Sugar Beach: an Oasis in the City

God save us from small minded people…

Lately, there has been some debate from certain City Councillors, as well as in the newspapers and online, about the merits of Sugar Beach. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know about Sugar Beach and how I feel about it, but in case you’re new, let me summarize:

Sugar Beach is the best thing that’s happened to this area in the 18 years I’ve lived here.

As one sentence does not a blog post make, let me elaborate.

In all my years of living downtown, I have thoroughly enjoyed being close to the lake. Up until about 10 years ago, I’d spend much of my summer down by Queens Quay, which is a busy touristy area, but it’s by the water. Then a flare and subsequent really big pain levels meant that I lost my ability to drive that far in my wheelchair and my replacement place to relax became the local dog park. It’s a nice stretch of grass and I’ve always enjoyed looking at the dogs play, but it’s not the lake. Although the lake is only a short walk from where I live, there was no place to enjoy it because at the time, it was all industrial and/or undeveloped.

Four years ago, Waterfront Toronto completed Sugar Beach. And now I have a place to go. So did everyone else in this area and over the last four years, I’ve seen more and more people find this oasis in the middle of the city. Office workers take their lunch there, residents go for a walk and the minute it is even remotely warm (and sometimes when it’s not), someone is sitting in Muskoka chairs on the sand. In the summer, people are sunbathing, watching their kids build sand castles, and maybe actually having a chat with someone new. I was there just this weekend and in between the sunbathers, a group of young people were playing volleyball. A bit later, some kids were using the net for an impromptu badminton game.

This space is well used and well loved. It’s a bit quirky, it’s whimsical, it’s unusual — it’s certainly an innovative idea to build an urban beach. It is in fact so innovative that it’s won international awards.

And party poopers such as Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong thinks it cost too much. Each of the umbrellas was about $12,000 and the two large rocks were 500,000 each. Nevermind that the “umbrellas” are actually a form of art structure, including LED lights, that will withstand weather for years. No, it’s all entirely too expensive and besides, those umbrellas are silly.

Heaven forbid you should actually invest money in the city’s waterfront. Because without a beautiful waterfront, developers would come here anyway, wouldn’t they? No, they wouldn’t. They didn’t until the waterfront revitalization project was well underway. Now they’re here, developing condos, communities and in generally investing money in this area of the city. In fact, according to Waterfront Toronto CEO John Campbell, “Tax revenues generated from waterfront revitalization and the $2.6 billion investment from developers have effectively paid back to the federal, provincial and city governments almost all of the $1.5 billion they provided to Waterfront Toronto.” But we don’t talk about that, do we?

Councillor Minnan-Wong isn’t the only one who doesn’t like Sugar Beach. In today’s Toronto Star, Rosie DiManno sneeringly opines that she prefers looking at the industrial landscape rather than this “large and expensive sandbox.” She also mentions how she’s soon going to be lying under a real beach umbrella when she travels to Sicily.

This is the point where I tear out my hair. Because although I am happy for Ms. DiManno that she has the opportunity to go to Sicily, not everyone has the ability to do so, either financially or beacause beaches are notorious impossible for wheelchairs (whereas Sugar Beach has a dock so people with disabilities can enjoy it, too). And although I’m completely with her in terms of finding industrial landscapes fascinating and beautiful, they don’t afford the residents of this neighbourhood many places to sit and enjoy the lake. Sugar Beach does. It is an oasis of quiet bliss in the middle of the city, within easy walking distance of a lot of people.

And the last thing that irritates me to no end about the small-minded arguments against this beautiful development is the dismissals of it being ‘elitist’ and people who like it are ‘aesthetes.’ Let’s just call it what it is: they’re saying that only rich people have time to blather on about design, whereas us hard-working taxpayers don’t have time for that nonsense. Aside from it this being yet another gambit in the attempt to create an artificial war between the sensible taxpayers versus the frivolous elites of downtown, it’s nonsense. Because guess what: poor people like nice things, too. In fact, those of us who are not financially blessed often have to go to public spaces or art galleries in order to find these nice things to look at. In fact, it would probably be argued that we use these public spaces more than those who are able to hop in a car or on a plane and go somewhere else. People who don’t have houses or don’t go camping or travel to Sicily. Moreover, we like to be proud of the place we live in, too. Many of us live downtown and are tired of all the grey.

Sugar Beach, along with the other Waterfront Toronto developments, is an investment in people, in our city, and in our future, one that will repay its cost many times over. That’s the big picture view, the one that is so lamentably lacking people who are focusing exclusively on the cost. Sugar Beach is an oasis, an opportunity to play in the sand, get lost in the beauty of willow trees, water, umbrellas and Muskoka chairs, against the backdrop of the working sugar factory, all combining to create living, functional art. This place is a breath of fresh air and a sanctuary in all seasons, captivating photographers, documentary filmmakers, children, tourists, and residents of the area. It's a gift.

Full disclosure: I serve on the Construction Liaison Committee at Waterfront Toronto as the voice of accessibility for people with disabilities. They asked me to get involved after our discussion about Sugar Beach and accessibility to make sure they were inclusive in their process. This is an unpaid position. Even if I didn't sit on this Committee, I'd still have the same opinion. I love it so much it even has its own label on my blog!


AlisonH said…
Go Lene. And anybody who would rather have blight than beach is completely out of their mind. Time to play Cat Stevens' "But tell me, where do the children play?" song in their meetings.
Diane said…
The pictures of Sugar Beach are just lovely and really encourage people to want to go there.

Our city, Rochester, NY, does have 2 public beaches on Lake Ontario. However, the increasing number of young people intent on fighting has put both these places on my "don't bother" list. The only other option is Hamlin Beach State Park, which charges admission. To the best of my knowledge, the rest of the shoreline is owned by private whiners.