Chef Morimoto
The New Solitudes: Suburban vs Urban

January 21, 2004

When Canadian author Hugh MacLennan released his book Two Solitudes in 1945 it defined this country in terms of the English/French tension. Almost 60 years after the publication of the novel, the linguistic split has faded and in its place there's a different schism – a suburban/urban divide that has polarized our social and political values.

There is a disconnect from the big wash of humanity when you live in suburbia.


I grew up in suburbia but I don't live there anymore. Now, when I visit my parents in suburban Calgary, I can almost hear the screams – the ones coming from inside me. My parents live in the outer ring of the city, where mammoth homes stand shoulder to shoulder in silent acquiescence. I want to run, screeching like a banshee, down the antiseptic sidewalks. I grew up yearning to escape. Suburbia was isolating, an artificial environment where everyone did the same thing, where you cut the grass every two weeks and went to the mall on weekends. As a kid, you had the choice of seeing a movie or hanging out at the 7-Eleven. Neither of these interested me. I didn't feel I belonged. That's the kind of sentiment plaguing our national psyche. The Rush song "Subdivisions" says it all:

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone

When I talk about the suburbs, I mean those neighbourhoods with the cookie-cutter houses. In suburbia, the homes are nice, the people are nice and it's a "safe" place to raise your family. A sterilized existence where the homeless don't exist.

"The living isn't done there. It's like they're resting," says my friend Christine, a suburbanite for her first 19 years. She has since moved to Toronto's core.

There is a disconnect from the big wash of humanity when you live in suburbia.

When I'm in Calgary and I want to go to the corner store (a five-block walk), my dad offers to drive me in their minivan. It's like the popemobile; nothing from the outside ever gets in. There is a disconnect from the big wash of humanity when you live in suburbia.

When I'm back home in downtown Toronto, I encounter people from all walks of life, whether it's the young man with mental problems who talks to himself or the little old lady down the street who waters the flowers in the park during the summer. What happens when you create sprawling communities? With two-acre lots, SUVs and mortgage payments, suburbanites start griping as soon as their property taxes start to rise though the money is needed to provide the road and sewage services they require out in the middle of nowhere. They start voting for parties that advocate cuts to welfare. Just look at our voting patterns, the suburbs all seem skewed to the right.

In comparison, the urbanite thinks more about the world around him where people fall through the cracks, the homeless exist and money is needed to keep public transit a viable option for the car-less.

Fortunately, a new wave of urban planners has started to attack these hamlets of homogeneity called suburbs. In a speech to the Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects, "smart growth" advocate James Howard Kunstler called suburbia "culturally toxic." American urban affairs writer Neal Pierce agrees. Both Kunstler and Pierce blame suburban sprawl for the Columbine high school shootings. Bottom line: suburban life has a psychological and sociological effect on us. We have to fight that.

Living downtown is not for everyone but suburbanites have to stop regarding the city core as a foreign land. They should not remain ensconced in their big boxes in Lego Land – like solitary woodsmen living in a plastic culture.

"I know people who live in the 'burbs and downtown for them is a like a different city. They don't think of it as theirs," says Christine.

Urban planning visionary Jane Jacobs has also noted a shift in the Canadian mindscape. Her books decrying the inhumane environment of urban renewal projects are world-renowned. When she moved from the U.S. to Toronto in 1968, Jacobs remarked Canada was a more civil place than the U.S. and praised our "healthful" cities. But in a recent CBC Radio interview, Jacobs worried about the recent trend of "mean-spiritedness" in Canadian politics. She pointed to cuts to education and health care.

One line stood out in the interview:

"I liked going to the dentist (as a child) because it gave me a chance to go downtown."

We need to experience the connection that says we're in this together. The roadways and transit systems are arteries linking people to the heart of the city, not away from it. It's important to note that MacLennan borrowed the title of his book from poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote this phrase in a letter:

"Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other."