The funny thing about the word “suburbs” is that it means different things to different people. Where I grew up, it often meant–and still means, really–a place for white people to go when they wanted to be around other white people and maybe live in houses with matching siding. “Suburbs” meant backyard swimming pools and a nice selection of parochial schools within walking distance of one’s cul-de-sac. Oh, and did I mention white people?

Toronto’s suburbs present a striking juxtaposition. When examining the GTA against the ‘burbs of  my hometown (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: population 594,833 and falling) you’re not only comparing the sprawl of a growing megacity with that of a recession-beaten Rust Belt town; you’re also looking at a case study in white flight vs. immigrant settlement and, frequently, prosperity. You’re measuring the value of what “suburban” means in a multicultural megacity vs. one of the most racially segregated municipalities in the United States. 

My EthnicAisle colleague Nav asserts in his thoughtful Toronto Standard essay that white scenesters are suspicious of Toronto suburbs because of the perceived “inauthenticity” associated with big box supercentres and a shortage of the indie accoutrements of bird-printed psyches. What he forgets to mention is that these white scenesters (which I think is a problematic description but am deciding not to reword because, let’s face it, y’all know exactly who he means) are often the same people who get very serious about the “authenticity” of dim sum in Markham, or the chapatis in Brampton that render all others a waste of your damn time.

This paradigm shift, from what I gather, is a newish development here in the GTA. The Scarborough of comedian Mike Myers’ (‘member him?) childhood was called “Scarberia;” now, “Scarlamabad” might be more appropriate.

Incidentally, when my parents first drove me up to Toronto from Milwaukee that fateful September weekend in 2004, we stayed overnight at a relative’s friends’ house the night before my dorm move-in. I didn’t know the city at all back then so I couldn’t tell you exactly where, but I do recall someone mentioning that it was nearish York University–another school I had applied to. The Salvadoran family we stayed with gushed about how lovely Toronto is, chirping heartily about the “Bastantes Centroamericanos!” that lived in the area. After I moved into my dorm the next day at the corner of St. George and Bloor and walked around my neighbourhood, I wondered where they had gone. It took me a few years to figure out I was looking in all the wrong places.

The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity in the GTA (and beyond!!), is holding a ‘Suburbs vs. Downtown’ event on Monday September 26th at 6pm at The 519 to discuss the divide between the city and the ‘burbs and what it has to do with differences in culture and identity. Details of the event can be found here.