Surprisingly to some, many of the people living in the suburbs – places like Peel or Scarborough – do so voluntarily—almost as if they like it or something. Moreover, a very significant chunk of those suburbanites aren’t white and weren’t born in Canada, a fact that raises some rather sticky questions. To wit, as downtown scenesters badmouth the suburbs over bowls of Pho, are they ignoring the complexities of multiculturalism—or worse, dismissing them? – Why White Scenesters Hate the ‘Burbs (Toronto Standard)
I was excited to read this piece in the Toronto Standard, by Navneet Alang (who’s usually busy writing smart things about technology; he also recently wrote about his family’s very British chesterfield for this site), looking at where ethnicity and immigrants fit into the “downtown elitists” vs. “dull suburbs” debate. It’s a good article and an interesting comment thread.
In Canada, this is a very specifically Toronto debate. Most of the country doesn’t have suburbs surrounding a city core in the same way. A lot of our cities are just the sprawl part. In places like Edmonton, immigrants don’t have the same set of stark choices between heavily urban areas such as Toronto’s Kensington or Parkdale neighbourhoods. It’s just degrees of sprawl.
I don’t know a single former Soviet Jew in Edmonton who lives anywhere but the more suburban parts of the city – the neighbourhoods out in the west end of the city, which, for the last decade, have been stretching further and further outwards into former farm country. Many of them also have very little interest in the checklist of stereotypically elitist concerns about transit, recycling and general sustainability.
It pisses me off.
But I’m having trouble hanging onto that self-righteous anger about it. In the past couple years I’ve learned a lot of things about these people (I’m talking about the general group here, not just my immediate circle of family and their friends). I’ve learned about the gulags they were in, the solitary confinement cells, the army prisons, the insane asylums. The slightly luckier ones on that list just have softer stories about university admissions quotas, playground taunts and beatings, and so forth. The usual list.
Extreme condition. Everything, extreme condition
– SB, in an interview with me
It’s hard to listen to someone marvel at their survival in some truly horrible situations and then turn around and question their choice of home. It’s hard not to understand why a nice house, with garage, lawn, cars and laundry room isn’t anything but success. It’s proof that they’re ok. That their children are ok. It’s thick walls and a large gap – a moat – between themselves and the world.
I often comment that I feel safer walking around downtown Toronto at nights than my parents’ quiet Edmonton neighbourhood. There are always people about in Toronto, no matter the hour, and I like that safety. On the cookie-cutter streets my parents have chosen, there’s no one to see or hear anything. Doors are shut, windows are drawn.
But once I’m inside my apartment, it’s the reverse. The distance between myself and the world outside my window is negligible. I look up right now and can almost touch the streetcar wires. I can smell my neighbours’ dinner. If I squint, I can even see what movie is playing at my local theatre tonight. My walls are permeable.
I think you have to grow up with a certain sense of safety to embrace that permeability – to want to be in the world, and not wonder about knocks at nighttime, or snooping neighbours. It doesn’t occur to you that there could possibly be any danger in tucking the world in around you as you fall asleep.
Our suburbs are full of immigrants whose stories we don’t know and don’t understand. People who see the wide swath of space around their homes and know that they have, through this one purchase, rewritten their story and created a new script for their children – swapped out fear for safety, comfort, luxury.