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Toronto Beach City III
It's hard to get jazzed about HtO Park. It's nice and well-designed, but also reaffirms it's no piece of cake to be a beach-goer in downtown Toronto.

The third in a series of dispatches taking the pulse of Toronto’s, um, beach culture. Last week: Cherry Beach. HtO PARK Accessed: Sunday, June 12, 4 pm, via sailboat through the Western Channel. And Monday, June 13, 6 pm, via bicycle along the Waterfront Trail Supplies: Blanket, camera Temperature: 19 degrees Celsius, cloudy. Strong breeze. Soundtrack: Neil Young, On the Beach It’s hard to get jazzed about HtO Park. Huddled in the shadow of the Rogers Centre and the Gardiner Expressway, the beach’s docile yellow umbrellas peek out from beyond the multi-planed park, calling out coy come-hithers as you make your way along Queens Quay. It’s just a tease, though: “Come over,” it says, “but don’t take your clothes off. There’s no swimming here.” You sit in the Muskoka chairs that dot the beach, running the sand through your toes. That’s nice enough until you realize it’s your general admission ticket to a repeating chorus line of Porter planes bellying up to Billy Bishop Airport. Sighing, you try to think happy thoughts about urban sanctuaries, playful public spaces, revitalized harbourfronts. Then that party boat cruises by blasting the new Shawn Desman song and suddenly your chakras are over by the CN Tower. The only conclusion to draw is that it’s no piece of cake to be a beach-goer in downtown Toronto. Built on layers of infill that covers quays once used by berthing cargo ships, HtO Park was launched in 2007 by then-mayor David Miller as a small step in the larger revitalization plan for the harbourfront. Marred by a series of delays – money for the project was allocated while Trudeau was still in office – the park was designed by Janet Rosenberg + Associates Landscape Architects, Hariri Pontarini Architects and Montreal’s Claude Cormier Architects Paysagistes, and boasts several thoughtful features: tall mast lights that act as ‘moons’ at night, weaving walkways that recall the railways that once transported goods from the harbour to the city, and horticultural choices like willow and ash trees that act as buffers for wind and sound. The beach’s design was intended to evoke the Georges Seurat painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and on a busy, sunny day, I’m sure the two beaches bear some resemblance beyond their shared history as former industrial sites. The day I visited, though, the beach was forlorn, barren save for a few couples, two BMXers, a group of kayakers and a man eating a sandwich. What it summoned for me was Neil Young’s 1974 album On the Beach. I tried to relax and enjoy the beach-in-the-city experience, but all I could hear was Young’s mournful drawl repeating “The world is turning/I hope it don’t turn away.” After a few hours, afraid of being forgotten down there by the water, I got on my bike and pedalled north into the warm, smoggy embrace of downtown. It may be that what’s missing from HtO Park is not peace and quiet but animation. The possibilities within the park are limited given its size, so your best bet is to try HtO by boat. The self-powered rental options available at the Harbourfront Kayak and Canoe Centre are probably your best bet, unless you’re lucky enough, as I am, to have a friend with a sailboat. Last Sunday, friends and I went for our first sail of the season, heading east from the Toronto Sailing and Canoe Club at the foot of Jameson Street past the dizzying collage of the central waterfront: Marilyn Bell Park, Atlantis Nightclub, the waterslides of Ontario Place, the Princes’ Gates, the Canada Malting Silos, Coronation Park. This is a different show from the one you watch looking out from the park, one that’s about how Toronto interacts with its history, and how, in turn, its residents interact with the city they live in. We tacked through the Western Channel and sailed into the Inner Harbour with the CN Tower looming above us. Just past the Toronto Music Garden, HtO Park’s yellow metal umbrellas appeared, coy still, but also more evocative in the context of the city behind them, markers of the many changes – shifting shorelines and topographies, fluctuating industries and identities – the waterfront has undergone since the area was settled by the ancestral Huron more than 1,600 years ago. In a Toronto Star article written just prior to the park’s launch, Christopher Hume called HtO the “best thing to happen on the waterfront in years,” and predicted it would become a fixed part of Toronto life. Though the appetite for heavily designed, swimming-free beaches certainly seems to be growing, much still needs to change before any part of the harbourfront becomes an integral part of our lives. The city and agencies like Waterfront Toronto have a role to play, of course, but it’s also up to us to do a better job of cultivating an appreciation of our waterfront, whether recreationally, conceptually or historically. Young’s mournful On the Beach lament, “I need a crowd of people/But I can’t face ‘em day to day,” shouldn’t be our waterfront’s mantra.

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