REQUIEM FOR A CRAZY PARADISE ISLAND
It gloried in kooks, characters, rat-race refugees — and in its cherished isolation from Toronto (and the world) across the bay. It had everything . . . but a future
IT WAS BRIAN HOGAN, an enterprising young executive with the Toronto Telegram, who invented The Ultimate Weapon to save Toronto Island from the greedy maw of the Metropolitan Toronto Parks Department. At about the time when some of us had begun to suspect there was no longer any hope of preventing the parks commission turning the residents out, tearing down their houses and making the island into Total Park, a bridge party was held to help pay for the mural an artist had painted on the vicarage wall. Someone laced the fruit cup with rum and before anyone had had time to make a rubber, Hogan, an otherwise benign man, produced the concept of The Ultimate Weapon.
We should, he said, declare independence and secede. At the first sign of Canada invading our new nation of Islandia, we would stop the pumps at the island filtration plant, which provides downtown Toronto with its water supply. That might not make anyone go thirsty, but it would destroy the business district because the Bay Street boys and the bankers and insurance brokers and lawyers would be unable to flush their toilets. As Hogan put it, Canada would never dare invade Islandia at the risk of leaving Bay Street to stew in its own juices.
At this distance in time it doesn't sound such a remarkable idea, or even a very original one: after all, Quebec has been threatening something similar since the Plains of Abraham. But its impact on that sedate bridge party seemed at the time to be a measure of the passion islanders feel for their island. Before the fruit cup was polished off we’d abandoned bridge to plan the rebellion. We decided we had a ready-made navy (the yacht clubs) and an air force (the Island Airport flying school). We'd seize the ferries, nationalize the garbage truck and demand the immediate support of Washington if they wanted to prevent us falling into the Russian camp as a convenient missile base. Hogan, we decided, would be sent to the United Nations.
Islanders have displayed this vaulting enthusiasm often during the forlorn, 10-year fight to preserve Toronto Island as a place to live as well as a park. The island is, in fact, a half dozen islands, closely linked and strung out in a crescent to provide Toronto with a lagoon/ continued on page 51
ontinued on page 51
PARADISE ISLAND continued
It may be treason, friends, but —alas! —the battle’s lost
like, sheltered anchorage up to half a mile wide on Lake Ontario. It has always been mostly park — in its heyday only a third of the 600 or so acres was occupied by houses, hotels and other buildings — but in the mid1950s the Metropolitan Toronto Council revoked leases and began demolitions designed to make the island all parkland. In fighting this, islanders have earned the distinction of probably being the noisiest and most conspicuous pressure group in Canadian civic history.
At all levels, government control and influence is growing, and the individual’s power of self-determination is diminishing. But it is in civic affairs that you most often find the little man. or men, quietly battling to withstand the apparently irresistible vehicle of local Authority which, bylaw by bylaw, is voting itself powers to wield on behalf of the community at the expense of the individual. It is a situation as bad (and perhaps worse) in Metropolitan Toronto as it is anywhere: in the Borough of Etobicoke, for instance, the local council even tells residents how much water they should have in their baths — and how hot it should be as well!
It probably won't happen, but the islanders deserve to be remembered as martyrs to the lost cause of individual freedom; they're so well organized that in the last city elections islanders issued a list of approved candidates— those sympathetic to the Cause, that is — which, some claim, had a measurable effect on the results.
But now it's all over. To my former island neighbors this must smack of treason — but the conclusion is inescapable: that unlikely villain, the Metropolitan Toronto Parks Commission, has won. By demolishing a few homes a year over a 14-year period, the commission has fragmented the opposition and now, when the remaining islanders are ready to fight, there are barely 200 homes left. The juggernaut of expropriation couldn’t now be stopped, even if politicians wanted to stop it. By 1971 the island that always was mostly parkland will have become Total Park, officially dedicated, in accordance with the best
egalitarian principles, to city dwellers who in theory cannot escape the city to the limitless space that surrounds it.
By 1971 the house my family and I occupied for two years will be replaced by the cash office of a miniature golf course. Brian and Margaret Hogan’s old home will have
been razed to make way for the 17th hole. And there'll be an effluence of orange peel and Dixie cups and screwed-up greaseproof paper that once held someone's picnic salami strewn all over the grass where Harold and Alice Aitken nursed a flower garden for 22 years. There'll be a fun fair and pony rides and camp sites
and, almost inevitably, the sort of awesome vulgarity that such projects seem to spawn, along with about as much nerve-shattering noise as there is back in the city the people were trying to escape.
By then people will already have begun to forget that the island ever was a self-contained village within a city: a sort of oddballs' enclave and artists' haven, where at one time up to around 5.000 people lived year round and commuted to work by fer-
PARADISE ISLAND continued
A Black Mass in the living room—then
the Devil to pay
ry in summer and ice-breaker tug in winter. And so, in a sense, this is a requiem for the island before it’s dead and gone: a nostalgia before the fact rather than after. I hope it will explain to all those bewildered suburbanites who never quite understood what the devil the fuss was all about just why we islanders fought so hard and so noisily.
It isn’t easy to understand why Toronto Island should inspire so much passion: it is, after all, a not very lovely geological freak. But for anyone who ever lived there — and many who spent their lifetimes there—it was a refit g e because, somehow, they were all fugitives.
Some of our neighbors were running away from husbands, or wives. Others were running away from the North American Way of Life. There were fugitives from the city and from high rents (island rents were never high) and from the traffic and from themselves. And there were always those who lived on the island because they believed this set them above or beyond or apart from the common herd in suburbia. Island houses were of wood, not brick, and there were no cars, and at weekends no one needed to shave or dress up because the city and the status-heavy rat race was a long way off. The sheltered strip of harbor water, which varies from half a mile to 100 yards wide, effectively insulates the island from the rest of Canada.
Indeed, the fugitive instinct sometimes drove islanders to absurd lengths.
There were always a few planning to go even farther — usually by boat to a tropic isle — and to these one of our neighbors was a hero. By the time we arrived he had already spent seven years building, in his backyard, an ocean-going steel - hulled boat which everyone called Frank’s Folly and which, he explained, he’d built because he wanted to be independent of the rest of us. He never did sail off into his symbolic sunset: when last we heard he was living in a suburban split-level and talking about building a plane in his twocar garage.
Boats, however, were an inextricable part of island life. A good half of the islanders w'ere boat-crazy, and spent two thirds of the year living in their somewhat less than luxurious island cottages so they could spend all summer messing around with the twoto-ten-thousand-dollar boats they'd rather own instead of expensive city
homes. It’s an obsession that could get out of hand: one islander built three boats in 10 years, and the fourth —a 50-foot sloop that would cost around $20,000 if bought from a shipyard — is still unfinished, four years after he began it. His wife helped him build it — and earned the enmity of the rest of us who wearied of husbands loudly praising her vir-
tues as a helpmate and pal. My husband, usually a determined bargain hunter, bought a power boat which he sold two years later at an overall loss of twice its original cost.
For us, island life began alarmingly. We were greeted by a very sexy redheaded neighbor who said she was a divorcee and asked whether we’d found any relics of the Black Mass held in our house just before we arrived. Then when we tried to find out just what had happened, those who knew either pretended ignorance,
or refused to talk. Piece by piece, however, we gathered that a crowd of beatniks had held their version of a Black Mass in our living room. When they reached the point at which the Lord’s Prayer is recited backward, one man collapsed. He recovered quickly, but was a changed man. He wore what is reported to have been a demonaic expression, along with “an
aura of evil.” His friends took the affair seriously enough to call in a prominent island churchman, who arranged for a service of exorcism. The man who was thought to have made a pact with the Devil left midway through the service, and apparently has been neither seen nor heard from since. Another of the people involved, a seemingly reasonable man, claims to have been plagued by misfortune and “the Devil's own luck” ever since.
We tackled a local minister on the
subject. His refusal to discuss the incident implied the story we’d pieced together was largely accurate. He did, however, guarantee that no such party had been held in our house. Even so, when I acquired a black cat, island children began saying I was a witch.
I suppose that could have happened in suburbia, but somehow it doesn’t seem likely. And yet, the island was as much a city dormitory as any suburban Paradise Acres. The difference was that it was an oddly mixed community. Suburbia tends to sort people out into income groups, then separate them, so that sociologists are fond of saying that the present system of housing developments are a dangerous purgatory of uniformity.
That was the one thing the island never could be. Our neighbors included a police sergeant who didn’t seem to like people much, a stockbroker who liked playing street hockey with the kids, an accountant who thought he was God’s gift to women, a dentist who left to go and work among the Eskimos, a cab driver, a photographer, a woman doctor who was said to be brilliant but preferred housework, and a woman barber whose husband had left her for a woman with four children. The sergeant and the stockbroker were nativeborn Canadians, and the cab driver and the photographer were eminently sane and unremarkable.
But they were the exceptions: otherwise everyone emerged as slightly kooky. Island life tended to be socially incestuous (the last ferry at 11.30 p.m. made it difficult to have friends in the city), so we all knew one another’s affairs very well, but even so I’m left with the conviction that everyone was . . . well, eccentric.
A silent, unfriendly man — a German — spent weekends paddling around the harbor in a canvas kyak and sported an evillooking furrow on his left cheek which everyone believed to be a dueling scar. I found out the scar was a souvenir of a car crash, but islanders enjoyed the other story too much to disillusion them.
The accountant was a professional Englishman: the sort of man who wore a pin-striped suit, vest, bowler and carried an umbrella at all times, even midsummer. Soon after we arrived he fell out with his second wife, and asked her to leave. She didn't do so. To drive her out, he moved out of their house and camped on the front lawn, sleeping in a Scouts’ tent and cooking on a primus stove. One night, losing patience, he chopped off
the steps leading to both front and back doors. His wife left next morning. His landlord threw him out, and so he went to live in a decrepit houseboat. It looked rather odd to see a Savile Row suit, well-brushed bowler and furled umbrella emerging from a leaky, paint-flaked barge each morning in time to catch the 8.30 a.m. boat to the city. But then the houseboat sank, and he moved in with a woman whose husband had been temporarily posted to England by his firm. All three of them left the island the night the husband returned home unexpectedly to surprise his wife and family.
Perhaps because we knew so much about each other's affairs, we cared about one another. No one bothered the young couple who chopped up all the furniture in their rented house for furnace fuel — but they did bother to offer help when the girl fell ill and couldn't care for the baby. A man who fell ill while his wife and daughter were away was never alone because the women on his street drew up a nursing roster. And when the island dogs were threatened — there seemed to be more dogs than people, and all of them ran free in violation of parksdepartment regulations — the entire community stood together. The alarm was given the moment the dog-catcher's van arrived aboard the vehicle ferry. Within 10 minutes every dog owner had been called by phone and warned. By the time the van reached the inhabited part of the island, there was scarcely a dog to be seen. Once the dog catcher did trap a dog, but a crowd of island children hurled abuse and stones until he freed it, then returned to the city in despair.
Even at the time, island summers seemed longer, more idyllic. Instead of a streetcar or subway, you took the ferry home. At the end of the ride, was a world without traffic, roads, scurrying crowds, smog. It was so different, it demanded you be different. You’d change into sloppy clothes, pop out for a spin in a sailboat. wander among your neighbors, clutching a beer, maybe even try to catch a fish. The children would run wild and build their forts in the bushes and launch missiles from the top of a weeping willow, and we mothers would sit in the garden and read. Being houseproud was pointless because the children would promptly
track in the sand and mud, and there wasn't much to worry about because there was nowhere for the children to get lost and no traffic to mow them down. And then it was evening and you could sit on beach or yacht-club balcony and watch the harbor burn in the glow of sunset and the city twinkle in the distance.
But somehow winters were more fun. The ice-breaker ferry provided a warm cocoon for commuters, who drew closer together and came to
know one another the better because of the perverse kinship in being islanders and riding a ferry without the jarring presence of city people off for a day's outing. Besides, sometimes the boat would get stuck in the ice. and there’s nothing like being trapped in a cabin for two hours to help you know your companions.
Groceries, milk, bread and beer were delivered regularly. The mailman, a cherubic fellow who somehow played Pied Piper to the island dogs.
remained anonymous until the day when, complaining bitterly, he also delivered the bread because Harry the breadman was ill. Harry is a thin sparrow of a man, unfailingly cheerful, who used to complain at Christmas that so many customers were also friends that his Christmas Eve delivery would turn him into an alcoholic. Percy the milkman is burly and brusque and it wasn't until we'd consumed a few hundred gallons of his milk that he mellowed sufficiently to
PARADISE ISLAND commue,!
“Sin” — and flourishing churches
share some of his gloomy views on life, which generally seemed to be that the best thing about life was that it didn’t last forever.
If there be heroes of the battle for the island, they must include Harry, Percy — and Ken Sinclair, who maintains oil, beer and grocery deliveries in the face of a constantly diminishing clientele. He’s a lanky, laconic man and so damned independent the island is roughly divided into those who love and those who hate Ken Sinclair. He used to infuriate my husband, who dreaded an open breach for fear of jeopardizing our supplies of oil and beer, which he considered equally essential to our island survival. Once the island was fogbound for two days and the ferries couldn’t reach us. But Sinclair’s funeral - black scow, the Chuckle Joe, made the return trip carrying the week’s beer supply.
Everyone drank, yet I never .saw a drunk. There were more people "living in sin” than you might expect to find in other comparably sized communities — and yet they helped make the island churches two of the best-supported places of worship in Toronto. No one conformed to anyone else’s ideas of dress or behavior or morals, and yet it was not a communal orgy on the city doorstep: it
was a group of individuals living in one of the last places where the social climate was at least liberal enough for them to be as different as they damn well pleased.
Not all of these people will he swamped by the city. Two families have already left for British Columbia, where they’re building seagoing boats in which they will continue the search for a paradise island. And if you ever hear of an elderly lady given to wearing hideous red stockings, who has the touch of St. Francis of Assisi, it’s probably Mrs. Putt, late of Toronto Island. It is said she once put a landing light in her front garden so a seagull she had raised could find its way home again. Another gull had chronically sore feet, so she fitted it with liny rubber boots. And when last we met she was nursing a duck with paralyzed legs. She had built it an invalid carriage from the chassis of a toy truck, and it rolled around the house, propelling itself with its wings and the little movement of which its legs were capable.
In Etobicoke, they’d have a bylaw against Mrs. Putt.
Come to think of it, perhaps we ought to try Brian Hogan’s Ultimate Weapon. It might work, and if it did it would be in a good cause. ★