Art Feature: The Leslie Spit

Published November 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 10

text by Ross Evertson and photos by Ross Evertson and Davin Risk

 In any city it is incredibly easy to take for granted—or be ignorant entirely—of the things that are happening beneath us. Transportation and sewer systems, fault lines and lagoons—modern, ancient and natural catacombs of all sorts functioning and hiding below our cities.

My first visit to the Leslie Spit in Toronto (officially named the Outer Harbor East Headland) was rebuffed. It was a Tuesday in July, and the temperature was around 100 degrees. I rode my bike a meandering five miles through downtown Toronto to the corner of Leslie Street and Lake Shore Blvd. The broad, concrete boulevard and the giant box store across the street gave me pause—I felt as if I was back in south suburban Denver. A quick glance west and the CN Tower reassured me that I was indeed still in Toronto, and this vast, clean ribbon of concrete was an anomaly.  

I rode by the Canadian Tire (their Target analog) towards the lake, towards a small gatehouse that serves as the entrance to the Spit.  The rather burly, rather Canadian construction worker manning the gatehouse stepped out to quickly and politely tell me to turn around and come back on Sunday. Since my impression of the Spit was that it was a public trail, it seemed strange to be turned away—was my timing really that bad? In the moment between those thoughts and actually forming a reasonable question, the sound of a gigantic diesel engine filled the air behind me. I thought to myself that perhaps it wasn’t an issue of timing, but poor information.

It turns out that the Spit has multiple identities and the one that concerned me that Tuesday—that of a publicly accessible trail—is only in effect on Sundays. The rest of the time it is a legal dumping zone controlled by the Toronto Port Authority.

Originally the Spit was, in the late 50’s, designed as a breakwater for the impending harbor expansion. However, as lake shipping became less common, the expansion never happened. While Toronto ports failed to grow, the Spit thrived. A building boom in the 1960’s and 70’s led to (as it often does) the demolition of many old buildings. Bricks from these old buildings, rounded off by the waters of Lake Ontario, make up some of the breakwaters shoreline.

In the last forty years, more than broken buildings have found refuge on the 5km long peninsula. Over 300 species of birds can be found there, and as many plant species. In 1977 a group called “Friends of the Spit” was founded to operate on its behalf—defending it from a number of “attacks” including proposed housing developments and golf courses.  

My second visit was more appropriately timed.  It was Sunday, and the temperature was a good 30 degrees cooler. Instead of large trucks passing through the gates, hikers and cyclists spread out all over the peninsula. The usual Toronto diversity was apparent, with East Indian, Jamaican, Italian and Portuguese families mingling with the equally diverse flora and fauna of the Spit. It was apparent that I wasn’t the only first time patron, as my inspections of the concrete and rebar shores were not lonely ones.
The company and the shared interest were comforting. So was the idea that this man-made piece of land, a result of a failed shipping forecast, is a literal and physical part of Toronto’s history.  And six days a week, this history, as well as the Spit, continues to grow.