Hearth, er, Home is where the Heart is

This essay in today’s Globe and Mail (A Facts and Arguments contribution on page L6) gets nicely at the point of this blog: hearth is the intersection of heart and earth, the place on this globe we feel most attached to.

And, below that one is another, this time from the Toronto Star (p. A10, an editorial) that makes the same point from a slightly different perspective.

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  • 13 Jul 2016
  • The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition)

Your idea of a teardown is my idea of a home

In this hot real estate market, I’ve finally figured out what to say to agents urging us to sell, Catherine Mulroney writes

In an overheated real estate market, diplomacy is the first thing to go.

We received yet another “Dear Homeowner” letter the other day, penned by an agent working with “several developers” who are anxious to acquire multiple properties in our neighbourhood.

In a tone at once chipper and vaguely menacing, the agent suggested that should we choose not to sell as a group, we could lose out financially, the walls of real estate progress casting increasingly long shadows upon us.

The letter arrived on a bad day. Its suggestion that our house was ready for the scrap heap immediately confirmed my deep-seated fear, repeated to my husband more frequently than he would like, that the tear a squirrel had made in one of our upper-window screens had cast me in the world’s eyes as a modern-day Miss Havisham. A featured role in Hoarders: Buried Alive seemed just around the corner.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that an agent seeking a six-figure commission couldn’t be bothered to discover our names or that multiple developers are breathing down our necks waiting to pounce on our little slice of midtown. After all, the city where my husband and I live has changed dramatically since we became engaged.

The two apartments he lived in as a bachelor are long gone. The cozy triplex that was our first place together is slated for redevelopment, while our first house, a bungalow that would have been a perfect place to retire, was ripped down recently and replaced by what one relative labels a “starter mansion.” There’s nowhere in the city where we can take our kids, point and say, “We lived there!”

We’ve watched the styles of new buildings change over the years, from the stucco southern Gothic of the late 1990s to today’s Fallingwater-meets-mallsteak house. The architectural profile of our neighbourhood has gone from modest postwar homes to a quilt of different façades, the only thematic link being the move toward more house and less green space.

I suppose I’m naive to think sentiment has any place in the world of real estate. I should have learned that the day I sat in a meeting at City Hall and witnessed a developer who was seeking to radically change a neighbouring street wave his elegantly cufflinked hand and inform panel members that the existing housing stock simply wasn’t “family-friendly.”

Since that day, I’ve composed many a response in my head to him, and to anyone who appears at my front door backed by a backhoe. Here’s what I’d like to say: The neighbourhood you deem disposable is the spot where we raised our children, so I know a thing or two about family-friendly.

We moved in here as parents of two and watched our family grow to six. As our family expanded, so did the house, with an addition suitable for everything from Lego-building to science fair preparations. Sometimes, late at night, the ghosts of birthday parties past echo through the space.

It’s a house filled with the memory of visits from those who are now gone, including my parents and a beloved sister-in-law. The dining room has seen many a celebration – baptisms, birthdays, graduations – as well as mourning. It’s where we sat shiva for my father-in-law, the table dotted with offerings of food and flowers from people who were then brand new neighbours but have long since become friends.

On the wall is a sampler completed by a great-grandmother in 1930 and a stone carving that hung in my parents’ front hall for decades.

It’s a house where kindergarten playdates shifted in the blink of an eye to graduation formal dates, where in no time we went from bringing home new babies to seeing kids head off to university.

The backyard includes flowers from the house where I grew up, as well as contributions from neighbours. It’s a horticultural map of my life.

Sure, the kitchen is looking a little … well-loved, and if I told you our bedroom wallpaper is Laura Ashley you’d agree it’s time for a change. Did I plan to do more decorating? Sure, but in the interim, guess what? Life happened.

We may not have a great room, as per the latest trend, but each and every room in our place is, frankly, pretty good. I confess we don’t have more bathrooms than residents, but – as one neighbour known for her practical parenting approach asks – if a child never has to negotiate with siblings over shower access, how’s he going to get along with the rest of the world when he grows up?

Apparently, the place where I’ve built a life is nothing more than a teardown to you. While we’ve never met, I suspect you and I would disagree on matters of taste. Perhaps you’d say I have none. But, as the saying goes, home is where the heart is. Some days, of course, it’s more a case of home being the place where “when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” as Robert Frost wrote.

Most days, though, what goes through my head when I cross my threshold is the old song: It’s “a very, very, very fine house,” right down to the two cats in the yard. And, in case you’re asking, it’s not for sale. (Catherine Mulroney lives in Toronto. Submissions: facts@globeandmail.com We want your personal stories. See the guidelines on our website tgam.ca/essayguide)

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  • 13 Jul 2016
  • Toronto Star

Take back the streets

 Long before helicopter parenting and liability-averse city councillors and bureaucrats, there was a special sound to summer. It was the laughter, cheers and whoops of delight from kids as they played ball hockey and basketball on neighbourhood roads until the street lights came on and their parents summoned them home from nearby front porches or balconies.

Now, with street hockey and basketball banned by the City of Toronto, the roadways are practically empty of all but motorized vehicles. Children have fewer opportunities to meet other kids in the neighbourhood and play the games that used to enthrall them for hours on end.

Where they once happily played outside their own homes, they now must be driven to organized activities where they interact with kids — who likely live nowhere near them — for an hour or two. Or they can always stay inside on a gorgeous summer day and watch TV or stare at a computer screen.

There’s a chance this could all change for the better this week if Toronto’s city council has the courage to say “yes” to letting kids play on local streets and “no” to a recommendation from the city’s transportation services department that it uphold the municipal code rule that bans street hockey and basketball.

What’s more, city councillors who favour allowing road play on local streets with speed limits of 40 km/h or less, including Christin Carmichael Greb and Josh Matlow, have a new ally: Ontario’s children and youth services minister, Michael Coteau. He is rightly urging city council to lift the road-sports ban.

Coteau points to the obvious health benefits of play as well as the relationships kids build and the sense of belonging they acquire by spending more time playing in their own neighbourhoods. They gain “an understanding of social rules, relationship building, learning how to compromise with others, patience and perseverance, teamwork and a sense of belonging.”

Informal street play has other benefits, the minister notes: it can “strengthen community bonds, bring parents together and put more ‘eyes on the street.’ ” It can also reduce speeding and reckless driving on side streets.

As a provincial minister, Coteau has no formal voice in what city council does. But he has done a service by pointing out the obvious. It’s high time kids and families were allowed to take back their neighbourhood streets. City council should vote to allow them to do so.

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