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(Marta Slawinska for The Globe and Mail)
(Marta Slawinska for The Globe and Mail)

A walk on the slummy side Add to ...

The Essay is a daily personal story submitted by a reader. Got one to tell? Check out the guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Three years ago, when I discovered I was pregnant, my husband and I were living in a crowded apartment in the student ghetto close to the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

We were thrilled about the baby, but realized we needed a house to accessorize it, as we would have had to stack the baby vertically in our tiny place.

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Unfortunately we were caught with our pants down in the wallet department: I was a graduate student, while my husband had a steady job which unfortunately hadn’t kept pace with local real-estate hikes.

While we’d been blithely renting, national house prices had exploded. The only houses we could afford were dodgy ones enclosed by chain-link fences, rusted cars and abandoned shopping carts.

We bought a townhouse in a somewhat-run-down, blue-collar part of town. It didn’t have the garage we wanted, but it didn’t have hookers on the street corner either.

As a cradle for my offspring, it seemed dismal: The local schoolchildren looked hard and scary, and the playground graffiti offered us a new vocabulary. It was hard to reconcile my pursuit of higher education with children who looked like they made schoolteachers cry.

The first time I wandered around our local discount store, I was shocked by the empty or mis-stocked shelves and filthy bathrooms. I felt like I was in a Third World country. The local mall was full of retirees and tough-looking teenagers, and nobody was shopping. Most of the new moms in the mall – my future peer group – were teenagers.

In Edmonton, being in a low-rent end of town includes ethnicity. Asian stores, halal stores and Polish sausage stores cluster around us. Though I love to buy ingredients I can’t name – and did it all the time in Montreal, where “ethnic” = “trendy” – I haven’t worked up the courage to stick my feet in the doors of Edmonton’s ethnic shopping enclaves. We shop at Costco a lot.

Our kids play with the local ne’er-do-wells: children who home-school, which in this case means no school, wearing dirty clothes that don’t fit. They are nice children, but I had a knee-jerk reaction to snatch my cosseted little girl away when I saw her holding hands with her grubby friends.

What did I think would happen? I felt like they were leading her away into a different way of life, but in truth all that happened was that her hands got grubby.

For an academic whose mind is theoretically open to other cultures, I realized I had a long way to go. An ethnomusicologist is only a couple of songs away from an anthropologist, and where was my tolerance for living among diversity?

Economic diversity is as valid as ethnic diversity, though, shamefully for Canada, they often mean the same thing here.

How could I be uncomfortable in our new neighbourhood when I’d been planning for years to live among the Roma in Europe, one of the most economically depressed groups in the world? Could the gap between theory and practice truly be that large?

I hadn’t realized my tolerance for diversity had limitations: I was prepared to live in slums as an outsider, but not as a permanent resident. I was prepared to live there as an adult, but not to watch my children grow up there.

We’re moving to Calgary this month . I’m almost done my degree and my husband’s income has skyrocketed, so this time around we’ve bought a beautiful house in a new suburb.

Odds are that our new neighbourhood will be filled with white, educated, middle-class families. And I’m starting to mourn the things I will miss about our neighbourhood.

I will miss “fitting in” at the playground. As a person with ethnically ambiguous features, it’s nicer to be surrounded by people of visible minorities than to stick out as the only non-WASP.

I will miss the convenience of going to the mall in old sweatpants and Crocs. And I’ll miss hearing different languages at the playground and seeing enormous extended families having picnics.

I will even miss the blank look on people’s faces when I explain I am finishing a PhD. (I can almost see the bubble over their heads: “Why would she do that?”)

Most of all, I will miss the sense of familiarity with “other.”

The local high-school students don’t look scary any more, and I love our park, graffiti and all.

We know all our neighbours, and they want what we do: to raise their kids right (even when they’re grubby), to relax with friends, to have more money, and so on.

Ivory towers, whether academia or white ethnic enclaves, are lovely to live in, but they make it too easy to bypass the fundamentals of humanity – everyone wants a better life for their children, and sometimes dirt is just dirt.

After three years I’ve finally unloaded my pretensions and prejudices. I don’t particularly want them back, but I suspect they’re lying in wait for me in Calgary, inside the attached two-car garage or the shiny graffiti-free playground.

Melaena Allen-Trottier is moving from Edmonton to Calgary.

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