Who is the mystery artist building makeshift shrines at Leslie Spit?
‘Legend of the Spit’ responsible for building large structures from cinder blocks and bricks, but little is known about him, say locals.
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Large pillars made of discarded concrete slabs towered above three young people forming a semicircle around loudspeakers blaring hip-hop.
While impressive, it wasn’t what we were looking for. It took more than an hour of riding through tall grass, prickly plants and unkempt roads by bicycle last week to find the bizarre-looking structures at the Leslie Spit.
A video circulated on social media earlier in the day, depicting a large villa-like formation made of heavy cinder blocks and bricks, complete with porches, benches and walkways leading down to the lake. The young people were suspicious when first approached but became enthusiastic when the Star explained its mission to find that formation and the person behind it.
“His name is Robert,” said Ben Walters, who said he saw the builder multiple times this year, but didn’t know his last name.
“He’s an older guy, white dude, said he worked construction. Oddball would be the first adjective that comes to mind. He’s the legend of the Spit.”
Walters, 20, helped locate the sought-after site, flashing pictures on his phone of Robert and his creations along the way.
“It was massive, it was beautiful, unbelievable,” he said. “There was a central column made of cinder blocks, almost like a sharp cone. Around it were curvy walls made of bricks.”
Similar, but smaller, shrines at the Spit were first reported in the Star in 2010 but nobody back then knew who put them up either.
Along the eastern shore, a few hundred metres east of the first structure, debris lay strewn across the ground, a typical sight at the Leslie Spit, a landfill reclaimed by nature in east Toronto. But it was clear what happened: The complex had been reduced to rubble — all of it.
It was razed because it posed a risk to visitors, as it was erected on uneven ground, said Jen Brailsford, a communications officer at PortsToronto, in a written statement.
“Although beautiful, the structures were built without our knowledge in a publicly accessibly area, which is often frequented by visitors of all ages whose safety is our top priority,” she said. “One sculpture was approximately 20-feet high (about two storeys or a little more than six metres) and there was no mortar between bricks to provide stability.”
The smaller scale pillars that still stand were spared because they didn’t present the same risk, she added.
Walters said he believed the structures were built single-handedly.
“(Robert) had this little cart attached to his bike,” he said. “He must have moved thousands of pounds of concrete. The guy’s just out here all the time.”
The builder has proven to be enigmatic himself: Attempts to reach the man referred to as Robert were unsuccessful, despite visiting the site four times, leaving a handwritten letter at the remaining formation and scouring through social media.
Alan Page, an avid 63-year-old walker, has met Robert twice, but didn’t ask many personal details because he didn’t want to pry, he said.
“He was tall, wiry, a little bowlegged, certainly weather-beaten,” Page said.
Page found the site by pure happenstance. And on one occasion, Robert divulged some of his methods. He would use the horizon as a level, or push sand beneath the blocks to make them sit straight, Page said, positioning the concrete in such a way so as to climb them like scaffolding.
“He worked very late at night, up until 2 a.m.,” he said, adding that Robert told him he commonly encountered coyotes lingering in the brush nearby. “He showed me this Coleman lantern that he used, and he certainly worked through the winter, too. It’s still really hard for me to imagine how he did it. Weeks and weeks of effort.”
Page said he withheld publicizing his findings on social media, lest the structure be demolished if discovered by too many people. It was only a matter of time before it was, however, he said.
“I only shared it with friends because I had a feeling that if it became well-known, that yes, this would happen, inevitably. Maybe we’ll find some more at a different location eventually.”
Julien Gignac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org