Archive for ‘Daily Life’

July 10, 2017

Lessons learned from a Neighbour: The long and honourable heritage of Daryl Currie, U.E.

“Some people say she’s hard to get along with,” Daryl told me one day. “But I know what to do: Ask her about her dog. Then N-o-o-o -o problem,” he says.
It was bits of wisdom like this that my neighbour, Daryl, if you waited for it, taught me through the years. When you bore through the story, a mischievous glint would sparkle in his eye as inevitably he delivered another punchline, but one which often underscored his sense of the duty we have to each other.
Sometimes mistaken for a cop, Daryl’s nickname on the street was the Sheriff. Over the 45 years he lived there, he and his wife June had raised four kids in their small house. Not much fazed him. Because he had organized Community Watch on city blocks all around the neighbourhood, people often tapped on his door, many who spoke almost no English. They relied on his willingness to call apparent mischief-makers to account. Woe those who backed-up our one-way street where children regularly play, but he was just as likely to walk into a situation and calm it with humour and good will.
Daryl was from down east — although there too too he corrected me because eastern Canada is upriver — so perhaps he learned it there. He always had a yarn to spin, making a story out of almost any daily encounter. Today it was about a friend who never picked up the check at lunch, or a long drive across town in traffic, or some city workers patching a pothole. A kid passing by his front porch might be razzed, “You still going to school?! Hmm, you must be pretty stupid.” They’d look shocked for a moment, then laugh and agree. When June was around, invariably an offer of an ice cream cone or some other treat came next. They knew how to connect.
Daryl passed away on Sunday. An aortic aneurism saved him from a drawn-out goodbye.
The night before he died, I was lucky enough that we had a final sit on his porch because I had brought over some home-made pastries. We sat companionably, hailing passing neighbours and watching the evening darken and slow.
February 9, 2014

My neighbour, Jeffrey Baldwin

If I peek through the branches out my son’s bedroom, I can see the room where Jeffrey Baldwin lived, and died, he, the five-year-old who died from neglect, in my backyard.

At that time, when he lived, my children were close to his age, and I knew some of the hardships of this community and of our school. I remember the mother who asked me for $2 so her child could enjoy the school’s hot dog lunch. I remember the girl who carried the last bits of a bag of corn flakes to school for her lunch. I remember the boy who didn’t go to school because he had no winter coat until he got a hand-me-down — how he danced along the block then in that ugly corduroy coat! And I remember the kindergarten child whose mother was always ‘sleeping’ as she wandered our street, joining snack time on our porch.

But I don’t remember Jeffrey Baldwin, who also lived here in my neighbourhood. Instead, I vaguely remember the noisy crowd of adults that sat on his porch (one of them, Jeffrey’s aunt, trained in Early Childhood Education — another shocker).

Later, I learned that Jeffrey’s sisters were at the same grade school my children were, although, in different grades. We would all have gone to the same school concerts or gathered together out in the playground. Each day, Jeffrey’s sisters would have munched on the same daily offering of muffins or yogurt and carrots or apples from the small kitchen on the main floor where volunteers chopped and baked for the snack program.

At the inquest into Jeffrey’s death, a pediatric nutritionist said that this classroom food program probably saved Jeffrey’s sister; she too was targeted, neglected by her grandparents, but, unlike Jeffrey, she was ‘allowed’ to go to school, and so she ate.

I remember the snack program donation envelopes carried home in my son’s backpack each month. And I remember the hunt to fill it with the requested $20 donation each time. Times were lean in our household, but I knew some of my neighbours had it worse than we did so I felt that obligation.

Now, years later, having heard how the snack program had sustained Jeffrey’s sister, I sobbed aloud. I hadn’t understood the role of those scrounged pennies. “One doesn’t know,” I said to myself, “what makes a difference.”

I think Jeffrey’s awful death has stuck with me, not only because of the revulsion we all feel, but also, more personally, as a neighbour who failed him.

I remember a part of the murder trial for Jeffery’s grandparents, the testimony from another neighbour, who described how one day, Jeffrey’s grandmother asked her if she would take Jeffrey, then still a baby. She considered, but refused, having no way to know the atrocity to come.

‘We didn’t know’ seems an awful, sorry excuse. Bitter lessons.

In the closing days of the inquest into Jeffrey long neglect and death, Irwin Elman, the provincial children’s advocate said  “We expect and demand more. More from the child welfare system, more from the educational system, more from the neighbours, and more from the family who stood by and watched Jeffrey starve and die…We can do better.”

Elman’s right.

What neighbourhood-based solutions would have helped?  Better snacks? Better registration and attendance records at school? The parent-child drop-in where I found solace? Neighbourliness (what sociologists describe as stronger social connections and reciprocity)? More ‘eyes on the street’? Even, just more old-fashioned nosiness? Those questions continue to gnaw at me.

Some of the answers lie in the formal and informal networks of a neighbourhood. Perhaps, the inquest’s results will tell us more.

For now, a new family, full of kids, lives in Jeffrey’s house. They know the sad history of it, but, as another neighbour explained to me, they are re-writing it, making it better this time.

We all must.

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August 25, 2013

The Costs of Raising a Child: Bargain, Regular or Luxury

Like the debates over the poverty line, the current debate over the cost of raising a child has caused a stir. (How can you not factor in housing and childcare in these latest calculations? Bargain-shopping, seems to be the reply.)

In a previous job, I was once asked to update the Manitoba Department of Agriculture’s 2004 study on the cost of raising a child. Which child, I asked? The one that went to the local library in the summer because it was free, the one that went to day-camp, or the one that went to overnight-camp? I couldn’t do it.

Kids, it seems, come in bargain, retail and luxury versions. So, following on the concrete examples offered by academics like Peggy MacIntosh for how race affects privilege, here are some contrasts for children. Assign the costs yourself.

Category Bargain Retail Luxury
Housing Apartment Semi-detached in city or House in suburbs Detached downtown (and country escape) or House in country
Sleeping arrangements Bunk beds Double bed King-sized bed
Transport to (high) school Walk Bus pass Drive
School lunch Bread & butter 7 Grain bread & meat / cheese Prepared hot lunch
Tutoring After school (detention) Local university student Professional tutor
Childcare Neighbour / Family / Stay home Childcare centre, preferably licensed Nannies
Summer vacation Visit to family (again) Cottage (again) Europe (again)
Summer camp Community agency with field trips to local park Skills / Interest-based camp (Circus, Science, Video Games, etc.) Overnight “Away” camp, one month plus.
Home computer Anything 5 years old; no printer Personal Computer (shared desktop) Mac Computer (own laptop)
Outside play area Sidewalk Backyard Tennis club
Birthday present New clothes New toys New electronics
Dishwasher Family member Maytag Maid
Laundry Laundromat Kenmore Maid
High school failure Drop-out Alternative high school Prep school
Crooked teeth So? Braces, but only for one sibling Invisible braces
School supply shopping Dollar Store Staples Apple store
Birthday party Home, with games Party Room (bowling, play gym, etc.) Home (with bowling, bouncy castle, pony, clown, etc.)

Lots more examples to think of, no?

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June 5, 2013

TDSB Census 2011 highlights student isolation

The most recent TDSB census of parents and students shows improvements where the school board has influence, such as including students’ experience, welcoming parents into schools, or creating an environment where students feel safe. This part is a good news story that shows that concentrated educational efforts can make a difference.

However, as media reports have highlighted earlier, students are also feeling more stressed. The census results also show that physical health and nutrition drop in higher grades. Similarly, students are more likely to report being tired, having headaches, or being less happy in higher grades.

One-third of students don’t want to go to school, regardless of their age.

Students are also less likely to report having at least one adult whom they “feel comfortable to go to for personal support, advice or help.”
  • 34% of Grade 7/8 and 46% of high school students said they have no adult in whom they could confide.
  • 34% of Grade 7/8 and 31% of high school students said they had one adult in whom they could confide.
  • 31% of Grade 7/8 and 23% of high school students said they had more than one adult in whom they could confide.

Students report being less comfortable participating in class, especially those in high school.

According to the census, overwhelmingly students feel safe in class, but do report feeling less safe in other parts of the school building or outside on the grounds.

These are startling initial numbers. The impulse will be to psychologize the results, to describe the deficits in TDSB students and in their families. However, I want to suggest an alternative.

The social science of sociology might shed better light on how to support students to succeed: When students feel they belong in their schools, they will thrive. Foresightedly, some Board staff and trustees are already taking some good first steps and so have struck a working group to look more closely at the issue of how school relations shape better learning.

While the comparisons have not yet been explicitly made, this committee might start with the widening demographic gap between teacher and students. Increasingly divided by age, culture and socioeconomic class, students have a pretty good reason to feel disconnected from the adults in their schools. It’s up to the adults to fix that.

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March 26, 2013

Crime & Difference: What I want to say to our new local Toronto Police superintendent

English: The neighbourhood of Danforth Village...

English: The neighbourhood of Danforth Village in Toronto, Canada, looking east down Milverton Boulevard at its intersection with Woodmount Avenue. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Toronto crime” is the the top search term that lands people on my blog, a blog about neighbourhoods and how we live together in community. However, as Mazlow’s hierarchy of need describes and, as our new local police superintendent must know, safety is the basis of all else.

Crime, and the threat of it, is why we pack high school auditoriums and why we write worried letters-to-the-editor. Whether our reaction is to lock ourselves behind double-deadbolted doors or to set up Neighbourhood Watches, these  are the ways we seek to protect ourselves and that which we love.

Last summer I attended a nearby community meeting with the local crime prevention officer. The attendees, many of my better-off neighbours, fretted about activity in the back alleyways, apparent drug activity at some homes, and people with substance abuse problems wandering by on neighbourhood sidewalks. None of these made the neighbourhood very family-friendly, so this focus wasn’t unfounded.

This is a neighbourhood where a substantial number of its residents have had some involvement with the criminal justice system, and the local police station has shown that targeting the few “bad apples” can drive down crime. Combing through a map of incarcerated individuals from a 2009 Toronto Star investigation, I found this part of the east end ranked on par with a few of the city’s better-known priority neighbourhood areas (see More below).

My own son, like many of my friends’ sons, had been mugged. It’s almost a neighbourhood rite of passage, disrupted once when a group of young men broke with orthodoxy and confronted a local mother demanding she turn over cash. For my son, though, it ended well. Older boys intervened and one of them, recognizing the aggressors, talked them into returning the stolen money. (Honour among thieves, indeed! I loved this story, when I finally heard it, because of the two degrees of separation and the power of social networks and social norms.)

I sat listening for a while, sympathetic to these women, protective too of their broods.

But now my son, the teenager I love, has grown. He is taller than me with a bristly haircut, a loping walk, and arms he’ll flex at the merest provocation. He looks, admittedly, a bit scary to some. And, as a mixed-race kid, he doesn’t carry the skin privilege I do.

Were they talking about him? A few assured me afterwards they didn’t mean him, of course, that they knew he was a good kid. But that’s small comfort. He has already been stopped by the Police, and I know the police won’t be asking my neighbours to vouch for him.

So our crime prevention meeting abruptly became nerve-wracking. Suddenly we weren’t talking about criminal activity. We were talking about how people looked, or dressed, or ambled around the neighbourhood. We were ready to call the police when someone, muttering to themselves or holding “too much” cash, walked by our porch. This, in a former working class neighbourhood, still with a group home, a rooming house, public housing, and scattered supportive units for people with mental health challenges?

Were we talking about enforcement over community-building? To sanction over supports?

Perhaps if we are scared enough, I heard.

This is the nub of the challenge our new superintendent will face: the tensions that arise among those who are different from each other, among those who do not have an easy understanding of each other and a code of behaviour to smooth things over.

It will take a sharp mind and a good heart to negotiate these waters, but I’m sure she’s up for the job of catching criminals, of resolving local disputes, and, as they say, of knowing the difference between the two.

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March 10, 2013

Gaming Toronto’s neighbourhoods

Do you know the names of Toronto 140 official neighbourhoods? Click that ‘hood tests your knowledge of officialdom, making a game of the City of Toronto’s administrative planning areas. Developed for Code for America by Matt Keoshkerian, a transplanted Torontonian, the website uses data now available through Open Toronto.

In a Google world, Click the ‘hood cleverly avoids the perennial problem of double spellings between the spelling of neighbourhood and neighborhood. The site has gamified city neighbourhoods around the world, including Montreal (20 neighbourhoods), Vancouver (23 neighbourhoods), and Saskatoon (59 neighbourhoods).

With the growth of mapping, neighbourhood names are facing a new revival. Sociologists argue the naming of a neighbourhood is an important marker of social cohesion. Condo developers know this well, too. Donmount public housing was subject to an entire re-branding when it became Rivertowne, and the neighbourhood around it as taken the name Riverside. My favourite recent example of this is the new development at the corner of Woodbine and Upper Gerrard within days of local residents voted to call their area Beach Hill, a name marketed by a local condo development.

English: Neighbourhoods in East Toronto

Most of these cities have geographic gaps, parts of the city where no common consensus has emerged on the name of the place. Even within Toronto this was a problem.

Developed about ten years ago in an effort to coordinate competing geographic descriptors across various service divisions, City of Toronto staff divided the city into 140 areas. The areas were clustered to capture similar social demographics among residents and to be similar in population size. Natural boundaries, such as ravines and railways, were used where possible. Finally, neighbourhood names were selected, without broad consultation, on historic names or local geographic features, such as street names.

Through this method, the entire city was mapped and, now, with the power of gamification, the City’s 140 administrative neighbourhoods will become more familiar to Toronto residents.

(P.S. My best time? About 80 seconds for 20 random neighbourhoods.)

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December 2, 2012

The function and art of underground entrances: Metros, subways and the tube

Entrance to Old Street Underground station, London, England

Entrance to Old Street Underground station, London, England

On a trip through Europe, I once took a picture of some cows. “Why!?!” I wondered when I got home. “They’re cows.” My more creative sister did a bit better, producing a series on the various toilets we encountered through our travels.

My eye has sharpened just a bit now, I hope, and on my recent trip to London, England, in part for the First International Convention of Neighbourhood Bloggers, I focused on built form and urban space.

The accessibility of this subway entrance, near my hotel in the east end, caught my eye: stairs for when I was in a hurry, and a gently sloped ramp for when I was dragging my luggage. Wheeled conveyances welcome. (With over eight exits onto the Old Street roundabout, however, I did get lost.)

To confirm this strange new obsession, today’s U.K. Telegraph Travel section has published a photo series of the “most impressive underground subway stations” which looks at the artistic side of the transportation hubs.

The Moscow stations are baroque in their style, the London Underground industrial, the Scandinavian countries organic. The Italians are almost ready to unveil a subway entrance in Naples which could be described, in polite company, as a pair of lips.

Among the most playful example in the Telegraph series was this entrance to the Bockenheimer Warte metro station in Frankfurt:

Bockenheimer Warte U-Bahn
Everywhere, though, commuters look very work-a-day, bored as they make their way through these incredible spaces.

November 23, 2012

A tree grows in the road

A regal tree in the middle of a square, traffic flowing around it? Sure. (See the beauty I found in Bath, England.)

But, on a recent visit to Athens, I found a tree growing straight out of the pavement, guarded by one warning sign so that vehicles had to swerve around it. Motorcycles, cars and buses all bent around it on the narrow, one-way street.

The Lorax would have been pleased to see this tree, so respected in the Athenian suburb of Kifissia. I visited it twice in my four days there.

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Coincidentally, days after my return news from Quebec on a hydro pole in the middle of a highway. Not nearly as poetic, I suppose.

September 24, 2012

Parking enforcement, ab absurdo

Neighbours stood grumbling at the corner this morning. One had found a ticket on their car, and they were trying to figure it out. “Count how many feet!” said one. “What’s a meter again?” asked the other. “How do owe know if it’s nine feet or nine meters?” one more said. “There’s no sign!”

Not that, though, Toronto parking signs are known for clarity: No parking unless it’s November, or June, in the first half of the month or the last, before 9 a.m. or after 1 p.m. unless it’s between 3 and 4 p.m. hiding the No Stopping sign. The complexity of these things is legendary. (Miss Wilmut, I think I need to go back to grade school again.)Example of a bylaw officer employed to do stra...

My uncle, in his latter years, simply resigned himself to it, announcing he wasn’t going to get upset about these things anymore. It’s the cost of an urban car, he said. While that approach may be good for one’s blood pressure, it doesn’t work at the broader level. Sure, metered parking and other small burdens are the price for a questionable urban form of transport, but when the daily administrations of the law are unclear and seemingly capricious, it does a greater community harm. It builds cynical and disengaged citizenry.

I normally let these things roll, but I too recently got stung by such pedantry.

One of my daughter’s friends biked over to our house early Saturday morning to borrow our family car (yes, not all urban dwellers own one) to take a load of friends to go do day work on an organic farm. She returned the car after sundown, parking it at the end of our block by an unseen fire hydrant. Yup, oops!

For that though, we got two tickets, one a little before midnight and the second just after 7 a.m. of the Sunday morning. Officially, two different dates, yes, but, please, only one “sleep.”

Yes, we can fight the tickets, but the damage is done. The apparently mercenary approach, this “over-policing,” breeds discontent.

It also provides an insight to a middle-class community as to how some communities “known to police” fall away from us.

(To rub salt in the wound, while this all went on, my son’s rear bicycle wheel was stolen.)

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November 15, 2011

102 Things NOT To Do, If You Hate Taxes (Canadian version)

Adapted by Sandra Guerra and Diane Dyson from Stephen D. Foster Jr.

Posted in:

– May 18, 2011

So, you’re a citizen who hates taxes? Please kindly do the following.

  1. Do not use a hospital.
  2. Do not use Canada Pension or Old Age Security.
  3. Do not become a member of the military.
  4. Do not ask the Canadian Forces to help you after a disaster.
  5. Do not call 911 when you get hurt.
  6. Do not call the police to stop intruders in your home.
  7. Do not summon the fire department to save your burning home.
  8. Do not drive on any paved road, highway, and interstate or drive on any bridge.
  9. Do not use public restrooms.
  10. Do not send your kids to public schools.
  11. Do not put your trash out for city garbage collectors.
  12. Do not live in areas with clean air.
  13. Do not use a rehabilitation centre after your operation.
  14. Do not visit National/Provincial Parks or Conservation Areas.
  15. Do not visit public museums, zoos, and monuments.
  16. Do not eat FDA inspected processed food.
  17. Do not eat any Canadian food Inspection Agency or Health Canada inspected meat or produce.
  18. Do not bring your kids to public playgrounds.
  19. Do not walk or run on sidewalks.
  20. Do not use public recreational facilities such as basketball and tennis courts.
  21. Do not seek shelter facilities or food in soup kitchens when you are homeless and hungry.
  22. Do not apply for educational or job training assistance when you lose your job.
  23. Do not use food banks when you can’t feed your children.
  24. Do not use the judiciary system for any reason.
  25. Do not ask for an attorney when you are arrested and do not ask for one to be assigned to you by the court.
  26. Do not apply for any student loans.
  27. Do not use cures that were discovered by labs using federal research dollars or provincially funded university research facility.
  28. Do not fly on federally regulated airplanes.
  29. Do not watch the weather provided by Environment Canada.
  30. Do not listen to severe weather warnings from Environment Canada.
  31. Do not listen to tsunami, hurricane, or earthquake alert systems.
  32. Do not apply for affordable housing.
  33. Do not swim in clean waters.
  34. Do not allow your child to eat school snacks, lunches or breakfasts.
  35. Do not ask to implement the Federal Emergency Response Management System (FERMS) when everything you own gets wiped out by disaster.
  36. Do not ask the military to defend your life and home in the event of a foreign invasion (or a snow storm).
  37. Do not watch television
  38. Do not use your cell phone or home telephone.
  39. Do not use the internet.
  40. Do not use any Health Canada FDA regulated medication or health products.
  41. Do not apply for government grants to start your own business.
  42. Do not apply to win a government contract.
  43. Do not buy any vehicle that has been inspected by government safety agencies.
  44. Do not buy any product that is protected from poisons and toxins by Health Canada’s Consumer Product Safety.
  45. Do not save your money in a bank that is CDIC insured.
  46. Do not use Veterans benefits or military health care.
  47. Do not use Department of National Defence Education Allowance to go to school.
  48. Do not apply for unemployment benefits.
  49. Do not use any electricity from companies regulated by the Natural Resources Canada.
  50. Do not ride trains. The railroad was built with government financial assistance.
  51. Do not live in homes that are built to code.
  52. Do not run for public office. Politicians are paid with taxpayer dollars.
  53. Do not ask for help from the RCMP, CSIS, ETF, the bomb squad or the Provincial Police.
  54. Do not apply for any government job whatsoever.
  55. Do not use public libraries.
  56. Do not use Canada Post.
  57. Do not visit the National Archives.
  58. Do not use any form of home care.
  59. Do not use airports that are secured by the federal government.
  60. Do not apply for loans from any bank that is CDIC insured.
  61. Do not ask the government for a grant or to help you clean up after a natural disaster.
  62. Do not ask Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to provide a subsidy to help you run your farm.
  63. Do not take walks in National Forests.
  64. Do not ask for taxpayer dollars for your business.
  65. Do not ask the federal government to bail your company out during recessions.
  66. Do not seek prescription care when you age.
  67. Do not use OHIP/medicare.
  68. Do not use any form of income supports, worker’s compensation or disability payments.
  69. Do not use electricity generated by Niagara Falls.
  70. Do not use electricity or any service provided by the any of the Power Plants.
  71. Do not ask the government to rebuild levees when they break.
  72. Do not let the Coast Guard save you from drowning when your boat capsizes.
  73. Do not ask the government to help evacuate you when all hell breaks loose in the country you are in.
  74. Do not visit museums or historic landmarks.
  75. Do not visit fisheries.
  76. Do not expect to see animals that are federally protected because of the Endangered Species List.
  77. Do not expect plows to clear roads of snow and ice so your kids can go to school and so you can get to work.
  78. Do not camp in provincial or national parks.
  79. Do not work anywhere that has a safe workplace because of government regulations.
  80. Do not use public transportation/transit.
  81. Do not drink water from your tap.
  82. Do not whine when someone copies your work and sells it as their own.
  83. Do not expect to own your home, car, or boat. Government organizes and keeps all titles.
  84. Do not expect convicted felons to remain off the streets.
  85. Do not eat in restaurants that are regulated by food quality and safety standards.
  86. Do not seek help from the Canadian Embassy if you need assistance in a foreign nation.
  87. Do not apply for a passport to travel outside Canada.
  88. Do not apply for a patent when you invent something.
  89. Do not adopt a child.
  90. Do not use elevators that have been inspected by federal or provincial safety regulators.
  91. Do not use any resource that was discovered by the Geological Survey of Canada.
  92. Do not ask for energy assistance from the government.
  93. Do not move your parents into a nursing home.
  94. Do not go to a beach that is kept clean by the local or provincial government.
  95. Do not use money printed by the Royal Canadian Mint.
  96. Do not complain when millions more illegal immigrants cross the border because there are no more border patrol agents.
  97. Do not attend a university.
  98. Do not see any doctor that is licensed.
  99. Do not expect that all drivers are licensed to drive.
  100. Do not complain when diseases and viruses, that were once fought around the globe by the Public Health Agency of Canada, reach your house.
  101. Do not work for any company that is required to pay its workers a livable wage, provide them sick days, vacation days, and benefits.
  102. Do not expect to be able to vote on election days.

The fact is, we pay for the lifestyle we expect. Without taxes, our lifestyles would be totally different and much harder. Canada would be a third world country. The less we pay, the less we get in return. So next time you object to paying taxes or fight to abolish taxes for corporations and the wealthy, keep this quote in mind…

“I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

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