Profile of a tunnel-builder
March 22, 2015 6:10 AM   Subscribe

Maclean's magazine has an extended profile of Elton McDonald, Toronto tunnel builder, a sweet kid in a rough neighbourhood who "'was getting away from regular things, away from life,' he says. 'Nothing in particular. Just life itself.'".
It was his fifth try at building underground, and it would take toil, determination and the better part of two years to get it done. It took pursuing a kid’s dream into adulthood. And in the end, even Elton’s father, a farmer in Black River, Jamaica, whom Elton has not seen in many years, had heard of that tunnel. "He didn’t know it was me," Elton says. "He’s proud. He thinks it’s cool."
posted by clawsoon (19 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
...and his project is presently further ahead of schedule than the Spadina subway extension.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:15 AM on March 22, 2015 [13 favorites]

I started a tunnel when I was 10. Braces and everything, planed to run it under the road. Probably a good thing I got that out of my system early. Sounds like the cops realized right away that it was just "the best fort ever" but still went ahead and planted a pistol and stirred up terror frenzy.
posted by sammyo at 6:54 AM on March 22, 2015

still went ahead and planted a pistol

The only gun mentioned in the article was in regards to an earlier brush with the law (and with no charges filed).
posted by Dip Flash at 7:03 AM on March 22, 2015

The latest Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff has a segment dismissing the various imaginative possibilities of random tunnels under Toronto.
posted by howfar at 7:07 AM on March 22, 2015

I grew up in Mississauga and when I was in high school there were packs of us running around in the storm drains beneath the city. Just the group I did it with was around 40 guys so who knows how many part-time mole people there were down there at any time. We knew all the possible entry/exit points for miles around (they were mostly secured but some had broken locks or missing manhole covers). There were places with platforms you could hang out on that were nice and cool in the full heat of summer and it actually smelled kind of sweet down there. It was a pretty neat private world without any adults and with a sense of adventure and discovery that was mostly missing from above ground suburbia.

Fortunately, there was never a thunderstorm while any of us were down there or there would probably have been some drowned kids crushed against storm sewer grates that would have only been found by the skateboarders.

So I totally get this guy's urge to build an upside down tree-fort.
posted by srboisvert at 7:18 AM on March 22, 2015 [8 favorites]

I go to law school at Osgoode Hall and the building is really, really close to that tunnel. I can't even describe how much it captured the imagination of the school at the time. Everyone was kind of collectively disappointed when it turned out the tunnel was just a tunnel. I'm not sure what we wanted it to be, exactly, but *something*.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:25 AM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

...and his project is presently further ahead of schedule than the Spadina subway extension.

And now that the tunnel's been filled in, it's on pace with the Eglinton West subway too.
posted by saturday_morning at 7:40 AM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

I wonder if the desire to build and occupy small spaces is more common than we think. I had a pretty crappy childhood, and when I had to visit my father on weekends in NYC, I'd camp out under the pullout couch with everything I needed to "survive" - my pillow, my stuffed animals, and a box of cereal (eaten dry right out of the box). It felt safe, protected from the dangers and unknowns of the outside world. To this day, I find myself "nesting" wherever I live, unpacking and setting everything up just so, until I achieve a level of safety and comfort that feels safe.
posted by flyingsquirrel at 8:06 AM on March 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

Oh yeah. Couch forts were the best. If you could move in all the tables and chairs, even better.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:28 AM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Everyone was kind of collectively disappointed when it turned out the tunnel was just a tunnel. I'm not sure what we wanted it to be, exactly, but *something*.

That's too bad, because of all the things it was speculated the tunnel could be when it was first discovered, what it actually turned out to be is by far my favourite.
posted by dry white toast at 9:45 AM on March 22, 2015 [13 favorites]

I do like it a lot more having read this article.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:51 AM on March 22, 2015

For those who don't know Toronto well, a bit of context about the geography of where/how this came about...

Toronto is a city of ravines. While a superficial look at a map of the city makes it appear relatively featureless and flat, everywhere across the city you'll find some rivers and their tributaries that have carved out paths that flow a good deal below street level. If you know where the entrances to the ravines are (not that they're hard to find), you can descend into one and unless there's a highway nearby like in the Don Valley, you can essentially forget that you're surrounded by a metropolis. It's quiet, verdant, and quite contiguous in places. You can cross large swaths of the city with only minimal interaction with the street grid.

These ravines are where people can go to escape. Another relevant dimension is that Toronto's post-war affordable housing was mostly concentrated in concrete high rises and townhouse-style housing projects that tended to cluster adjacent to these ravines. While these areas have their issues, and the topography can sometimes geographically isolate communities (Thorncliffe Park being an example), it also means that you don't need the means to travel outside the city to find a reasonably natural space to relax or find a little adventure. Often, such as is the case with the tunnel, these ravines function as highly accessible, yet still reasonably secluded, backyards.

So there's a very real way in which Elton's adventure makes total sense to those who know Toronto.
posted by dry white toast at 10:07 AM on March 22, 2015 [15 favorites]

This update to the story makes me SO happy.

For a good part of the time that I lived in Toronto, a fairly decent chunk of my time was spent in that ravine. At the time, I was a student at York and I lived a few blocks away from Driftwood (in a townhouse with a handful of other students). I was 18 years old, from a rural town, and being in the ravine was exactly like being in the woods near home. And, just like home I loved that there were forts and little areas where you could tell people had spent time doing something (not in a destructive way - just little paths and worn spots) but that it was very rare to actually stumble across someone.

When I tell people that I lived near Jane and Finch - and loved it despite all the poverty and violence - they're usually totally shocked. But that ravine was a big part of it. It was beautiful. I'm glad to hear that it was and is a haven for the people who lived there long(er)-term, too.
posted by VioletU at 10:16 AM on March 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's interesting that the people that Elton's boss/mentor/friend talked to first, to make sure it was safe to talk to the police, were the Ford brothers. As embarrassing as the Fords seem to much of the rest of the city, you get a sense of why they have such a fiercely loyal local constituency.
posted by clawsoon at 12:30 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nice. Elton's fund for his own business is doing well! Awww, I've got the warm and fuzzies.
posted by typewriter at 5:59 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Toronto is a city of ravines.

Just to add to your comment, Hurricane Hazel was one of the things that contributed to the preservation of the city's ravine system. Development was restricted around certain watersheds as a result. This helped preserve parts of the city's ravine system that might otherwise have been (ill-advisedly) developed.

Except for sticking a freeway in one of them.

*slow clap*
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:47 AM on March 23, 2015

This was a great read. The coolest fort ever! Well done, Elton!

"(Tracyann is not easily charmed)" I literally laughed out loud when I read that!
“That was him!?” one man who’s worked with him (and who has been so disgusted by the performance of the Toronto Maple Leafs that he stopped watching the news entirely) asked a reporter last week. “Get outta here! I thought it was al-Qaeda!”

Oh, sports fans. Don't ever change. <3
posted by jillithd at 11:07 AM on March 23, 2015

This is a beautiful story and such a Toronto story. It captures the best of a city I grew up in, a city which tries but fails to remind me of it's good parts whenever I return there.

Good on Elton. Good on everyone in the story, except the dicks that planted the gun and the guy that shot the neighbour in the head. Well played, otherwise.

(Except too bad it got filled in)
posted by salishsea at 6:22 PM on March 26, 2015

And now we have a musical tribute to Elton McDonald.

Buck 65: The Hole (despite title, SFW Soundcloud)
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:22 PM on March 27, 2015

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