One of the central organizations in the Beach is Beach Metro Community News, a non-profit, non-partisan community newspaper founded in 1972 that is distributed throughout major portions of East Toronto. The newspaper is available throughout the entire delivery area at various merchants and public access points, and more than 23,000 families receive the newspaper delivered to their front door for free.
My request for an interview was graciously answered by Sheila Blinoff, the General Manager, and Carole Stimmell, the Editor for the Beach Metro News. We sat down around a big table in their premises near the intersection of Gerrard and Main Streets. Sheila explained that the Beach Metro Community News originally started in 1972 when a group of volunteers got together to fight the Scarborough Expressway that was supposed to cut a swath through all of East Toronto. This issue galvanized the entire neighbourhood, and a group of volunteers started publishing a free newspaper from the offices of the East City YMCA at 907 Kingston Road.
The community had come together to rally against the construction of the Scarborough Expressway, and their collective efforts were successful. The dreaded construction of a major highway that would have destroyed over 750 homes between Coxwell and Victoria Park was averted. Today the Beach Metro Community News is a non-partisan paper that does not feature editorials. A copy of the paper goes to almost every business and residence in an area that extends from Lake Ontario to a few streets north of Danforth Avenue, and from Coxwell Avenue in the west to Midland Avenue in the East.
Of the 30,000 papers delivered, 7000 are delivered to libraries, churches and other public institutions while the rest goes out to private homes. An extensive network of about 400 volunteers looks after free delivery, with each volunteer donating their time and effort. Every second Tuesday just after publication a team of about 30 volunteer captains receives dozens of bundles of newspaper which they then distribute among their individual neighbourhood volunteers who in turn take the paper and deliver it street to street, house to house.
The volunteer stories are amazing. Sheila and Carole recounted so many fascinating tales of individuals who dedicate their spare time towards delivering the community news. The oldest of these volunteers is 96 years old and enjoys the opportunity to interact with neighbours and make a connection. Another delivery volunteer had a baby in the morning, and the same afternoon she delivered the Beach Metro Community News, just as she would any other second Tuesday. Another female delivery volunteer requested to get her papers early on Tuesday since she was going to have a Cesarean delivery the very next day on Wednesday. An elderly man once called in and said he would not be able to deliver the paper this time since his wife had just died, but he promised to be there to deliver the next edition of the Beach Metro Community News.
Sheila added that her co-workers and the volunteer carriers not only help with the production and distribution of the paper, they are also her eyes and ears in the community, resulting in a network of hundreds of volunteer news gatherers. Carole summed it up by saying that "not a leaf falls in the Beach without us knowing about it".
I needed to find out more about these two women who are the driving force behind the Beach Metro Community News and asked them to tell me more about their own personal history and connection to the Beach. Carole admitted that she is a relative newcomer to the Beach as well as to the Beach Metro Community News: she has lived and worked here for "only" eleven years. Originally from Wisconsin, Carole Stimmell moved to Toronto in order to complete a Ph.D. in archeology at the University of Toronto. She and her husband had met at the Washington Post where Carole was completing an internship, and they decided to jointly move to Toronto to complete their postgraduate studies. Carole's husband studied communications with Marshall McLuhan, the famous Canadian educator, philosopher and scholar who coined the expressions "the medium is the message" and the "global village".
Carole's first impressions of Canada were that it is vastly different from the United States: Canadians are more accepting, more reticent to judge as compared to the more dogmatic and aggressive stance of people in the United States. She added that Canada's liberal outlook suits her personally very well, and it would be hard for her to move back to her birth country.
After completing her doctorate Carole worked on archeology projects for 20 years; these assignments took her to Japan, the Arctic and the United States. Her archeology projects in Toronto included digs at Trinity Bellwoods Park, in Leslieville and at the Ashbridges House, the original homestead of the Ashbridges family who had come from Pennsylvania and become the first settlers in Toronto's Beach neighbourhood. For several years Carole was also the editor of the Canadian Journal of Archeology.
Her connection with the Beach Metro Community News came about because she was originally a volunteer carrier for the paper. When the long-term editor of the paper retired, a new editor came in and started taking the paper into a tabloid-like direction with a strong focus on crime and negative news. Carole and many others did not like this new slant and felt that the Beach Metro Community News was about positive news stories and an emphasis on the good things that were going on in the community. This editor did not last long, and Carole threw her hat in the ring for this position. In the process she beat out 50 other candidates and succeeded in getting the job because she understood what the paper was all about.
Today Carole still has an interest in history; she was vice chair of the Toronto Historic Board, and she now sits on the board of the Ontario Archeology Society. She also has an extensive collection of historic post cards of the Beach; these photos are sometimes featured under the heading of "Deja Views" in the Beach Metro Community News, juxtaposing historic streetscapes with a current photo of the same location.
Sheila Blinoff came to Toronto from Great Britain in the 1960s and married into a German-Canadian family. She and her husband moved to Balsam Avenue in 1969, making her a bona fide Beach resident for almost 40 years. In 1971 Sheila had her first child, and when the Beach Metro Community News started in 1972 Sheila connected with the paper since they were in need of a volunteer typist. Sheila offered her services and also started helping with the volunteer delivery of the paper. Several months into her assignment, the paper received three local program grants that enabled them to hire three people for six month. Sheila figured she could do the job and beat out 30 people who had applied.
Around that time Sheila had her second child; the grant meanwhile had run out of money. Sheila continued working on the paper for six months from home without pay. Finally a fundraiser generated $7000 which enabled the paper to pay two staff members - Sheila, and Joan Latimer who was the editor for 22 years. Advertisers came on board, and the Beach Metro Community News finally had a viable economic base. Several more employees were hired over the years.
In the early years the entire production of the paper was a community affair. Several interested neigbours would come together and jointly handle the manual cut and paste layout of the paper. They would also decide which stories should go into the paper, and opinions would often diverge widely. Sheila concedes that trying to reconcile these viewpoints was often tough going.
Several years into the publication the name was changed from the original name "Ward 9 News" to "Beach Metro Community News". The official administrative name of the Beach neighbourhood had changed from Ward 9 to Ward 32, so the original name of the newspaper was no longer applicable. For Sheila and many other "oldtimers", however, this publication will always be the "Ward 9 News".
With years passing by the paper became more professional, and specialized employees were hired to take over advertising sales, accounting, photography, and news and entertainment reporting. Since the 1980s the organization has been doing its own typesetting. Sheila's eyes light up when she says that she has met so many wonderful people through her work with the Beach Metro Community News; she adds that she has truly seen "the good side of human nature".
One of her favourite experiences has been her opportunity to participate in the selection committee of a contest to name five streets in a new housing development that went in on the former Woodbine Race Track premises, just west of Woodbine Avenue and Queen Street. The new street names were to have a local or historical connection with the area. As the secretary of the contest committee, Sheila had the best job of all, inputting all 660 suggestions into the computer and then verifying the accuracy of the historical background of the submitted names. Sheila chose the name "Sarah Ashbridge" in honour of the Quaker widow and United Empire Loyalist from Philadelphia who settled in the Beach in 1793 and obtained a Crown land grant in 1799 for a farm. "Northern Dancer" honoured all the horses that ever raced at the Woodbine Race Track. "Boardwalk Avenue" was chosen for the area's proximity to the famous East Toronto waterfront promenade.
Both Carole and Sheila love their neighbourhood, and they proudly told me that Queen Street East in the Beach was chosen the Best Main Street in Ontario by TV Ontario. One of the judges summarized it like this: "The Beach is an all-round winner. A fantastic inner-city neighbourhood with a great retail market, a great place to visit and a fabulous festival", referring to the Toronto International Beaches Jazz Festival, one of Toronto's largest music and entertainment events.
The importance and influence of the Beach Metro Community News cannot be understated. After all, the individuals running the paper had a major hand in stopping the Scarborough Expressway. Extensive coverage of dredging in Lake Ontario at the foot of Beech Avenue also resulted in an outcry in the community, and the government cancelled the project. Coverage of the Ashbridges Bay Incinerator also mobilized many concerned citizens in the neighbourhood, and their collective action resulted in the closure of the unwanted incineration facility. Stories of important local issues are kept in the public eye, and the community starts rallying around these issues.
What makes this neighbourhood really special are the people and organizations that donate so much of their time to the community. Sheila and Carole recounted a multitude of community initiatives that illustrate that the spirit of charity and neighbourly assistance is strong in the Beach. One example includes a major fire a few years ago at the eastern end of Queen Street where two people died and several others were rendered homeless. Several fundraisers were held for the affected families, and money was raised to help them pay for their first month's rent and furniture in their new apartments.
When the big Indian Ocean Tsunami struck in 2005, Centre 55 immediately set up a fund to collect money for the victims and thousands of dollars were sent to the affected areas. The local Balmy Beach Club raised money for school computer labs when the government cut back its educational budget. Together with strong parent volunteers at each school in the area, initiatives like these make a huge difference in the community.
In the Beach community spirit manifests itself in many different ways. The annual "Carolling in the Park Event'", held at the local Glen Stewart Ravine, attracts more than 2000 people for a holiday sing-along. Flashlights and candles in the ravine create a magical atmosphere and an event that the community loves.
Carole adds that there are so many interesting people in the Beach; a collection of media people, artists, actors, entrepreneurs and other eclectic people provide a lot of fodder for interesting and inspiring stories. Sheila mentions the example of a local man who owns the world's largest typewriter collection. Another young man from the community, a gifted musician, had attended the Julliard Music School in New York City and recently debuted in a big concert at Carnegie Hall. The Beach Guild of Fine Arts is a large group of artists who hold shows twice a year. Musicians, actors, painters and artists of all kinds are well represented throughout the Beach community and provide many story opportunities throughout the year.
The philosophy of the Beach Metro Community News is to provide news of interest to local residents and businesses. All revenue comes from advertising, which is kept affordable so that local merchants and tradespeople remain able to advertise their products and services. Sheila and Carole are selective as to which advertisements they accept, and sometimes advertisers have to wait to get into the paper.
One of the key community initiatives of the Beach Metro Community News is the "Citizen of the Year" award which is a joint initiative with Community Centre 55 and the Beaches Lions Club to honour volunteers who have made a significant difference in the community over a number of years. The Citizen of the Year is honoured with a plaque on the Beach Walk of Fame in the Community Garden in Woodbine Park. They also get a special space in the Beaches Lions' Easter Parade. People such as Gene Domagala, Glenn Cochrane, Arie Nerman and Marie Perrotta have all been honoured with this exclusive distinction.
But not only does the Beach Metro Community News bestow awards upon others; its contribution to the community has also been noticed and gotten recognition. In 2002 Sheila and Carole were themselves honoured with the Queen's Jubilee Medal as part of Queen Elizabeth's 50 year anniversary as the Queen. At this occasion every Canadian riding awarded medals to its top volunteers and community builders, and Sheila and Carole were honoured together with other prominent Beachers.
As a non-profit organization, the Beach Metro Community News donates some of its excess revenues right back into the community. In 2006 the organization donated more than $14,000 to a wide range of organizations, including the Arthritis Society, the Beaches Easter Parade, the Churches by the Bluffs Food Bank, the Share-A-Christmas Program run by Community Centre 55, the Glen Rhodes Food Bank, Malvern High School Scholarships, the Pegasus Community Project, Senior Link, the Toronto East General Hospital Foundation, the Woodgreen Red Door Shelter for Women and many more.
The Beach Metro Community News not only covers the local news, it also makes news: as a volunteer organization that acts as the virtual glue of the community, as a champion of important neighbourhood causes, as an organization who identifies and honours volunteers who make the community work, and as a significant donor that contributes much-needed funding to important neighbourhood organizations.