Not to brag, but Drake says I’m pretty. Okay, what he really says is that all of the pretty girls are sleeping at Markham and 401, in the east Toronto suburb of Scarborough. That isn’t where I live now, but it is where I went to school for a decade and if such an architecturally unremarkable, formerly un-sexy neighbourhood is now being noticed by legions of international rap fans, I want in.
Apparently the arty pulse of the city, every city, is endangered. Bohemian luminaries the likes of Patti Smith and David Byrne are sounding the warning bells about creativity’s swan song in New York City: he’s blaming the 1 per cent and threatening to leave any minute now, she’s straight-up telling young people to skip Manhattan and head to Detroit or Newark. Calling the kettle black, The New York Times recently threw shade at Paris for the same reasons, lamenting the bland democratizing of cool that makes hip hoods in one country stiflingly similar to it spots in another, all of them fairly unaffordable.
The situation isn’t quite as dire in younger, Canadian cities, but the pattern isn’t unfamiliar, either. As downtown real estate prices skyrocket, artists, musicians and the curators and small venue owners who support them can afford to live either in the centre or to carve out the time and space to be creative, not both. Only fashion chains and restaurant empires have the rent money necessary for a presence on downtown streets.
Meanwhile, everybody’s talking about what’s coming out of the burbs. There’s Drake and his insistence that Weston Road and Scarborough are as worth noticing as Yorkville, and Ebony Oshunride, a.k.a. WondaGirl, the 17-year-old Bramptonite who produced a song for Jay-Z in her basement. Jazz genius Vijay Iyer, novelist Teju Cole and rapper Himanshu Suri were raised in Rochester, N.Y., Nigeria and Queens, respectively: their most recent, acclaimed collaboration show, Open City, happened in New Jersey. And the same day that it pooh-poohed downtown Paris, The Times held up the city’s outer banlieues as vibrant, thriving and alive – giving the credit to the immigrants, both legal and otherwise, whose cultures are flexing and constantly in flux.
Growing up in the suburbs long meant being uncool by definition. From Bob Dylan to Broken Social Scene, artists born in the burbs have generally fled for the city as soon as possible. Things were worse for immigrant kids, what with our foreign cultural references and mortifyingly strict parents. The only recourse was to adopt mainstream (white, and maybe African-American) slang, style and attitudes while very young, move downtown quick-fast, and develop opinions on classic literature and classic rock. Real culture and public life was urban and white (and maybe African-American) – any deep love for Korean soap operas was a “family” thing, a guilty pleasure enjoyed at home with your elders and their eminently mockable accents. But now, when authenticity is the value of the moment, nothing seems more authentic than lining up to eat hand-pulled noodles at a downtrodden strip mall, or scoring a sold-out ticket to a Ravi Jain play in Brampton.
For me, this shift was kicked off in 2000 by British author Zadie Smith, whose debut novel, White Teeth, didn’t automatically apologize for not being set in the city centre. Sure, Irie Jones exuded the expected insecurity, but Smith’s loving depiction turned child-of-immigrant shame into a nostalgic inside joke, especially since Irie’s bff was Millat Iqbal, a revelatory pot-smoking Muslim hottie that his white classmates couldn’t get enough of. Since then, Smith has taught at important universities, opined on ponderous non-fiction subjects, won a bunch of awards and generally become part of the respected literati. But instead of abandoning the outer limits, she chose in her most recent book, last year’s NW, to return to London’s periphery. This time, she used physical descriptors only for the white characters – flipping the assumption that everyone who matters has a skin tone within the range of “nude” pantyhose, and only those with single eyelids or Afro puffs need extra adjectives to explain their exotic looks.
That type of subtle but meaningful experimentation is easier done in a story about the suburbs, and in the actual suburbs themselves, because hierarchies and legacies aren’t as entrenched as they are in the centre. At the same time, the Internet has handily eliminated lots of the isolation that suburban artists of yore – now, niche genres can connect over time zones, eliminating the mandatory escape to find a scene. Yes, downtowns generally have better transit, and prettier buildings. That’s why rich people want to live there. But if the key ingredients to exciting art are affordability, diversity and the space and time to take risks, the suburbs are holding their own.