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

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.

The New Suburbanites

Toronto enjoys a reputation as a very livable city, but that reputation doesn’t entirely reflect reality. The enduring illusion was born in 1971, the year the city killed a proposal to build a Spadina Expressway—a hard-won victory that endowed Torontonians with a set of shared ideas about what city life ought to be. We don’t merely walk Jane’s Walk, we talk Jane’s talk—the Jane in question being, of course, Jane Jacobs, the urban theorist, author of the 1961 seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities and long-time resident of Albany Avenue. Jacobs was at the centre of the Expressway debate, which framed the issue of urban living in ethical terms—not just the questionable ethics of razing neighbourhoods to build freeways, but the higher morality of choosing to live with less space, no car, up high, on foot, on transit, in parks. These are downtown values, and those of us who share them are downtown people.

Downtown values—living with less space, no car, up high—have ossified into a rigid ideology. Its propagandists believe the suburbs are an inferior moral choice

Forty years later, those values have ossified into a rigid urban ideology, complete with its own propagandists—Spacing magazine, Christopher Hume, Metro Morning—to sing its praises. The roles of victim and villain are set in stone: the saintly city struggles to keep the evil suburbs at bay. Suburban living is not merely an inferior urban form, but an inferior moral choice.

And yet the suburbs just keep expanding. The suburbs of the Spadina Expressway era—Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough—are now “inner suburbs,” and the “outer suburbs” are in the back of beyond: Cobourg, Newmarket, Barrie, Burlington, any place where people can settle while still making a living off the big-city economy. You could argue that some of these places are small towns, not suburbs. But the march of sprawl swallowed Port Credit and Oakville, and it will swallow East Gwillimbury, too.

These 19th-century towns—our new suburbs—look nothing like the cookie-cutter, cul-de-sacky wasteland of the downtown imagination

It often comes as a shock, even to those of us who move to the suburbs, when we decide to leave. For 39-year-old Kaelin McCowan, a lifelong north Toronto boy, and his wife, Crystal Asher, an ebullient 38-year-old chef from New Zealand, it was an impulse decision. Five years ago, McCowan was a camera assistant on a film shoot in Dundas, a leafy valley town just down the escarpment from Hamilton’s McMaster University. Every night that week, he returned to his and Asher’s Playter Estates home raving about it. “Dundas reminded me of my neighbourhood when I was growing up in it,” McCowan recalls. “It made me realize how much the city has changed.”

A few days later, McCowan came home with photos of the elegant colonial homes for sale in Dundas. “I quickly realized this was a campaign,” recalls Asher, speaking in a lingering Kiwi drawl. “He was pushing the idea in his typically north Toronto passive-aggressive way. I gave him a look and said, ‘Dude, we’re not moving to fucking Dundas.’ ” She felt she had everything she needed on the Danforth: lots of parks and playmates for her kids, as well as good daycares and schools—as good a community as you can find to raise your daughters.

But McCowan refused to let the idea die. He took Asher to Dundas with her father when he came to visit. “Kaelin said, ‘Look, they have a Cumbrae’s. There’s a nice cheese shop. Let’s put together a picnic.’ After that day, I thought, this wouldn’t be so bad.” She was also smitten with the size and quaintness of the houses—in particular, one three-storey gingerbread Victorian with a big magnolia tree in the front yard. They put their Playter Estates home up for sale during the low season of July just to see what would happen. It sold in a flash. Before they’d had a chance to absorb the magnitude of the change they were making in their lives, they were prepping an offer sheet on the same Victorian Dundas home.

There are many Cobourgs and Dundases scattered across southern Ontario: 19th-century towns built of brick and stone, with elegant and durable housing stock shaded by giant leafy canopies, picturesque old city halls and quaint, lively downtown commercial avenues. They look nothing at all like the cookie-cutter, aluminum-clad, cul-de-sacky, Mississaugish, soulless wasteland of the downtown imagination.

Bigger houses and wide open yards are only two reasons people are leaving for the new suburbs. They’re also leaving because they feel Toronto is becoming less and less livable. The evidence is in school closures, the daily battle to get to work, and rising user fees and long waiting lists for daycares, hockey rinks and other community amenities. The constant bickering at city hall over what service to cut next—snow removal, park maintenance or recycling?—reinforces the impression that the cash-strapped city is in a downward spiral.

Last year, Statistics Canada published a study showing that, for every person who moved from a neighbouring municipality into Toronto, 3.5 people made the opposite move. That’s a heart-stopping figure. Were it not for the constant arrival of people from other regions, provinces and countries into Toronto’s city limits—that is, an influx of people who don’t know what they’re in for—the downtown would be emptying out in a hurry.

They’ve raised the white flag on the perpetual stress management and mortgage-driven indebtedness of big city life

According to the StatsCan data, people aged 25 to 44 were most likely to move out, and between 2001 and 2006 some 95,700 of them did. We’re more likely to leave if our household income is between $70,000 and $100,000 (after tax), if we hold a post-secondary degree or if we recently became parents. Which only makes sense: six figures makes you rich if you’re childless, but quickly drops you down to middle-class if you’re raising a family. The only people who fit the demographic and are likely to continue living the downtown life are arts professionals and university profs. Otherwise, Toronto is losing many of its young, middle-income, professional, two-parent families.

Including mine. My wife Lynn and I, with our five-year-old son and his two-year-old twin brothers, have given up our teetering century-old Riverdale semi for a detached home with a big yard on a sleepy street in Peterborough (not yet an official suburb, at least not until the 407 and the GO network expand there as planned). Lynn, a recently minted general surgeon, was looking to set up a practice, and hospital staff positions in Toronto are scant. Then Peterborough came calling. Lynn was assiduously recruited. Initially I resisted, fretting about the loss of my friends and my professional social network—even though, with three small kids, I had long since dropped off the cocktail party circuit. In truth, I was battling the nagging fear that moving out of downtown signified some kind of defeat. Which it does: I have raised the white flag on the perpetual stress management and mortgage-driven indebtedness of big city life. It’s a happy surrender.

The New Suburbanites

When downtown people flirt with the idea of moving outside the city, which we all do, we are usually motivated by the mortgage math. How much more house can we get outside the city, we wonder, for what we’re currently paying for property in the city? The quick answer: a lot.

Porter and Low bought their home on Benlamond for $399,000, completed $75,000 worth of renovations, sold three years later for $620,000 and got a bigger, newer place that needed no work in Cobourg for almost the same price they originally paid on Benlamond. McCowan and Asher bought in Playter Estates for $439,000, sold for $672,000 and upsized to their new home in Dundas, steps from the city’s major park, for $557,000.

Lynn and I did well, too: we sold our 1,300-square-foot Riverdale semi for $663,000, or $223,000 more than we paid for it four years ago. In Peterborough we bought a place more than twice the size with three times the yard for $510,000. We were the only bidders, and we paid $20,000 below list price. Had we bought the same house in a Riverdale bidding war we would have paid triple that, and the mortgage would have consumed us. Instead, we now have a bigger house with a smaller mortgage. And a driveway larger than our old backyard.

Only after the transactions were complete did I realize I had long been denying a universal truth: space is, in fact, the best thing money can buy. I initially felt guilty when I admitted it, because the axiom runs counter to downtown values, which hold that density is good, neighbours are nice, space is for sharing and paying extra to park your car on the street in front of your house (or three blocks away from your house in winter when snow and ice complicate things) is fine. But even in the city, the axiom is true. Why else would real estate prices in Toronto be so exorbitant?

The New Suburbanites

Doug and Margaret Dunlop, who are in their late 30s, came to much the same realization, but only after making the most of every inch of city space they could afford. Doug trains front-line social service workers, and Margaret recently left her job as a social worker at the Toronto District School Board. They are childhood sweethearts from Ottawa with an outdoorsy streak: in 2002, while renting in the Annex, they built their own cedar strip canoe. In 2003 they split the cost of a $445,000 Withrow Avenue semi with Doug’s brother and his wife. “We bought just at the start of the Riverdale craze,” says Doug. “The property was already divided into two apartments. It was massive by Riverdale standards.” With only a tiny shed in their postage stamp–sized yard, they stored the canoe in the rafters of a neighbour’s garage.

When Margaret became pregnant with their second child, they decided to build a three-storey, six-figure addition. “Even then, it wasn’t enough space,” says Doug. Downtown dogma holds that big yards are unnecessary because we have parks everywhere. Though Riverdale is replete with parks, Margaret found that using them came with its own set of hassles. “You have to pack your bags with diapers, bottles, snacks, changes of clothes, all that stuff,” she says, only to cut the outing short so you can come home and hurriedly fix lunch.

So they sold in 2008 for $725,000 and split the proceeds. Doug’s brother and his wife bought another Toronto semi, this time in Leslieville. Doug and Margaret moved to Uxbridge, another one of those leafy 19th-century towns, this one north of Pickering, and bought a 140-year-old house on a corner lot with a detached two-car garage—and lots of room for canoe storage—for $365,000. Their then four-year-old son, Jack, found the transition to the suburbs bewildering. “Jack’s a real city kid,” says Doug. “He loves books and restaurants. He stood in the middle of the yard like he didn’t know what to do with himself. I just thought, go ahead, be a kid! Throw a rock!”

The new suburbanite exodus has created a two-tier market in the outer GTA’s small towns. Prices are generally lower, but real estate agents assume people who earn their living in the city can afford much more. “There are prices for locals and prices for people with city jobs,” says Simon Heath, an entrepreneur and creative writer who coaches executives in public speaking and presentation skills (and whose novel, chapters of which are available on his website, is titled Escape From Toronto). He and his wife, Lilly Martin, a midwife, owned a semi at Greenwood and Gerrard. Their nine-year-old son, True, and four-year-old daughter, Evening, were bouncing off the walls in its tiny confines. The family felt the constant encroachments of the city into their private space. “The bus stopped right outside our house,” recalls Martin. “It was too noisy to have a conversation on our front porch.”

They sold their city home for $420,000, some $150,000 more than they’d paid three years earlier. They looked everywhere before settling on Creemore. “We thought we’d spend between 300 and 400 grand. What we found were lots of bungalows for around $220,000, and nothing at all in our price range.” They paid $600,000 for a 1950s ranch-style home on three acres of land, with glassed-in sitting rooms overlooking a guest house and an in-ground pool. Their driveway crosses an elegant bridge over a small river—the kind of features that are hard to find in the city. For that price, says Heath, “We could have moved two streets over in Leslieville and gotten maybe a bigger tree in our backyard.”

While Heath and Martin funnelled the dividend from the sale of their city home back into real estate, others made different investments. In Dundas, Asher and McCowan decided to sink some of their cash into their own start-up: Detour Roasters, a coffee-roasting business and café on King Street West in Dundas. Asher says the sale provided more than just seed money. “Living in Dundas gave us the mental space to come up with the idea,” she says. “And if it had failed, it wouldn’t have ruined us. You can’t afford to dream up ideas like that when you’re worried about making your next mortgage payment. Moving out here allowed us to be creative in ways we couldn’t in Toronto.”

Toronto’s exorbitant real estate prices aren’t just about buying space. They’re also about buying time. Proximity means shorter commutes, which means more time for other things. But Toronto is a terrible city in which to travel, its commuting times some of the worst in North America.

As a consultant, Heath found himself serving many CEO clients headquartered in Mississauga and others as far west as Brampton, which left him no choice but to commute 50 kilometres by car two or three times a week from Leslieville. “It was more stressful than I could ever have imagined. Even though it was a reverse commute, it took forever. You are constantly fighting for space, for position,” he says. “I’d be stuck in traffic on my way to pick up True from daycare. I’d have nightmares that he’d be sitting there by himself.”

Now that he lives in Creemore, his commute is longer—an 86-kilometre drive down Airport Road—but less stressful. “I cover more distance in the same time,” he says. His relationship with his car has changed as a result: the Prius is no longer a manned battle pod, but the luxury cockpit it was designed to be. “There’s one stretch of the drive that’s lined with trees on either side,” says Heath. “When I get there, I turn off the radio, open the windows and let the breeze wash through the car.”

Out in Cobourg, Carrie Low commutes on Via Rail. The Via pass is exorbitant—$316 for 10 round trips—but it’s an 80-minute ride like no other. “It’s like flying to work every day, without the airport hassle,” she says. “Those of us who make that commute all know each other.” It’s the opposite of the cramped TTC, where everyone is in their own bubble, no one makes eye contact, and even if you ride with the same people every day you never say hi to them. The 3:30 p.m. Via train back to Cobourg is for people who need to get home early; it’s a working train, with laptops open and BlackBerrys buzzing. Those who take the 5:30 p.m. train home have checked out of work for the day, so everyone chats over a glass of wine. Low now has a handful of “train buddies,” as they call each other. She and Porter and the girls went to another commuter’s horse farm for dinner earlier this year. Every year in mid-December, one of the 5:30 trains hosts a Christmas party with baked goods. And because she’s not battling for road space in the car or commuting on crowded, short-turning streetcars, she’s more relaxed when she gets home.

As enjoyable as her commute is, Low also changed her working life so she doesn’t need to be in the city every day. She arranged a job-share with another lawyer at RBC, enabling her to work from home half the week. It’s a common tactic with the new breed of urban defector: taking greater control of your working life. People move because they want to change their relationship with the city, which forces them to confront and re-evaluate how much time they spend at their job. Most people, once they move, find the will to set limits on how much they work—partly because the lower cost of living makes it possible, but mostly because they are no longer willing to be at their colleagues’ beck and call. Simon Heath, to keep his Creemore-to-Brampton drive manageable, tries to limit his appointments in the city to between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.—boundaries he did not feel he could set until he moved. “When you live in the city, you have to be constantly available,” he says. He also finds that people are more willing to accommodate him because they know he has a long drive ahead.

In Uxbridge, Doug Dunlop also changed his working routine: he now runs his training business from his home, but a couple of times a week he still drives to midtown Toronto, where he works for Delisle Youth Services. During off-peak hours he can make it in 50 minutes, but if he has a 9 a.m. meeting, he’s out the door at 7 a.m. Even with the 407 shuttling him quickly through the easternmost reaches of the GTA, it’s a terrible drive. Two things make it bearable. The first, says Doug: “When it’s at its worst, I just tell myself, ‘It isn’t every day.’ ” The second is the sense of serenity that hits him when the drive is done. “The first thing you see when you get into Uxbridge is the Walmart sign. And it’s a funny thing to admit coming from Riverdale, but when I see that sign, I think, ‘I’m home.’ Living out here, I can leave the stress of the city behind in a way I never could before.”

Once out of the city, travel is so easy that time slows down. When I first arrived in Peterborough, a neighbour cautioned me about the city habit of setting aside too much time to get from one place to another. The next day I gave myself half an hour for a cross-town trip that took 10 minutes. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

Back in May, I called the City of Peterborough’s recreation department to inquire about registering my five-year-old son Luke for soccer camp, fearful there would be no spots left. The friendly woman at the other end of the phone welcomed me to Peterborough, assured me that there were spaces available for every week and offered to sign him up right away—and while I was at it, did I want to register him for hockey camp in September as well?

This level of service is rare in Toronto, where city-run recreation spaces are rationed like aid to war-ravaged populations. At 7 a.m. on registration day, which comes once every three months, frenzied parents attempt to simultaneously dial in and log on (many using multiple phones and computers) and sign their kids up for as many programs as possible. I still remember the afternoon conversation I had with a neighbouring Riverdale parent who told me all the city sports programs she’d successfully registered her child for that morning. I was stunned. It wasn’t just that I’d missed registration day; it’s that in the days leading up to it, she’d never mentioned it. Fewer parents dialing in, after all, means more opportunities for those who do.

Nothing exposes just how dated The Death and Life of Great American Cities has become than Jane Jacobs’ description of raising children in the city. “Mr. Lacey, the locksmith, bawls out one of my sons for running into the street, and then later reports the transgression to my husband as he passes the locksmith shop,” she wrote. “Mr. Lacey, with whom we have no ties other than street propinquity, feels responsible for him to a degree.”

That was 1961. In the years since, all the Mr. Laceys of the world have died and gone to downtown heaven. “Even just sitting on the front stoop requires supervision,” Margaret Dunlop says of her former Riverdale life. Or as Simon Heath recalls, “I’d be out in the back alley playing with True. When it was time to go in and make supper, he’d ask me, ‘Can I stay out here and play?’ And the answer, always, was no.”

The New Suburbanites

In Creemore, the answer is yes. I first met Heath and Martin on a Saturday morning at the Creemore farmers’ market. As we chatted at one end of the market, their kids wandered off among the vendors. Weren’t they worried? “It’s fine,” said Heath. “I know at least three sets of parents from here to the end of the market who will all have eyes on my kids.” I mentally compared that scene to a similar one at the Withrow Park farmers’ market: it’s roughly the same size in terms of vendors and space and is populated by my neighbours—great neighbours who are kind and wonderful to my kids—but I would never assume that they are taking responsibility for my children while I’m distracted by genteel adult conversation. “There is an expectation, in the city, that you will be self-sufficient,” agrees Heath.

The more kids you have, the more difficult that self-sufficiency becomes. Before the twins were born, whenever Lynn was on call, Luke and I would take the 505 streetcar downtown so he could run around in Yonge-Dundas Square—a real delight for both of us. But the double stroller won’t fit on the streetcar, and I would never dare try to keep watch over two unharnessed toddlers and a five-year-old at the city’s busiest intersection.

This is the real reason city parents turn into overprotective worrywarts. It is not, as the young and the childless often presume, because the media have brainwashed us into believing that our kids will at any moment be abducted or sexually assaulted or caught in the crossfire of gang-related gunplay. It is simply because it takes a village to raise a child, and city parents have no right to assume that any such village exists in their midst. The default assumption is that kids are an imposition. City parents can call upon the help of others, usually other parents, but they are busy and overwhelmed like everyone else with six o’clock meetings and pinging BlackBerrys. So most of the time, we’re on our own.

After moving to Uxbridge, Margaret and Doug had a third child, daughter Kate, last year. In Uxbridge, no one ever lives the nightmare of their kid being the last one left languishing in an empty school. “If I go to get the boys and there’s one other child who hasn’t been picked up, I stick around,” she says. “I wait until his or her parent shows up.”

There are things the city can offer that the new suburbs simply cannot. Ask downtown refugees what they miss most and the first thing out of their mouths is inevitably the same: the food. Once you’re in the 905 or the 705, gone are the days when you can go out and choose from dozens of restaurants, any one of which will prepare you a meal better than anything you could make for yourself at home.

Mind you, living in Cobourg, so close to Port Hope, Porter and Low have a few nice places to choose from—though they’ve been to all of them a few times already, so the novelty has worn off. In Uxbridge, Doug and Margaret frequent Frankie’s, a lovely bistro run by Donna van Veghel-Wood, a JK ROM alumnus. It’s slim pickings, but no one seems to mind. For people with children, eating out becomes less about the food and more about leaving the kids behind for a couple of hours and having someone else do the dishes. “We loved going up to the Danforth, eating at Allen’s or wherever,” says Doug, “but we found that those outings kept dropping down on our list of priorities. At a certain point, the lifestyle offered by the city becomes an illusion.”

But the biggest thing the city provides that a small community cannot is anonymity. Outside the city, everyone knows who you are and what you’re up to, and they never assume that you’re too busy to enjoy their company. “People just drop in,” Simon Heath says of life in Creemore. “They don’t call ahead, they don’t make plans for lunch. They just show up at your door, expecting to be let in.” Whenever Doug Dunlop calls a tradesperson to his house to fix something, there is an obligatory 15 minutes of small talk—in the city, plumbers are in as big a hurry as everyone else to get to the next thing.

Lilly Martin recognizes people by their cars and waves at them even when she can’t see who’s behind the tinted windshield. And she never drives too fast, because everyone is always concerned for the safety of the kids. Martin, when describing this loss of anonymity to city friends, has been met with the reaction: “Oh, I could never stand that.” But she says it’s no burden. As Martin puts it, “It’s the person I want to be.”

Therein lies the key difference between big city and small town life. In the city, we live every minute cheek by jowl. As a result, all the social conventions—don’t make eye contact, don’t eavesdrop, don’t assume someone else is watching your kids—are designed to protect privacy. In a small community and with a big yard, you’ve got all the privacy you need, so the conventions change—you must say your hellos and inquire about others and share news readily.

In the end, it is precisely the lack of anonymity—otherwise known as community—that allows Heath and Martin to set their kids free at the Creemore farmers’ market. The most tangible benefit that anonymity brings to most city dwellers is that it allows us all to set our inner asshole free in the streets. All my life I’ve been an upbeat person, but when I navigate the city I do it with a frown. I cut people off in my car, and on foot as I go through the TTC turnstile. I jaywalk. I litter. Because I can, because I’ll never see these people again and there will never be any repercussions. Everybody else behaves much the same way, because it is how we all cope with the constant encroachments of high-density living. But behaving this way never makes me feel any better at the end of the day. And I don’t like the example I’m setting for my kids.

Once Porter and Low decided they had to leave the Beach, and throughout the months they spent searching for a new place to settle, they did something remarkable: they didn’t tell a soul. Mostly, they didn’t want to deal with the strained discussions and arguments they would have to have with close friends. Once they announced they were moving, they had them anyway. “People were shocked,” Low says. “ ‘You’re downtown people! You can’t move! You’ll hate it!’ ” Everyone I spoke with had similar experiences. And to those who react with such dismay, there is no explaining the stress or the cost or the psychic toll that city life takes. We can all talk Jane’s talk, but some people are pickled in Jane’s brine.

Once the move is complete, some friendships evaporate immediately. Others die after one token trip. Some friends visit to indulge their rural fantasies. “One person called us up and said, ‘We want to come visit you and cut down our own Christmas tree,’ ” says Low. “So we set that up, and it was fun, until they had to drive home with a tree strapped to the roof rack.” Crystal Asher, in Dundas, says the friendships that survive are the ones that never depended too much on proximity in the first place.

Once you move out of the city, it becomes almost impossible to move back. Just as everyone who leaves Toronto makes a nice killing on the real estate transaction, everyone who returns gets killed. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

With Toronto in the midst of a mini–baby boom, and with the data showing that young families are highly likely to move out, we may well be on the cusp of a new exodus the likes of which hasn’t been seen since suburbs were invented. Toronto will need to try to find a way to keep young families inside city limits to preserve its tax base and its urban fabric. A first step might be to stop moralizing about the evils of suburban life and put an end to Toronto’s homegrown culture war. When I moved to Toronto from Montreal, I thought I’d be leaving behind a polarized political culture. In Toronto, the lens through which every issue is filtered isn’t language, as in Montreal, but it’s no less polarizing.

In this phony war I feel less like a turncoat than a conscientious objector. The big city has its uses. It served me well, and I served it back. Living in Toronto enabled me to transform my life in ways I dearly wanted: marriage, fatherhood, career advancement. That transformation has brought with it needs that Toronto cannot adequately provide: personal space, affordability, an emphasis on community over privacy. The intensity and the anonymity of the city now hinder my life more than they help. Simple as that. I’m outta here.