By Sunjay Mathuria
For the car-less in the suburbs, walking home from a transit stop is often the last leg of the journey from work or school. Suburban sprawl affects how we navigate and engage with space. This piece traces the walk from a bus stop at the busy intersection of Brock and Kingston roads to the Major Oaks neighbourhood in Pickering. The neighbourhood is home to about 8,000 residents — 65% of whom identify as a visible minority. The walk is unpleasant and, with no street life, there’s nowhere to go but home. The walker experiences four stages of suburban pedestrian life: defensiveness, resentment, isolation, and admiration.
It wasn’t even a nice walk. The cars lumber along too, treading through this place like it is the last place they want to be. The traffic is almost in limbo — at an angry pace, it catches me off guard at first. A bus barrels down the road and screeches to a stop. A few people shuffle on and off, onto an island of dead grass and into the late afternoon sun. In the many hues of brown, I see full-time and part-time workers — the faces of precarious work — and students. I see people with more than one job. It’s hard to tell the difference. Everyone looks tired.
Some come from far distances like me, where office towers touch the sky and GO buses shuttle sleepy passengers at rush hour. Others come from downtown where white colleagues bike to yoga after work and hang out in hip neighbourhoods. Our afternoon looks quite different from that. In the city, people cherish the sun on patios and in small parks, while drinking a beer or throwing a frisbee. In this place, the sun is relentless and no one wants to be in its company.
I am aligned with these long, tedious streets. I don’t have to think about making my way through the maze of houses — I could do it with my eyes closed. I know how the streets entangle, how they curve away from ravines at the last minute and into dead ends. I know where the streets almost touch, forever towards each other. On a map, the lines must look pretty to someone not from this place, like an intricate pattern speckled with green. They might think, “This place must be beautiful to see.” Beside a beautiful trail is an old landfill, which was active until 1997 and gave our place a strong odour, especially on hot days.
I used to wonder why the farmers sold their lands to these developers. I used to be angry at the developers who designed this place and wondered why they thought, “Why not build a place on a hill with lots of nice, similar houses and trees and space?”
As I walk, I do not think, “Oh how nice it is to have so many trees and so much space.” The sun beats down on the pavement and follows me up the hill. I keep my head down.
As a teenager, I dreamt of escape. But in a house with not-so-much space, there is only one car and you have to wait your turn, if it ever comes. I would imagine driving far, far away. And as I made my way down the twists of the main road, I felt like I was in a wild car chase and that those things I couldn’t control from that place were coming after me. And like everyone else, I went well over the speed limit, especially when going downhill. I was elated.
But when I got to the main intersection at the bottom of the hill, the lights would stay red for so long, like the city didn’t want us to leave that place. Even when they finally turned green, I knew that place had already caught up to me and that no matter how far I got, leaving felt like an impossible endeavour.
As I became older though, I saw life here. In the summer, you’ll hear signs of faith in this place. At least praying is accessible. A gospel choir sings in the park or by the corner store. On some Saturday mornings, you’ll hear a wedding celebration in all its jubilancy. Standing out by your front door, you can close your eyes and listen to the tassa drums echo and this place becomes beautiful. On doorsteps, bamboo sticks bear jhandi flags, which flitter in the breeze; on rooftops, lights beam proudly for holidays year-round. A neighbour’s garage becomes a community hub, while Dancehall, Soca, and Bollywood interrupt otherwise hushed streets. Last summer, a group of friends claimed a space on their street to play cricket. And lots of people walk to the Mosque, which is also very beautiful, but was once vandalized by those who thought our place is not white enough. I know that people who live in this place are proud to have a space of their own, finally. Families can grow here, in any configuration.
Our house felt small sometimes. A house with not-so-much space in a place with so much space. Maybe these homes weren’t designed for large families like mine. Here, we also live with our uncles and aunts, cousins and grandmothers, visitors, and other hints of our lineages. Inside, doors are always open. The contradiction of noises and languages: feet pounding over whispering, voices yelling over a love song on TV, pots scraping over a long-distance phone call.
In the most private corner of the house, which changes daily, a child tries to read over her uncle’s snoring, before he wakes to go to work. Silence, when it sneaks in, is unsettling. From our windows, you can see into the neighbour’s home. Quietly, lights flicker on and off throughout the day and you wonder if their house is noisy too.
There are sidewalks here, but where can you go besides home? Walking uphill always takes longer. I could close my eyes and know to turn on the fifth street on the left. As I walk, some kids ride their bikes up the rough hills. Most will retire to walking, in a slow, defeated way, just like me. The bus had dropped me off somewhere far from this place in the sweltering heat amongst rush hour traffic. My head felt as if it would balloon up from all the noise. I wondered how many people passed by in their air-conditioned cars, glanced out their windows, and shook their heads at us trudging homeward in this despicable weather.