Archives for posts with tag: toronto island

This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto and accompanied the most recent edition of the Learnt Wisdom Lecture Series in downtown Centreville.
People coming from the city were met at the ferry by Jimmy Jones, a lifelong Islander who grew up scurrying around Centre Island’s main drag. He shared anecdotes and history as we walked across the Island and down Manitou Road. Downtown Centre Island was repopulated for a few hours last Sunday afternoon. Read more about Learnt Wisdom here, and look out for our next event! 

Main Street Centre Island, Manitou Road in the early 1950s, from A Toronto Album 2: More Glimpses of the City That Was

At the peak of it’s population in the 1950s, homes, cottages, and mansions lined the entirety of Toronto Island from Ward’s Island in the east all the way to Hanlan’s Point in the west.

Toronto Island map at the peak of its population, from Derek Hayes' Historical Atlas of Toronto

At the time, there were also many Island-side amenities to serve its full time residents, including a movie theatre, a bowling alley, grocery stores, and dance halls. Most of these services were concentrated on Manitou Road, then the main drag of Centre Island.

A 1953 parade on Manitou Road, from A Toronto Album 2: More Glimpses of the City That Was

With its businesses and active street life, Centre Island was a bona fide, full-service small town abutting one of Canada’s largest metropolises.

When Metro Toronto decided to convert the Island to uninhabited parkland in the early 1950s, they began a program of demolishing Island homes starting from Hanlan’s Point and slowly moving east.

Before homes were demolished, Metro Toronto razed Manitou Road, the heart of the Toronto Island community. According to Sally Gibson’s More Than an Islandthe Island’s services were eliminated to make it easier to convince Islanders to give up their homes. How could they live on the Island, especially through the winter, without a grocery store?

With main street extinguished, Metro easily began expropriating houses and demolishing them. As we know, the city only got as far as Algonquin Island before they were halted by protests and a peaceful uprising.  With their main street demolished more than 60 years ago, today’s Island residents continue to rely on city-side grocery stores, movie theatres and dance-halls.

In 1967, Main Street Centre Island was replaced by the Versailles-style gardens of the Avenue of the Islands and by Centreville Amusement Park down the road. Along with its rides and petting zoo,  the amusement park includes a full size replica of Small Town Ontario, complete with a Town Hall, town square and Ontario heritage homes with decorative bargeboards.

To add insult to the displacement of most of Toronto Island’s residents, it seems the city demolished a living, breathing town and replaced it with a bogus version of itself.

Downtown Centreville replaced Manitou Road, from Chuckman's Toronto Nostalgia blog

Keep this in mind next time you find yourself at Centreville. It gives new meaning to the idea of a ghost town. A ghost town is usually a place that has been abandoned, but has been left largely in tact. Centreville is a stranger kind of ghost town, not abandoned, but replaced with a toy copy of itself. Centreville is an echo of history distorted by historic grand plans and visions of the future. It’s a simulacra of the town it replaced, barely able to speak for itself and its history. This feels especially true when it is doubly abandoned in the quiet winter months.

Downtown Centreville is a town doubly abandoned when the amusement park closes for the winter.

To bring attention to the strange history of Manitou Road and Centre Island, the next edition of the Learnt Wisdom Lecture Series is being held in Downtown Centreville this Sunday February 1st at 2pm. Join us for an afternoon of story telling as we consider the theme “Reckless Abandon.” Catch the 1:10 boat to Ward’s Island and take the half- hour walk through the beauty of the winter Island, all the way to Downtown Centreville.


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Though I’ve visited Toronto Islands since I was a child, my adult relationship with them began last year, when I began a 3-month work exchange/residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point, an artist studio and event space. I now work for AGP, and during the quieter winter months, am subletting a studio for my own work.

It’s been a year since I first lived on the Island, and I’ve experienced a full cycle of the seasons. After the peace and tranquility of last year’s deep winter, the Island launched into its routine Spring and Summer of hot weather, beach parties and crowded beaches and ferry terminals.

Pier at Gibraltar Beach

Pier at Gibraltar Beach

As the leaves changed and began to fall, things certainly slowed down. But now we’re back to winter, and I can confirm that this is indeed my favourite season on Toronto Island. It’s quiet. It feels hundreds of kilometres from downtown Toronto even though it’s just across the bay. And the ice! The landscape changes daily with the freeze-thaw cycles. The beach, the bay and the trees are covered with sculptural icy forms. It makes the artists who spend time at Gibraltar Point think, “why do we even try?”

Icy tree over Gibraltar Beach

Icy tree over Gibraltar Beach

Please enjoy this selection of the best of my photos of Toronto’s winter island. The winter isle is spectacularly beautiful, but I’ll let the photos do the talking. And try and make it here yourself! The ferry runs every hour, the crowds are minimal and the beauty is at its peak.

Where on Earth?

It’s easy to imagine that place is stable. A definite somewhere, that you can point to on a map. A place’s coordinates are easily found with a quick search on Google maps.

Google Maps

But is place really somewhere you can point to on a map?


Under that big Google A, I think there’s less of an ability to track down where exactly HERE is.


Consider a dramatic case, Gibraltar Point on Toronto Islands.

Gibraltar Beach

Gibraltar Point is the south-western most part of Toronto Island, and is where I’ve spent a lot of time. The point is formed from the southerly and westerly current of Lake Ontario pushing up sediment from land eroded from the Scarborough Bluffs to the east.

Island Flows

In this most technical of definitions, Gibraltar Point is this south-westerly most point of Toronto Island, where the currents meet each other almost perpendicularly. Taking this definition, we can find Gibraltar Point easily. Go there today and you’ll find a small structure marking the Point – a public bathroom.


If you venture past the bathroom and stand at the Point, you will feel the wind coming at you from your left and right with the waves coming from all directions. This is where the weather blown in from Lake Ontario first makes its landfall on Toronto.

But, looking at historical maps of the Island, you’ll see that it is an ever-changing sand bar, transforming shapes with every passing storm and year.

Island Changing

Understood by the definition above, and taking into consideration the yearly transformation of the Island, Gibraltar Point would appear to be roving, changing places with every year and every storm.

When John Graves Simcoe first saw the harbour protected by a sand bar, he declared it the site of Toronto, and built a lighthouse at what was then, geographically speaking, Gibraltar Point (named to evoke the Mediterranean rock that similarly protected a British Colony in Spain). As a result, despite being inland and covered in forests, the site of the lighthouse is now known as Gibraltar Point. Ask an Islander how to get to Gibraltar Point, and they’ll lead you there (and to the art centre across the road), leading you astray from the actual point (technically speaking) which is several hundred feet south and west of the lighthouse.


Similarly, a plaque at was is now known as Hanlan’s Point refers to its former life as a Gibraltar Point. This is very far from both the lighthouse and the bathroom that marks the technical point.

Gpoint plaque

Gibraltar Point is not one, but potentially three different places.

During my time spent there, I have found a candidate for a fourth Gibraltar Point – one that carries the weight of this Place in spirit. It is a magical place – a forest grown right to the water’s edge – trees growing out of a beach – a sandy forest. Here, the waves crash against solid ironwoods that protrude, some horizontally, into the lake. The sands of the beach layer on top of each other, creating impressions of slow waves in the yellow and brown and red sands. Driftwood is lodged into the beach and is sculpted smooth and seamlessly into the sand. The dogwood at the edge leave their roots hanging into the water, dried to be yellow and stringy.

I know this to be Gibraltar Point because of the shared acknowledgment of the specialness of this place. There are always footprints leading to and from this place – signs of temporary dwelling, fires, ash and embers. This sand forest is wedged between two beaches and form a fulcrum for the Island’s southwesterly most point. This, Gibraltar Point in spirit, carries the spiritual weight of splendour that such a grand name and important place merits. It is where the flows of Lake Ontario meet and react and beckon. It is an undeniably sacred space, a temple in the forest, a definite articulation of the Island’s healing energy.

Sandy Forest

Gibraltar Point is many places at the same time. Place is dynamic.

Sandy forest

I wrote this post in April 2014, long before I read the fantastic Unruly Places by Alastair Bonnet. It seems that Gibraltar Point is undoubtedly an Unruly Place – a place that does not fit our neat understandings of space as searchable on Google Maps. 

TO emerges

Spending many days beside the Gibraltar Point lighthouse has got me thinking about the deep roots of Toronto’s colonial history.

The lighthouse was built in 1808, and is the oldest stone building in Toronto. The lighthouse might seem out of place several hundred meters from the sandy shore of the Gibraltar Point beach. Originally built at the water’s edge, the Island’s constantly shifting sands and accumulations from deposits from the Scarborough Bluffs have stranded the lighthouse inland.

I often look at the lighthouse and the bulking skyline articulated by the CN tower just beyond it and realize that the solid stone lighthouse and the towers across the bay are directly linked to each other. The lighthouse was the British’s first attempt at establishing a permanent settlement in this part of the world. It’s guidance of boats around the Island and into the protected bay enabled the growth that eventually lead to the modern mountain of glass and steel that exists today. The lighthouse and the CN tower are in a constant conversation of imperialism, assertion and power on the landscape.

That was a little wordy, and aren’t things better in comic form? Please enjoy my comic TORONTO EMERGES, produced for distribution at Doors Open Toronto 2014!

DOTO Comic

grow op

I am excited to be participating in the Gladstone Hotel’s Grow Op, a four day event that explores landscape and place.

My photos and recollections will be part of Vernal Poola participatory art project about place and precipitation, by Karen Abel and Jessica Marion Barr. Vernal Pool explores snow gathering as art practice. Karen and Jessica have invited artists from across the country to send snow gathered in a jar, accompanied by photos and a few words about the moment of collection.


At Grow-Op, “the resulting reservoir of snowmelt will be convened into an immersive, elemental water installation… referencing the ephemeral wetland ecosystems that form in springtime from melting snow and rainwater. Following the exhibition, the pool will be restored to the earth through a collective watering of gardens and urban greenspaces.”

I am happy to be representing the Toronto Island in this wonderfully expansive project. The photos of my moment of gathering capture the essence of my winter here: an endlessly beautiful, quiet and isolated time, watching the snow and ice formations change on the beach and forest, right at the sea’s edge.

The themes of Grow-Op are also aligned with the foundations of my geographic practice. Exploring the softer edges of geography, I am interested in how the places we are embedded in manifest within our culture, our values, our selves.

Please enjoy my submission, and see you at Grow-Op this Friday April 25!



Wednesday, March 12, 2014, 2pm

I am currently a resident at the Artscape Gibraltar Point art centre on the Island. After a lovely spring day, Winter came back in full force, dumping 15 cm of powder over an otherwise thawing beach. The snow samples came from the beach itself, off the dogwood, and from the “sandy forest”, a collection of huge ironwoods right at the water’s edge. The snow was wet to the touch, and heavy. It’s been a spectacular winter at Gibraltar Point.

Check out these maps I illustrated of the gardens spread throughout Artscape Gibraltar Point.

As Spring approaches, we are busy preparing for the gardening season here on the Island. Some of the plans for 2014 include expanding the main garden and herb garden, with the possibility of a small CSA of mixed greens and herbs that will be delivered to Islanders by bike!

The maps are functional diagrams of the dimensions of the gardens, but also reveal the stories of this special place. Enjoy!

Main expansion Greens garden

Herb garden Raspberry patch



A sketch, for a future project

Toronto’s Island has provided your Urban Geographer with immense inspiration regarding Urban Ecology and its manifestation in Toronto.

It seems that this deeply wild Island has enabled an equivalently deep urbanity in the city across the Bay. To illustrate this: Chicago is a nearby Great Lakes city that does not have an island. Its water front integrates nature and the city very well. In Toronto on the other hand, we have a waterfront that is a great concrete barrier to the lake, remedied by an extremely natural beach a few kilometres further south.

Of course, the spaces aren’t pure. There’s a little city in the Island and a little Island in the city. (There’s also a little Island in all Torontonians, and a little Toronto in all Islanders).

Remarkably, the geography of the Islands and Toronto provides a clear illustration of this phenomenon. Like Yin and Yang, the Island and the City encapsulate every degree of the panoramic view of the harbour. The airport represents that bit of urbanity on the Island, and the Skydome’s grass that little bit of wild in the city.

This is the beginnings of a greater body of work, but for now, let me present to you this screenshot I took from Google Earth.

yin yang_draft 1

This post first appeared on Spacing Toronto

Landfill Island

I took this photo of Gibraltar Point Beach on a long walk around Toronto Islands during the city’s most recent cold snap. Because parts of the Island are exceedingly untamed, especially in the isolated winter, I was surprised to see Leslie Street Spit-style slabs of concrete and twisted rebar landfill breaking the otherwise undomesticated landscape of the Island’s south-west beach.

As past posts have explored, the Toronto Islands were formed when land from the dramatic erosion of the Scarborough Bluffs dropped into Lake Ontario and was pushed by the lake’s current to form a peninsular sand bar. Though always referred to as “The Islands”, a powerful storm in 1858 pierced its thin connection to mainland Toronto, rendering them islands in the true sense.

Looking at a few historical Toronto maps (courtesy of the fantastic Historical Maps of Toronto blog), the shape of the sand bar changes dramatically. For its first hundreds of years, the form of the Toronto Islands changed every year and after every storm.


Toronto Island, 1818

Toronto Island, 1834

Toronto Island, 1834

Toronto Island, 1860

Toronto Island, 1860

When the Leslie Street Spit peninsula made its final extension into the lake in the 1970s, the flow of sand from the Scarborough Bluffs was effectively blocked. Consequently, the Islands have been eroding, their sand pushed away by the lapping waves of Lake Ontario without the replenishing effect of the Bluffs’ accumulative currents of land.

The city’s response has been to dump landfill along the Island’s south shore to curb erosion. In fact, the City has been doing this for more than a hundred years. In 1885, with the vision of Central Park style forests, lawns and meadows, the City decided to “parkify” the Islands and began dumping soil and infill to landscape and tame the wild, constantly changing landform (picture the French-style geometric gardens that lead from Centre Island to the pier, and the constantly mown fields just to their west). More recently, the City has embraced Michael Hough style “natural processes”, and native plants are reclaiming their habitats.

In both cases — the historical parkification, and the current attempts to curb erosion — I can vividly see how this wild place is slowly being taken over by the deep urbanity across the Bay. As the Toronto Islands remain untamed in many senses, I hope that a delicate balance is maintained between the urbanity and wildness that characterizes Toronto’s frontier shoreline as we continue to negotiate the Island’s role in our cityscape.

Daniel Rotsztain is the Urban Geographer. After six years of formal and informal education in Montreal, Halifax and Amsterdam, he is happily back in his home-city of Toronto and ready to respond to it with words and art. Check out his website, or say hello on Twitter!


Remember, when I told you about taking the ferry from Holland to England? I described how lovely the experience of slow travel was, gently floating in the North Sea from one port to another in the company of good Ferry-people.

I also proposed that any meaningful travel must involve some sort of immersive change in material reality — in between the places. Between the Hook of Holland and Harwich, the change in material reality involved entering the world of expansive ocean, pointed waves extending toward the grey, then blue, the orange hued skies. On a plane, the change in material reality brings the bright blue sky and puffy blanket of atmosphere and clouds.

Well it happened again — a change in material reality, that is — and it happened on the very short ferry trip from the Toronto’s Jack Layton Ferry Terminal to Ward’s Island.

IMG_1856Plunged into the abyss of the misty fog, aboard the Ongiara

As we pushed away from the city, the always powerful bulk of the skyline immediately disappeared behind the wet, grey fog. We were completely plunged into the world of mist and ice, as the ferry slowly trudged its way across the frozen Toronto Bay.


That a change in material reality was experienced on the very short 15 minute ferry ride between Toronto and its Islands is testament to the profoundly different places these two fundamentally linked places are.


Toronto is often compared to the other Great Lakes metropolis, Chicago.

Built in roughly the same era, and fronting major, northern bodies of water, Toronto recently surpassed Chicago to become the fourth largest city in North America.

I haven’t been to Chicago recently, and look forward to exploring the relationship between the two cities.

What stands out from afar, however, are the city’s nicknames. Chicago is the Windy City, but Toronto is not. The obvious difference is that Chicago is much more windy, but as they are both Great Lakes cities, I did not understand why.

Until my first night on the Toronto Island, that is.

The aural soundscape here is defined by a constant gush of wind. I went to the Gibraltar Point beach yesterday and was almost blown over. Directly fronting the open waters of Lake Ontario, Toronto Island protects the city’s harbour from rough waters and strong winds. Without the Toronto Island, Toronto would be less mild place, constantly pummelled by fierce winter winds.

I am beginning to understand the importance of the Toronto Islands to Toronto. Like a hand reaching out into the waters of Lake Ontario, the Islands cradle and nurture an otherwise undifferentiated stretch of Lake Ontario shoreline. Toronto Island seems to be at the genus of city, the why of Toronto.

But as Toronto Island continues to erode (partly due to the Leslie Street Spit blocking sand from the Scarborough Bluffs, which historically created the Island), the Toronto of the future might not have the protection the Island affords. Maybe then Toronto will become Windy City II.