Being a bit of a news wire junkie, provocative headlines tend to catch my eye: “Ottawa ranked best place to live in Canada.” Before I've had my first coffee, I react to buzz, scanning quickly to make sure that Toronto hasn't fallen off the map. My analytical spidey-sense usually returns with a slightly nutty mild roast in hand.
Back in May, MoneySense magazine deemed Canada’s capital the best after compiling data on factors such as home prices, average income and weather. (How the last item contributed to Ottawa’s top billing, I am not exactly sure, though it certainly fosters a particular heartiness in its people. Where else do you see parents pushing baby strollers on skate blades down an extremely long outdoor ice rink?) Ultimately, Duncan Hood of MoneySense points out that Ottawa's ranking is due to "not doing poorly" in any one category, rather than being spectacular in each. While I appreciate the need to narrow one's approach in order to carry out successful research (read: actually finish it), I'm not sure that my own ranking of cities would look the same.
A lifelong Torontonian, I moved to Ottawa as an idealistic grad student many moons ago. Like so many migrants-of-circumstance, I was rather (weather) resistant to the city at first. Media characterizations played a large role in prolonging my initial skepticism. One can’t help but get suspicious about the possibilities offered by a city which is only associated with a particularly long canal and a gaggle of parliament buildings. But to reduce Ottawa to its shiniest baubles would be equivalent to living the whole of one’s life in Toronto tethered to the CN Tower—vertigo anyone?
Most of our knowledge about cities and neighbourhoods come from generalized rankings or well-worn stereotypes—while some fit, others tend to be outdated. Toronto and its neighbourhoods are no exception. The rapid pace of urban change means that many legacy names—Little Italy, Fashion District, Cabbagetown—linger long after demographics, local industries and landscapes have changed. Adding to the confusion is the fact that marketing experts create particular lifestyle images for places that may not measure up in real life.
All of this leaves HomeBuyers vulnerable to false impressions when it comes to finding the right place to call home.
Ottawa’s status as the nation’s political capital favoured my normally quiet neighbourhood with a popularity I didn’t think possible, having foregone inspection of the area prior to moving in and starting my university course. More often than one might normally expect, I found myself being awoken by the sound of bagpipe sections from various military and police parade bands practicing warm-up scales. My street also appeared to be the starting point for many a protest headed to Parliament Hill. While I generally love to see a living, breathing society rolling past my window on Sunday mornings, these wake-up calls set a particular tone for the rest of the day and are not for everyone.
Buying or renting anew allows you to become reacquainted with a city you may have come to define through media alone. Numbers and maps are good for getting oriented, so use the internet to conduct Toronto neighbourhood searches. Next, get touring to ensure that unfortunate, or perhaps fortunate, surprises—as in that impromptu but now permanent yodeling festival that your map didn’t quite reveal—are uncovered before you move in. Be sure to talk to the potential neighbours you meet along the way. Return at different times in the day and during the week. Talk to family and friends about your findings.
The final say, however, should be yours: try to come up with your own city and neighbourhood rankings, based on the criteria that are most important to you.
Urmi Desai is an economic analyst and a freelance writer specializing in urban issues.
Have you ever been pleasantly or not-so-pleasantly surprised by the true nature of the neighbourhood or city you live in? Share your story by posting a comment below.