylvania, and which was used to build a long-demolished Toronto landmark, and use it as a doorstop in our home? Sure, we can do that.

Because history's for the taking. Nothing need go to waste.

Ben Watt-Meyer gives an artist's talk on March 12, 2 p.m.. His free exhibit A New Archaeology for the Leslie Street Spit continues to March 13 at Enoch Turner Schoolhouse, 106 Trinity St., myseumoftoronto.com.

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