Where is the culture in the suburbs?

Yesterday I traveled by GO bus to the Town of Uxbridge. I was going to an event at the Blue Heron Bookstore, with other writers, to meet readers and talk about books. The people were interesting and the bookstore, a small independent in the centre of town, had a varied stock of books. That is good news for a book writer like myself. The real interest for me, though, was the trip from downtown Toronto through the outer suburbs.

Townhouses in York Region

The suburbs are familiar territory for me, but the ones I traveled through yesterday were new to me. The GO bus went from Union Station in downtown Toronto, through Markham, communities in York Region and into Durham. We traveled along roads and through places that I had never seen before. Passengers were dropped off and others were picked as we went.

It is not all bad news. The newer suburbs in York Region are much higher density than the housing built prior to 2000. They are following the Ontario government “Places to Grow” policy that mandates intensification. Three story townhouses dominate. Along the main roads are some high-rise apartment buildings of ten to fifteen stories. Much of the new housing that I could see are built in green fields, but the new communities are contiguous with the old towns that have been there for a century or more. That should give them a sense of history and place.

But make no mistake; this is car dependent suburbia. Rarely did I see anyone walking on the streets, or kids playing ball hockey. Cars are everywhere. The parking lots are vast acres of vehicles surrounding industrial plants and enormous shopping malls.

Shopping malls are a true cultural expression of the suburbs. Everyone drives to the mall. They were designed to be the city centers of the suburbs where people could shop for everything from clothes, to appliances, and groceries. But even the shopping is a form of corporate driven consumption. The stores are chains that sell mass-produced products at high prices. The restaurants are McDonalds, Wendy’s, and Tim Hortons.

Malls across North America are in trouble. Thousands of them have closed, and the latest retail sales figures show that the newest threat is online shopping. Sales in the malls are down and that means there will be more closings. So what is going to happen in the suburbs when the malls close because there is nothing to replace them.

All this reflects a lack of authentic culture and that is the most distressing feature of the suburbs. There is culture out there. I saw libraries and the bookstore I visited in Uxbridge, but they are in the older communities not in the new suburban developments. Where is the culture in the new developments?

A prominent feature in the suburbs are banquet halls where people get married, corporate associations host functions, and ethnic groups hold fundraisers. The bus passed a community centre in Markham with a flashing sign standing by the highway advertising for people to join a choir, and judo classes. As we passed the sign flashed an ad for an event sponsored by the Coptic Church. It all felt manufactured by some nameless corporation, not the reflection of the people.

Before the advent of the suburbs, the churches, schools, and town halls were where people gathered in the small towns in these areas.  There were baseball games and county fairs. Amateur theatre groups flourished. There was a viable culture that reflected the needs and interests of the people, but what is happening today?

Recently I saw a Netflicks film set in Uganda. A lot of the action of the movie was around a slum in Kampala. It showed a vibrant street life. People, women mostly, sat around and watched their children and talked to their neighbours. Kids played, danced on the street, and played soccer in the midst of the chaos. I’m sure there were huge problems in the slum, but the impression was that the street action was fun, and ever changing. It was the culture that engaged the people.

William Foote White wrote a book called Street Corner Society that describes the street life of a poor Boston neighbourhood in the 1930s. It was on the street where young, unemployed men hung out. They chased girls, engaged in politics, took part in petty crime, and did odd jobs when they could get the work. White’s description captures the rich social life of these young men and makes it sound fascinating.

I wonder about the street life in the suburbs today. Where do people socialize, meet their friends, flirt with someone who catches their eye? It’s not on the street. Is it in the malls? Some how I doubt it.