Which is better? It seems to be a perpetual topic of debate. I grew up in the heart of the city, in Park Extension, so called because it begins at the north end of Park Avenue in Montreal. It was then, and still is, a diverse and colourful neighbourhood (see yarn-bombed trees and murals if you need visual proof). We played with kids whose ancestors had come to Canada from Greece, Ireland, Sweden, China, Japan, India and many other countries. We relished in the different foods and home décor that came with each – the braided cookies our Greek friends shared at Easter, the long noodles our Japanese friends slurped from paper thin China bowls, the plastic coated sofas we sat on in Italian homes.
We were free-range kids, exploring the neighbourhood, in my case with a notebook in hand, spying on people through open windows that led on to unpaved back lanes. In my memory, and I don’t think this is nostalgia, it was an amazing place to grow up. We weren’t sheltered, but we were trusted to stay safe and abide by the few rules we were given. My street was busier than the rest, even though very few families owned cars back then, so my sister and I had to cross at the corner, at the lights. Once I tried to cross in the middle, thinking no one was watching, but my mom ran outside to berate me. When dinner time hit, front doors flew open and mothers called our names; there was no question that it was time to go home.
The Greek bakers at the corner handed us broken cookies in a box when we passed by on route to Jarry Park, swim towels rolled under our arms. Bimbala gave me beautiful gold bangles from Pakistan for my 8th birthday. I sang in the Catholic choir with an Irish/French friend, painted plaster Jesus hands in the basement of the Greek Orthodox Church, and did Brownies at the Protestant one. It was all exciting and rich. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And yet, now, I live in the burbs and raised my daughter there.
It’s not something I ever thought I’d do. And yet, I have to say, I also wouldn’t change a thing about that. My neighbourhood is an older one, with houses dating back to 1920; our own house was originally the summer cottage of a Westmount doctor who no doubt swam in Valois Bay. That bay itself is something I have come to love. I walk it almost daily and marvel at how each season and each kind of weather makes the water look different. It has been a place of much contemplation when I am writing and need to work out a plot point or mull over a character’s motives.
My daughter’s upbringing was certainly different from mine: she had the local pool and all its wonderful activities, soccer (yes, I was a cut-the-oranges soccer mom!), play-dates, and summer camps. Life has changed and I doubt that kids growing up in the city are still as free-range as we were; organized activities have taken the place of much free play. But the kids in this neighbourhood generally grow up happy and healthy and full of the types of values one hopes kids will have. I guess what I’m trying to say is that growing up here has been very different from how I grew up but that, I think, is more a factor of changing times than burb vs. urb. But it would be impossible to qualify it as better or worse – it was just different.
And yet, I look constantly for the giant green dome of St. Joseph’s oratory that sits on the north west side of Mount Royal (the mountain for which our city was named). On a clear day it is visible across the flat expense of Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport, or from the point down in Pointe-Claire village. I love that I can see it; it reminds me that the city is there, close enough to touch, waiting for me whenever I want to roams its streets and feel its pulse. It pulls me. It comforts me. It is home. I think the neighbourhood one grows up in always remains the most salient.