Hiding out in the ‘burbs

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.

7 thoughts on “Hiding out in the ‘burbs”

  1. I live in a suburb. Our urban school district just lost its accreditation. I can’t afford private school. For the first half of my life my family never had an apartment just for ourselves. In the last apartment we lived we shared bathroom with 5 other families, not people – families.I have no idea how and when my parents had sex – we had 2 rooms with no real door in between. It wasn’t gulag but I could live the rest of my life without people living above or below me. I still share walls since mine is a small townhome. I don’t have a property and never wanted a lawn, but I like living here and my kid goes to school without a metal detector. Maybe it’s a path of lowest resistance. I could care less. This is why we are here, we can live the way we want and not owe an explanation.

    1. Now, now, we don’t all have metal detectors.

      My experience has been that most people who live in the ‘burbs don’t think about the issue nearly as much as people who live in the city think about it. Though that being said, I’ve had people make the most ridiculous comments to me about the dangers of Toronto when I’ve been out in the ‘burbs. Maybe we need some cultural exchange programs for city and suburb!

  2. This reminds me of my own move to the suburbs here in the Chicago area. I still love the city and go there often, but I’ve come to like leaving it to come home.

    I wrote about it once: http://www.annatarkov.com/hating-suburbia People added some good comments as well.

    There are lots of things I would add now such as the virtual non-existence of crime out here, the fact that not all suburbs are created alike (some are very urban in character) and the absolute joy of an attached garage (grocery shopping when it’s pouring becomes much easier, among other things :-))

    I still bemoan the racial and socioeconomic homogeneity of many suburbs (including mine), but I’ve started to see this as less of a problem when I realize that one can hop into the car at any time and experience a more diverse area. And frankly, Chicago is pretty segregated and there are many neighborhoods that are almost as homogeneous as the suburbs. On the flip side, there are some extremely diverse suburbs.

    1. Hi Anna, loved the post. I still prefer being in the city proper, though as I wrote, it’s not as stark a divide in most Canadian cities. But since having a baby, I’ve become more appreciative of things like the uber-quiet of my parents’ house (it does wonders for nap time), a car (with a huge trunk!) for grocery shopping, and laundry, laundry, laundry. Certain day-to-day stuff seems a lot easier. But then, after about 2 weeks, I’m usually tired of driving everywhere and missing going into a corner store where everyone still remembers when I was pregnant and know how old my child is.

      In Toronto, the immigrant communities tend to move outward, so some of the suburbs (and the outer ring of the city proper, before you hit the suburbs) are just as diverse as the city. The post that I linked to from Ethnic Aisle (and their entire series this week) looks at just that. It’s also playing more and more of a role in the politics of the city.

  3. I live in ‘burbs country; I mean, in a place that is nothing but sprawl as far as the eye can see… and far, far beyond. It is full of immigrants, too, from all walks of life; all shades, shapes, sizes, tongues, habits and classes — and all kinds of moolah. Yes, (as Anna, above, does) I can hop in my car (or a plane) if I wish to go somewhere else (I am ‘nowhere’ here) — in fact, I must! — whether it is to buy a gallon of milk, or to see people sauntering on the sidewalk (sidewalk!!!) or a piece of architecture that does not look like an insult or a punch in the esthetic guts. I live and die by car.

    No, most of my sub-sub-suburbanite compatriots (no ‘urbs’ here) live like this not because they escaped from the gulags or other torturous hell. They live here because they love two things more than most anything else: being self-contained, and prosperity (no, not opulence, which can be found in any setting from the countryside to the rooftop paradises of the big cities). This is an easy to obtain, affordable, and isolated prosperity.

    It seems to me what suburbanites want to escape is neither danger, nor lack of freedom; it is the crowds and the connectedness to other, more-or-less-desirable people. ‘My home is my castle,’ they seem to say with their lifestyle, and ‘keep out unless and whenever you are invited.’

    Needless to say, living in the suburbs one cannot ‘belong’ because the notion of belonging requires something ‘to’ which one could belong, but suburbs are — mentally and ‘spiritually’ speaking — just all the same (I would dare to say, they are, in a way, soulless). The heart of the matter is that suburbanites prefer to belong to themselves, mostly, either as a response to their horrific experiences in the gulags or in the slums — or wherever else –, or because they have never lived in any other environment, but this. Good for them!

    As for you, Lea, I congratulate you for your connectedness to those members of our often so very annoying species that live around you with all their smell and noise and sight causing much aggravation and providing much amusement and inspiration that is such an important part of the fabric of your life! Wires, sidewalks, permeable walls and all…

  4. We consciously made a decision to move into the burbs. I love the city. Love, love, love it. Except for when the city is Philadelphia, which is where my family lives. Because Philly is dirty and sketchy, and I’d never live in Philly proper. But our burb is train-accessible, and we live as close to things as we can without actually being in the Philadelphia jurisdiction. I hate the homogeneity of the suburbs, and I hate that the fact that my family lives in the suburbs means that I have to live nearby, but I do enjoy the quiet here..sometimes. I think a lot of time living in the burbs is as much a function of age as of immigrant experiences. In 10 years, I will probably love living here. For now, I love going into the city as much as possible.

    1. I think that’s true to an extent, but I also know lots of young people who like living in the suburbs, and just as many families who live in the city and like it. Though affluence seems to play a huge role, given housing costs.

      I also tend to side with the arguments that the elderly don’t fare well in the suburbs because it’s so hard to get around, social services are far away, etc. I remember noticing so many “old folks” out and about in New York that I’ve never seen in the malls of suburbia. Though I think we’re still a few years away from that :).

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