I welcome you to the charming and quirky community where I live, Toronto Island – or “The Island,” as those of us who live here call it. I’ve been here over forty years. It’s the kind of place you come to visit, fall in love with what you see, and wind up staying the rest of your life.
That’s what happened to me. I came as a single woman in my late 20s after living for years in downtown Toronto. I rented an island house with a roommate, and quickly knew I wasn’t going anywhere. Years later I met my husband, and fortunately, by the time we married, he too, had fallen in love with the Island. In the years since, we have raised two children here, now young adults, who have moved to Toronto to spread their wings. They both hope to come back to the Island to live some day.
But as you will soon figure out, living on the Island is not for everyone.
Basics about the community
Our community of 262 cottage-like wooden homes is nestled on a 27-acre sandbar, roughly one and half miles long, that’s part of the the 560-acre Toronto Island Park. The park itself is made up of a 17-island archipelago. It’s a mile and a half across the bay from downtown Toronto, accessible by a 15-minute ferry boatride.
Over a million and a half people visit the park every year, mainly in summer and mainly to the two major islands in the system – Centre and Hanlan’s Point.
Homes where residents live are on two other islands, Ward's and Algonquin, on the eastern end of the park. People have been living here for over 150 years. Our community is separated from the hullabaloo of summer visitors and the noise and excitement of the amusement park on Centre Island by a buffer of woods, meadows and grassland.
Though our homes may only be a 15-minute boat ride away from the “mainland” of Toronto, Islanders’ way of life is lightyears away from the urban lifestyle of “mainlanders” (otherwise known as Torontonians).
What makes us unique is that our community is carless and storeless. No form of motorized transportation is allowed on the Island other than garbage or maintenance trucks, a school bus and snowplow. And no stores. No cars, no buses, taxis, and no place to pick up a bar of soap, diapers, bag of sugar or extra piece of insulation when you’re in the middle of a reno.
What does that mean in terms of our day-to-day life?
It means that when I need that piece of insulation or a cup of sugar to finish the cake I’m in the middle of making, I have to figure out when the next ferry is leaving for the city (they don’t run more than once an hour ).
And once I’ve bought whatever it is I need, (which might include a refrigerator or new mattress), I then have to shlep whatever I’ve bought, back on the boat, then lug my newly-purchased items to my home – either on a bicycle, a cart, or a bundle buggy.
There are times (particularly when it’s raining or the temperature has just hit minus zero Celsius), when I lose all motivation to go anywhere or buy anything. No surprise there.
So we borrow. Our community e-group is flooded daily with requests like: “Anyone have cilantro to spare” or “If someone’s going into the city, would you mind picking up my prescription.”
But you can’t always use neighbours. When our second child was born in December, we had to bring her home on the boat, then pull our bundled-up baby in a large-wheeled cart for a twenty-minute walk home through deep snow.
Yes, winters are particularly hard.
For all my love of this place, there is nothing convenient about living here.
So why am I here?
Because the upsides of Island-living suck you in.
Immediate access to natural beauty, flora and fauna is one reason. We have meadows, a beach, wilderness areas, a lagoon for canoeing and kayaking, starry skies, relative quiet, bike and walking paths, the requisite raccoons, and now coyotes.
Islanders are a busy, communal lot, which I enjoy. Though most of us work or go to school in the city, our Island lives are full. We have community newsletters, two active clubhouses for social events and classes (yoga, pilates, dance, stilt-walking, lantern-making…), all-age dances, classical music concerts, a canoe club, five book clubs, a cafe, restaurant and art gallery, tennis courts, lawn bowling, pub nights, quilting bees and a residence for seniors, built with financial help from the federal government. We even get newspapers and mail delivered daily.
I believe we have the best of two worlds here. On the one hand, we’re very “small townish,” yet once I get off the ferry I’m so close to the downtown core of Toronto, I have access to all the artistic, cultural activities and entertainment that a big city provides. This connection to the city is good for us. Keeps us from getting too insular, something we Islanders have to watch out for. It’s pretty cosy here.
Community, community, community
I sensed when I moved to the Island that it would be a good, safe place to raise children. And it was. We have a Montessori school as well as a public school that goes to grade six (both serve city children as well as Islanders). After that, to the city do our kids go.
It’s good to get off the Island and see how the rest of the world works. Not everybody knows your name or smiles when they see you.
The strong sense of community we have is built on the reality that we’re dependent on one another. For the most part, we look after and take care of one another. I can and do borrow sugar and insulation from my neighbours when I run out. We help one another raise our kids, make dinners for bleary-eyed new moms and dads. We also spend countless hours in community volunteer work and meetings, trying to make our community work. One of our major concerns is how to get an improved ferry service/schedule for ourselves, and for park visitors.
Through thick and thin
For better or worse, Islanders, especially long-time Islanders like me, pretty much know everyone who lives here. The ferry ride provides an essential daily point of contact with one another: gossip spreads like goutweed; babysitters get hired; borrowed books are returned; and recipes exchanged from the previous evening’s potluck.
Islanders fought the local metro government during the 1960s and 1970s when they planned to appropriate, then bulldoze, our houses. Most of us are fiercely proud of our way of life and feel blessed to be surrounded by such beauty. The community is 150 years old, an important part of the City of Toronto’s history.
Though I might grumble about the inconvenience of life on Toronto Island when the cold winds blow, when I miss a boat or just can’t figure out how we’re going to get our new TV set home, I’m like most of my 700 neighbours, an Islander through and through.
What if there's an emergency?
I'm often asked the following questions about emergencies on the Island:
We are lucky to have a fire station on the Island. It not only serves the community, but other areas in the Toronto Island Park where our community sits, including an amusement park, restaurants, bike rentals, souvenir shops, etc. The station has two trucks, one big, one small. The small truck is for us. Our streets (sidewalks, really) are so narrow, a regular-size truck couldn’t get through.
Unfortunately, several houses in the past have burned to the ground (no casualties). Naturally, we’re all worried about fires and our community’s Emergency Response Group works closely with the fire department.
When I first moved to the Island umpteen years ago, a doctor lived a block away. At all hours of the day, and night, he was inundated with phone calls and unexpected visits from Islanders, worried about their kids’ stuffy noses, sore throats, and flu-like symptoms. You won’t be surprised when I tell you that he doesn’t live here any longer.
So, what DO we do if we’re seriously sick, have broken legs or have a heart attack? For non-emergencies, we have a wonderful nurse who makes house calls with consoling words and good advice when we can’t get out of bed. He keeps wheelchairs, crutches and electric scooters on his property to lend, when needed.
For more serious ailments, we call 911, like everyone else, but the service we get is unusual. There is an EMS vehicle and crew on the Island that can provide basic medical care (oxygen for an asthma attack, for example), but if we need to go to hospital (in a rush), the fire truck picks us up and takes us to the ferry dock where the Harbour Police (stationed cityside at Harbourfront) are ready with their emergency boat to take us to the city. Their boat speeds across the bay to the city, where an ambulance is waiting to take us to hospital. No matter what time of day. If the ice is frozen, an ice-cutting boat is employed to bring us to the city in place of the police boat. Surprisingly, it all works!
And what about those soon-to-be mothers? Most stay with family or friends around their due date. Unless they want home births, of course!
There’s little day-to-day crime on the Island. There are rare cases of people coming from the city and breaking into houses, but it hasn’t happened in years. In the summer, young people from often come to the Island to party, sleep on the beach, and generally have a rousing time. They can get drunk, rowdy and oftentimes aggressive. During those months, the police have a strong presence on the Island, often issuing tickets to the drunk and disorderly. We’re glad to have this service.
Living In a no-shopping zone
We have traditions on the Island that make our lives easier. It’s not surprising for a community of 650 people living in a community that’s 150 years old, has never had any stores, is surrounded by water and cut off from the world except by boat.
Through necessity, we’ve become very interdependent.
So, one of our traditions is borrowing from one another. We are truly a community of borrowers. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t call on our neighbours for something. Especially for the practical stuff of everyday life. We borrow, not only because we have no stores for shopping, but because we also don’t have storage space in our homes for bulk-buying.
What we do when we run out of something
Our houses sit on a sandbar, so no basements – if we dig too deep we hit water. And because our houses are relatively small, we don’t have attics. As we’re a carless community, we have no garages. It’s not easy to stock up with a 12-pack of paper towels (though we do try).
People often ask, “What do we do when you run out of milk, coffee or toilet paper?”
Good question. Without stores, we can’t run out for an extra pound of ground meat when unexpected guests drop-by. We can’t drive to Home Depot for the last piece of insulation for our home renovation.
What do we do? Generally, we cut our tortière into smaller slices and wait until our next trip to the city for the insulation. Making do, or living without, is another old Island tradition.
But before we give up, we DO make an effort to borrow.
First stop is a phone call or drop-in to our neighbours. We know they are happy to share because next week, when they run out of dog food, they’ll be the ones borrowing. If no luck there, we then put out a call on our Island e-group, myneighbours.
The e-group requests
On any given day, you’ll find an Islander posting an email looking for a blow-up mattress for grandkids, cilantro for Vietnamese Pho, or paving stones for a walkway. You’ll usually find what you’re looking for – within minutes. The next message on the e-group? “Cilantro found!”
If unlucky, you make do, or live without. This isn’t a bad thing. We’ve learned that the tortière can feed eight if necessary, the soup is okay without cilantro and the path will get finished. We’re a pretty relaxed bunch.
The Bridge Boutique
And who says we don’t have stores? We do. One. The Bridge Boutique, so named because of its location near the bridge that connects two islands in our community. It’s a small hand-built, rain-proof open-air wooden structure that houses items Islanders no longer need.
This is where we take our gently used clothes, kitchen utensils, old copies of Macleans, crime novels, diet books, children’s toys, old china and glassware. Free for the taking.
Every Islander shops there. Some daily, to see any new arrivals.
Recycle, reuse, repurpose. An old Island tradition.
Linda Rosenbaum, one of the tour guides, is a longtime Island resident. As a professional writer and editor, Linda frequently writes about the joys and challenges of living on Toronto Island.