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first person

Illustration by Chelsea Charles

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I was irked while listening to a podcast recently when the host said he was so grateful to have moved from a major city to a smaller town. He said that he “felt so sorry” for his friends still “trapped” in that city. This is not the first time I’ve heard people make comments like this and, of course, we’re all aware of the exodus of people from cities to suburbs and its impact on the housing market. Quite frankly, I’m getting tired of it.

Please don’t feel pity for me because I live in the city. Surprise! I choose to live here. I quite love my west-end Toronto neighbourhood, and I’ve been pretty darn happy even during this pandemic because of where I live, not in spite of it.

First of all, to all of those who claim they needed to “escape” to greener pastures, I want to remind you that Toronto has plenty of green space, quite spectacular green space in fact. Sure, some neighbourhoods have more greenery than others, and I realize that I’m fortunate to live in one of those neighbourhoods with leafy streets, several parks and the lake nearby, but even the downtown core has gems like the Toronto Islands and Trinity Bellwoods Park. Torontonians can escape into countless ravines. And in Vancouver, there’s the trails and seawall walk of Stanley Park, ten square kilometres of Mont Royal to discover in Montreal and greenspace all along the river that runs right through the centre of Edmonton.

Homelessness in my neighbourhood

And by the way, being outdoors and having access to fresh air doesn’t have to mean you have it all to yourself.

When I see the park full of people, it gives me energy and inspiration. On a winter walk through Rennie Park in the West End, there were families hiking through the woods, skating around the hockey rink, laughing and smiling with their neighbours while their kids played on the swings. And dogs, so many dogs, having a spectacular time playing fetch with their persons.

I didn’t run away or cast a scowl as so many people do these days. Instead, a smile came over my face as I saw all of these happy people enjoying a sunny day instead of cowering inside. I don’t long for solitude or mind sharing the space if it means that others are out there making the most of their lives, enjoying all that every day has to offer. There’s something to be said about the bond you feel with complete strangers who share the ability to motivate themselves and get out to enjoy the day, no matter the weather.

I’d also like to point out that it is precisely because I live in the city that my life has remained almost normal during the pandemic. Even when working from home and avoiding public transit, I can still get everything I need because it’s all within walking distance: the grocery store, the pharmacy, the library. It’s just as easy for me now as it was before to run out quickly and grab something I need rather than plan one single big trip each week.

I can still get take out and line-up at more coffee shops than I have the time or space in my belly for. During the summer and fall, when pandemic restrictions were loosened, I continued to enjoy being at outdoor events like farmers’ markets that were only a short bike ride away. My partner and I were able to enjoy a meal with my brother-in-law and his family on the bustling Italian patio across the street.

We don’t own a car but if we did want to venture farther out, that was an option, too because of the abundance of car-sharing vehicles in my neighbourhood and throughout the city.

Living in a high-density area has also kept me connected, I don’t feel isolated or alone. This might come as another surprise for those rural-living advocates – I don’t feel trapped or scared about being “crowded” into an apartment building where I have to pass people in the lobby or see them in the laundry room. I love running into my neighbours, which I do often on my daily walks and runs. Any time I open the door of my unit to leave and Murphy the dog who lives down the hall just happens to be on his way out, too, and runs full speed to greet me, it’s the highlight of my day.

Rather than make me long to escape to the countryside, the pandemic has made me miss true city life and love all the activities I can do even more. I long for the vibrancy, the abundance of events, even a crowded subway where I’m pressed up against strangers, even, sometimes, the smelly ones.

So please, don’t pity me. It’s me who feels pity for those that the pandemic has caused to withdraw into a cave and isolate instead of continuing to connect and thrive in whatever ways we still safely can.

Barbi Lazarus lives in Toronto.

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