“This city pretends that things have been covered over and sealed up,” John McFetrick says, pointing to the sidewalk. “But they’re still there.”
Standing in front of the Swans hotel, you might think he’s talking about its shuttered basement, and its possible connection to the mythic tunnels of Victoria’s Chinatown. But the 42-year-old filmmaker is also referring to the city’s economic underclass, its homeless population – and as he sees it, both senses of the underground are intimately related.
McFetrick explores this link in his short film Under The Garden City (screening again this Thursday, February 7 at Plan B nightclub at 7:00 pm as part of the Victoria Film Festival). Tying Victoria’s biggest social issue to its most popular urban legend might seem a stretch – or at least it did until last December, when several homeless people supposedly set a fire in the former Empress hotel laundry tunnel under Douglas Street. To McFetrick, the incident proves his thesis. “The fact is, there are spaces under Victoria, and they’re being used by street people. And the city doesn’t want to acknowledge those spaces, or the people in them.”
McFetrick started working on the film in 2005. Armed with a modest Canada Council grant, the UVic writing grad started hanging around in darker corners of town, chatting up street people about hiding places, and paying for info. (“I guess I should consider the grant a redistribution of wealth,” he chuckles.) At the same time, he initiated a discussion thread on the Urban Explorers’ Resource online forum to find others interested in literally getting to the bottom of Victoria’s underground.
Three years later, the UER thread has evolved into an extraordinary amateur record of Victoria’s gastrointestinal system, containing hundreds of photos taken by adventurers inside the city’s storm drains, sewers (the one under Bay Street is pictured right, thanks to J. Peterman), service corridors, and two officially acknowledged tunnels. (The other one runs from the Parliament Buildings under Government Street to the Douglas Building.) McFetrick has, in turn, incorporated video from these explorations into his impressionistic 20-minute film – revealing to Victorians, for the first time, the guts of the vast extended basements around Market Square, and a two-kilometre-long sewer tunnel not far from downtown.
He’s especially proud of the latter footage. The sewer tunnel isn’t unknown – there are archived photographs of men digging it just after World War I – but suggests there could be more like it. “Skeptics say you can’t have tunnels in a city built on bedrock. But this proves otherwise,” McFetrick says. “This was a mining town. We had explosives factories. All sorts of things could’ve been done.”
Like what? McFetrick says he believes there are some underground passages in Chinatown, despite the official story that such things don’t exist. He points out that many businesses along Fisgard Street have basements (Silk Road, for example, has its spa downstairs), which have never really been opened up to archeologists. He’s interviewed old city engineers, though. “Pencil-pushers don’t know anything. Speak to the guys who worked the shovels 40, 50 years ago, and they’ll tell you something’s there.”
It seems every city on the west coast has legends about Chinatown tunnels. And in a few cases, those stories have turned out to be true: Portland already has “Shanghai Tunnel Tours”, and last fall historians (left) discovered tunnels in Fresno, California during a neighbourhood revitalization project.
The prospect of a sanitized underground doesn’t cheer McFetrick, however. In many cases, he says, it’s better to let the mystery be. “It seems cities only admit to their tunnels when they see an economic benefit. It would be sad if Victoria did it at the expense of those who need shelter the most.”
For more on tunnels, see my previous post here.