My problem with the suburbs

I spent the first 18 years of my life in the suburbs of Richmond Hill, Ont. It is an aesthetically homogeneous place, which I think is the source of its two biggest flaws: transit and safety. My boyfriend still, after five years, cannot identify my parents’ house while driving because every home on the street looks so alike (the builders gave buyers the option of garage on the left or right). The urban planning of the town involves a lot of looped crescents and cul-de-sacs, so it’s no surprise that pedestrian and transit commuter traffic is non-existent. The only people that walk in Richmond Hill are people who can’t afford a car, those seeking exercise (usually in loops around the maze-like, go-nowhere residential roads), or people who are too old or young to drive. Subscribers of the Jane Jacobs school of urban planning recognize that populated streets are safer than empty ones (see: crime prevention through environmental design).

With these ideas in mind, here are two events in my life that explain urban planning in Richmond Hill — though these anecdotes could as easily have been told from Markham, North York (pre-Sheppard subway), Burlington, Oakville or Whitby:

  1. The time I was 14 and tried to visit the local bike shops to buy a bike.
  2. The two separate incidences, at the same York Region Transit bus stop, in which I had two men, in two separate incidents, show me their penises.

There was a brief period of time when I was 13 or 14 and wanted to buy a BMX. I didn’t realize that it involved upper body strength, but that’s another story, which ends with me becoming a roadie instead. In any case, I wanted a bike, so I could go the mall and corner store and back home on my own. Richmond Hill has lots of bike shops, many of which are close, if you’re driving. They are a mere 10 minute drive away — but 30 on a bus, or an hour’s walk. Thus, I had a dilemma: I needed a bike to get around, but as long as I had to rely on expensive and outrageously infrequent bus service, I couldn’t buy said bike. In the end, I gave up on the dream of owning a Haro (Matt Hoffman-endorsed model!), because it took half a day just to visit one shop. I still find that sad, that I was defeated in my goal to buy a bike by the awfulness of Richmond Hill’s transit system. No coincidence, there are hardly any bike lanes in town, too.

Now about the penises…

On top of infrequent service, the bus stops in Richmond Hill are at least five- or ten-minute walks apart. I’ve spent many an after-school afternoon trodding down sad, empty sidewalks for what seems like forever after falling asleep and missing my stop. There are no trees or other shelters from the elements, and long straightaways that channel the wind, so it’s baking hot in summer or cold and windy in winter. Without streetside stores backing onto the sidwalk, you’re rarely going to see people just ambling down the road. I think most folks would pay the bus fare than take the extra block or two on foot.This brings us back again to the the “empty streets = unsafe streets” notion. On top of that, there are long, straight arterials with few visual or traffic distractions to slow down drivers — they certainly aren’t paying attention to what’s on the sidewalk. Even homes that back onto main arterials like Bayview aren’t inclined to notice what goes on in their backyard, because of a) the 8 or 10-foot high fences and shrubs that separate the street from someone’s private backyard kingdom, b) the cul-de-sacs that don’t connect residential streets to main roads.

All this is a recipe for old man perverts to show young women their junk without anyone around to hear your shrieks. Within a three or four month span, I had two men show me their penises at the SAME BUS STOP. Both times I’m just sitting there minding my own business, they sit down or amble up to the bus shelter, and unzip their pants. The first guy had made a name for himself doing this all around York Region and North York to girls, most younger than myself, and was eventually caught. The second guy was an Asian fella who panicked and tried to make a hilarious break for it in his car (imagine his minivan getting two feet of air after gunning it through a row of shrubs and interlock retaining wall), but was eventually nabbed when also showed his genitals to one girl too many, and was also arrested. I felt a little bit like Anna Faris in Observe and Report (see above) — though oddly, this didn’t happen in the four years I used the bus daily during high school, but when I was living at home temporarily in my third year at Ryerson.

Until this happened, I’d always believed, like so many other people, that the suburbs are safer than downtown. As it turns out, they’re great for a lot of things — good dim sum, long dog walks, churning out neurotic teenagers, big malls, a Tim Hortons close at hand — but not at making a 20-year-old girl feel safe.

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.

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