Toronto Island: Paradise Lost?

Jesse in Neighbourhoods, Neighbourhood Explorer

Ed. Note.  Neighbourhood Explorer is a regular feature in which our
intrepid adventurer presents an up close-and-personal tour of a Toronto
neighbourhood.

Kids flourish in the most unique settings, day camp being one of the very best.  I have spent my summer negotiating deals with little climbers who have inevitably gotten themselves stuck in trees trying to get a better view of anything they might be missing in the ground.  While laying out my bargaining chips one by one (promises of story-telling and never-ending camp songs), I often find myself wanting to climb up that very same tree to take in the surroundings.  If camp were in any other location, the fascination would not be as great - but we are on Toronto Island.  Everything about the island – the homes, methods of transportation and pace of daily life – differ from anything else you'll find in the city.

Torontonians and tourists looking for a slice of cottage country within the city utilize the affordable and convenient ferry routes that also transport Islanders into the downtown core.  Blue and white ferries chug through the harbour towards their respective destinations – Ward’s Island, Centre Island and Hanlan’s Point – throughout the day.  Water taxis are also available for hire, usually at a flat rate.  Once you arrive onto the island, cars are a rarity as the roads are vessels for rented bicycles (4-seat quadracycles are the most popular), runners and numerous walkers along with those elusive frisbee-golfers moving from hole to hole as they wind their way from one side of the island to the other.  Paved main roads weave from Ward’s Island all the way to Hanlan’s Point, with Centre Island and Centreville amusement part in between; bridges connect smaller islands to the main portion.  A wooden boardwalk traces the shoreline along the southern half of the island, part of which was built on top of a 200-year old carriage path.  Prefer an aerial view?  Sky cars travel above a large part of Centre Island allowing for a spectacular view of many sights including St-Andrew-by-the-Lake Anglican Church, which was established in 1884.

Ward’s Island and its smaller neighbour, Algonquin Island, shelter the island’s 262 homes.  In the 1950s, Toronto Island’s real estate leases and lands were transferred to Metro Council.  Soon after, plans were put into action to push the island into becoming a public recreational centre; evicting the residential community became a reality.  Twenty years later, after many Islanders had chained themselves to Algonquin Bridge on a routine basis, they won their right to stay.  In 1993, the Toronto Island Residential Community Trust was set up as a regulatory body for potential HomeBuyers to ensure that HomeSellers do not unduly profit from their sought-after island property. Eager HomeBuyers-to-be place their names into an annual lottery to win spots on the Purchaser’s List, which does not exceed 500. Once a property is available, the first 100-150 names on the Purchaser’s List are contacted and offers are made.  The properties are leased for up to 99 years and must be maintained as the HomeOwner’s principle residence.  Familial homes are commonplace as the Waterfront Montessori School and Gibraltar Point Day Nursery are located here, catering to island families.

Established as the first cottage retreat in the late 19th century, the cottage-country feeling has not diminished over last 140 years.  Ranging from modest, clapboard bungalows in need of a little love to larger Cape Cod-styles, there are many unique models that have been built by hand throughout the island.  Toronto Island Marina and Yacht Club, along with the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, offer slip rentals for local and out of town boaters who arrive in everything from practical houseboats to breathtaking yachts.  I met a retired couple who were hoisting their (pirate) sails, about to head off to another port, with nothing but positive reports about their stay at the marina.

Gibraltar Point Lighthouse reigns as Toronto’s oldest landmark, surviving and standing tall on the shore of Lake Ontario since the early 1800s; environmentalists fear it may not last for much longer.  As the islands were created by sand and rock which drifted into the harbour from the Scarborough Bluffs, they were reinforced in the twentieth century to halt erosion.  Despite all the work that has gone into island preservation, Mother Nature presses on.  Making Globe and Mail headlines recently was the solitary fear of those who love their Toronto Island paradise: the sand is indeed slipping back into the lake from which it came.

Not your usual Toronto neighbourhood, the Island community adds to the diversity of the city.  Acting as a daytrip destination, a summer full of exploration for my camp kids and a home to many families, Toronto Island helps make our city great.

Jesse Fleming is a freelance writer specializing in Toronto neighbourhoods.

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