By Liz Worth
The city: A cultural mecca often seen as a hotbed of hip up-and- comers, underground movements and streets full of dreams. We look to our major cities to dictate mainstream trends and alternative outlets. We expect that if we search those aging streetscapes and mysterious alleyways long enough we will stumble upon a happening that was hiding out until it was ready to reveal itself to the rest of the world.
But the city does not always deserve such credit.
Standing in contrast to bright city lights and skyscrapers, our suburbs are often thought of as being just as intellectually grey, homogenized, and sparse as they appear from the side of a highway. But in a place where the action is slow, creativity can run high, if for no other reason than that people need something to do. And although we tend to credit cities with breeding creative intelligence, a lot of independent culture has roots in suburbia.
We tend to devalue a creator’s credibility when he or she comes from the suburbs. Conditioned to praise only urban products and to shun suburban efforts as second rate imitations, we often forget that much of the independent culture we familiarize ourselves with started out on the outskirts instead of in the cores. England’s punk scene was helped to form by many kids who lived in a suburb outside of London. The DIY scene that sprouted out of the U.S. in the late ’80s and early ’90s didn’t all start in Seattle, but in its suburbs. And Canada’s zine culture and independent music forays thrive on the energy from its satellite cities and small towns just as much as it does the metropolises.
“I think there’s definitely an idea, a sort of dismissive idea, about the suburbs because there’s obvious privilege that happens in the suburbs,” says Jennifer Whiteford, author of the novel Grrrl, published by Gorsky Press. “So people can say, ‘Oh, they’re just a bunch of rich white kids from the suburbs.’ They don’t necessarily have the same valid opinion, which is funny because when you think about it the suburbs are where younger, poorer families are going to buy houses, so the lower-middle class will gravitate towards certain suburbs.”
Whiteford, whose book is a coming of age novel that centres around a girl growing up in the burbs, spent her teen years in Unionville, a suburb north of Toronto. As a teen who didn’t want to hang out at the mall, she looks back to the isolation of that time and attributes to it the short novel she wrote, the zine making she got done, and a lot of the journal entries she made.
And although Whiteford admits she used to wish she was a downtown kid, she says that some people can thrive creatively when they are deprived of distractions, while others need the constant flow of life. She sees a kind of equality in the worlds of the urban and suburban, no matter how we like to romanticize or criticize them.
“I think cities are held up as being more tolerant than more rural or small town kind of environments,” says Whiteford, “and I think people really see that as nurturing to artistic sensibilities. But I don’t know that that’s always true. I know there are a lot of small towns where there’s a lot of really interesting creative stuff going on.”
But it isn’t often that geography is associated with creativity so easily. In a past issue of the Toronto zine Wavelength, an interview with the Lava Witch, a band from the city’s surrounding 905 region, stated that “they are much too good for Mississauga.” Similarly, when a Toronto alternative weekly ran a feature on the breakout success of Mississauga’s Meligrove Band, the story was titled Misery Saga. Regardless of how much weight is behind certain talents, there remains a sense of embarrassment when it comes to uttering the name of a suburb in the same sentence as something new and exciting.
Says a member of the band, “Even now when I talk to people and (they ask), ‘where did you go to high school?’ It’s ‘oh, I went to high school in Toronto.’ Because it’s so much more recognizable and you don’t even have to explain. And maybe there’s a little bit more of that clout: I’m from Toronto–instead of Markham.”
Even satellite cities can end up lumped into the world of suburbia, regardless of whether the perspective is realistic or not. Skot Deeming of London, Ontario’s Boot Disk, a trio that combines images with sound, has played in not-so urban places. He admits there is more culture to experience in major cities, and so those places tend to overshadow their smaller counterparts.
One long-standing argument about Canada’s geography is that keeping DIY culture alive across such a huge land mass can be difficult when the major cities are spaced so far apart, and so the need for Canadians to create their own media and music is found in pockets across the country. And while many end up in major cities to expand these efforts, their sprawling peripheries still deserve credit, for out of those blank spaces come canvasses covered in underground culture.
Deeming isn’t daunted by the thought of his creative efforts being less likely to land on the radar than if they were happening in a bigger city. With 13 years of zine and video making behind him, he says he can find just as much inspiration on the outskirts, as on the main streets.
“I enjoy the sense of community that exists in the so-called margins,” he says. “I find it much more compelling to be a part of that. It’s very satisfying. I want to enjoy my creative side; my primary motivations lie in the simple fact that I want to have fun, and want others to have fun with my work. And I think that no matter where I am, big city, small city, that’s something that won’t change.”
This story was funded through the Ontario Arts Council’s Writers’ Reserve program.