Friday, March 28, 2008

Little House in the Big City

I can't sleep this evening. Tonight is my last night in our Little House in the Big City. The last few weeks have been a mad dash of preparation and packing and planning for our big move.

Tomorrow, Peanut and I will spend our first night in our very own McMansion
in the 'burbs, followed by Mr Babbler on Saturday.

Four years ago we would never have imagined that we would be making this move. Like any fiercely guarded moral high ground, we were proud and confident in our status as urbanites. We vowed that any child of ours would be raised in the city, this city, with its intellectual offerings of museums and galleries, with ts cultural diversity, with Its dirt and grunge co-existing with its glamour, with its public transportation. To that end, we bought a small, semi-detached house in what is euphemistically called an "up-and-coming" neighbourhood. We had high hopes for this neighbourhood of ours. There was a school nearby, a large park, and we were close to a main road with local shops. We knew that the neighbourhood was in transition, but that was okay. We would grow with the neighbourhood.

We spent a great deal of time, renovating our Little House in the City, bringing it back from the brink of despair. It had previously been a three-storey rooming house, that we soon discovered was in poor repair. We replaced the entire electrical system. We tore down walls, installed bathrooms, fixed plaster, rebuilt handrails. The work only ended the day we put the house on the market. And the previous tenants? At one point we counted the names of the mail that was coming in (and still comes in four years later) for the former tenants and gave up when we surpassed twenty-five different names. The tenant that lived in the basement just prior to our purchase used to deal drugs out the basement window.

But then the cracks started to show. Our neighbourhood is always featured in the news every summer long weekend, famous for its firecracker wars that have commentators likening our streets to the streets of Baghdad. On the corner of our street, one house over from ours, is a strip of storefronts with cheap apartments above them. Only last summer were the drug dealers, which saw a healthy drive-up trade on our street, finally evicted. There is change, but it is very slow in coming to these parts. This is a neighbourhood that is left to fend for itself by its city councillor and by the city - an unsexy, uncool part of Toronto that isn't on anyone's list of priorities. Not part of desirable High Park, not close enough to Roncesvalles, and too far from the Annex.

And here I come to a touchy subject. Our neighbourhood is one of two distinct cultural groups, neither of which we belong to. We knew this moving in, and it wasn't an issue for us. It still wouldn't be, but for what happened once I had Peanut and started to move around the neighbourhood, going to the park and trying to meet other mothers in the area. For what I quickly found was that in belonging to neither cultural group, I was also welcomed by neither. Attempts at conversation with other mothers in the park were quickly ended. The other mothers, congregating and chatting amongst themselves. I thought it was just me, but Mr Babbler also noticed it in his attempts to get to know our neighbours and his several attempts to make conversation. Eventually we both gave up, saddened and somewhat disillusioned.

The past four years have also seen us grow disillusioned with a city that we both loved. Several years ago we saw a mayor come to office for whom we (and by we, I do mean Mr Babbler and I) had extremely high hopes and who offered an opportunity for change on a large scale. A change from the cronyism and ridiculousness of our previous mayor, with his social gaffes and ridiculous spending. A change in environmental policy. A change in the way we run the city. Sadly, we found ourself with a mayor who seems to bumble haplessly from one mismanaged episode to another. A mayor whose record has not been stellar, to say the least. The infrastructure is rapidly crumbling, the budget has been mismanaged and the city is in a bad a place as ever. Still he is reluctant to make the tough, hard changes that are truly necessary for the city, this city which I love, to survive and prosper, offering tax cuts to the rich businesses, increasing salaries for city councillors at a time where social programs are being cut, allowing the TTC to run rampant ... oh, I could go on. To say I'm disappointed would be an understatement, and was yet another factor in our decision to move.

And here we were, in a city that we loved but were frustrated with, with a house that we were outgrowing. (An aside - my in-laws stay with us frequently. The house has one bathroom, and a tiny and narrow staircase leading to the third floor where our guest bedroom is. It was not an ideal situation.) Our closest friends all lived 45 minutes away in Markham, and we were having difficulty building a support network in our neighbourhood. We did consider moving to another neighbourhood, but quickly discovered that our options in the city would be limited, at best. In the four years since we had purchased this house the market had grown out of control, and we just were not prepared to pay $650,000 for a shoebox sized complete fixer-upper in a better neighbourhood that would still require a bidding war if we had any hope of getting the property.

And so, we swallowed our pride. We made the decision that perhaps that 'burbs weren't that bad and maybe, just maybe, there was something out there for us. Our good friends suggested a neighbourhood in Markham that had many of the attributes that we loved about Toronto - efficient and eco-friendly use of land, with smaller lot sizes and houses situated feet from the sidewalk, rear-loading and mixed use business-residential. There is a good mix of incomes and housing ranges small townhouses and semi-detached to fully detached homes. The neighbourhood is also a truly diverse one, with a broad range of cultures. Eventually we went and explored the neighbourhood and were pleased with what we saw. After much discussion and comparing the pros and cons of such a move, we made the decision that this move offered so much for our family.

The house is, admittedly, large. It has four bedrooms, a large kitchen/living room, separate dining room, living room and office. It is large for our family, but my in-laws, who are not young, already spend a lot of time with us (at least one extended weekend a month) and will likely spend considerably more time with us as they age. This house gave us the opportunity to have space for them, without all of us living on top of one another. For Peanut, it gives her room - room to run, room to play, room to explore - all of which she is sorely missing in this Little House. She already loves it, and is upset when we
bring her home to her shoebox in the city after a visit to the McMansion, her disappointment and disapproval palapable as she finds herself confined to our small living room (compounded by the decreasing floor space as boxes take up every nook and cranny).

Perhaps most importantly, this new house gave us the chance to be close to our friends and our support network. Peanut does not have siblings as of yet (and this is a whole other topic of conversation). She has no cousins, and none on the horizon. Two sets of our closest friends live in Markham. One set is Peanut's godparents, who have a son who is a year younger than Peanut. The other set are the good friends of Peanut's godparents, and have since become our good friends also. They have a daughter six months older than Peanut, who is quickly becoming her little friend. These two women are two of my closest friends, the husbands both terrific guys who are friends with Mr Babbler. Additionally, one of Mr Babbler's business partners and good friends lives ten minutes away, a wonderful single mother with a daughter that is enough older than Peanut to be a potential babysitter in a few years time. She has also discussed moving into our neighbourhood, and Mr Babbler is pleased that we'll finally be close enough to offer to help her out from time to time. These are people who I am proud to say are like aunts and uncles to Peanut, and our children will grow up together. It is hard to find people like this, and this was probably one of the largest factors in our decision to move away from the city.
Our house is five minutes away from each of these couples, and I feel very grateful that I will soon be able to call these people neighbours. On the weekend, Peanut was able to have her first official playdate with Baby 'Zilla, and watching her run around our new house, squealing with glee, was one of the happiest moments of my life and confirmed absolutely why we were moving north.

And so we move from our Little House in the Big City. I'm sure we'll always have some regrets about leaving, as with it we leave behind many memories, both good - bringing home our tiny Peanut and starting our lives together as a family, and bad - building a new bathroom ourselves only to find that each fixture we turned on leaked into the kitchen (note to aspiring DIYers - you can NOT do it yourself, and they will NOT help when you ask!) We also leave behind our youthful idealism, replacing it with the pragmatism that comes (I guess) from age, and wisdom and the making of decisions that are in the "best interests of your children".

I hope that this city which I so love can rebuild and reinspire. I'll be watching closely, as our paths diverge and our story continues from the McMansion in the burbs.

* * *
Edited to add: Oh, and yes. The schools - that
cliché of modern parenting. The public school in our neighbourhood is, to put it frankly, pretty terrible. I am not Catholic, nor a hypocrite, so I will not be sending Peanut to the Catholic school in search of a better education (where the hypocrite part steps in). And yes, I do understand that it is partially the parents that make the schools better yada yada yada, but really? I'm not sure that, high ideals notwithstanding, I am willing to put Peanut's education on the line like that. Needless to say the neighbourhood we are moving into has a terrific school, with terrific parental involvement.

The answers to your questions are coming at some point when I can find my computer and get an hour to myself before 1 am! I promise!


SciFi Dad said...

Good luck with the move. I'm sure it will go fine.

Although I never raised a family in the city, I did live in an urban centre (Montreal, not Toronto) for a while. Life in the 'burbs isn't as bad as you think.

And it's not like you're moving to Kapuskasing; you're still closer to the core than we are, and we make it to the science centre, the zoo, the Rogers Centre, etc. You'll just have to drive to the nearest TTC station instead of walk to it.

cinnamon gurl said...

Good luck! And good for you for articulating and untangling all your thoughts around the move. We don't live in the big city, but we do live in an "up and coming" downtown area of our town and thinking about the same kinds of things.

metro mama said...

Having good neighbours is the most important thing, I think, and it sounds like you will have that.

We're lucky we bought in our neighbourhood when we did--we couldn't afford to buy the same house today. I don't know how people can get in the market anymore. It's such a shame.

Happy moving!

Naomi (Urban Mummy) said...

Good luck with the move! It's a difficult choice. We're in the middle - not quite in the city, but not quite in the suburbs.

Good neighbours (and good friends) are very hard to find, so rejoice in that!! And the suburbs are not THAT bad, really!

Don Mills Diva said...

It sounds like you've made an excellent choice. And ya, Miller has been a massive disappointmnet hasn't he? A masssive, massive disappointment.

Bea said...

Can we see pictures once you're moved in?

Mac and Cheese said...

I hope the move goes smoothly. I miss the city too, but I still live happily in the 'burbs.

kittenpie said...

Good luck with the move - they are always a pain, even if nothing really goes amiss.

It sounds like you are really happy with your decision, and really thought about why you'd do it - I'm happy it seems like it will be a good fit in so many ways for you.

kgirl said...

lots can change in four years, you know? of course you do.
be happy in your new place. and you already know that it's not the walls, it's the people inside that make it a home.

crazymumma said...

I remember speaking with you about much of this. I would have done the same thing. I think you made an excellent choice for your family.

caramama said...

I'm sure it's difficult to leave the city, but it really does sound like a great decision. It was obviously well thought out, and you articulate it so well.

I hope the move goes smoothly and you enjoy your new place!

scarbie doll said...

Am watching with great interest as we contemplate the similar. We have all the same issues on this end of town.

My folks live in Markham. There are things I love about it. It was voted number 8 in Utne's top 10 most progressive suburbs a while back -- the only Canadian nominee. Just avoid Markville on a weekends -- it's strollerama on the ick tip.

Best part -- 905 has some pretty stellar bars and restos. Good luck!

nomotherearth said...

Sorry, I read this some time ago but have just now been able to comment as the Little Guy has turned into McScreamy (can he come play in your McMansion? It's a good fit). I am very happy for you, of course, but just a little bit sad that you moved away just as we found out we were so close. I hope the distance doesn't hinder future playdates??

Lisa b said...

I must admit I'm a little jealous of your McMansion. The ideal place to live is anywhere we find community. Things change when we have kids. Living near friends becomes of utmost importance.
I think you are going to be very happy, Markham is hardly the 'burbs these days.
We drove up to kleinberg for a field trip this week and I was remembering how Canada's Wonderland used to be in the middle of a field, now there's a wicked mall. I'll meet you there anytime.

I miss my old 'hood terribly but there is just no way I would consider raising my kids there. I didn't leave the city but I had to reassess my self image just moving north.

Denguy said...

I hope you'll still trek into Hogtown Central for the odd get-together.

petite gourmand said...

Oh great post and I know exactly where you're coming from.

Big daddy & I have been struggling with the same thing for a while now.
The market has gotten so ridiculous in T.O. and I agree- it's time for a major clean up.
Miller certainly isn't living up to all his promises.
we have decided to stay put for now (then again we are in the Leaside area so it's actually pretty decent) but our house is really tiny and the next size up is going for well over a million.
glad we moved up here before things got so crazy.
for now we'll have to just deal with the small spaces.
But who knows what the future holds?
I do know, that we go for Dim-Sum in Markham all the time and I love it up there.
It's actually much closer than I thought.
I hope you all get settled in nicely and enjoy all the extra space and support.
good luck!

Assertagirl said...

Congratulations on your move! I lived in Leslieville for a few years and really loved it, but there was just no way I was going to be able to ever own a home in the city. Fortunately when I met my husband, he already owned a house in suburbia (Bowmanville) and now here I am! A community is really what you make of it, at times.


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