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Exodus to the burbs: why diehard downtowners are giving up on the city

The reasons to abandon the overcrowded, overpriced, not-so-livable city are beginning to outnumber the reasons to stay. More and more of us are tempted by the 905 and beyond. Screw Jane Jacobs. We’re outta here

The New Suburbanites

Brian Porter and Carrie Low thought they’d hatched the perfect plan to avoid the eight-lane gridlock they faced every week on their drive to the family cottage in the Kawarthas. Porter, a soft-spoken 41-year-old Toronto firefighter, would arrange his work schedule to be home on Friday. He’d pack the car at noon and pick up his daughters, Lily and Amelia, from daycare shortly after lunch. Then, rather than head from their home in the Beach to pick up Low downtown, he’d drive to a strategic pit stop in Oshawa. Low, a slim 41-year-old redhead, works as a lawyer with RBC in the financial district, her days and nights packed, respectively, with meetings and paperwork. Her role in the escape plan was to get off work early and catch the GO train to Oshawa Station. Often, she’d end up working a pressure-packed day until 5 p.m. anyway, leaving Porter and the girls waiting at the station for hours. In the end they never gained that much time—it could still be a challenge to get to the cottage before nightfall. But at least they’d avoided the worst hours on the DVP and the 401.

Porter and Low’s weekend escape strategy was symptomatic of their over-engineered city lives. To juggle all their needs and obligations—two careers, mortgage payments, bills, kid drop-offs and pickups, groceries, meals—they had built a life that resembled a Rube Goldberg machine, and any misstep threatened to collapse the entire contraption. Grandparents were often called in to shuttle the kids to lessons and play dates and birthday parties. “My mother-in-law would phone me at work and ask, ‘Where is Amelia’s dance outfit?’ and my stress level would go through the roof, ” recalls Low. “I’d say, ‘Why are you calling me at work for this? It’s in the house somewhere. Don’t ask me, ask Brian.’ ”

Porter’s more flexible hours allowed him to handle most of the household duties (he typically works seven 24-hour shifts every four weeks), while Low would often leave the house at 7 a.m. and return 12 hours later. When Porter was on shift Low would pick up the slack, but the moment he returned she’d play catch-up at work. They didn’t realize, at first, that the routine was taking a toll on their marriage. “Sometimes I’d come home from a shift and she’d hand me the baton and head out the door,” Porter recalls. “I’d barely be able to stand up, but I’d feed the girls and send them off on their day. Carrie and I were like two ships passing in the night.” You might even say they were behaving like an already-divorced couple sharing care of the kids. “If we kept it up, I could not be sure that we would still care about one another five or 10 years down the road,” says Low.

The problem, they decided, was not each other or their careers or their kids, but the city itself—a surprising diagnosis given that they had both grown up in Toronto, happily, in the Beach. They bought their 1,600-square-foot detached home on Benlamond because they wanted to raise their family there, too. “The Beach tends to keep people,” says Porter. “I can walk along Queen East any day of the week and meet friends from high school who run businesses on that street.” But living in the city required too many contortions. They decided to divorce it.

They spent months searching for a new home, pushing the outer boundaries of the GTA as they went. Low was adamant: “I didn’t want a suburban house.” In the end they moved as far away from Toronto as they possibly could for a couple whose livelihoods still depended upon the city: Cobourg, the Lake Ontario town with its own lovely beach and boardwalk, just this side of Prince Edward County. The only thing separating the gigantic walkout basement of their new, 2,700-square-foot detached house from the Lake Ontario waterfront is a municipal park. And the cottage run is a one-hour scenic drive along quiet secondary highways.

 

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