The New Neighbourhood by Jeff Wiseman



F0R THE FIRST TIME in my 43-year-old life, I own a home. As a younger urban man, I imagined that I would have a cool old place downtown someday. In the meantime, I was generally happy with rental living. My Wife, Elizabeth, and I have always lived in apartment buildings of various heights, and when we went house hunting, we were…not stopped entirely, but certainly set back by the fact that in a house, you are no longer up in the air. Not that we lived in the clouds previously (at least not most of the time); since 1982, when I left home, I have been on the 3rd, 18th, 6th, and 20th floors (all pre-Elizabethan times), then 8th, 2nd, 11th, 9th and for the past four years up to Move Day (November 27th, 2002), the 3-1/2th.
                   Looking out your windows from most of these heights, you are unenclosed by trees and the sky forms at least part and sometimes all of the view. (The 8th floor was at the Mimico Co-op, which faced the lake on Humber Bay, toward the city! What a pleasure that was. (Bonus marks because Adam was our neighbour at Amedeo Court!) Unfortunately, it was also a poorly constructed building undergoing continual upgrading for leaks, so we got out.) Some of the houses we looked at were fine in all respects, but window views were just too solid and claustrophobic. The house across the street, boom, right in your face. The side windows looking straight into your neighbours. A bit of skyward relief out back.
                   I should add that when I thought of a house, I chiefly thought of all the outdoor possibilities. A yard! A garden! A verandah! Trees of my own (but not obscuring the view)! The inside space should be just that, space-ious. Let me also add that we aren't rich, so the cool old place downtown was largely out. We didn't even want downtown when the time came around, which surprised me; the key difference was our dog. Proximity to the Humber valley, where our circle of dog-friends meet and socialize, was more important. Having a dog puts you in touch and in accord with the out-of-doors a few times each day; accessibility to nature starts driving the decisions.
                   So here we are in Warren Park, a neighbourhood that nobody knows, and we wouldn't either except that a few of our dog-walking friends live here. Nearest intersection? Jane and Dundas. Bloor West Village, our friends ask hopefully? Nope. Mighty close, but we are right down in the Humber Valley. What main streets go into it? None. St. Marks is the entry west off Jane, one block north of Annette; a hairpin turn off Dundas as you come east over the Humber bridge is the northern route. You go down a big hill in either case, and there you are among a lot of terribly drab-looking (but solidly-built) post-war semi-detached homes, with these advantages:
    - Nobody rips down semi-detached places to build ugly monster homes because you would have to buy two places at once, assuming that both ever came up for sale at the same time.
    - Nobody would WANT to do the above anyway; the neighbourhood has a working-class feel, and monster-homers are oh-so-conscious of and allergic to anyone who appears to sweat for a living.
    - the driveways go right up the side of each house, and each has a private drive. I don't care about cars; it's a lot of wasted space in one sense, but it serves to do a marvelous thing: Your unattached neighbour is two driveway-widths away! That lets THE SKY into you side window. How wonderful to not look at a darkened alleyway, straight into someone else's bathroom.
    - Perhaps long ago, there were thoughts that our street (Varsity Road) would be a major thoroughfare, because we have a wide (6' or so) boulevard between the sidewalk and street on our side, and another 3' across the street, suitable for making it a four-lane. (It is the neighbourhood's main drag, and traffic can travel both ways with room for parked cars on one side as it is, but I can't see how we will ever need more.) The key to the boulevards is that, as with the side of the house, the neighbours across the street are leagues away.
    - a real woods at the end of the block, leading out onto the Humber bike trail.
                   This is probably how most people know the neighbourhood: If you are riding up the Humber on the east side from Bloor, you know the playground and ball diamond after about 1 km? The smallish houses behind there? C'est nous.
                   Bloor West Village (up the hill from us) does appeal on some level; it's snuggy, it has immense trees on every other lawn, the cleverness factor of the neighbours is pretty high. (More on that later.) However, we once did some house-sitting for friends on Windermere, and snugginess can turn into claustrophobia after a few days. The house across the road is just that much closer, and the side windows are skyless and best thought of as an art installation entitled 'your neighbour's wall'.
                   Also, when it comes to dog-walking, there's that slightly creepy feeling that I get on streets where space is tight and there are no boulevards on which Alley (our dog) can take a leak. (Let me inform the non-dog-owners at this point that dogs rarely just squat (female) or lift their leg (male) on the sidewalk or the road. They need the earth, and that means the front few feet of people's lawns where no boulevards are available. (Theoretically, I should keep my dog on a tight and short leash, kept to the sidewalk until the first scrap of non-privately-owned grass or weed patch is found, but it feels too cruel to deny the basic urge. Sorry, neighbours who aren't on their porch or looking out the window as I pass.)) Here in the valley, I need never piss off (or piss on) the neighbours, unless they take the king&queen-of-all-I-survey to ridiculous lengths and consider the boulevard to be theirs as well. I will find out someday. On Windermere, my only comfort is knowing that my dog's urine isn't too acidic, and I never see burn marks on the grass where I know that she has peed.
                   This spring, our first task will be to plant a tree out front. This is not to hide from the street (fifty years from now); this is to take pleasure in the thing more lovely than all poems. I have vaguely heard that the city offers free trees each year until their quota runs out. This seems a mystery to me; if there is one clear difference between rich and poor areas of the city, other than the size of the houses themselves, it is the direct relationship of the number of trees to the income of the area. Yet, there are so many middle-class neighbourhoods where long stretches of homes have no trees out front which would escalate in value if only majestic maples graced the lawns. Am I alone in feeling this? It just seems so obvious. Doesn't the city want its tax base to go up? Shouldn't it be wanting to plant trees everywhere? They don't all invade the sewers with their root systems (perhaps maples do. One of the many things that, as a homeowner, I will learn). Maybe the key is as I say earlier; the benefit will be felt fifty years from now, so it's an easy expense for the city to cut.
                   I also know that it is true that some people don't like trees, which just puzzles me to no end. (I probably seem contradictory here; I rhapsodize about the sky, then I speak of wanting trees. What I actually want is both. The sky filters through the tree, and fills the view above it if you stand close to the window. I still sound like an apartment dweller; I can go out on the lawn now! I needn't just stand by the window.) A German friend makes jokes about cottage country; she says that you can tell the German-owned cottages because they immediately mark off their property, cut down every tree on the lot, and place medium-sized stones at the perimeter, painted white. (What fun it is to publish stereotypes which have been given the blessing of the people within the group.) I will just tell myself that they don't hate trees, they just love the sky.
                   This week, my Dad asked me if I was excited about what might come up in my garden. I hadn't thought about it, because it doesn't seem like mine. I may as well be looking forward to what comes up in the park (which isn't at all ridiculous; I guess my garden isn't either). The key here is that I don't consider the garden to be mine. Is that just because I haven't put any work into it myself yet? [We just got here in November.]
                   Having never been a landowner, there seems something wrong with the idea that I can now interfere with nature as I wish, just because I moved some cash around. Half of me says, I am part of nature just like the trees, and clearing the land is a subset of the great human endeavour, whether for food or aesthetic purposes. (Architecture critics, please chime in.) Another part of me is just not accustomed to acquiring things, whether land or articles; apartment living presents a natural volume limit on your surroundings. (I would be less than honest if I did not acknowledge my in-laws, who gave over a large part of their basement to us, empty since the kids left, allowing Elizabeth and I to combine households years ago without having to be ruthless regarding the spare couches and tables, which are now (gradually) finding their way back into our fold.)
                   "This will all change!" say my home-owning friends. Owning land and bending it to my purposes will someday seem natural. I'm sure they are right, but I don't feel that I'm entitled. SO WHY DID WE BUY? For the outdoor space, as I stated earlier, but my first inclination is to leave it as is. There is something odd about being allowed to change it around (though every previous owner clearly did). We also bought because there is a limit on the size of gatherings to be held in a two-bedroom apartment. We want to be able to have a whole pile of people over for a party (as we did on New Year's Eve). We want the physical space to reflect the spirit of the endeavour; an apartment felt too small to hold the feelings. THERE. I've put my finger on something, right there.

I have always had a functioning turntable, I haven't felt the need to replace my favourite vinyl in CD format, and the result is that a minimum of twenty or thirty (or more) essential-listening LP's have always been chez moi, nestled in the built-in LP racks at the base of my Camber speakers. That collection has been gradually expanding. The pattern is that we go to the Kelly's for some other reason, and I wander down to my brother-in-law's now-long-vacated bedroom, scan the collection, and pick out a couple more that catch my interest to take home. Of course, scanning the home pile for things to take back because I'm bored with them has not become part of that loop, so the Camber space has long since been filled, and now I search for every little space in the vicinity of the stereo which will support a few more LP's without warping them.
                   (I don't think that I have ever gone to the Kelly's expressly to get music - I have always had several hundred pre-recorded and home-recorded cassettes to choose from at home, mostly the latter, as well as a slowly-expanding CD collection which maybe is up to 100 by now, plus an ever-changing wee stack of library CD's (did I mention the home-recorded cassettes?). These and the radio itself add up to an embarrassment of riches in the music department. Digressing temporarily (you know it's a big one if I announce it), here is the list of CD's currently on loan (branch in brackets):

       Beck - Sea Change (Brentwood)
       Billy Bragg and The Blokes - England, Half English (Brentwood)
       Chorovaya Akademia - Ancient Echoes (Brentwood)
       Cake - Comfort Eagle (Parkdale)
       Madonna - Music (Brentwood)
       Moby - 18 (Parkdale)
       Pavarotti & Friends - Together for the Children of Bosnia (Parkdale)
       Patti Smith - Horses (Pape/Danforth)
       Pearl Jam - Binaural (Parkdale)
       Shirley Bassey - The Remix Album…Diamonds are Forever (Brentwood)
       Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Parkdale)
      

(A whole other topic - how to get interesting CD's from the library. I just got most of the above, so don't take them to be my taste in music, at least not specifically; as a group, they are my taste, but individually, they may suck.)

                   So, we have space now to take the LP's, and we have been in the house for…EIGHT months (wow!), and I have accelerated the LP transfer by bringing whole liquor boxes home at once, but why haven't I been in a bigger hurry to get them here? Well, the truth is that I actually have begun to share a few of Elizabeth's traits of neatness and only having things that you use on hand, and we don't have SO much room that there is a space which will go unused if I leave the LP's where they are. Also, while some LP's come spontaneously to mind at least every year (Low/Heroes by Bowie, some Smiths), The Icicle Works only registers because I see it gathering dust in Larry's old room. I wouldn't DREAM of selling them off at a garage sale - each has it's own memory of some kind, and my memory is bad for that kind of thing, so each is, if nothing else, a pleasant jolt to see for a microsecond. This jolt, however, is obtainable through the cover art alone, so maybe someone would be interested in the vinyl only? (Hmm. Unlikely.) In time, the rest of the collection will make their way to our basement area…but probably to the deepest, darkest corner. Rest easy, old Joe Jackson. [To be continued.]




more domestic bliss