Today, I am a proud suburbanite who lives just north of Toronto. I’m willing to make this shocking admission thanks to Nemo, the massive snowstorm that hit the city and created a post-modern, multicultural Rockwellian scene that could only take place in suburban Toronto.
Normally, I hate everything about suburbia: the toys strewn across perfectly manicured lawns, the same reliable Honda Civic parked in every driveway, the need to drive to buy a carton of milk.
In fact, if I could be so vain, I’d assume that Richard Yates had the foresight to write Revolutionary Road 30 years before I was born to fuel my contempt for suburban living.
My aversion to the ‘burbs also stems from the frustration – as Edward Keenan astutely points out in Some Great Idea – that most Torontonians experience when it comes to the city’s abysmal transportation system and its poorly designed neighbourhoods. Toronto’s sorry state of urban planning aggravates the urban/surburban divide, which means that commuting is a logistical nightmare if you don’t live near a subway line in Toronto.
And my disdain for the suburbs grew when I left New York City last August and moved back to my parents’ house, which is located just outside of Toronto.
Seven months later, I still live with my parents even though I stubbornly refuse to unpack all my boxes. I’ve had no luck so far in finding a suitable apartment to rent downtown despite the city’s condo boom. Consequently, every day that I fail to find an apartment only prolongs my horrible work commute, which is almost two hours per way to and from my downtown office. And that’s on a good day.
The perks, therefore, of suburban living in Toronto are few and far between. But they do exist and occasionally come into play in situations like the one Nemo created, when neighbours rely on each other for help.
Three snowblowers, five sets of families, and two cars stuck in the snow – that’s what it took for my neighbours and I to come together and shovel our side street, which is always neglected by city snowplowers.
Together, we inhaled gas fumes and scattered flurries as we struggled to push our neighbour’s Honda Civic, which was trapped in the deep snow.
It was the first time we gathered as a group even though most of us have lived on the same street for almost 15 years. We’ve seen one another over time but only offered brief greetings in passing.
Even though we live in a comfortable middle class neighbourhood, we usually don’t interact with those who aren’t our immediate neighbours because we rely on our cars to commute. Suburban commuters in Toronto probably spend more time in their cars or in transit than they do in their backyards or on the street chatting with other neighbours.
In other words, Toronto’s urban/suburban divide seems to extend to how suburban Torontonians go about their daily lives. In the ‘burbs, we tend to remain in the comfort of our homes and isolated from our neighbours because we don’t have an opportunity to bond over a shared experience, such as a common patio space for downtown condo dwellers or visiting the same small convenience store around the corner.
I also suspect that immigration may have a role in creating Toronto’s suburban isolation in neighbourhoods that aren’t necessarily dominated by one culture. For example, aside from living on the same street for more than a decade, I have little in common with my neighbours. We differ in our politics, our religions, our ethnicities, our languages, our education. Some households may consist of a white collar collar couple who has a high income and enrol their children in a private school while other households may consist of multi-generational families who pool their income so they can live in a nice neighbourhood where they can enrol their children in a decent local school.
In most circumstances, our differences means that we’re more likely to seek support outside of our geographical comfort zone than to walk down the street and ask our neighbours for financial advice or which schools are the best.
But when you’re stuck in a snowstorm, you rely on the people around you even if they are strangers.
Without being asked to help, my neighbours left their half-shovelled driveways to assist one family whose Honda Civic was stuck in the snow. The family consisted of a grandfather, his daughter; and his young grandson. I immediately noticed the grandfather, who had a slight African accent, as he walked down the street with a shovel in his hand and his grandson by his side. No one walks on our street.
The grandfather’s struggle to shovel around his daughter’s car quickly attracted help from other neighbours including my next door neighbours, a Muslim family who I’ve rarely interacted with and whose names I don’t know. In fact, today was probably the first time I spoke to the younger son. I only remember him as a young, chubby nine-year-old. After talking to him today, I finally realized why I no longer see the chubby kid.
An older black man and his adult son brought their snowblower and led the charge to help push the Honda Civic out. I attended the same high school as his son but we were in different cohorts and remain strangers.
On one end of the street, we rallied around the Honda Civic while on the other side of the street, my 60-year-old Indian father and his best friend, our Cambodian next door neighbour, furiously pushed their snowblowers up and down to clear the path.
This is suburban Toronto in a nutshell. Aside from living on the same street for more than a decade, we share no other common bond. But as I made small talk with one neighbour while I wrapped my 2010 Olympic red mittens around my shovel, I realized that we didn’t need to have anything else in common. Our bond is in our differences.
We respect each other enough to wave at each other as we exit our cars and enter our homes. Occasionally, we buy fundraising cookies from neighbourhood kids who knock on our doors or we pick up each other’s recycling bins if they were blown by the wind or make small talk.
It’s safe to say that despite Toronto’s suburban isolation, we probably won’t experience the kind of conflict that resulted in the 2011 London riots or deal with gross inequality in NYC, which both seems to have fallen along social/racial class boundaries. So, today I’m a proud suburban Torontonian.
And, in an ending that very much befits the Rockwell-Yates outlook I now have for living in the ‘burbs, a city snowplow arrived and blocked our driveways shortly after we successfully pushed the Honda Civic out.