John Letnik’s captain’s uniform was once standard gear when he greeted visitors to his floating restaurant on sunny Saturday afternoons. Last weekend, his outfit was decidedly lacking in pomp. Tourists were streaming along Queen’s Quay underneath the ship’s prow, but inside, the dining room full of formally set tables was empty.
With three powerful agencies shutting him down last week for not paying bills, Mr. Letnik, aka Captain John, may have served his last $110 seafood platter for two. The man who spent the 1970s and 1980s dishing prawns to the city’s most prominent diners as a waterfront pioneer is now holed up in his top-deck apartment, deprived of running water after it was cut off by the city. The restaurant has been shut down. Urban planners, who still laud Mr. Letnik’s early use of the waterfront, now see the mooring as a poor use of public space in a rapidly changing neighbourhood. By all appearances – which are important here now – the waterfront revival that the 73-year-old Mr. Letnik helped usher in has left him behind as jetsam.
The city says Mr. Letnik owes more than $569,000 in taxes and utilities. (Mr. Letnik disputes his $32,000 annual property tax bill. “I have no real estate,” he says. “She’s floating.”) The port authority and Waterfront Toronto say he owes them both rent.
Since he lowered the MS Jadran’s gangplank at the foot of Yonge Street in 1975, time has taken the shine off the converted luxury cruise ship. Streaks of rust and peeling red paint have gone untended for more than a decade. Meanwhile, condos, convention centres and hotels have replaced the warehouses and dockyards that once spread out from Captain John’s in three directions.
The only view from the ship that remains unchanged looks south to the lake. But there’s no escape that way. The Toronto Port Authority, invoking marine law, has ordered that the ship not leave its slip as a means of “ensuring payment,” according to vice-president Alan Paul.
Meanwhile, back on land, Waterfront Toronto has ordered the gangplank, which rests on its property, be removed by the end of the month.
“I haven’t given up,” says Mr. Letnik, who hopes a buyer will come along for the ship, which has been on the market for three years.
After several years of bills not being paid, the city, Waterfront Toronto and Toronto Port Authority finally got together and piled on last week. According to Michelle Noble, director of communications for Waterfront Toronto, “None of us had been paid for a very long time.”
It’s not the first time Mr. Letnik has been under water. He arrived in Toronto in 1957 as a 17-year-old refugee from Yugoslavia. He had $2 when he stepped out of Union Station and took a job washing pots at a golf club.
“I thought I was a big shot when I was promoted from washing pots to dishes,” Mr. Letnik says.
After becoming a chef and opening his own restaurant downtown, he made his move offshore, first on the former Georgian Bay ferry Normac in 1970, then on the larger, 90-metre, five-level Jadran in 1975.
“The 1970s and 1980s were the best times for hospitality,” says Mr. Letnik. Framed photographs hang in the corridor, documenting a few decades of glamour. The uniformed captain welcomed aboard politicians of all sorts, including Brian Mulroney and Mel Lastman. He says Robert Campeau ate there every day while he was building the Harbour Castle hotel, another early attempt to inject city glitz into an industrial district. Mr. Letnik points to a table that was once reserved full-time for former Toronto Maple Leafs owner and prominent businessman Steve Stavro.
Ms. Noble, envisioning a future without the Jadran, says within the next few years the slip will probably serve as a naval pier, hosting visiting tall ships and cruise liners. Tourists disembarking will descend to a city park linking the soon-to-be renovated Queen’s Quay to a “waterfront promenade” that will run in front of the new mixed-use developments being built along the eastern downtown waterfront.
“We are trying to create connections between pockets of public space,” Ms. Noble says. “The waterfront should be for everyone. The vision is to have a great site at the foot of Yonge Street.”
Ken Greenberg has been working on the waterfront almost as long as Mr. Letnik, but instead of frying scampi he’s been redesigning a precinct. He was on David Crombie’s waterfront commission and was the city’s head of architecture and urban design from 1977 to 1987. More recently, he worked on the award-winning plan for the Port Lands (the one without the mega-mall).
He sees Captain John’s as the poplar tree of a young forest.
“In nature, you have early species which create conditions for others to come. Poplars grow fast, alter the soil and microclimate, and then give way. Before Captain John’s, the public didn’t know about the waterfront. A lot of it was inaccessible. These early experimental uses opened people’s eyes and gave them a reason to be here,” Mr. Greenberg says.
“Now, the city has grown to the edge of the water and what’s needed is a great public space that looks onto the harbour. The large ship literally blocks the view. It’s time for it to give way for more appropriate uses of that strategic piece of land.”
Chris Fernandez knows all about blocked views. He’s been looking directly out at Captain John’s from his Queen’s Quay condo unit for 11 years, a period of time over which Mr. Letnik admits the ship hasn’t been painted. “At first we didn’t have any curtains,” Mr. Fernandez says pointedly.
“It doesn’t really fit in here any more,” he says. “It needs to go, I think.”
Seventy-seven-year-old Donald McCartney squints into the sun as he looks up at the for sale sign crammed in the ship’s railing. He’s not eager to see it go – he’s an admitted fan of boats and trains – but fears its time has probably come.
“I think the thing’s had the biscuit myself,” he says. “It’s been here a long time. I think they’ll send it packing.
“I remember when this was all empty yards and warehouses,” the lifelong Torontonian says, sweeping his hand along Queen’s Quay. “The city is always changing.”