On their island, a little piece of paradise 650 Torontonians live on metro outpost

March 29, 1992|By New York Times News Service

TORONTO -- They're a hearty people, like Elizabeth Amer, a third-generation islander, who has just come off the icy ferry from the mainland trundling a "bundle buggy" with food and supplies for herself, her three cats and her dog.

Ms. Amer, whose living-room window frames the sleek, silvery skyscrapers of downtown Toronto a mile across the water, is one of 650 residents of a sickle-shaped archipelago known locally as the Island.

Although only 12 minutes by ferry to the mainland, this wind-lashed metropolitan outpost retains some of the character of simpler times, when it was the camping ground for Mississauga Indians hunting deer in what is now the Bay Street financial district.

There are no cars, restaurants, stores, coin laundries or movie theaters. The 650 residents, who live in 250 weather-beaten wooden cottages mainly along the eastern shores, instead have thick black willow trees, big skies, open water, and the company of at least one red fox and thousands of geese and ducks.

To Ms. Amer, a second-term member of the Toronto City Council who once edited an island newsletter called Goose and Duck, these are the qualities that make the place "magical" and "pretty close to heaven."

A neighbor and friend, Sarah Miller, who bikes to her job on the mainland as coordinator for the Canadian Environmental Law Association, terms the way of life "a lot saner than the rat race across the water."

Another neighbor and friend, Barbara Klunder, who is a painter and designer, added, "We're a small, mutually supportive community in the woods, and sometimes we just think of ourselves as a bunch of elves."

These days the elves are merrier than they have been in a long, long while. After a four-decade struggle against sheriff's writs, eviction notices and demolition teams, they have just won the right to continue living on their little bit of paradise.

Shortly before Christmas, the Ontario provincial government announced that residents would be permitted to buy a 99-year lease on their homes from a newly created island land trust controlled by the community.

Toronto will collect about $12 million from the sale of the leases, and the province replaces the city as the landlord.

The Ontario government has thereby finally nullified a civic grand design on the books since the mid-1950s: to oust all the residents and turn the area into parkland, with the exception of a small existing airport on the western side and three yacht clubs.

Essentially it was a conflict between two concepts of development. Grand visions of large-scale bulldozing for grandiose urban renewal projects to accommodate the automobile were pitted against the idea favored by residents: small neighborhoods and mixed developments containing housing, shops and offices, where the accent was more on people.

The battle lines were forming decades ago, around the time that a seminal work was published in the United States in 1961 -- "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," by Jane Jacobs. Ms. Jacobs, an American who now lives in Toronto, found that people were attracted by people, not open spaces, and that what the planners saw as chaos was really an "organic order" that would enrich life. She became the intellectual patron saint of the residents.

Acting on the belief that real estate on the Island was of little value, the city administration got writs to demolish hundreds of houses before the residents were finally able to mobilize enough forces politically to delay and finally halt the process.

The islanders cited the injustice of losing homes in which they had invested thousands of dollars. They used the Jacobs argument that the existence of neighborhoods, the year-round presence of people, would improve the safety of public areas. Slowly the public came over to their side.

"It was an experience like no other in my life," said Susan Warner Keene, another artist who was attending the Ontario College of Art during some intense battles in the early 1970s.

She remembered the "terrible decision" she had to make about locating the loom for sisal tapestry she was weaving for her art degree, a loom that would have been too big to move once the work had started.

Her choices were home on the Island or at the college workshop. At home, she risked not having access to the loom if her house was padlocked by the sheriff and marked for demolition. Yet if she focused her activities at the college workshop, she would have been abandoning her community and the struggle. She chose to work on the Island.

"Now that it's over," she said, "we should be getting back some of the energy that was drained off by fighting all those battles with the city, and we can go back to more positive things. I see a real flowering."

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