Accidental Activist

Climbing the Tree

Ben Chronicles his long search to rediscover the beautiful chaos of his childhood home.

By Ben Bull
Published August 22, 2005

When I was seven years old, I climbed the tallest tree in my garden - and couldn't get down. Before I started to panic, I took a good look around. I was higher than I had ever been before, and the view was fantastic.

There were people and noise everywhere. Life was in every corner of the little patchwork of streets that was my world. Mrs. Parker hanging out her washing; Mr. Bishop talking to his plants; Cranky old Professor Conboy shooing a crowd of lads away from his new car.

Everywhere and in between were my little friends chasing footballs, ice cream vans and each other; Running and screaming; playing House, Hide and Seek, Marbles, and Tag.

It was chaos - and I loved it.

This was my life in Leeds, England, in 1973. We moved away just three short years later, and I've been trying to move back ever since. But in the 30 years, seven towns, two countries and 16 addresses that followed my terrifying scramble back to earth, I have failed to find another neighbourhood quite like it. From the little fixer upper by the halfway home to the basement apartment in a red light zone; from the inner city starter with lots of heart to the Hamilton house of dreams that fell apart.

Of all the roads I have been down since those Hollyshaw days, they have all taken me further away from that wonderful chaos. And they have all ended in much the same way: a dead end. And so it was, in October 2003, as I looked out onto yet another dead end street and packed my bags once again, that I resolved to find out: What makes a good neighbourhood - and what makes me so lousy at finding them?

I started by looking back: 16 addresses in 30 years must surely provide me some clues.

This neighbourhood had everything a kid could want: traffic-free, safe streets, lots of trees to climb, and loads of kids to play with.

At the time I thought that this was what every neighbourhood was like. I was wrong.

My early neighbourhood memories are vague. I moved three times before I was six. Home number four was the kind of neighbourhood that tree climbing memories are made of. Hollyshaw Grove was a quiet cul-de-sac in the heart of the east Leeds suburb of Whitkirk. It was set back from the main road and joined by a sloping terrace. The terrace teemed with bustling little Victorian row houses while our cul-de-sac catered to an impressive mixture of Tudor style semis and modest manor houses.

The streets were always full of noise and life. The Teatime cries of Mrs. Parker calling for her kids - "Steeeeeven! Niiicholas! MiiiichAEL!" - have not quieted over time.

This neighbourhood had everything a kid could want: traffic-free, safe streets, lots of trees to climb, and loads of kids to play with. At the time I thought that this was what every neighbourhood was like. I was wrong.

I learned just how wrong I was in house number five. When I was nine, my Dad had a heart attack and everything changed. My Dad became a post master in a pokey little post office two miles up the road. This was the main road out of town, the almighty suburbs: Nowhereville.

There was no chaos here: Just rows and rows of identically symmetrical brick houses and nothing to go outside for. Boredom and nothingness permeated everything. The suburban kids didn't play; they congregated. They didn't plan new adventures; they plotted more mischief. They didn't build dens; they destroyed property. I put away my marbles and learned new games like hedge hopping and setting things on fire.

I died a day at a time.

By the time I reached age 14 I had taken up the unlikely teenage pastime of Bingo. Every Tuesday evening, me and my friend Steve Wilson would trudge down to the local Community Center and join the 15 or so old biddies for the most exciting part of our week.

Given the sparse turnout and faltering faculties of our 'competition', it was not hard to win. Whenever our numbers were called we would lumber self-consciously over to the prize table and pick out a can of beans or a box of After Eight chocolates from the pathetic selection of prizes.

"Ooh, what's he going to pick?" one of the old ladies would wonder as I slowly pondered my most important decision of the week.

"I think he's going for the After Eights!" her friend would reply, as I swooped up my prize.

"Oh bugger it!" someone would mutter from the back of the room, "I wanted them."

At age 18 I took the first college place on offer, and didn't look back. Over the next five years I changed jobs and addresses at will and traveled widely. Six addresses later, I found myself in a basement apartment in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood. Here I joined the never-ending street carousel of school kids, shift workers, supermarket shoppers, and street corner hookers strolling around in an intricate circle of city living. So this was North America! It was quite a ride. I didn't want to get off.

While Parkdale was then, and is now, better known for prostitution and crack cocaine than cool city living, I saw a different side. Coming from a country covered in bland housing estates and don't go out at night street life I found the atmosphere of Parkdale so alive. With its movie lot houses and merry-go-round sidewalk displays, I was hypnotized by the life of this part of the city and I vowed one day to return.

But, alas, after five months on these streets, my VISA was about to expire, and I was England bound again. I returned home with a keepsake of the best kind - Susana, my wife-to-be - and together we set about starting a family and finding a place to settle down.

We found a back-to-back terrace in an old slum district of Leeds. The Noster View streets were patrolled by dangerous looking dogs whose dangerous looking owners had nonchalantly hoofed them out of the door and encouraged them to defecate at will among the broken glass and garbage of other people's doorsteps. Despite these grim surroundings, the people brought this neighbourhood to life.

People like the 'Meat and Veg' man who pottered up and down in his wonky van, making random deliveries for anyone who wasn't home ("Susie, is that a Chicken on our doorstep?").

Or Susana's friend Amanda, who used swear words as adjectives and whose beautiful one-year-old daughter's first words were a remarkably enunciated "F**k you!" and "Go B****ks".

After two years of this I set off with my homesick wife and two year old child, to start again, this time in Toronto. Here we gathered up our loose change and put a down payment on a cozy semi in Greektown, in Toronto's east end. We loved this neighbourhood. It was truly diverse. My daughters' school friends all had names with too many consonants for comfort, and her first class picture was like an advert for the UN or one of those carefully compiled Corporate posters showing an unlikely cross section of 'typical employees.'

Much to our relief, this neighbourhood was walkable. Who had ever heard of this? For that matter, who would even want to walk everywhere? This was an unexpected and most welcome benefit for us. Unable to afford a car for fully two years as a new immigrant the availability of close at hand shops and services and streetcars was a blessing we would soon come to appreciate.

This neighbourhood had life - lots of it.

In our three and a half years there, we made many wonderful friends - mostly from the odds and sods of casual conversations with passers by and neighbours - and two more kids. But, like most 'big' families in big cities, we soon felt the walls close in around us. Our 12 foot by 50 foot lot felt cramped and the tiny sidewalks and speeding traffic spelled nothing but danger for our growing clan.

Unable to afford anything bigger in town, we headed west and found ourselves a house that was simply 'too good to be true,' in Hamilton's Delta neighbourhood, just east of Gage Park. It was here that I finally came undone.

The streets around Balmoral Avenue were pleasant enough: tree-lined, clean, with well kept houses. But living here we became aware of a growing sense that something pervasive was taking hold of our everyday lives. It was, quite simply - nothing. No-one walked down our street: There was nowhere to go. Nobody dropped by, we made very few friends - and nothing ever happened.

I was back in my stifling Leeds suburb, standing still once again.

It is here that my quest began. Where the hell would we move to now? Where could I find those Hollyshaw Streets for my own kids to enjoy? Was the entire city of Hamilton doused in this dishwater, or just this part of town? Or was it, perhaps, just me? After looking back on my neighbourhood experiences I found I had more questions than answers.

Frustrated, I searched around for a scapegoat - and found a copy of the Spec. I vented my frustrations to the letters page, and set about making plans to move back to Toronto. But then the Spec printed the letter: "Hamilton Is Dying And I Can't Bear To Watch". And Hamilton fired back.

Angry reactions to the letter, in which I pronounced that my new home town was "about nothing" and "dying", came pouring into my email inbox, down my phone line and onto the next days' letter pages of the Spec. I seized this momentum and started bending the ears of anyone who appeared to know anything about neighbourhood issues.

Environment Hamilton's Lynda Lukasik talked to me about smart growth, the "doughnut effect", and the Ottawa Street neighbourhood she had known as a kid. "It was thriving, with shops, a movie theatre, bakeries and delicatessens." Not any more.

A neighbourhood article in the Spec by some bloke called Ryan McGreal caught my eye. It had a picture of a doughnut and a diatribe about car-dependent neighbourhoods. It made a lot of sense. I gave him a call.

"What makes a good neighbourhood?" I asked him. Ryan gave me some good tips, and then told me to read Jane Jacobs.

"Who?"

Jane Jacobs is an urban analyst, writer and activist. She was once described as the 'world-famous apostle of livable cities.' Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities has been called, "The bible of urban planning."

It is. I dug one up at the library. It was inches thick and weighed at least five pounds: Too heavy for my tastes. I left it unopened on my bedside table, and resumed my neighbourhood quest.

While all this was happening, my wife and I were desperately searching for another home. Our frustrations were intense; we couldn't wait to move. So in the early spring of 2004 we found a gem of a fixer-upper in the beautiful tree-lined streets of Olde Dundas.

But my quest was not over. I chatted with a new neighbour, civil engineer and urban analyst Brian Bates. Brian told me about the intricacies of neighbourhood design and insisted that I read Jane Jacobs. So I picked her up again, but she was still too heavy.

So I called up a friend's urban planning professor and asked him, "What makes a good neighbourhood?"

"What do you want? A thesis?" he replied bluntly.

"Erm, no."

"Have you heard of Jane Jacobs?"

"Maybe."

And so I read. And this time the book seemed lighter. As I read I began to feel like I was the subject of every one of her sentences, every story - every theory. It was as if these teachings were torn from the pages of my own neighbourhood experiences.

"City diversity represents accident and chaos," wrote Jacobs, sending me tumbling back to my tree climbing days. Her description of her own New York neighbourhood street life as an "intricate ballet" reminded me of those unforgettable Parkdale scenes.

Her insightful description of bland neighbourhoods cursed with "the Great Blight of Dullness" brought my oppressive Leeds suburb and Balmoral experiences depressingly back to life.

There was more. Toward the middle of the book I discovered a list of four main criteria that Jacobs suggests all need to be met, in order to bring diversity and vitality - a.k.a chaos - to a neighbourhood. As I read them, I wondered how they might apply to my own experiences:

1. "The district must serve more than one primary function."

A vibrant neighbourhood must have more than one reason to draw people in. What functions did my Leeds suburb and Balmoral serve? I wondered. It was not hard for me to see that, like most suburbs, there was only one reason to be there: to live. In the suburbs there are no restaurants, no workplaces, and no tourist destinations interwoven into the fabric. As a result, they are not alive.

2. "Most blocks must be short; that is, opportunities to turn corners must be frequent."

This says that shopping enclaves and meaningful meeting places cannot appear if it takes us 20 minutes to get anywhere. Perhaps it was the short blocks of Greektown and Hollyshaw that made them so walkable and gave me such a sense of place. These neighbourhoods were always alive with street corner gatherings and people on their way to the shops, the bus stop or just out for a walk.

3. "The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce."

Low overheads attract more businesses, more choice, more diversity, and more people. Perhaps it was the hodge-podge of Parkdale stores that kept that eclectic street carousel turning.

And finally:

4. "There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people."

According to Jacobs, density brings more people and therefore more demand for neighbourhood amenities; more consumption, and more life. I wondered: was it the tightly packed terraces of Noster View and Hollyshaw that brought my friends and neighbours out in droves? Conversely, was it the sparse and strewn out lots of suburbia that made my world so empty and lifeless?

Today, as I settle into my new life in Dundas, I realize that my search for answers is not yet over. If one thing is clear after setting out on this quest, it is this: neighbourhoods are complex animals. I hope I have made a good decision in Dundas. I don't want to keep on moving. I long for a sense of place and a vibrant community I can become a part of. I'm hoping Dundas is it. There is a big tree in the back of my house my seven year old son wants to climb. I hope he enjoys the view as much as I did.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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