The Island Life

My city has a wonderful little neighbourhood that’s precious to the people who live there, but carries a bohemian mystique for those who don’t.  I finally ventured into the heart of this treasure for the first time.

Sitting in Toronto Harbour, with a gorgeous view of the city skyline, is a cluster of islands known simply as the Toronto Islands.

Tucked away on the far east end of this archipelago is Ward’s and Algonquin Islands (which I will call The Island) – certainly the most unique neighbourhood I’ve seen in Toronto.

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The history of this residential area is long and rather convoluted.  My description of it here is superficial at best.

From the late 1800s to the mid 1950s, the Toronto Islands was a thriving summer resort area. Hotels, hundreds of cottages, and numerous amenities lined the islands from east to west on lots created and leased by the city.

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View of the Toronto skyline from Ward’s Island

By the end of the 1940s, people were taking up full time residency on the islands because of a housing shortage in the city after the war.

In the late 1950s, when the city decided to convert the islands to parkland, they began recovery of the leased lots and the buildings on them were demolished.

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By the 1970s, around 250 cottages remained … all of them clustered on The Island.  These were residents who were refusing to leave and they began a long legal battle against the city to fight their eviction.

In 1993, the Ontario government finally ended the dispute when it passed the Toronto Island Residential  Community Stewardship Act (TIRS Act).  It placed the remaining island properties in a land trust and 99 year leases were sold to the residents.

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The TIRS Act is complex and is administered by the trust.  When properties on The Island become available, they cannot go on the usual real estate market.

A special process was developed for the sale* of these properties to prevent land speculation and escalation in property values.  Properties can be offered only to those individuals on a waiting list … individuals who have paid to be on that list.

* the land is leased by the Island Land Trust, but the building on the property is owned by the tenant.  The TIRS Act uses a formula to calculate the value of both the lease and the building on it.

If you are lucky enough to get on the waiting list – which is capped at only 500 – it is estimated that it will take approximately 35 years for your name to bubble up close enough to the top to *maybe* be offered one of the leases that infrequently becomes available.

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Owners of an Island lease are required to use the property as their principal residence although there is a provision for limited rental.

There are no motor vehicles in this neighbourhood.  The *roads* are only slightly wider than a typical suburban sidewalk and accommodates only pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

I nearly had a collision with another cyclist at one of these intersections … a terrifying event given my still-healing collarbone.

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At the intersection of Bayview and Fifth St on Ward’s Island

During the years of dispute between the city and the residents, the cottages had fallen into disrepair because the city wouldn’t issue building permits.  That has now changed.

Large modern homes are starting to dot the neighbourhood, but small cottages still dominate the area.

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The Island has a fire station and a water treatment plant exists on the west end of the islands, but all purchases have to be made on the mainland and brought back to The Island via the ferry service that runs all year round.

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This post is part of the weekly photo challenge, Thursday Doors, hosted by Norm Frampton at Norm 2.0.

 

About Joanne Sisco

Retired but not idle. Life is an adventure - I plan to continue to embrace it.
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104 Responses to The Island Life

  1. We visited the Islands a few times over the summer and I absolutely love them. Thank you for the information about the houses. I wondered who owned them or if they could be rented etc. I have found the only downside to the Islands is getting there on the weekends. The ferry lines are a nightmare.

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  2. The view of the Toronto skyline is splendid.

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  3. boristoronto says:

    A wonderful little space. I’ve been thinking of putting my name into the waiting list hat. Who know’s I’m 30 now, maybe before I die I could potentially get to live on the island… Or perhaps knowing my luck, they’ll link into the lake a week before my turn was to happen.

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  4. Purpleanais says:

    Those cottages are SO cute! I’ve always wanted to go to Canada, posts like these remind me why I must. Soon.

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      Canada has multiple personalities depending on where you go. Each one is unique and interesting in its own way … like finding quirky little cottages on an island within sight of the skyscrapers of downtown Toronto 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Joanne Sisco says:

    Thanks 🙂
    I think the sign is definitely being sarcastic- it’s certainly an attention grabber.

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  6. Great tour – you make me realize how overdue I am for a visit…maybe with lunch at the restaurant😊

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      Great plan! The restaurant seemed to be a very popular place – packed on a Friday afternoon. Come to think of it, I can’t think of a better way to kill a few hours on a lovely afternoon 🙂

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  7. Quite amazing. Love the small colourful cottages! ❤

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  8. LB says:

    What a delightful place to visit! Your explanation of the history is fascinating, even if it only skims the surface. So if you visit during the week when the crowds are not as great, are there places to find a meal or a drink?
    I love the idea of cycling around.

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      There are a few places to eat and drink. The islands aren’t very big. I’m guessing end to end is about 5km, but it a lovely way to spend a few hours, stop at the few beaches along the way, people watch, etc.

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  9. Such charming cottages! the whole place is delightful. Thanks so much for the virtual guided tour. Joanne. 🙂

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  10. lumar1298 says:

    I like… I love bright colors even though in my home, I pretty much have brown tones… I need to spice it up a bit…

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  11. Wow, very nice! Really liked your photos of this island’s doors!

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  12. Ariel Hudnall [Alex Hurst] says:

    Those cottages are so adorable!! I want to live in one! 😀 And the skyline is so pristine from that area. The weather must have been spectacular that day! :O

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      It was a perfect day, weather-wise. The islands were a great place to be on a surprisingly quiet Friday afternoon.
      … And I agree, the cottages were adorable. I just love the one with the purple door and the yellow moon and stars. I could have happily moved in there.

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  13. Jeff Bell says:

    That is very interesting. I can imagine that is a really great spot to live, especially in summer. I am not patient enough or rich enough to wait 35 years tho.

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  14. Ally Bean says:

    This looks like heaven to me. Those cute houses + the water. I wanna get on that list but I’m stopped by the fact that I’m not Canadian + the reality that I won’t care about such things in 35 years. But oh so interesting now.

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  15. In many ways this island sounds idyllic. To think of how you can feel as if you have gotten away from it all. However, yes, one of my first questions while reading this was-what’s it like in the winter? And then my second question is-do they not have restrictions on rebuilding the cottages? It will be a shame to lose the essence of the island if those with money are allowed to buildup big mansions. The history of the place is amazing.

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  16. Beautiful shots 🙂 How’s your shoulder doing?

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      Thanks 🙂
      I’m doing pretty well. I just had another x-ray this week and I’ve been given another 2 months 😦
      It’s not that discouraging though – I’ve been given the ok to do most things again. Thanks for asking 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Margie in Toronto says:

    I love going over to the islands – especially to Ward’s & Algonquin – always so peaceful. Did you visit the Rectory Cafe? It’s a lovely restaurant and open every day except Christmas & New Year’s – and you can book it for Weddings & Showers etc. The restaurant isn’t big but they have a huge outdoor space and as the weather gets cooler they use those large outdoor heaters and offer blankets to help keep diners warm. I heartily recommend it on your next trip if you haven’t been there as yet.

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  18. Oh wow. I want to live there. But I’ve clearly missed the boat. (hur hur hur) It’s a pity with all the rules attached that they couldn’t put one in about what you can build. I’d hate to think that modern monstrosities might be starting to detract from those gorgeous cottages.

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      I agree … but the big monster homes have already started 😦

      It certainly looks like a lovely place to be in the summer, but I wonder how difficult it would be in the winter.
      Not to mention the inconvenience of having to get a ferry to go shopping, go to work, go to school, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Margie in Toronto says:

        It can be tricky and people have to be prepared for power outages etc. but they keep the ferry’s running (although they use the smaller ones that have closed indoor space) and keep the water open in the harbour. I think people just get used to hauling their groceries over – many of them keep carts over in the dock area in order to go to St. Lawrence Market etc.

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  19. That is totally fascinating! I love the quaint and quirky design of the homes. So glad you didn’t have a crash.

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  20. Sue Slaght says:

    Look at those gorgeous and eclectic cottages! Who would know in the bustle of Toronto that such finds are close by. I took in a bit of a gasp at the thought of you and that poor collarbone being in a collision. Play safe out there my friend.

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      I did a major gasp!! Thankfully we were both moving slowly so we both managed to take evasive action but it was WAY TOO CLOSE for comfort!!

      This is one of the things I’m really enjoying about exploring in my own city. I knew this neighbourhood was there … I just never considered visiting it before.
      It exceeded my expectations in the quirky category 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  21. jan says:

    Ferry services running all year long? Wow. I wonder if the islanders ever get “island fever.”

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  22. You have given us yet another reason to return to Toronto! The colors of the cottages are glorious and the landscape looks lovely. It would be a bit of a challenge to live there, but I think the seclusion and sense of community would be worth it (at least on a part-time basis).

    I’m so relieved that you avoided a collision!

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      I think it would be a lovely place to spend the summer. Not sure I would feel the same way about living there in the winter.
      The smells, the deep shade, the old screen doors … all reminded me of summer as a kid growing up 🙂

      It’s sad that there were not very many people on the islands that afternoon and only a handful of people on bikes. Go figure I would manage to have a close encounter with one!

      Liked by 1 person

  23. Wow! They are beautiful houses for sure but seems like what started as a reasonable plan may have backfired!

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  24. How absolutely charming! 🙂

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  25. dconnollyislandgmailcom says:

    Great post, Joanne. Although I (previously) lived in the Toronto area for years, I never made it out to the islands. Your post has inspired me to change that on my next Toronto visit!
    Donna
    Retirement reflections.com

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      It’s actually sad that I’ve lived here for so long and this was my first visit.

      Visiting the islands on a warm day is lovely … especially since I deliberately waited until school started again so there wouldn’t be any crowds.

      This was my first time taking my bike and that made a huge difference. It was much easier and faster to get around and see everything. Even then, I’ve discovered I missed stuff and need to go back!

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  26. I love those little cottages, Joanne. There are a few islands dotted around the coast of Ireland where cars are not allowed, or necessary. I’m not sure I would like to live full time on an island but I do like visiting them.

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  27. Wonderful history and doors! I love the cottages. I like the purple cottage and of course the Gleneagles place.

    I’m so glad you didn’t have a collision with the other cyclist!

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      The purple door with the yellow stars and moon was my favourite. I loved that little cottage. It might not be very clear in the photo, but through the windows on the side I could see there were floor to ceiling book shelves along the entire wall {swoon!}
      I can’t think of a more perfect place to spend a warm summer day with a book 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  28. Relax... says:

    What everyone said — b) I wanna live/visit there, and a) glad you didn’t collide!

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  29. Dan Antion says:

    This is one of the most interesting door posts I’ve read Joanne. The doors are beautiful as are the other photos. I felt a twinge when I was reading about the near-collision on the bike trail. That must have been scary. I think you did a pretty good job with the history. I enjoyed this very much.

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      Thanks Dan. I found the history rather challenging because there was just so much of it. Trying to boil it down so it was not overly long was not easy.

      I’ve since discovered there were things I missed while I visited the islands so I think another visit will be mandatory.
      I’m going to be hard-pressed to find a door I liked more than the purple one with the yellow stars and moon though 🙂

      … and yes, I was UBER careful after that near miss on the bike!!

      Liked by 1 person

  30. How interesting! I love the purple cottage – looks like a really fun place. Glad you avoided the collision.

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  31. Wow, Joanne. That place must be so fun to visit. The cottages are beautiful, and I like that there’s no car traffic. 35 years is a long long wait, but it seems like the process is working. Toronto has preserved a gem 🙂

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  32. Fabulous post and gorgeous images, I always love Islands, I grew up on one and have been drawn to them ever since, maybe that’s why we live so close to the Atlantic Islands here! I love Island life and the community and the like mindedness of Islanders.

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  33. Many years ago, we went over to one of the islands (Ward’s, I imagine), but I don’t really remember much about it. Great excuse to go back, although we’re much more than a short day’s drive away in Chicago vs when we lived in Cleveland. The cottages are gems and I’m so happy they’re being preserved!!

    janet

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  34. I love the little cottages and I am glad they are still on the island today. I live in a blue “character” house myself and find it quite charming.
    Our farm in Austria/Italy was built on church property. All the acres of land, the forest, the ponds, and fields were leased for 100 years. My Grandmother died 2 years before another lease renewal and I let it go back.

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  35. Tippy Gnu says:

    Glad you kept your collarbone intact. Must be a wonderful place to live, with all the inconvenience a resident has to go through to live there.

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  36. Nice post. We always enjoyed going to the Islands when we lived in Toronto. It was such a peaceful place close-by to escape the noise of the city…(Suzanne)

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      I’m sad to admit I’ve only been to the islands once or twice. I always had an aversion to crowds and certainly in the summer on the weekends, it’s really bad.
      Now that I’m retired and I can do things during the week – and after school starts – I’m getting to enjoy things I’ve avoided for years.
      This was definitely one of my favourites!

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  37. Joe says:

    Wonderful post and images Joanne 🙂 Personally I think the waiting list and land trust is a great idea to deter developers. As an Islander myself (Long Island) I know what a beautiful rural area can turn into when developers and speculators get involved. In the 50’s 60’s and 70’s most NYC dwellers moved out to Long Island to get away from the hectic and crowded conditions of city life (my own family moved out from Brooklyn). Now because of lax or no regulations on developers the island is turning into the city at a fast pace. Out on the east end (the twin forks) there are some regulations that prevent developers from turning the pristine land into shopping malls and also further west on the island the Pine Barrens are protected by the NYS government so no development can take place. The Pine Barrens are important to the filtering of the water supply of the island because of the unique aquifer system (rather than deep drilled wells). I’ve rambled on long enough now but I would love to live in a little cottage like the ones pictured 🙂 Can you please put me on the waiting list ?

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      I wish I could get you on a waiting list 🙂

      I’m seeing what’s happening right now in Toronto with all the development going on and it makes me sad. Most of the development is ugly, unimaginative buildings with a view only to fattening the pocketbook of the developer.
      We’re seeing problems with road congestion, transit inadequacy, and even problems with the electrical grid because too much development has occurred without considering the impact on the infrastructure 😦
      I’m starting to discover that the best decisions aren’t usually made.

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  38. joey says:

    Oh my gosh, so charming! I think I’m in love! So neat!
    It’s great they’ve preserved that many. Bit of a shame they didn’t get onto it earlier, and whoa on that waiting list, but still a great thing overall.
    Love this!

    PS: Glad you were able to avoid a collision 🙂

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  39. Norm 2.0 says:

    Of all the the times I’ve been to Toronto I have yet to set foot on the islands. With the story of the residents holding out against the city and winning, the place has always had that bohemian mystique about it. I’ll have to get out there one of these days.
    Great post Joanne 🙂

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      I’ve always avoided the islands like the plague because of the crowds in the summer. I’d been there only once or twice with my boys when they were young. There is a children’s amusement part on Central Island and it’s a magnet for families – not to mention the beaches.

      Enjoying them on a quiet week day when school is in was a perfect choice. If you do manage to get there one day, I recommend renting a bike to make exploring easier. I think it’s a good 4-5 km end to end so it’s worthwhile.

      Liked by 1 person

  40. Wow. I love the bold colours they have on some of those places! Most unique. And how wonderful to have places with no automobiles! A fun little slice of heaven right in the middle of Toronto. Who knew!

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    • Joanne Sisco says:

      I was quite surprised by how charming it was – and for me, also really nostalgic. There was something about the smell in the air and the old screen doors on many of the homes that reminded me of growing up as a kid.
      I could almost hear my mom yelling ‘quit slamming the door’ 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  41. Lynn says:

    Oh Joanne, what a find! I love each & every one you have posted here! Can the properties be transferred to family members or do they have to be sold when the original owner passes?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joanne Sisco says:

      I’m not sure, Lynn. I’ve read conflicting reports. It seems reasonable to me though that transfers to immediate family members should be an exception. Otherwise, what incentive would there be to maintaining and developing the potential of a property?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Lynn says:

        Well, I suppose maintaining for your own purposes while owning it but just wondered if withing that 99 yr lease, the property could be transferred to a family member in the event of a death from an existing owner. Interesting….

        Liked by 1 person

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