Accidental Activist

Moving to Toronto

We calculated that we could afford to move to Toronto - if we ditched the car.

By Ben Bull
Published December 23, 2013

It was Christmas, 2005 when my wife pulled the battered minivan into my brother-in-law's drive. She was two two hours late for our feast.

"Where the hell have you been?" I asked, squinting at the bumper scraping along the ground. "Are you OK?"

She wasn't OK.

"I c-couldn't help it, she sobbed, as the side door swooshed open and the kids plopped out - one, two, three, four - "it was b-b-black ice."

I gave her a tight squeeze and scanned the gouges along the side. Ah well, there goes the deductible. Again.

"Well, at least you're not hurt."

It was my wife's second time crashing the van. She had crested the bridge at Old Guelph Road and Homestead Ave doing a nifty 60 km/h when she tried to make a turn. Evidently the van didn't want to make the turn.

The black ice had eased her up against the wall, putting her momentarily onto two wheels before lurching her back onto the verge. A passing motorist had stopped to help.

It occurred to me, as I guided my wife into the house, that driving was becoming increasingly expensive and more trouble than it was worth.

The accident was a catalyst for what we decided to do next: Move.

"I can't take this anymore," my wife remarked, as she sliced up the turkey.

"Yeah, me neither."

When we'd moved to Hamilton six years earlier, we knew that commuting was going to be a part of the lifestyle. We had friends and family in Toronto and my job had no intention of relocating. So we'd sucked it up just like everyone else, but week by week it was wearing us down. And now this.

I knew the bridge where the crash had occurred. It was along the route my wife used to avoid the busy highways - no QEW or 400's for her. The wall was low: maybe not quite so low as to tip you over the edge, but, well - who wants to try?

Our driving costs were already mounting. A recent transmission repair had set us back $1800 and we were certainly not going to get any breaks on the upcoming insurance renewal.

So we set about moving to Toronto - again.

We'd had one false start getting out of the Hammer. Since moving away, the Toronto market had sizzled and we could barely afford a 5 percent down payment, never mind our 25 percent target.

The only affordable locations we'd found were heavily car-dependent and way more expensive than Hamilton - there just didn't seem to be any economic logic to moving.

"How do people do it?" we wanted to know.

So we re-jigged our math. If Susie went to work that would help, but the car would also have to go. "Do you think we can do it?" my wife asked.

"Of course!" I lied, "besides - do we have a choice?"

We figured that ditching the car meant living downtown. I had never lived downtown. My upbringing and adult life had been spent exclusively in the suburbs or uptowns. Over time I had developed a growing realization that urban centers were practical places to live, but I hadn't equated this with raising a family.

Isn't downtown full of condos? I wondered. And what about all those roads? And where would the kids go to school...?

We toured some uptown neighbourhoods as a compromise - High Park, Riverdale, Greektown - but these were overly pricey and the transit service didn't offer the promise of car freedom.

We considered downscaling - Moss Park, Parkdale, Regents Park - but one thing my previous stints living in Toronto had taught me was that these neighbourhoods were resistant to positive change. Besides, I knew I didn't want to live next door to a Seaton House or dodge the painted ladies after a night out at the pub.

We didn't know what to do.

After several weeks of searching we were almost resigned to embracing our car dependence once again. But then one day I was chatting with the receptionist in my office. I was working in one of the Toronto bank towers at the time and we were soaking up the view to the east.

"That's my house over there," said Helen, pointing to the near distance.

"What?" I asked, incredulous, "People live there?" She was pointing just up the road from the St Lawrence Market. "Are you sure?"

"Of course!"

My coffee went unsipped as Helen told me all about the history of her St Lawrence Market neighbourhood. How it was once Lake Ontario, where they used to dock the merchant ships along the old Front Street wharves. How it had been infilled, become heavily industrialized and eventually derelict.

And how Mayor David Crombie and his cronies had mapped out an ambitious 'planned neighbourhood' in the 1970s.

"It sounds great!"

"It is!"

The planned neighbourhood of their imagination was not like Regent Park up the road. Crombie and company knew that one size did not fit all. They envisaged a "mixed neighbourhood" where geared-to-income condos lined up next to market rate townhomes.

I'd never heard of such a thing.

"It sounds impressive," I remarked, squinting at a playground full of kids across from the market - is that a school? - "but what's it like to live there?"

I refilled my coffee and listened as Helen regaled me with stories of Esplanade parks, market stall delights and walkable commutes.

"It sounds too good to be true!"

"It isn't."

After gaining assurances that the mixed income stigma was misguided, but did at least serve to keep prices down, I asked my wife to screen MLS in a hurry and find us something to look at.

It didn't take long. The next day we toured a cute little townhome just west of Parliament. The house had none of the charm or size of our Hamilton turn of the century delight but it was, at least, affordable and, well, the location was right. Wasn't it?

After checking out the house I walked up and down the street. The road was a dead-end so, hardly any cars, and it was tree lined and quiet. But it felt oppressingly dense. Lean, tall townhomes ran along each side, with 200 foot high condos looming in the near distance.

Ooh.

Police sirens, truck whistles and trains echoed all around: the hum and drum of the sleepless city. Yikes... Can I live like this?

I accosted a suit and tie who was skipping home from work.

"What do you think of this neighbourhood?" I asked.

His response was a torrent of enthusiasm, he was a talking tourist brochure: "I love the parks," he raved, "and the restaurants are awesome. And the people are so friendly!" he went on. "And my commute? It's a ten minute walk!"

As he skipped up his steps I checked my watch: Just after 5:00 PM. Wow, I can't remember the last time I got home just after 5.

Our spreadsheet calculations assured us that we could indeed afford to live in Toronto, but only if:

"That's a lot of 'ifs'," my wife had noted.

"Yes," I replied, "and we haven't even thought about the 'buts'..."

Despite all these ifs, we knew that the certainties we were dealing with in Hamilton - more car crashes and more commutes - were not ones we were prepared to live with any longer. Better to face the possibility of a better future than the certainty of a crappy one, we figured.

We moved to Longboat Avenue later that year. As we lugged our downsized furniture along Main Street and onto the 403, we wondered how many of those ifs would pan out, or if we had made a terrible mistake...

Part 2: Leaving the Hammer behind. Living car free in Toronto's first mixed neighbourhood.

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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By Kevin (registered) | Posted December 23, 2013 at 10:11:46

Nice one, Ben. Looking forward to part 2. I really hope it has a happy ending. Have a nice holiday.

Comment edited by Kevin on 2013-12-23 10:13:06

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By Self employment (anonymous) | Posted December 23, 2013 at 14:41:19

Hi Ben,

Most importantly it's good that your wife and kids were okay.

This is a bit of a heartbreaking story because we need to retain as many smart and talented people as we can. I did the commute for about 5 years until I was able to find a local job (a rare thing it seems). My wife could not find a suitable job here so she started her own business. Hamilton is inexpensive enough that we were able to take a chance on self employment and it seems to be paying off. Like you, we don't need our car anymore and I'm pleased with how much I can do by bicycle in Hamilton.

Ideally, we'll see more and more people start their own businesses here and we can reduce the number of good people we lose to Toronto.

Thanks for a good article.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted December 25, 2013 at 13:59:28

If you have the money, then yeah I'd do it if my career was in Toronto. Frankly, I think you'd have to be crazy to commute via car and not train to Toronto with how bad the 403/QEW is now and the wear and tear you'd put on your car. One thing I will bring up though, is how much of a financial burden the Toronto housing market can place on someone.

The current MLS listings for a two bedroom condo around the St. Lawrence Market area currently come in at 430,000 - 500,000 for a two bedroom condo, with Condo fees around $500 a month.

A similar Condo at Filmwork lofts (a fairly new condo development) in downtown Hamilton comes to around $230,000 with $250 condo fees and is located about 1KM from the Hunter St GO station and the proposed LIUNA GO station.

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By David88 (anonymous) | Posted December 26, 2013 at 15:28:11

The only political solution that I can see to the Toronto-commuting mess is for an elected government to move the capital to Orillia, for example, and all government jobs to be dispersed to medium or small cities across Ontario. The Department of Health, for example could be moved to Hamilton. In addition, there should be demolition permits only available for Toronto. Finally, I would like to see the return of the Commercial Concentration Tax as a means of making the Toronto area less suitable for big business. We in Ontario are suffering greatly because of the economic disparities in this province.

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By Doylum (anonymous) | Posted September 06, 2014 at 20:05:53

You write well Mr Bull!

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