Karen Simpson never saw herself as a suburban mom. But the fortysomething hipster remembers the moment she decided that her funky, open-concept Brunswick Street home wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
She was sitting on the deck at a friend's home in Etobicoke, sipping tea on a Sunday afternoon in early fall, watching her three children (9, 6 and 4) play.
"There I was, having the perfect moment," she says. "She had a backyard, with a swing set, pretty garden, the kitchen was in the back looking out. It was easy. They could run in and out of the house. It was the moment I said, 'I want this life.'
"She gave me her real-estate agent's name."
At first, the stylish Ms. Simpson -- who works downtown as the art director of Fashion Magazine -- and her husband Steve Hancock harboured fantasies of finding a Frank Lloyd Wright-style bungalow.
But in the end, they chucked the dream and bought a spanking new four-bed, four-bath home, something she and her husband had a hard time finding in the city core in their price range: $600,000 to $700,000.
"I fell in love with it," she says.
"I've gained a backyard, a fish pond, a garage, a driveway, a living room and a huge playroom. Four bathrooms. Good-sized bedrooms. Closets. I've got central vac!"
If you thought Parkdale, to the west, and Leslieville, to the east, were the outposts of migration for the so-called creative class, think again. The true vanguard is heading to the 'burbs. Some, like Ms. Simpson, are putting down roots, while others are taking their first steps by making pilgrimages to restaurants such as Sushi Kaji, a Japanese restaurant that has long drawn downtowners to Etobicoke. Either way, it seems that artistic types are no longer just "from" the 'burbs -- think Barenaked Ladies and Maestro Fresh Wes, for instance, from Scarborough -- they are actively turning to them as a muse.
Proof of that is a tour of Scarborough organized by a Toronto artists collective that is scheduled to take place this weekend. Scarborough Showbus will take visitors to everything from kitschy apartment lobbies and the Bluffs to the famed Wexford Restaurant. Upon their return, they plan to create Scarborough-inspired art -- music, painting, sculpture -- for a show next week at the Toronto School of Art.
The city's literati are also embracing the 'burbs: One of the hottest monthly spoken-word series is in North York, the Suburban Spoken Word at the Queen of Hearts pub, run by Dave Silverberg.
The people moving to the outer rim of the Greater Toronto Area are the last ones you would picture barbecuing by the pool, and many of them admit to adjusting to their new surroundings slowly.
"At first, I'd go to the grocery store and there'd be nobody under 70 in there," says Ms. Simpson. "I was like, omigod, I'm in the wrong place. Then you gradually slide into it. As the kids became happier, you realize how much easier it is."
And as it turns out, the neighbours are more copacetic than Ms. Simpson expected. Cool downtowners know, of course, that suburbs are not populated by legions of Stepford families. But they can't help breathing a sigh of relief when they are faced with proof.
"We've totally lucked out with neighbours," Ms. Simpson says. "They are actually people you want to hang out with."
An art gallery owner is across the street. Another neighbour, Jack, has set up a full-on rec room in his garage, complete with fake fireplace and a bar, and brings Ms. Simpson cocktails while she is gardening.
Like many nouveau suburbanites, Ms. Simpson has her list of pros and cons ready: The crimp on the social life is a big nay. The clinchers? One of the top schools in the city is nearby (Lambton-Kingsway Junior Middle School). Doctors actually take new patients. Kids can walk down the street to visit friends -- the moms wave as they go inside.
"It's very Leave It to Beaver," she says. And she means it in a good way.
"If you're a fan of kitsch, there's no better place to live than the 'burbs," says uber-edgy marketing manager Quincy Raby, 34, who moved to Etobicoke three years ago with her husband Derek, 40. "Don't just buy it, live it!"
Usually it's cheaper to buy too. Ms. Raby has a 1,500-square-foot condo, and says that comparable units downtown were up to a third smaller and cost $100,000 more than what she paid.
With her bleached-blond, alt-Queen-Street style and her husband's affection for playing in bands, they look almost lost in what Ms. Raby calls "the region with the highest concentration of seniors in Ontario." But they've acclimatized easily. "My husband is now an elevator talker. All the old ladies love him. I live in Del Boca Vista," she says, referring to the retirement home where Jerry Seinfield's parents live in Seinfeld.
Del Boca Vista with cred, that is. Their condo building, the Masters, was built in 1973, and remains a time capsule of an era obsessed with futurism. It's right up their aesthetic alley.
"We didn't have to give up the cool factor at all," she says. "It's very seventies, with a weird retro feel. It's cool."
Likewise, Daniel Zimmerman and his wife Carol Moskot, both 39, instinctively knew how to decorate their 1960s Brady Bunch home when they moved from Yonge and Lawrence to Bathurst and Finch in North York with their two kids, 5 and 2. They skipped sixties and seventies kitsch and went for fifties slick: George Nelson and Arne Jacobsen furniture, modern lighting, no curtains. Mr. Zimmerman figures his house would be worth up to $3-million if it were located farther south.
"We knew this home had the bones and we turned it into something really cool," says Mr. Zimmerman, who works in publishing from his home office.
One concession to the original house they didn't give up? The tiki bar in the parquet-floored basement. (Yes, the same look at least one College Street bar has milked all summer.)
Still, Mr. Zimmerman admits he misses the downtown experience. And Ms. Raby says that although she loves her stylish condo, she wouldn't have chosen it if -- gasp -- it had come with a 905 area code.
Many enlightened suburbanites face the same paradox, says McMaster University professor Richard Harris, the author of the new book Creeping Conformity: How Canada Became Suburban 1900-1960.
"Our collective attitude toward suburbs is profoundly polarized," Prof. Harris says. "When people move to the suburbs they get what they want. More space and a good place to raise their children. There's an individual rationality to that."
But when people do that en masse, it creates "whole swaths of space which aren't necessarily what anyone wants," he says. "So there's a mismatch between the intentions and the consequences. Some of what happens isn't what anyone wanted. It just kind of happened."
Scarborough native and Showbus organizer Mark Hazen says he can see another evolution at hand, a middle ground perhaps: Could Scarborough, Etobicoke or North York emulate the groove of an artist colony like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a place that has snipped its Manhattan umbilical cord?
"I'm wondering if that's the natural progression," Mr. Hazen says. "I'm hoping that happens. Our trip is all about our perception of these things."
Prof. Harris says this process has been particularly slow in Toronto. "Because the downtown is and has been so strong and vibrant, Toronto may be later in coming to recognize outer areas in this way."
Mr. Silverberg, the spoken-word organizer, is optimistic, but he knows it's a long row to hoe. For now, he has moved from North York to College and Spadina, but he'll continue to run his series at the edge of the TTC line. And he hopes for copycats in the art, music and theatre communities.
"That's not such fantasyland," he says. "It might take some more arts funding and a collective to begin. There are people like me everywhere. Maybe we need a suburban artist organization. It might be worth it in the long run."
For people like the Rabys, it's immaterial. They plan to stay until they're the age of the men and women puttering around their condo's clubhouse.
"We're not kid people, we're not lawn people," Ms. Raby says. "So why not move to the retirement home right away? We'll have it paid off. And I'll have the best chaise location at the pool."
Scarborough Showbus, today,
0 a.m. to 6 p.m., 416-967-0478.
Suburban Spoken Word, Aug. 22,
8 p.m., Queen of Hearts Pub, 416-312-3865, or http://www.suburbanspokenword.com Ten reasons to visit the 'burbs
117 Kerr St., Oakville
Recordings, 112 Kerr St., Oakville
These two gems offer musical manna from the gods. The stacks are plentiful, the staff are friendly and they won't hike up prices like some College Street spots are wont to do. Recordings has a basement chock full of vinyl treasures so your collection can rival that of your twentysomething too-cool-for-school cousin in the music biz -- at a quarter of the price.
2994 Bloor St. W., Etobicoke
If fries are best done with a French flair, including home-whipped mayonnaise to dip those taters in, Merlot is the best-kept secret from downtown hordes who wouldn't know Parisian flavour if it smacked them in the face. Run by an exquisitely polite family from France, it has an upstairs garden patio with yellow-striped awnings and giant Toulouse-Lautrec-style canvasses. Don't tell them we sent you.
Beauty Concept, Pacific Mall,
4300 Steeles Ave. E., Markham
Looking for up-to-snuff lip gloss? The Pacific Mall has an alternative for those who want soft lips for a smaller investment: The Papado lip-gloss line from Japan, at prices 40 per cent cheaper than the North American equivalent, has the stuff so that you'll be the shiniest of them all ($12). The store also offers 200 shades of nail polish. For beauty junkies, it's worth the drive to Markham.
57 Main St. S., Newmarket
If it takes months to get in with your favourite esthetician, it may be faster to take the afternoon off and indulge in some serious treatment in a century house just outside the city. Cocoa Spa's specialty is a Tangerine Splash Body Polish, a head-to-toe rub in orange-scented glory ($78).
2925 Lake Shore Blvd., Etobicoke
This hassle-free, unpretentious hangout is a real coffeehouse, not an every-corner clone that cuts your jonesing for java. A curtained back room with dark wood tables is a good spot to mellow out. Try the Rocket Fuel French toast ($7.99), made of thick egg-bread and topped with caramelized bananas and hazelnuts, drizzled with real maple syrup.
The Putting Edge,
Oakville, Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Brampton and Whitby
If the downtown bar scene sucks the wallet dry and saps the energy, there's good wholesome fun where the lights are purple and the golf balls glow. The Putting Edge's mini-golfing locations scattered around the city are 18-hole wonders where athletes can hone their short-range skills until the next time they step on the greens ($8.50 adults/$7.50 children). The courses get a nightclub feel if golfers wear light colours, as they glow in the black-lighted space.
The Wexford Restaurant,
2072 Lawrence Ave. E., Scarborough
Wexford Restaurant staff boast they have cracked more than a million eggs, and with their 47-year history, that actually adds up. Tony, the owner and founder, is jolly and cheerful and guarantees a piping hot cup of coffee for customers to gulp as they settle in the beige booths. When you need a good clap on the back and a bacon-and-egg breakfast that will keep you full for 12 hours, the Wexford is the way to go.
Lilly's Second Chance,
487 Queen St. E., two blocks from Scarborough boundary
Okay, we're cheating here: This resale shop isn't exactly in Scarborough, but it's on the way. Neighbourhood scouts name the spot as the destination for all things wild and wacky, as long as you don't mind wading through kitschy pulp novels (six for $1) that tower around the door to lay your mitts on some loot -- like a mint-condition Armani tie ($4).
165 Main St. S., Newmarket
This tucked-away boutique, in an old converted bank on Newmarket's surprisingly charming main drag, is an appealing stop for Queen West shopaholics who can't stand waiting in line for a change room and want Canadian labels such as Parasuco, Damzels in this Dress and Penguin without having to fight over the last size 6. While you're there, check out the strip -- recent openings include nearby martini bars and loft condos, in case you want to move away from the city-dwelling masses.