Leslie Street Spit (Tommy Thompson Park)

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Far away, conveniently located.

The Long Version: The Leslie Street Spit, occasionally known by its formal name of Tommy Thompson Park, is an interesting piece of work. Built out of construction debris sixty years ago to allow shipping from the St Lawrence Seaway to use the Outer Harbour, it was never really needed and nothing much happened with it for decades. As it tends to do, nature took its course and eventually the five-kilometer, 1200-acre peninsula was turned over to TRCA, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. That's the body that manages the GTA's wilder spaces, including Rouge Valley, while it's Toronto Parks that oversees the spots with clipped grass and swing sets.

The Leslie Street Spit is hardly a typical park. Built as an infill project, it remains an active dumping site for construction waste during the week. On the weekends its wide potholed road is taken over by joggers, cyclists, and rollerbladers. One conspicuous absence is the casual strollers and dog-walkers: because it's a wildlife sanctuary pets are prohibited, and the spit is a long way from any residential areas. Although civilization is slowly encroaching on the industrial portlands, the TTC doesn't quite reach it and it's not the prettiest spot.

What the Spit does offer is car-free roads and flat ground, making it ideal for wheeled recreation, as well as walking paths closer to the shore. It has some excellent and unusual views of the downtown skyline, and it's a phenomenal place for birds. The wooded landward side has one of the largest colonies of ring-billed gulls in the world. One of the items on my to-do list is to take my audio recorder down there during the spring, because the sound can be quite unbelievable. It's rare to go there and not see at least one or two groups of sunhat-wearing binocular-equipped ornithologists.

The shoreline facing the lake has mostly seasonal vegetation, so it's not somewhere to go during the spring thaw. When the ground is still frozen, or when the weather's been dry and the vegetation has had a chance to become established, it's a fascinating landscape of brick beaches and debris. Concrete poles and tangles of rebar, truckloads of tile, ornamental pillars broken into sections – a few years ago I spotted a place where several toilets were emerging from the layer of earthen fill. I wouldn't describe this as a particularly safe place to fool around, as the rubble is often loose underfoot and there's little chance of prompt assistance should something go wrong. Break an ankle here and it's a very long walk back to the city; the elevation of the land means that the waterline is invisible from the construction road.

The Spit is a fascinating place. It's as far away from downtown Toronto as it's possible to be without actually needing to go very far from the city. It's where I went for a practice run before my trip to Coney Island last march; its winds were a good match for those coming off the Atlantic. I've been taking landscape photos there for years, and recently spent a couple of happy days photographing individual bricks. I've been making it my turn-around point for bike rides for over a decade, and hope to continue it for at least a couple more. The mix of isolation, protection, and neglect has made it a spot unlike any other in Toronto, and hopefully that won't change as the city reaches out to its waterfront.

last updated 18 sep 2011


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