Saturday, October 17, 2015

My neighbourhood

In the move across the train tracks we went from South Riverdale (almost-but-not-quite Leslieville, which was George Walker's old stomping grounds) to Riverdale.  Some would say we are actually in Blake-Jones, but since the kids aren't going to Blake St. School, I would say we are in Riverdale.

What is particularly interesting about this neighbourhood is that we have fairly easy access to Withrow Park, which is a really nice feature.  I've gone to the farmers' market a few times, as well as Dances at Dusk and some plays put on in the park.  We did a bit of sledding last year and expect to go more often this winter.  Ideally, my daughter will learn to skate in Withrow.  Now we haven't gone a lot to Riverdale Park, as it is just a bit longer to get there.  But all these things are kind of "nice things" that upper middle class people get.

Where this neighbourhood is quite different is that if you live a bit further north, you would mostly shop up on Danforth.  I have to say I wasn't all that impressed with the grocery stores up there, though the other stores were fine.  One of the groceries was particularly chi-chi.  In contrast, we generally shop at two groceries stores right on Gerrard where the customers are really price-sensitive, which exerts a lot of downward pressure on the prices.  In fact, all the stores at Gerrard Square with the exception of Staples and Home Depot are geared towards lower income shoppers.  So we definitely benefit from that, even though I wouldn't have minded a Sears or a Target (with US-levels of selection) instead of the Walmart, though of course both would probably have folded by this point.  I don't think I am particularly cheap (my family might disagree...) but I do demand value for money, and I think we do a bit better on the south end of Riverdale than they do at the north end.

If they do open up a GO Rail stop at Gerrard Square or Jones Ave. (which is tentatively in the Metrolinx master plan), it will be interesting to see just how fast South Riverdale, Blake-Jones and Leslieville gentrify.  I think they would, particularly given that housing prices around already seem awfully inflated!  I'd like to see that, as I would definitely benefit from it, and I think it would actually help overall subway crowding just about as much as the Downtown Relief Line, but at a much, much lower cost.

I'm not entirely sure how many middle class people (aside from us) shop at Gerrard Square but surely some.  I've certainly seen quite a few clashes at the mall over people with different backgrounds and ideas of what is proper.  I was so disappointed to hear this white man to say some really horrible things about Asian drivers while his young son was right there.  Do I understand that he is resentful of all this competition from immigrants when his economic position appears to be really precarious?  Sure, but I don't approve.  Still, it is fairly easy to criticize when I am on the sidelines.  I am not threatened by low- or medium-skilled migrants coming to Canada.  While there are obviously some drawbacks to community cohesion, on the whole I am in favour of mass migration (provided there are some ground rules about what is not acceptable behaviour in Canada), though of course I would say that being a high-skilled migrant myself (who slipped in just before another round of rule changes to the immigration laws).

One bit of cultural clash that would be interesting to explore (that Walker only has hinted at so far) is how the folks living near me are largely, though not entirely, workaholics and there is a different relationship to work south of the tracks.  Some of the workers work extremely hard at precarious jobs (and this may be the most true of the migrants who are "only" permanent residents and have almost no access to Canada's social safety net), but work still doesn't seem to define their identity the way it can for certain skilled workers.  I would say on the whole there is a bit more casualness towards work on the south side.  (And this may well be a healthier perspective or at least reflect a more realistic attitude as to how much any particular worker is actually valued (or needed) by a corporation.  It's just not a perspective I seem to be able to adopt.  I may come back to this point when I write about Machado de Assis's novels in a future blog.)

As a good example, we had planned to go to a mobile phone store and finally get my wife switched over to a new service and a new smart phone.  The store wasn't scheduled to open until 11, so we walked around the block and waited outside.  There was absolutely no indication that anyone was inside getting ready to open up.  I even called the store number, and the call went to a number that did not have an active voice mailbox, so I couldn't even leave a message.  We waited 10 or so minutes and then went home.  It's very possible that the employee turned up at 11:30.  He was almost certainly there by noon, but it is too late.  This casualness has cost him a sale, since we will now deal with the mobile company over at the Eaton Centre tomorrow.  It's this frisson between different expectations of how to behave and what is "reasonable" or "proper" that are actually quite interesting.  I might explore this just a bit in this short piece I am working on for the next Sing-for-Your-Supper, though this would be a case where only one of the characters is "slumming," trying to hang out with the cool kids who are actually from a lower social class.  For the most part I find it easier to write when everyone in the play is from roughly the same class position, though I do find myself exploring when people come from different ethnic backgrounds.  I don't know how successful I actually am at this (I'll elicit more feedback later), but it is something I have tackled 3 times now.  I don't know that I am ready yet to write a piece which features major class divides as well as racial or ethnic divides, but I will probably get there someday.

Certainly the broader neighbourhood (5 or so blocks in all directions) should provide some terrific source material.  In addition to our mobile phone "saga," there are some very interesting stories about parents who manage to get their kids anchored into a particular school and then move quite a distance away where the rent is cheaper.  I found that this was a technique pretty common in Chicago, and I guess I admire parents for exploring/exploiting the same loopholes here, perhaps because in Toronto, unless Chicago, it seems to be migrant families who do take more advantage of this, i.e. this isn't simply some other way that middle class white families exploit their cultural capital to work the system, the way it was in Chicago.  I shouldn't complain too much, as we benefited from the system in Chicago, though in our case we only moved a short distance away but wanted to stay in the same school.  In Toronto, just as in Chicago, the school catchment areas are quite irregular and even a bit perverse in some neighbourhoods.

I haven't spent enough time at the Community Centre to have any interesting tales there, but I may find out more from my kids who are enrolled in some sports there.  While I am recycling this picture, I think it is a classic one, showing just how few kids came out to celebrate the Christmas holiday whereas in Vancouver (and presumably at least some other Toronto centres) these pancake breakfasts were packed.  I call this picture "The Loneliest Santa."

Edit to add: I actually forgot how much drama there can be at these grocery stores.  Most of the clashes at the Food Basics are in the parking lot, while No Frills has plenty of parking, but seems to serve a slightly wider range of customers (class-wise at any rate).  I've seen some really ugly interactions at the cash registers, particularly when there is a frustrated middle class customer treating the cashiers badly.  It just seems to me that everyone is more on edge than they used to be and certainly a lot of the vaunted Canadian "niceness" has been somewhat worn away.  There certainly are not that many novels set in supermarkets, though there are a few set in small stores or delis (maybe Bernard Malamud's The Assistant is the best known early example).  There is a whole string of contemporary novels with a scene here or there set in a store as part of a larger commentary on consumerism (DeLillo's White Noise is the exemplar but also Ballard's Kingdom Come and of course some of the stories by Donald Barthelme or Raymond Carver -- "A Small, Good Thing" obviously).  The one quite recent novel that kind of gets at what I am contemplating at the moment is The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavić, which despite its title only has a relatively few scenes set in or actually outside a supermarket, but they are quite interesting because of various cultural clashes.  I've been meaning to review this for a while, so I guess I will just go ahead and do that now.

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