Friday, July 02, 2010

walking through suburbia

I took a shortcut (longcut really) through the neighbourhood lake yesterday on my walk to the store. The lake is a pretty big one, for a suburban lake scooped out of the bald-assed prairie 40 years ago, about 50 acres. It's big enough that it has two beaches.

The closest beach was still deserted, which didn't surprise me all that much, as it was a little cool and breezy. The entire goose population, which has exploded over the past few years, was hanging around on the beach. I counted 21 geese; I gave them a wide berth.

As I rounded the corner approaching the beach at the other end of the lake, however, I saw that it was starting to fill up with humanity. Families were covering picnic tables with cloths and hauling out coolers, dads were fishing with their kids, a couple of toddlers were splashing around in the water.

By the time I had picked up my groceries and headed back, gaggles of teenagers had wandered onto the human beach, people were spreading blankets out on the lawn by the waterfall. The goose beach was still human-free. One of them gave me the hairy eyeball as I passed. I wonder if they claimed that beach for the entire day?

As I walked back home along the Drive, I was struck once again at how poorly planned the neighbourhood really is. It was obviously designed with the automobile-obsessed mentality that defined city planning during the 70's, that spawned the concept of the suburb in the first place. Curving streets, vast expanses of front yard dominated by a driveway, back lanes that serve no other purpose than a place to put out your garbage once a week.

The area of the neighbourhood in which I live is slightly better. The front lawns, although still larger than the back yards, are a slightly more livable size, and most of us have garages in the back, giving some purposes to that under-used back lane and eliminating the jutting obtrusive garage phenomenon.

I admire those neighbourhoods with mixed zoning, where single-family homes coexist with apartments and corner stores and libraries and garages. My neighbourhood feels very class-dominated at times. At the heart is the inner sanctum - those multi-million dollar houses which back onto the lake. This circle is surrounded by the estate houses from which you can see but not access the lake, and they in turn are protected by the gatekeeper houses, which back onto the estate but which face a busy street and the lesser areas of the neighbourhood.

The non-estate area, where I live, is comprised of comfortable middle-class houses with smaller front yards (which is actually a blessing). Our part of the neighbourhood, quite literally looks down upon smaller, more modest houses in the Downs area.

The houses that I passed on my way home yesterday, those that back onto the estate where the rich people live, all display sweeping expanses of immaculate lawn with a long stretch of double car driveway sloping down to the street. They are impressive houses, architecturally imposing, as they look down their driveways at the rest of us. But when you look behind these houses, they appear as nothing more than a facade. The back yards are so tiny you could easily spit the length of them, made even smaller than necessary by the never-used back lane.

It's not like anyone ever uses these front yards, either, except to mow the grass, rake the leaves, and shovel the driveway. Instead, they huddle in their tiny back yards, fenced off from the rest of the world and the people next door, protected by the caste system of suburbia.

Is there a defined class structure in your neighbourhood?


kelly said...

middle class for sure. Homes in my neighbourhood are value right in the average for the community, around $350K.

When I lived in Wolseley in Winnipeg, I loved the area. The front of the house was about 4 steps from the city sidewalk. Well shaeded bymassive elm trees. Evenings were spent in the screened front porch (mosquitos you know) watching people walk by and talking with some of those. When we bought the house here one of the first things I did was make a paving stone seating area in front of the house. It's great for morning coffee and later day shade when the back deck is swealtering. We sit there with the dog and he lets us know whenever anybody walks by. Don't get me wrong, still ove the back deck and the total privacy we get back there .

LesleyG said...

I'm definitely in a middle-class neighborhood. Most of the homes are well-kept and some extraordinarily so. I'm getting ready to do some renovations, nothing huge, but more than paint, and it's going to be hard to not price my place out of the neighborhood in some cases. In other cases, not so much. It's a very weird balance around here.

We at least have many, many walking paths and open spaces, which for a neighborhood developed at the height of mid-century modern design, is almost unheard of. You mean you encourage people to actually LEAVE their houses, with parks and sidewalks? Weird. ;)

S.M. Elliott said...

Living downtown, there is basically no visible social strata. We have seniors, dealers, students, young office workers, older office workers who haven't made it out of the 'hood yet, artists, and of course a lot of folks who don't have homes at all. I have to be honest: I hate the 'burbs. I'm not sure I could live in them. The conformity, or the expectation of it, would drive me a little cuckoo. Then again, I would enjoy knowing more of the neighbors and not having to step over people who have passed out on the sidewalk after drinking full bottles of Listerine...

Allison said...

I still can't get over back lanes. I really miss having a front yard and porch. Where I'm living now, its mixed zoning, which I enjoy, but I miss having a yard.

Where I grew up, it as a middle class, and we had two man made lakes in our neighbourhood, similar to what you were describing in your post (my family didn't live on the lake), with a park, and yes, the houses started to double (or triple) in size once you reached the lake. However, we still had lots of amenities (corner stores, and libraries) too though. It was worse once you exited out of my neighbourhood, and got to the houses along Lake Huron...McMansions.

mister anchovy said...

Our neighbourhood used to be "cottage country" for Torontonians in the early part of the last century. Some of the houses still look like cottages, while others are bigger and some even huge. There are some remarkably ugly apartments on a few of the neighbourhood streets. These are non-descript brown boxes that go up maybe six stories. South of our neighbourhood is Lake Ontario and to the north, The Lakeshore is the main street, and it's a real mixed bag of stuff. At night the Lakeshore changes. It reminds me of the cartoon with the sheepdog and the coyote. Once crew punches in and the other punches out. Suddenly we see the odd hooker on the street, and shady looking characters in the strip malls who might as well have sandwich signs saying, "buy your drugs from me". The broader neighbourhood is isolated from the rest of the city because its such an odd nook by the lake and because only a few of the streets go past the train tracks and expressway to the north.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I love the Wolseley area of Winnipeg, Kelly. I never lived there but I have always admired the community spirit there. Wolseley was one of the first areas to ban community mosquito spraying, and in Winnipeg, that's a huge deal.
One of the first things we did in our Calgary house was build a big front deck because we missed our London deck (and the lifestyle that it afforded) so.

Your neighbourhood is unusual for its vintage, Lesley. But it sounds like a wonderful place that I would like to see someday. (I do have a standing invitation, don't I?)
I wouldn't worry about your renovations pricing your house above the area. It's what makes you happy that matters.

I can do without the Listerine drinkers as neighbours, SME, but I'm not all that sure if I know my neighbours any better than you do yours. It's funny, when we lived in a mixed zonage area in London, ON, we knew all of our neighbours intimately. Then we moved to a very suburban Calgary neighbourhood and we know very few of our neighbours, even after 11 years. That may say more about us than our the neighbourhood, but still.

Your place is really cute, Al, but I can certainly see how you would miss having a yard, especially after the large yard (complete with yard dog) that you had in your last place.
But then neighbourhood in which you grew up sounds rather lovely, actually. We too have shopping areas, but they are concentrated in three places, and not spread out into corner stores and places you can reach in a less than 20 minute walk.

What a great snapshot of your neighbourhood, Mr Anchovy. I love an area that has some history to it, and I particularly love your analogy of the sheepdog/coyote cartoon. I find it fascinating how some areas can change so drastically from day to night, and it really is almost as though another shift has taken over. You chose a really great way to illustrate that.

Wandering Coyote said...

I really enjoyed your observations. My aunt used to live in Calgary and we frequently drove there to visit her. My impression of the city has always been "development heaven." The neighbourhoods you describe is usually what I associate with Calgary and not much else (except dry skin!). It's a shame, actually. I can't recall any character of the actual city of Calgary, other than the tower and the Deerfoot Trail!

I love geese!

As for my neighbourhood...Well, this is a small town so there is a real mix. There is definitely a wealthier element here now as opposed to when I was growing up and it was more working class. But there is still a good mix here, and then there is the seasonal aspect, too, which always makes the mix more interesting.

pilgrimchick said...

That's a remarkable description. The answer in my case is no--some houses are a bit larger (meaning two storied) and others are smaller, but the lawns are all about the same size, and everyone puts them to use somehow--some have a few livestock animals, some grow gardens. Middle of nowhere, sure, but a nice place to live.

John Mutford said...

Yes, there's a class system here in Yellowknife for sure, but it no doubt looks different than most cities in Canada. For starters, trailers here don't have the same status as most places-- probably because we've seen them go as high as $400,000 and more people live in trailers than houses or apartments here. That said, there's still a part of town, "Northlands," which has more of a stigma than others. It's all trailers there, but the real problem goes back to a shoddy deal from the land owners years ago. It's too complicated to get into now, but it's an expensive mess, to say the least.Then there's old town, which is my favourite part of town because it has the most character and predates "town planning." It seems to attract the artsier and/or hippier types. However, it's also quite expensive there, despite not being hooked up to the town's water supply (water and sewage is trucked in/out). It also overlooks the houseboat dwellers, taxless bohemians who everyone envies except during freeze-up/break-up every spring/summer when they can't drive or canoe to their homes. There's also Niven, a quite expensive subdivision. It's filled with gigantic monstrous mansions with for sale signs on their lawns. When it was being built, status seekers wanted to show off but then most realized they couldn't afford to even heat such a place let alone pay the mortgage. Most of these start at about 600,000. That all said, I still love Yellowknife and despite its issues, wouldn't live anywhere else.

Your post reminded me of Jane Jacobs' Dark Age Ahead.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

There actually are some inner city neighbourhoods in Calgary which have a lovely mix and which makes for a vibrant livable neighbourhood, WC, but the image of the sprawling suburbs is so pervasive.
I would imagine that the seasonal ebb and flow in your town would make for some pretty interesting dynamics. Are the seasonal residents generally embraced or resented, or a combination?

Your town sounds like a delightful place, pilgrimchick! I'm not a big fan of lawns just for the sake of having something to mow once a week and really admire people who put their land to use.

I am rather gobsmacked at being compared, even in passing, to Jane Jacobs, John, and while I certainly don't have her knowledge, insight, or eloquence, I am very interested in the dynamics of our cities and towns.
Yellowknife sounds amazing. I really had no idea what your city is like, being woefully ignorant of the north. I rather expected it to be more ubiquitous somehow, but I'm heartened to hear it has such a diversity of character. I would love to see it sometime! I hear the Mutfords do a mean barbeque as well...

John Mutford said...

It's true. Our barbecues are quite mean. I yell at my wife, she yells at me. The kids cry. I get drunk and burn chicken. When are you visiting?