you may see in the description of my blog that i write about urban Island living. in case you're new here...
I live in a very wonderful and unusual community on Toronto Island- a 10 minute ferry ride from downtown Toronto.
We are approximately 750 people living in 262 houses on one end of a long skinny island in Toronto Harbour. The remaining 90% of the Island is a city park- large expanses of grass, trees and beaches. Our Island is car-free except for the occasional service vehicles (park maintenence, garbage trucks, deliveries). Most of us use bikes and carts to get our groceries etc on the mainland. (here's how i get groceries) Our houses are small and close together, but we generally like it like that. We lease the land from the city, but we own our houses. Our houses are part of a community land trust (here's a decent explanation of how it works) and are bought and sold at replacement cost value. if you want to read more blog posts about our Island life- go here. Or especially this post about our community- one of my favourites.
the Island community of today is much different, and smaller, than it used to be. There used to be a real whole town on the Island- with hotels, stores, a baseball stadium (where Babe Ruth hit his first run!)
attractions like a diving horse and amusement rides
In the early decades of this century, there were houses at Hanlan's Point and Centre Island in addition to those at Ward's Island and, later, Algonquin Island. Residents numbered in the thousands and there were many more commercial establishments serving the community and visitors than there are today.
Michael O'Connor opened the Island's first hotel in 1833. He catered to the growing number of Torontonians seeking an escape from city life. For these people the Island was a place where they could relax with long walks and sporting events or dance and socialize. Even in winter, people came to fish, skate and sail their iceboats. By the late 1870s, Hanlan's Point had become the "Coney Island of Canada" with a vaudeville theatre, dance halls and a large amusement park. In 1897, a baseball and lacrosse stadium was built on the site of the present-day Island Airport. It was here that Babe Ruth hit his first major league home run! And it was during this time that numerous cottages began to appear, as city residents embraced the landscape and lifestyle of the Island. By the turn of the century, Hanlan's Point had grown to be a "summer suburb of the city" and this it remained for more than 50 years.
Similarly, Centre Island was once home to many people and to businesses of every description: a pharmacy, a "Parisien" laundry, a movie theatre and a barber shop, among others. Cherokee, Mohawk and Shiawassie Avenues were just three of the sites of homes described as "new antique" and "Venetian inspired," bordering as they did on the Island's lagoon system. It was here, and especially on the lakefront, that large Victorian summer homes were built by Toronto's leading families seeking refuge from the summer heat and proximity to the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.
The part of the Island we live in is called Ward's Island. The houses on Ward's today are mostly small cottages that were built from the seasonal tents of the early 1900s- the low-rent summer vacation places. Again, from Delwyn:
The Ward's Island community began in the 1880s as a settlement of tents. A writer for the Ward's Island Weekly reports that the intent of campers was to "keep it simple." Residents envisaged a "city" of tents, each having a slight individuality, yet standing together as a whole. The first summer colony on Ward's in 1899 consisted of just eight tenants, each of whom had paid a fee of $10 ground rent for the season. By 1913, the number of tents pitched had increased to the point where the city felt it necessary to organize the community into streets. The evolution from tents to cottage structures progressed in stages with the building of floors, the addition of kitchens and then porches, resulting in the creation of the homes you see today.
This is an aerial view from 1911:
this is our street in 1929
and here are some Ward's Islanders back in the day. people built kitchen sheds onto the backs of their tents. You can see the tent roof rising up behind the shed roof in this photo.
so what happened to the thousands of residents, shops, hotels and attractions?
With the establishment of Metro Toronto Council in 1953 came a radical change in policy toward the Toronto Islands landscape and its residents. Following in the footsteps of Robert Moses, chairman Fred Gardiner wasted no time in instituting the "modernization" of the area. With the transfer of Island lands and leases by the City to Metro came the rapid removal of businesses and the systematic demolition and burning of homes. With the last of the Lakeshore houses gone by 1968, residents on Ward's and Algonquin Islands rose up in protest. The fight to save their community lasted over 20 years until the 1993 establishment of the Toronto Islands Residential Community Trust and the procurement of 99-year land leases for residents.
Someday i'll write about the "Save Island Homes" 20-year-long protest- for which i am eternally thankful.
For the next Island Life post, I'll show you some of my favourite Island houses.
This was a wordy post but I hope you enjoyed a bit of Island history!
(all the photos were from the City of Toronto archives, via)