The wind whips Lake Ontario – on this cool fall day it’s a dark olive colour – into fat, frothy saw-teeth. The few bundled folks walking towards Ireland Park barely notice the monolithic 1920s Canada Malting silos towering over them, perhaps because they’re fenced in … and that fence is covered with intimidating “Beware of Falling Objects” signs every few feet. Likely, they’re here to contemplate Rowan Gillespie’s haunting bronze figures (which mark the arrival of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine in 1847), or to watch planes fly in and out of Billy Bishop airport.
Three-and-a-half kilometers away, the old Victory Mills silos are simply a brief curiosity as folks park SUVs to bring little ones to the immersive theatre at Pirate Life, or hop onboard a dinner cruise. Ironically, here, in this immense dirt-and-gravel parking lot at the foot of Parliament Street the decaying 1940s structure isn’t fully fenced in: One can walk right up to the concrete bellies and plant a kiss on any one of them or, more likely, a spray-painted tag.
Although some writers have dubbed these two ruins Toronto’s “bookends” (when they’ve noticed them at all) if something isn’t done soon, a more appropriate moniker might be tombstones.
In nearby Buffalo, so many grain elevators line the serpentine Buffalo River it could’ve become a full graveyard were it not for the strange and wonderful stewardship of Cleveland-born Rick Smith III, who purchased a number of silos, mills, warehouses and office buildings on what was then Childs Street – now renamed Silo City Row – from ConAgra back in 2006 with the intention of creating ethanol industry jobs.
Shifting gears when the market crashed two years later, Mr. Smith, owner of third-generation steel fabricator Rigidized Metals, began to envision other uses. But, since new housing wasn’t the competitive sport it is in the Greater Toronto Area, he turned to artists and musicians to animate the spaces – inside the tall silos and out in the slowly renaturalizing fields surrounding them – with art installations and concerts.
“There were very few people in the city that really paid attention to the waterfront,” Mr. Smith remembers, “and we have a pretty unique network of waterways; you know, bombing around we’ve got a ship canal, we’ve got a Buffalo River, we’ve got a Great Lake, we’ve got the Niagara River.”
Eventually, Buffalonians did pay attention and, now, Silo City has become a place. A weird place, yes, but a place nonetheless.
One of the creative people attracted in those early years, back when things were “flying under the radar,” was Kevin Cain. Organizer of recording sessions in the “Marine A” silo (which he says boasts a “beautiful eight-second natural reverb”) and poetry readings, he currently runs the first permanent new business onsite, Duende at Silo City, a resto-bar. “The big thing that drew me to the space at the beginning was the point where nature’s reclamation of man’s endeavour met,” he says, “and it really highlighted a thing I dubbed ‘the tranquility of resilience.’”
On an unseasonably warm day a few weeks ago, Mr. Cain took me on a tour of these “cathedrals of contemplation and meditation.” Walking slowly around the site, it was easy to meditate on why Mr. Smith has spent a decade deciding on what permanent uses these structures should ultimately have.
Going far beyond the immediate titillation of “ruin porn,” there is a sense of majesty here. One can feel the weight of these buildings, both physically and psychologically; powerhouses of industry, commerce and trade, these form-follows-function grain elevators and no-nonsense warehouses shaped the waterfront and how people interacted with it. Ultimately, they shaped lives. The American Malting silos in particular are noteworthy since the original section, from 1906, was the first in Buffalo to be built of steel reinforced concrete and the first in the United States to use a slip-form to enable a continuous pour. It’s rumoured members of the early-20th-century Bauhaus School came to study them.
Fast-forward six decades to the late-20th century, however, and even these giants had become an eyesore. As with much of Toronto’s abandoned brownfields, the whole area south of Buffalo’s hip Allentown neighbourhood was now a place to avoid.
But things started to change drastically a few years ago. After receiving considerable press from newspapers outside of the region on both the artistic goings on and the efforts of Rigidized Metals’ director of ecology to “heal” the land and the riverbanks, developers came out of the woodwork.
However, unlike the zip-lines, brewpubs and escape rooms of “Riverworks” less than a mile away, Mr. Smith waited until he inked a deal. Not only did he want to avoid beer logos on the sides of his elevators, he wanted a company that shared his respect for the history of the site. Earlier this year, a partnership with Miami-based Generation Development Group was announced, along with a vision for 200 housing units and an artist’s gallery. And that’s just phase one. Future phases, he says, might include a “European-style hostel” and retail spaces.
“I needed some youth,” the 58-year-old says about his new partners. “They really bought into the vision of what Silo City can become.”
But don’t expect windows to be punched into the silos, Mr. Smith cautioned: “We’ve always tried to treat the concrete, the elevators, as kind of sacred; we don’t want to go poking holes in the elevators themselves, I mean, you could put housing above and housing on the first floor.
And what, I asked, should become of Toronto’s forgotten silos?
“Get the right bunch of clever people … and give them all the breaks that they can acquire – meaning tax and everything else – and let them activate the site,” Mr. Smith finishes. “It’s 13 years and we’re just beginning to have a restaurant where people can wash their hands,” he says with a laugh.
So, who’s clever enough? Anyone? Or do we just wash our hands of the whole thing and call in the wrecking crew?
Tours of Silo City run until the end of October.
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