Airport Road Travelogue
Part III: The Pearson Patch

Previous: Scarlet Road and Dixon Road

Plane Watchers

Past Kipling Avenue, Dixon Road passes beneath Highway 401, and changes as suddenly as a switch. We’re close to Pearson International Airport, now, and the lands serve or benefit from the airport, commercially and industrially. There are warehouses dating from the 1950s. But most of all there are hotels and convention halls, absorbing some of the 30 million passengers that arrive in Toronto each year by air.

“For me, Dixon Road is an airport strip,” says Councillor Ford. “When people get off the plane and go into Toronto, they’ll see nice restaurants and some world class hotels. It’s a very welcoming street; it’s easy to access and very straightforward and we keep it clean and tidy. It’s important because it’s the first impression of Toronto for a lot of people.”

The hotel strip lends a strange, savage beauty to Dixon Road. Despite the hotel towers, there is little sense of permanence here. People come to visit, not to stay. The hotel owners have invested in Dixon Road, offering amenities to attract visitors to the city before they head downtown, and the area has its fans.

Andrew Gurudata is among them. He is the head of special events for Toronto Trek, now renamed Polaris, and has been the convention’s chair for four out of the last seven years. Polaris celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2006. The convention has brought up to 3,500 Star Trek and television science fiction fans to the Dixon Road hotel strip, each year since 1990.

“The section between Skyway/Attwell and Carlingview has a very ‘parkish’ feel,” says Gurudata. “First of all, there’s the Royal Woodbine golf course, interestingly hidden down below as you drive by it on Dixon. Then, as you end up in front of the Constellation hotel area, you’ll find that the grass median not only has far more plant life than a normal median, but it has integrated sprinklers that run on timers for most of the summer!”

“Finally, there’s the large lawnspace at the streetfront of the Regal Constellation Hotel itself,” he adds. “The trees in that area were planted by the hotel gardener, Herbert Mageira. If you hunt carefully between the trees on the property, you will find a plaque honouring Herbert, which was placed there by the hotel owners when he passed away in 1984.”

Andrew and other Polaris organizers developed an attachment to the strip, particularly to the Regal Constellation Hotel, which hosted the convention from 1990 to 2003.

Regal Constellation Hotel

“We had a particular interest in the one area that was no longer open to the public,” says Gurudata. “The hotel announced its closure on the weekend of our 2003 convention and, at the end of the weekend, we decided that we didn’t want to say goodbye to the building without at least one attempt to find our way into that tower.”

“We started exploring back hallways and stairwells to see if we could find our way in,” he adds. “We did find a set of elevators for that tower in a lower basement, but they required a key to activate, and the accompanying stairwell was cemented to prevent access. But while exploring, we came across the employee cafeteria in the subbasement, and in that cafeteria was a “Wall Of Memories” showing the evolution of the hotel. The hotel had started out as a small motel and had evolved, tower by tower, into the large hotel complex that it now was.”

After the convention, Gurudata researched the history of the hotel which he hosted on a “Constellation Memorial Website”. His work attracted the attention of one of the original owners.

“Alex Hacker contacted me, providing me with info on the history and evolution of the area,” says Gurudata. “He told me that the hotel was the first one on the strip, that it was named “Constellation” after one of the most popular aircraft at the time, the Lockheed Constellation — an example of which was parked in front of the hotel and used as a bar/meeting room for several years.”

“For several years in the 1960s the hotel was known as the ‘only place to eat between Toronto and Brampton’,” he adds. “In its prime, the hotel was the choice of several celebrities and even some notable prime ministers - Alex Hacker had photos of Diefenbaker and the Trudeaus at the hotel.”

Unfortunately, Gurudata’s webserver died and he lost the site, but he hopes to put the information online again, or possibly write a book.

Late in 2007, construction crews began taking apart the Constellation. It will be replaced by a Hyatt. Due to the proximity to the airport, the deconstruction is being done gingerly, with bulldozers and other heavy machinery stripping the building down rather than more rapid demolition techniques such as controlled implosion.

A few months before the deconstruction, the owners of the hotel held an auction of the building’s contents. Andrew Gurudata was in attendance. “I’m pleased to say that I was able to purchase the ‘Wall Of Memories’, as well as piles of other memorabilia from the hotel - room keys, valet uniforms, promotional documents from over the years, and so on,” says Gurudata. “There’s piles and piles of the stuff in my basement now.”

“And I can tell you that the plaque honouring Herbert Mageira was removed before demolition began, and, through pretty much sheer luck, I was able to obtain it shortly thereafter,” he adds. “It’s pretty weather beaten, but still mostly readable, and if the new hotel owners are uninterested in replacing it when the construction of the new hotel is complete, we will most likely return it to Alex Hacker, who placed it there in 1984.”

Author Italo Calvino, in his book Invisible Cities, lamented the landscapes around airports as being all the same. “The world is covered by a sole (city) which does not begin and does not end,” he said. “Only the name of the airport changes.” Superficially, there is truth to that. The Airport demands a certain class of neighbour, and limits what can be built. But Andrew Gurudata shows that there are points of interest even out here.

Passing beneath Highway 427, we leave Toronto and the road changes abruptly from Dixon Road to Airport Road. The strange, savage beauty of Dixon Road vanishes and the area is given over more to the airport. This is wide-open space; scrub fields that have not been allowed to develop. Even the hotels have to crouch down, for fear of low-flying jets. Cargo hangers turn their faces away from the street.

But there is one remarkable feature that draws people to this desolate stretch of road. Beside a Wendy’s fast food outlet and a garage, the east end of one of Pearson’s major runways begins, barely fifty feet from Airport road. Drivers heading out of Toronto have been startled more than once by jetliners that look like they’re going to touch down directly in front of them. It’s a wonder this area doesn’t have more traffic accidents, but it does have its plane spotters.

I encounter two of them standing on the sidewalk, staring west while cars and trucks peel by. The day of my trip is the day that Canada’s CT-114 Tudor Snowbirds are arriving to take part in the Toronto Air Show. Looking west, past speeding cars, I find myself staring down the length of one of Pearson’s runways.

“The afternoon is the best time to watch planes, here,” says the first man. “The wind is from the west and the big trans-Atlantic flights are coming in from Europe.”

Unfortunately, the wind today is from the south, meaning that the planes have to come in from the north, past another choice plane-watching spot on Derry Road. I thank the two gentlemen and get back in my car. After snapping a few shots of jets arriving, and hearing the Snowbirds screaming in to land, I resume my journey north, into the community of Malton.


Further Reading

Next: The Town of Malton


Here are some more photographs from my original post about my trip:

airportroad09.jpg

Airport Road starts beneath Highway 427, with absolutely no fanfare. One moment you’re on Dixon Road, the next you’re on Airport Road. This shot is as close as I could get, filling up my car at the nearest gas station. The road network of Pearson Airport makes this a very pedestrian unfriendly environment.

airportroad10.jpg

North of the Highway 409 entrance into Pearson, the buildings here are aircraft hangars, fast food joints and cheap motels.

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At this point on Airport Road, one of the major runways comes very close to the street. If the wind is from the west, you can stand by the Wendy’s and watch planes arrive, just fifty or so feet above the traffic. It is an amazing sight. Unfortunately, the wind was from the south today, so the planes were landing from the north.

airportroad12.jpg

Two plane-watchers, waiting for the Snowbirds to arrive (they were due for the Air Show on the weekend). Airport Road, known in the 19th century as the Sixth Line, once ran straight as blazes to the corner of today’s Eglinton and Renforth. Here, it was the boundary between Toronto Township and the Toronto Gore. The route it used to take is now occupied by the airport.

airportroad13.jpg

I wanted pictures of more planes coming in, so I diverted to a parking lot off Derry Road to take these shots. The corner of Airport Road and Derry is the heart of the old community of Malton. Established in the 19th century, it saw a lot of its development following the Second World War. Much of that development has been swamped by airport construction and sprawl, however.

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Another plane landing.

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