“If you see a door, open it.”
No, these weren’t the words of a self-help guru or spiritual master. These were the words of a Torontonian as she left us at the outskirts of the city’s Distillery District.
At first glance, I thought I was standing on a Hollywood film set (an observation that made sense later when I learnt that more than 800 films and TV shows have been filmed here.) In the flattering floodlights of the mid-morning sun, the brick walls glowed red while the scent of pine from the shopfront trees mixed in the air with the vapour from the sake distillery. It reminded me of Cardiff, washed clean of industrial grime and now basking in unexpected sunshine.
This compact grid of streets came to life in the Victorian age under the stewardship of Gooderham and Worts, Englishmen who moved here and set up a highly profitable whisky business (particularly during the American prohibition.)
Times change, however, and a number of bleak events led to the slow demise of the project. War and the brief Canadian prohibition dealt the final blows. But the moment of real poignancy came earlier than that when Worts’ wife died in childbirth. He committed suicide hours later.
I couldn’t help but think of the words I’d read in a parallel place: Salts Mill.
Like Salts, Toronto’s Distillery District has left its Victorian ghosts behind and found a new life through fostering the work of local artists and throwing in some cosy cafes to keep guests entertained. But while Salts has a huge, airy and (most of all) obvious atrium to wander through, Toronto prefers makes you work for your inspiration.
Doors are unmarked. No paint. No plastic. And definitely no neon. They are as they were – or would have been – during the glory whisky days.
Alone, I open one and walk in. A snarl of rusting iron hangs beside the mottled blue-grey outline of what I think is supposed to be art. A serious woman strides past, dressed all in black. To her, I am invisible.
Elsewhere, the corridors are silent.
There are some windows into rooms. Most show sewing machines and patchworks of discarded fabric, loose threads and a total absence of polish, presentation or panache. For once, this is a place that emphasises the work half of that popular word word workshop.
I open a few more doors. Climb some more stairs.
Eventually, I enter a room where four or five people sit neatly at a table, dressed in bright lime green, fuchsia and other non-factory colours. They continue their discussions.
Then, slowly, the spell breaks. I am no longer invisible.
The gaze of one woman rises to meet mine. A look, a question, a demand.
I start to explain why I’m here but my voice falls to silence before the words escape. Because someone told me it was OK to open closed doors? What kind of half-baked, rotting turnip skin, lame worm ache of an explanation is that?
I abandon the literal truth and head for the more acceptable one. I’m a journalist. Here on research.
Who do you write for?
Anyone who pays, dances through my head, as it always does when this question arises. However, despite the bohemianistas around me, I opt to play it safe and use the conventional words that soothe strangers.
National Geographic Traveler. Lonely Planet. The BBC.
Then I go too far. I mention the S & B words. Social media. Blog.
There’s a pause.
And then an introduction to what goes on in here (aside from private business meetings.)
I am standing in the display room slash office of Fashion Takes Action, Canada’s only non-profit organisation that focuses on sustainability in the fashion industry. They tackle issues like pollution, unfair labour, water, energy and toxic chemical use – as well as stocking and selling beautiful, “ethical” clothes.
And, as it turns out, they have a blog. And some social media accounts.
I thank them and leave, walking through doors, climbing staircases, pacing along corridors until eventually, when I need to, I return to the sun.
This idea of industry, creativity and legacy pulls me back to Salts Mill once more. Yet when I left that factory I saw green fields made heavy by recent rainfall and leaf-spattered paths that waited for cyclists.
On leaving the Distillery warehouses, skyscrapers glitter and the CN tower punctures the milky clouds like an exclamation mark on the horizon.
My thoughts may be centuries old but the photons that light up my retina are unmistakeably new.
This is 21st century Toronto. A city with buzz. A city that’s very much alive
(And, as it turns out, a city with friendly corporate strategy teams who happen to work in fashion.)
Sunshine filters through the sake lanterns. It slices past the Christmas lights that carve a spider’s web for the darkness.
And then it lands on me. It lands while I take photos, look around and wonder what wise words I can share with you before I walk off into the sunset.
I suspect you can probably guess.
Do it. Whatever you go and do, go and open those doors.
Open them. And open them soon.
Disclosure: this trip to Toronto came about thanks to thanks to iAmbassador, the Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism Toronto and the Shangri-La Toronto. All y’know, the usual, all my own. As ever. As always.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com