Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Farewell to Rock Oasis!

My home climbing gym, the Rock Oasis, is closing moving! What a tragedy. Developers are going to demolish the industrial building at Front and Bathurst -- where Oasis has operated for 13 years -- to put in condominiums. It's the end of an era.

We’ve grown to love this building where Rock Oasis was built.
This photo Apr. 22, 1916 City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub-Series 5, Item 74
The view ninety-five years later... June 2011

Happily, Oasis is moving to a new spot -- but it's still a painful fact to process. The place has been a second home.

This essay is a look back -- at the history of Rock Oasis, the building that housed it, and the surrounding neighbourhood.

It turns out that the corner of Front and Bathurst is bursting with fascinating stories: Soldiers. Typhoid fever. Ships. Blackmail. Prime Ministers. Ammunition. Horseshoes. And the climbing gym, of course!

The Doty Engine Works - part of Toronto's industrial history

I loved climbing at Oasis. I loved it, warts and all.

People often ask me what my favourite climbing gym is, or whether one particular gym is 'better' than another. I always reply that every place has its own flavour; that each gym has its own peculiar quirks.

Yeah, Rock Oasis was overcrowded sometimes. Yeah it was a sauna in the summer. Yeah there wasn't enough bouldering space. Etc. Etc. But this is my home gym. My home gym! It's where I learned to climb.

I'm going to miss it like hell.

Smiles and laughter

I've had so much fun there. I've made so many friends, and truly felt like part of a larger community. I will always have an emotional tie to this place.

When I first heard the news of the gym's impending doom (Oasis' last night is June 27, 2011), I couldn't believe it. Then I was angry, then I thought we might finagle another year or so from the developers, then I was sad about it -- and now, seeing the new transitional gym take shape, I've accepted that this is really happening. The classic K├╝bler-Ross stages of grief.

Yet before the place gets demolished, before the gym closes for the last time -- I'm setting something down for posterity. I want to capture a sense of the history of the place. I want to celebrate its vigorous life. Because it's not just about the gym. It's also about the building, the neighbourhood that grew around it -- and the people who have walked through the doors. Both in recent times, and in the forgotten past.

Explore with me
In this essay, I examine -- at some length -- the Victorian and early 20th century history of the industrial structure that houses Rock Oasis, the site it sits on, and the heritage context of the surrounding neighbourhood.

I also: interview Karen McGilvray, the founder, about the history of the gym; look at the economic forces and policy framework which led to the climbing gym being demolished; and take a peek forward into the future. Lastly, I explore how Rock Oasis has impacted me personally, and how it has shaped the Toronto climbing community.

I discovered in my research that the building's history is a tangle -- a convoluted mess of overlapping facts and claims and sources. I hope that I've been able to capture a glimmer of the truth in the process, and to do the place justice.

I have to warn you, it's a LONG, sprawling read -- we have over 150 years to cover! -- but I hope you'll glance through all the posts. The pictures will captivate you. I'd love to hear your reactions in the comments -- and if anyone has any other information or old photos of the building, please post or link them... 

It's finally time to say goodbye to the climbing gym at Front and Bathurst. It's brutal to let it go like this. Let's raise a toast to our gym -- and to its place in history.

Farewell Rock Oasis!


Nathan Ng
June 21, 2011


Start reading:
A History of Front & Bathurst - Victorian/Early 20th Century Era


Table of Contents
Farewell Rock Oasis
A History of Front & Bathurst: Victorian/Early 20th Century Era
- Context: The Military Reserve and Victoria Square
- The Rescue Inn and Its Eagle Sign
- The 1847 Irish Famine, John Dunn's Convalescent Hospital & George Monro's Cottage
- Patrick Burns' Coal and Wood Yard
- John Doty's Engine Works
- The Bertram Engine Works
- Canadian Shipbuilding Co.
- Berg Brick Machinery Co. & Amalgamated Ammunition Co.
- HW Petrie Ltd. & Diamond Calk and Horseshoe Co.
- Other Front and Bathurst Neighbourhood Landmarks
Interview with Oasis' Founder: A Climbing Gym Story
The Transformation of King-Spadina & the End of Rock Oasis
(Rock) Oasis: Don't Look Back In Anger
Notes, Disclaimers, Sources and Acknowledgments

Epilogue I: The Wreck of Rock Oasis -- In Pictures
Epilogue II: The Bathurst Rock Oasis -- A Look Back

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