Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hope on our hill

In his classic book Social Justice and the City, geographer David Harvey observed that, to understand where people tend to live within a city, you need to bear in mind a simple rule of thumb: rich people don't like to live near poor people. What you will also often find is that pre-existing geographical features within the city, like hills, streams, wetlands and so forth, often become important factors in shaping the invisible boundaries that separate rich from poor.

The neighbourhood where I live in Ottawa is a textbook example of the geographical distribution of urban wealth and social well-being. It's an older neighbourhood, with an average household income higher than the city, provincial and national averages. A busy avenue lined with businesses forms the southernmost boundary of our neighbourhood. Travel north from it on a main residential street and you quickly start to go uphill. You'll notice the number of trees lining the streets rises quickly, too. At first you will pass many low-rise brick apartment buildings, built 50-75 years ago, and generally well-kept. The people coming out of these rental units each morning tend to be in their 20s and 30s, dressed for white-collar jobs. Proceed farther up the hill and the apartment buildings transition to semi-detached/duplex homes owned by young families. When you reach the top of the hill the buildings become single-family detached homes, again brick, older and well-kept. Continue north to the bluffs overlooking the Ottawa River, and you find the toniest houses in the city, a good number of which are official residences for foreign ambassadors. Stormont, the home of the leader of the official opposition in Parliament, is here, across the street from the Iranian ambassador's house.

The homes up top are big and expensive; $1 million will not get you one. The housing stock is a mix. Some are old, drafty brick and stone homes that may have been in the same family for a couple generations. Those who live in them tend to be older, with grown children. Their occupants work or have worked in the upper echelons of government, mange(d) old-economy businesses and institutions, or are/were highly paid professionals (doctors, lawyers and the like). When not being used for bridge games or ballet classes, famous Canadians drop by the community centre to give intimate talks; this month a former ambassador to the UN and a prominent historian are on the schedule. At the same time, many older houses are being bought, knocked down and replaced by conspicuously larger ones, by people with new-economy wealth: software, high-end food stores and the like.

Four schools serve the neighbourhood, two of them private and expensive. One of the private schools is exclusively for girls; the other has recently become co-ed, but its musty halls are still lined with photos of all-male cricket and footballs teams from a century ago. Both schools guarantee your kid will go to university upon graduation. Students in the English-language public school get no such guarantees, but they tend to score well on standardized tests just the same. The sure sign of a good school and an affluent neighbourhood is when real estate agents state the school name in listings of homes for sale, as happens here (Sample description: "Great family home needing just a little TLC, your kids will go to school X". Translation: You're going to pay a lot for the privilege of owning this dump).

In short, my neighbourhood's geography mirrors the socio-economic stratifications of the city. At the bottom of the hill are the early career urban professionals hoping to work their way up through the urban economy. Midway up you get the young families like mine, with modest homes and neighbours who all know one another, and their kids walk each day to a good publicly funded school. At the very top of the hill the older, well-off pillars of urban society occupy impresisve homes, ones that sometimes come with actual pillars. And as David Harvey accurately observed, those who fall off the socio-economic ladder, or because of circumstance or choice never began to climb it in the first place, are never found living at the top of the hill.

Now I must confess that I am generalizing heavily here to make a point; with the exception of the very top of the hill, the neighbourhood as a whole is more heterogeneous than I've described (but still far less socially or economically diverse than most suburban neighbourhoods in the Ottawa area). And although my neighbourhood's geography and dynamics tend to reinforce the social and economic divisions of our city, there are exceptions, and I would like to end this long posting with one such exception that warms my heart.

In one of those well-kept apartment buildings near the bottom of the hill lives the superintendent and his family. They immigrated to Canada several years ago, from a Muslim community on the Mediterranean. Their daughter, who is about 7 or 8, goes to the public school and speaks English fluently. Dad has learned English well enough to get by. Since he arrived on the scene, the exterior of that apartment complex has never looked tidier, and I expect the units inside are equally well-maintained. They don't seem to have a lot of money; building superintendent is not the highest paying job in town. His daughter's bicycle has been ridden by dozens of children previously, but Dad has fixed it up nicely, and it runs well despite being old and second-hand. Dad's job allows him the flexibility to walk his kid to school and take her to the playground in the evenings.

Whenever I encounter them, I just want to hug them (although I don't, that would be weird. Instead we say a polite 'hello'). It makes me feel so very good to have them living in our neighbourhood. I imagine the little girl growing up to become a doctor, a lawyer or a civil-service mandarin, and in the space of a single generation that family moving from the bottom of the hill to the top. In Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose William of Baskerville wisely observes that hope is the most important thing, more important than faith. That little family gives me hope. Not necessarily the hope that David Harvey will one day be proven wrong - the rich will always build social mountains from which to look down upon the poor. My hope is that our fine hill, which no person built but which has been appropriated by people as a base for their social mountains, might still be lived upon any fine family such as the one I just described.

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