In January, I went on a trip to the beach. Except this beach had no sparkling ocean and no coastline at all. The closest body of water was Lake Ontario, which is located one hour by foot. As I scavenged through the shoreless terrain, I was stomping through rough gravel with my Blundstones rather than soft sand, expelling faint clouds of dust. There were faded yellow lines from old parking spaces, aligned from left to right. I had no umbrella, no blanket, sunglasses nor a swimsuit in my bag, but just my phone, wallet and keys. Such is the life at Bloordale Beach.
The Beach was enclosed by a tall fence decorated with decrepit signs that once read, “Danger, trespassing”, but someone covered the letters with duct tape and changed it to, “Linger, so yespassing” in black Sharpie. There were green Danger signs along the fence, defaced with yellow spray paint that read “SHARKS” below it. But obviously, the city of Toronto was hundreds of kilometres away from real sharks. The only wildlife I saw were flocks of pigeons scrounging for scraps and plastic bags. The Beach had a designated “sea turtle nesting area”, or simply a pitiful ecosystem surrounded by wooden boards and populated by lifeless, toy turtles.
Situated beside Bloor Collegiate Institute, Bloordale Beach was once the location of Brockton High School. It was torn down in 2019, and now a vacant lots rests in its place, with a few openings cut from the fence for people to trespass. In May 2020, artist Shari Kasman came up with the idea of making beach signs after seeing someone using the empty space for suntanning. And hence comical signs, from “Beach Water Quality Hotline” to a convincing “UNESCO World Heritage Site” designation.1
Since moving into the neighbourhood, my boyfriend and I have periodically encountered the Beach during our afternoon strolls and Dufferin Mall errands. While technically off-limits to the public, a lack of enforcement allows Torontonians to wander through, perhaps out of necessity for physical distancing.
It’s only fitting that the need for space had a significant part to play in creating Bloordale Beach. Kasman said that before the school was demolished, the area was a public shortcut to Dufferin Mall and a place where she would hang out and collect interesting artifacts. In fact, several schools throughout the city, such as Brockton High, were demolished and sold to developers, who kept architectural remnants for commercial and residential properties.
So why such a bleak spot to explore and photograph in the first place? For one, its unusual nature full of dry humour and sombre undertones makes a good candidate for Atlas Obscura (I’d be surprised to not see it listed). Most importantly, it’s a quirky way to elevate spirits and highlight important conversations about urban planning and public opinion.
At first, I found that Bloordale Beach emanated sadness over the past year’s losses, despite its peculiarity. Rather than a far-away tropical paradise, I’m reserved to a cold, fenced-in dusty demolition site, bundled in a hat and face mask. During lockdown, the Beach seemed to be Toronto’s only accessible “tourist attraction”, although sometimes I forget that even this place is off-limits to the public. But when I saw the signs and understood their deadpan humour and the colourful toy turtles, I saw an artwork that brought light out of sadness. The Beach is also about everyday people reclaiming a space to share their imagination, humour and creativity with their community. What makes it funnier is how deprived Canada is of tropical beaches, even in normal times. Therefore, I’d argue that Bloordale Beach is indeed a tourist attraction in its own unconventional way.
Shawn Micallef, in his August 9, 2020 article about Bloordale Beach writes that repurposing this Beach represents a dialogue between the people and Toronto’s city council. Perhaps it’s a call for more green spaces, as the city continues to build upwards on every street corner. Micallef also presents an interesting artistic take, drawing a parallel between the Beach and Situationist International, an avant-garde art movement from 1960s France. But it’s also symbolic of how public space and resources are utilized in Toronto. He argues for increased preservation of Toronto’s architectural heritage and that razing heritage buildings just to rebuild does not send a proper sustainability message to the public.1
After reading more about the Beach, I harkened back to my Master’s program in History. A primary facet of Public History in particular is the concept of space and its relationship to historical narratives and the people who used this space. As seen with Bloordale Beach, the multitude of uses and physical transformations of space notably exposes power structures as well as forms of public protest. This is an example of both using and reclaiming space for meaningful purposes.
The idea of a space’s physical transformations resonates with me the most. Toronto is a city that forever moves through a never-ending cycle of construction, destruction and re-construction. That sadness resurfaces when I think of places that once existed. I lament the loss of pre-pandemic living (albeit temporary) but also losses of local businesses from COVID or condos and losses of affordable housing due to high rents and evictions. But on the optimistic side, the selective few who took this space and made it their own embraced humour, reclaimed a space and built a community.
At some point, a new Bloor Collegiate Institute will be rebuilt on this site, erasing Bloordale Beach from physical existence. But it’ll never cease to be erased from memory.
1 Information about Kalman as well as the story behind Bloordale Beach was from Shawn Micallef’s article “Watch for sharks: Toronto’s newest beach at Bloor and Dufferin has everything — except water,” published in the Toronto Star, Aug. 9, 2020. See article here.