07/12/2012 05:52 EDT | Updated 01/02/2013 05:04 EST

Raising Children In The City Vs. The Suburbs


June was admittedly a tough month for downtowners in Toronto, what with a pair of scary shootings that shook even the hardiest of us. They prompted me to write a parenting column about why I felt it was so important to raise a downtown baby, why the benefits our family got from living downtown outweighed these exceedingly rare eruptions of violence.

Less rare are attacks from Rob Ford's suburban-based administration on the downtown core, including Toronto's deputy mayor Doug Holyday mocking downtown families during a council session, dismissing downtown as "really not the ideal place that people might want to raise their families."

"Maybe some people wish to do that. I think most people wouldn't," the suburban Etobicoke resident added. "I mean, I could just see now: 'Where's little Ginny?' 'Well, she's downstairs playing in the traffic on her way to the park!'" He doubled down in a scrum afterward, declaring, "There are healthier places to raise children."

Well, dear deputy mayor, you might want to remember that you represent all of us, not just the suburbs, and that those of us raising our children downtown -- and there are many tens of thousands of children downtown -- have very good reasons why.


When gunfire erupted on the patio of a Little Italy ice-cream parlour in Toronto earlier this summer, I freaked out a little. Partly because it was gunfire and, working from home that day, I was just a couple minutes away by bike. But mostly because it was at a freaking ice-cream parlour. As helicopters circled overhead searching for the gunman, two nearby schools went into hold-and-secure mode. I imagine nearby daycares went into lockdown, too.

It was an unimaginably brazen crime in a place frequented by kids, and the fact that it was a "targeted" killing was not particularly reassuring, especially not after the Eaton Centre experienced its own targeted shooting in a crowded food court only a couple weeks earlier, leaving two dead and five bystanders wounded, including a 13-year-old boy with a stray bullet to the head.

As a parent of a two-year-old boy, these shootings have left me shaken. But what they have not done is shake my confidence in our decision to raise a downtown baby.

I grew up in a small suburban coastal community south of Vancouver. Ocean Park, up on the seaside cliff between Crescent Beach and White Rock Beach, was a wonderful place to be young. I rode my Green Machine to a one-room kindergarten, walked with neighbourhood kids to Crescent Park Elementary School and, by grade six, I was riding the bus alone to French Immersion. In high-school, we often slept down on the beach after bonfire parties.

But, as safe as it felt, it was not absent of violence. There were regular fights at the 7-Eleven parking lot, occasionally kids getting jumped at the beach, a rumble at the Whaling Wall and once even a teenage riot at the local McDonalds. I recall a particularly troubled teen waving a gun around one night down by the arena and a self-styled "gang" who went to juvie after a guy they swarmed later died of a blood clot. And I remember a period of not being allowed in the park alone when I was little because someone, who later turned out to be Clifford Olson, was killing kids.

So I hold no aspersions that small towns or suburbs are necessarily safer than cities. But, more importantly, I believe the benefits of bringing up our son Emile downtown vastly outweigh the fears stemming from these recent acts of senseless violence.

I've met small-town folks who can't imagine the horrors of living in Toronto, much less downtown. But what they don't see is that their own life experience is limited by homogeneity. I love White Rock, but I often wondered if it was named for its cultural makeup; I was one of the only Jews I knew growing up. (In grade one, I had to stand out in the hallway each morning when Mrs. Yardley read the Lord's Prayer.) My wife, who grew up in the small town of Perth outside Ottawa, didn't even meet a Jewish person until she left for university. Both of our unicultural hometowns suffered from a dearth of diversity.

This will not be an experience shared by our son, though living downtown is actually not unlike living in a small town. There's a general radius we operate within, and we can walk around the 'hood and invariably see people we know. But it's also teeming with people from all over. Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities the world has ever known and my Davenport riding is the most ethnically diverse in the entire country, with 60 per cent of residents speaking something other than English as their first language.

Those are the stats. The reality, for us, is that we live beside Portuguese families who speak little English but love cooing at our kid and participating in parades. We live near a big Tibetan population. so Emile gets to marvel at the beautiful prayer flags on our way to eat momos. Or we can go get dosas and pho because there are plenty of Vietnamese and Indian families, too, along with Caribbean, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, South American, Middle-Eastern and seemingly every other ethnicity. In fact, they're pretty much all represented in E's daycare, both among the providers and the kids. When Emile eventually goes to school, 40 per cent of his fellow students will be coming from ESL homes. And they'll be bringing their cultures to class. Plus, we live near Queer West and are situated among a wonderfully wide range of income levels.

So yes, we're densely packed in, there's not enough nature, and there are these occasional, awful shootings. But here's the thing: Prejudice comes from ignorance, and my son will never ever have that because he gets to grow up downtown alongside every type of person imaginable. He will befriend and fall in love without care for colour or creed because that's simply what happens when everyone lives together and knows each other. This is what living in the future is like, and it's an opportunity I could never be scared away from giving to my son.

Though, come to think of it, I do wish there was an ocean nearby.

This post was originally published by The Grid.