Tuesday, September 27, 2016

There are more shops for dogs than for poor people

When I was ten years old, my parents packed up their red brick duplex by the river, and their three young children, and moved the lot to Westboro. At the time, Westboro was a particularly underwhelming place; a mix of pensioners, light industry and the greatest concentration of used car lots in the city.

Today, I have come into Ottawa to help my parents move. A friend dropped me off outside and I saw the door open, but the car away. 'Well', I thought to myself 'one of them must be out.' They were both out. Inside, I discovered an energetic Quebecois woman ritually scourging the dusty furrows of the crown moulding. "Your parents just went out for lunch," She informed me "For your father's birthday." 

It's a good thing she told me, or I would have betrayed my complete ignorance when he got home.

We have never had a cleaning lady. I am familiar with the bizarre upper middle class tradition of cleaning up in preparation for the cleaning lady's visit. We have our own version of cleaning the main floor because company is coming. Our rooms, as private spaces, were exempt. Thank heavens for that, because I always had too many books to impose even a loose semblance of order on them. 

To say that Westboro has changed in the twenty years since we arrived would be a felonious understatement, actionable by anxious realtors. Westboro is transformed, but instead of turning from a sick semi truck into an equally sick anthropomorphic robot, it has turned from a rather run down inner suburb into an apocalypse of gentrification. 

When I was in university I would visit Westboro and play the condo game. I would point at parking lots, used car dealerships and motels of uncertain provenance, and guess how long it would take for them to become condos. They are all condos now, except for the motel, which must be owned by a biker gang because I cannot otherwise explain how it endures behind a brand-new condo tower.

Westboro was never a poor neighborhood; only boring. But I have watched it gentrify and seen it go from a place where people could live boring, affordable lives into a kind of monument to the absurdity of middle-class striving. 

It began with the Mountain Equipment Co-Op. The building was ecologically friendly! It was open concept! It drew aspirational outdoors types out of their cul-de-sacs and second storey walk-ups. And it must have worked some sinister magic on them because they came to transform the neighborhood. And here I am using transform as the same kind of polite, middle class euphemism as 'bowel movement' or 'living outside our means'. 

There are now more yoga studios than I am able to count. First there was a posh Italian restaurant but it has been replaced by a luxe Italian restaurant. There is a store especially for breastfeeding accessories. There are more shops for dogs than for poor people. 

When the first of the new bars opened up in Westboro, I imagined that as pubs proliferated they would come into competition with one another, forcing down prices. This was naive - Westboro operates by a topsy-turvy set of economic laws where businesses compete not by lowering their prices but by raising them. Following a successful book launch I went out with my colleagues at one such bar, and found that we had spent the entirety of our earnings and then some on a few meagre pitchers of mediocre beer.

I have never liked these changes. I am not a posh person. I will buy used what I cannot get for free. I will pack my life into a car sooner than I will spend money on rent. I panic when I see square plates at a restaurant because they mean you are paying for style. I cannot afford to pay for style. 

My parents - eccentric, university educated historians with leftish mores - fit very well into the old Westboro. They were the appropriate kind of shabby-genteel then, and they have grown only a little more respectable with the passage of time. Their house is too full of books. There is more furniture than you would find in the home of someone really modern. Everything looks like it was inherited from a childless Victorian uncle and in many cases, it literally was.

There are corners in this house where the dust has won. Much of the furniture reeks irreversibly of cat pee. The garden does not know if it is ornamental or agricultural but it produces some very acceptable tomatoes every year. Whenever my parents set out to de-clutter, they succeed only in shifting the clutter around. There are boxes of my deceased grandfather's pension performance statements, as well as his childhood toys. 

It is a house for people who live a life of the mind, supplemented by an irresponsibly large cheese budget. It is the kind of house where you grow up without realizing that you are rich because you have not yet been subjected to the brazen daylight robbery of a university book store, and so you do not realize that every bookshelf represents hundreds if not thousands of dollars. 

It was not a perfect childhood home although I think those faults belong to the inhabitants rather than the structure. But it has been an oasis of a kind of unaffected post-Victorian WASPishness for the sort of socialist who hangs a portrait of the late Empress of India while deploring her politics. I have moved from basement suite to roach-infested hellhole without a care in the world because my home has always been here.

But things slip away from us bit by bit. History has a nasty trick of moving whether we mark its passage or not. And so my neighborhood has been overrun by feral packs of yuppies, resplendent behind their luxury prams and immaculately groomed beards. They coo and preen and delight in the cultured decadence of a neighborhood with not one but TWO roof-top patios on which they may sip caesars and discuss pension prospects, mountain biking and the ever-present bugbear of the Phoenix pay system.

Even my parents feel pushed out. They have picked a very fine Victorian home in the country where they can shed their boomerang offspring and finally live in the kind of sentimental gentility that middle class socialists love - surrounded by books and thoughtful people. I can't blame them for wanting to get away.

But it is very strange to come home and see that room by room, our house is losing its excess furniture. That cardboard boxes, having sat unopened on shelves for twenty years, are suddenly hurried away into storage. That the dust and the spiders, too comfortable in their long entente with my parents, are being chased away by the astringent chemicals of the cleaning woman. 

The house is to be sold by a 1980s ski villain with lopsided blond hair. He has told them to take down everything personal - paintings, keepsakes and family photos - and they reluctantly comply. He tells them they will get more than twice what they paid for it, and this seems definitely immoral to my parents. They were hoping to get out of the rental market and maybe have something to retire on. They did not set out to be speculators.

But my parents belong to a different world: an era of steady government jobs, robust social democratic institutions and a boundless optimism that the horizons of rights, freedoms and prosperities would go on expanding in every direction. They have grown up and grown old with a faith in the value of our civilization.

But that world - by no means universal at its height - is falling into the widening gap between rich and poor. Either you are programming apps that put taxi drivers out of work or you are doing the job of a taxi driver with none of the expertise or security. Either you are sub-renting six apartments on AirBNB or you are living in a decaying SRO in some converted hotel. As I said - the logic of the economy in these places is topsy-turvy.

I don't fit in this new version of my parents' house - without clutter or character. It is so depersonalized that I am not even sure of my own personhood. It all seems to cry 'abandon ship' and of course, that is exactly what they intend. But their new home in the country is a retreat into a sentimentalized ideal of their own childhoods, just as their house is a sentimentalized ideal of my own. I cannot retreat into an interbellum nostalgia haunted by the ghosts of Victorian idealism. And I have no hope of hiding any longer in my own childhood, now in the process of being sold out from under me.

When I was growing up I believed the pendulum would swing back. That the world would return to how it was. Stability and government jobs will be had by all, or at least, all of us who live in the first world. I would have a pension and summers in Europe and great comfort in knowing that I was not alone in prosperity. In short, I imagined that the Bush-Harper years were ephemeral, that 9/11 and all its children were a bad but fleeting dream.

But here we still are. The gap between rich and poor keeps growing. The shackles of the security state tighten around our wrists. Pop songs get simpler and louder and we dance harder because we know we need to keep moving. But what are the movements? 

Good riddance to Westboro. Everything I loved about it died a long, slow death. I cheered its death but now the corpse begins to rot and I realize what I was celebrating. I do not want to hang on at the periphery of some colony of the rich in a swamp of urban blight. I am not going to live in a poured concrete box in the sky. 

The death of Westboro is the story of my past. The sale of my childhood home is the ending of that story. But it's time for new stories. Stories about doing things differently, not longing for the past. Stories about pushing back instead of giving up. Stories about winning because do we even know what winning feels like? 

I want to make sure that all of you do, so I promise to tell all the stories I hear. You just have to promise to keep living them.

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