There was a time when the strip of Lake Shore adjacent to the Humber Bay was the rough and tumble, neon-lit Wild West of the Greater Toronto Area. Once the main western gateway to Toronto, the Lake Shore of the 1950s epitomized the sort of freewheeling optimism romanticized about the postwar era, its asphalt lined with bars, motels, and the ubiquitous flicker of billboards. Vacationing families swarming the waterfront were as common as Ford Thunderbirds slowly cruising the street, simultaneously Leave it to Beaver and American Graffiti. Etobicoke and Toronto were exploding, and for a decade or so, at any rate, this was one of many centres of activity.
But unfortunately for the Etobicoke strip, that boom of progress brought with it the urban development that would gradually spell its decline. With traffic diverted away from the Lake Shore after the Gardiner opened in 1966, a protracted period of decay set in. Twenty years later, a place where thriving community and nightlife once coexisted was a sliver of its former self, with little more than the low-rise, art deco motels of the bygone period remaining. And most of those motels remained open due to a growing demand for facilities with hourly rates.
One of these motels remained iconic: the Beach Motel, right across Lake Shore from the soon-to-be-defunct Christie factory. Though in serious disrepair, it stood as the surviving link to the strip’s past, perhaps the last recognizable feature of what was once a very distinct face.
But with the Beach Motel’s demolition this morning, that chapter of Toronto’s history came to its close.
Like the Christie factory itself, the fate of the Beach Motel is the fate of the entire area, changing at a rate proportional to that of neighbouring construction. As property values on the strip entered a nosedive post-1966, large developers bought up the land in an avaricious free-for-all. Though you couldn’t go 10 feet in the 1950s without being told to buy this here or to drink that there, by 2012, the most dollars on the strip were changing hands far away from where billboards once stood. Places like the Beach Motel—which had been in the Young family since 1934—simply languished in the shadows of what those dollars paid for.
Of course, while recognizing the sadness of losing such a longstanding part of the city’s history, officials and business representatives remain optimistic about the future of this area.
“It’s a sad day seeing something that was part of our memories come down,” said local councillor Mark Grimes (Ward 6, Etobicoke-Lakeshore). Heralding forthcoming developments as an opportunity for “revitalization,” however, both he and Empire Communities, the new folks on the block, point to high-density residential and retail construction, coupled with proposed parkland along the waterfront, as the shiny, polished, high-end salvation of the decrepit strip. Taking in the urban vista from the Humber Bay, just south of where the first girders of this salvation are soon to be erected, anyone can be a prophet in terms of what that future will look like. While some welcome it, others see it as part of the same continuum that brought the Beach Motel’s destruction—both the beginning of that process and the end—as well as the loss of too much Toronto heritage, and the template for the future “Vancouver-ization” of Toronto’s waterfront.