When I returned to Canada last year, this time with a husband and baby in tow the first thing that was assumed (by my entire family, myself included) was that we would settle into the quiet, ‘family friendly’ streets of suburbia. Where else was one to raise a family? I too had been raised in the neighbourhoods of Markham and Mississauga at subsequent moves during my childhood.
When you think of a couple with a young child, one would imagine a house with a backyard, lined up alongside identical ‘builder’ homes with mini vans parked in the driveway, bordered by a clean white sidewalk and a paved street, it’s mirror image on the other side.
Down the road you could hear the jovial hello of the friendly driver of the big yellow bus with its red stop sign out, who would take the children to the school just around the corner; the wide rectangular brick building with a playground adjacent to it. Ah yes, that sounded like a nice, tranquil and safe suburban community, sound familiar? Well I thought I would be living there myself. But thankfully, my tunnel vision view on where we should settle was broken down and I was soon enlightened.
It all started after our first transitional 3 month stay at my grandparents’ place in Mississauga, or as it is sometimes known as ‘Mrs. Agha’ or ‘Desi-sauga’, reflecting on its large Pakistani and Indian community. I probably saw more Shalwar Kameez (ethnic dress) attired aunties at Square One mall than Karachi’s own Dolmen City mall. Not that I have a problem with it, I love my people but it was amusing especially for my new to Canada husband to observe such dominance by one particular community. It just made us a little homesick. Luckily my grandparent’s lived near enough to Square One that commuting to downtown Toronto was convenient and fairly frequent as my husband started his job hunt. That was when the Urban vs. Suburban comparison began.
The first thing that struck us was the complete and eerie ‘quiet’ of the ‘burbs compared to the hustle bustle of the city during all times of the day and night; the ‘burbs could be frankly speaking, boring. Then there was the issue of getting around, which required you to have a car to move about in the suburbs versus the convenience of the TTC.
We actually had to purchase a car seat, without owning a car just so our relatives could drive us places as was needed. You could only go so far traveling with a baby on suburban transit, till you found yourself in the middle of nowhere. Up to this point I had never considered living downtown because that had always been ingrained in my head as a ‘no no’.
The city with its crime and ‘all kinds of people’ wasn’t the ‘right’ environment to raise children. However, with each visit the city lured us even closer, charming me and my husband who one day asked ‘Why don’t we live here?’ and it was like a sudden revelation.
My mind started processing this new idea and it didn’t take me long to agree to it. That is when I realized I was hooked. The stars aligned because my husband ended up getting a job downtown and after an exhaustive hunt we were able to find an apartment, with everything you could possibly want across the street; Grocer-check, theatre-check, subway station-check, doctor’s office- check and most importantly the desi waxing lady-CHECK!.
What did the family have to say about the move? They rationalized our decision as, oh well they are young and the baby is small, let them get their adventurous and wild ways (as much as you can really get wild with a kid) out-of-the-way and when the child is ready for full-time school they’ll need to move to the suburbs in any case.
It has now been exactly a year since moving downtown and although I would still consider us new to the city (still a lot of places to visit), we are comfortable enough to know our way around the transit system and understand ‘the grid’ i.e. the streets and general idea of the different neighbourhoods. We probably would have been old hats had it not been for the fact that we moved just as winter started and well those first 6 months not being used to the cold were spent in hibernation. Now as winter rolls around, I am looking forward to enjoying the festive season a lot more.
So what have I learned this past year? Well mainly that I LOVE this great city of Toronto (despite its mayor issues- really let’s NOT get into that. But hey you’ve got to love the buzz factor). Living here has made me realize that it does not have to be a transitory phase; that my husband and I are not really the ‘picket fence’ type of couple and most importantly that YES you can raise a family here without sentencing your child to a life of ‘drug pushing’.
The pros in my opinion outweigh the cons. Let’s just get the cons out-of-the-way. The city is expensive! Especially since we are no longer a dual income family; my sacrifice to do the ‘full time mom’ thing instead. So affordable housing whilst living in the downtown core means living in a shoe box. Again, that is partly related to choice as well and as is the case with everything, there are opportunity costs.
Crime? Sure it’s there, you hear the sirens constantly but then again if you know your neighbourhoods, you know which ones to avoid walking around in late at night. Also it’s not like the suburbs are free of it. In fact the number of hit and runs that happen in residential areas is appalling. Ever heard of having a car stolen from the owners own driveway? Yes that happened to someone and yes it was in the ‘burbs.
As far as schools are concerned, let me dispel the myth of ‘bad’ public schools downtown. As with any place, usually the demographics dictate the vibe of the neighbourhood. So there are plenty of high-ranking public schools around, you just have to choose the right district for you and that comes with a little research.
Plus if you go the private school route, then the city is a mecca of several of the best institutions in the country. My daughter recently started pre-school and if that is any indication of how her full-time school experience will be downtown, I am looking forward to it. After speaking to some of the other moms I am constantly learning of all the great parks and places to take my little baby girl. Who needs a backyard when you’ve got several stately gardens and playgrounds to choose from? And University of Toronto’s campus as a gorgeous back drop. What concrete jungle?
I want my daughter to grow into an independent, confident, knowledgeable, street smart and sensitive individual. My husband and I feel by living downtown she will have the best exposure to all of the things that will help her develop those traits. Toronto is made up of vibrant communities of different cultures. Officially there are 140 neighbourhoods that make up this city and each has a unique vibe to it. There is something or another happening in these communities all the time and so the city is always pulsing with fun and excitement. There is culture everywhere and I want my daughter to be able to interact and make friends with people of all backgrounds as this will only make her experiences and knowledge richer.
As she gets older she will learn to appreciate the museums, art galleries, theatre, libraries and most recently the amazing new aquarium, that are just a TTC ride away. Who wouldn’t want to grow up surrounded by all of that? It’s the convenience of being so close that would make you want to visit it more often. How about being subway savvy? Sure it’s not complicated, but for those who do not get to come downtown often, the subway system can seem a bit alien.
Learning the ins and out of the public transportation system is important to know how to move around safely in and also teaches a young person confidence and overall street smarts just by being exposed to so many people. These people include many elderly, handicapped and even homeless individuals which mean an opportunity to learn respect and sensitivity, to put that into action whether it is simply by extending a helping hand or a warm smile.
These are interactions that I personally have on a daily basis and I hope my daughter learns and displays alongside me. Oh and let’s not forget some of the best hospitals and research facilities are right here at our doorstep. God forbid we ever need to frequent it, but just knowing Sick Kids Hospital is down the block, is very reassuring.
As we start to grow our family, space will be an issue in this currently crowded condo, but hopefully by then we will be ready to move into a house in a vibrant, eclectic close-knit neighbourhood with Victorian era character to it, narrow streets and a hundred year old trees.
That would be the dream. However, since life is always throwing things at you I also know it could be very well that we end up back in ‘Mrs.Agha’ closer to family or somewhere even further west. I hear the Desi’s are all packing up and moving to Milton! Such may be the case, but for now I know Toronto is the home for us and it will always be that special city of so many firsts, so many stepping-stones in helping raising our baby girl, in this great big city world.
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