By Joseph Gentile
For months on end, Canadians are cooped away in their homes, with their furnaces and heaters cranked high. When summer arrives, it is only natural for those who have felt like prisoners in their own homes to escape the concrete-jungle subdivision, and venture along natures many wonders and paths. For some, that enjoyable place is a rather secluded ‘kettle’ lake in the Muskokas, or perhaps a log cabin in the woods, or maybe a summer home perched high along the cliff-faces of the Niagara Escarpment. However, those with young children know – perhaps some young-at-hearts might even agree – that there is nothing more valued and cherished than a beach vacation.
Ontario’s many shorelines certainly never disappoint the numerous naturalists, recreationists, thrill-seekers and beach-goers that flock—sometimes by the thousands—to claim their own spot in Ontario’s ‘paradise’ country. Many municipalities in these areas have fostered a niche around tourism, and having the valued Great Lakes – along with other water bodies of which they feed – close-at-hand increases the livelihood and economic successes of these flourishing towns.
In fact, one might even say that a breath of life is pulsating through every tourist-driven town across Ontario in the summer months. The energy of spaces so harmonious; the value of recollected memories, and a grandeur that seemingly surpasses anything else lingers around in these coastal
communities, thus making them social hubs.
That is what many picture when they think of summer in small-town Ontario: family-friendly, intimate atmospheres in which they can create memories of their own.
However, a beachfront community on the north-eastern shore of Lake Erie seems trapped in years of silence after having lost their crown tourism draw, states one Crystal Beach resident.
“Twenty-eight years later and here we are, still waiting,” says Steve Boyd, a 52-year-old permanent resident of Crystal Beach.
Crystal Beach was once a popular stop for many in Southern Ontario, and even Buffalo, in Western New York State, due to the widely-known amusement park that was stationed in the east-end of Crystal Beach—and Boyd remembers this era well.
“In 1989, [the] amusement park closed—it all came crashing down,” he said.
“[Residents] knew the village would suffer when the park closed. There was talk about a new marina and a pier restaurant, with many associated jobs to be established, but it just never happened.”
It was roughly four o-clock on the Monday of the Canada Day long weekend, and much to my surprise, the beach was strangely empty. A large billboard catches my attention as I gaze over the waterfront. It reads: “Coming Soon! The new Bay Beach”. I asked Steve, in anticipation, what it all meant for the shoreline community.
Boyd mentioned a development that if approved, would see a 12-story condominium constructed on Crystal’s beachfront – Bay Beach. This project was proposed seven years ago and was defeated in 2014 when the Molinaro Group — the Burlington-based development firm overseeing the project – backed out of the project in the wake of ongoing controversies and environmental concerns within the local community.
“The beachfront property owners, who are mainly American cottage owners, seem to be the ones running the show. Many can be very vocal about it at times,” said Steve Boyd. “Now, [the Town of Fort Erie] is waiting for a grant to come through from the Ontario government in order to save the day.”
Today, another beachfront revitalization project is proposed, but may, in fact, be facing the same troublesome reality as the previous project.
Heading north on Derby Road feels ominous—a very unwelcoming corridor of empty, crumbling buildings. It is a road most use to enter the sandy beach; it is a road that many remember as the Main street in town.
About five minutes north of Crystal Beach lies another serene settlement in Fort Erie, however, it is hedged with a remarkable difference. The village of Ridgeway takes one back in time—it is an exquisite time capsule that has yet to have been recognized by the media. The village downtown-core and surrounding subdivisions are teeming with life in the form of immaculately kept business facades and year-round residential developments.
“Ridgeway still stands strong for an old historical town. Many festivals and business still survive,” says Boyd, who was enjoying a moment of fond childhood memories. “I have lived in Crystal Beach for all of my 52 years, and it is very important to me to remember the town’s heritage so it does not lose its identity. Many visitors, today, don’t even know that we once had the world’s largest roller coaster for its day. At one time we were a world class tourist destination; you would never know it now, visiting Crystal Beach.”
It was now approaching supper, on this last day of the Canada Day long weekend. I folded my beach chair and headed for the car park. My toes sunk in the very fine, white sand as I began to proceed away from the crystal clear shoreline. The wind picked up, and the sun came out in full force, shining rigorously on the choppy water that day. Just before I left the gated beach entrance, I stopped and gave the beach one last look. The water was turning every shade of blue imaginable under the sun’s resilient beams, and there it was; the Buffalo skyline appeared bolder than ever before, from across Lake Erie. Yet, there was no one around to bask in such an incredible sight.
For Steve Boyd, the Crystal Beach of his childhood has perished, but his hopes in reconciling the community have not. “When I was a kid, you couldn’t move in this village. There was always something going on. Now, you can hear the echo of your own whistling.”
A week later, I am on the shoreline of another beachfront community. Under the “Welcome to Sauble Beach” arc, which greets most visitors, I am treated to a stunning Lake Huron sunset—this time around, enjoyed by many families.