Building A SustaInable Life...

Monday, July 2, 2012

May You Live In Interesting Places...

I’ve come to realize that we owe it to a city to fully engage with it, to commit to it on some emotional and practical level, before we can fairly judge it on its merits. I’ve said before that I “wasn’t done” with certain cities; when we first left Toronto, I certainly didn’t feel that I had experienced all it had to offer. After living there once more, there was still much I hadn’t seen, done… eaten… but I felt considerably more full on its marrow, and much more satisfied about our decision to leave.

That decision brought us back to our hometown, widely regarded as a “good place to come from” - the implication being that it’s fine to have escaped from there, but far better not to be there anymore (a few key words: small-minded, ignorant, old boys’ club, entitled, impatient, jaded, steelworkers, nepotistic, nothing to do). We had done this before, of course – left after high school, returned at various interludes between jobs and adventures, and always left again. 

This time, we were returning so I could complete an intriguing degree program at the local university. This was Community Economic and Social Development – CESD – and it would go on to change my life. Through the lens of its teachings, I began to see the world – and in particular my little town – differently. (That isn’t as cheesy as it sounds; since a considerable focus of the program is globalization, localization and urban studies, it was my job to critically examine these things.)

At school I was able to get involved in all kinds of awesome things, and quickly made more friends than I ever had previously. Some truly fantastic people went to school there – the kind of people I’d always looked for in high school but seldom found. They were educated yet earnest, unafraid to just jump in and really love something – like a city.

Many of them had come from elsewhere and didn’t carry with them with the legacy of having grown up sullen and resentful in the Soo. They saw it through new eyes, and many of them liked what they saw. They saw the physical beauty of the landscape in a way I never had; they found interesting things to do and if they didn’t find them, they made them. Together we planted gardens, launched arts festivals, painted fences, held events and engaged with the broader community. I used to joke that we all lived in a bit of a bubble together and I still didn’t really like the Soo at large. But then I suppose if a bubble grows large enough it can encompass a whole town.

The thing about the Soo is that, despite its centennial this year, it seems still in its infancy. It’s had its industrial heyday and boom period, of course, but in many ways it seems to be still figuring out what it wants to be. And it’s small enough, and new enough, that individuals can actually get their hands in there and help shape it. I have to say, I couldn’t do that in Toronto; it had already been done.

We can’t expect cities to magically conform to our desires. They don’t all meet our needs, but many of them can meet them better than we may realize, if we’re willing to put in a little of the work ourselves.

So is it a curse or a blessing? To live in an “interesting” place may mean that we’re up against deeply entrenched systems and norms, and that effecting change is difficult. It may mean that all the parts are there, but we have to puzzle them together ourselves into something workable or beautiful. It may mean that there are parts missing; that’s okay. We can build them. But we’ll never know how if we don’t get out there and experience the city for what it is.

Now I’m in Moncton and I don’t know it yet. I think I like it very much; it already has a lot of the parts that were missing in the Soo. I’ve joked that I will miss my bubble, but what I really hope is that there are no bubbles here: no invisible walls, no barriers to entry, nothing limiting the oxygen to the select few within. For my kids’ sake, and my own, I hope that it will prove “interesting” in the best of ways.

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