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Where do we put all of the babies?

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Groen, Danielle
Publication Date: 
4 Jun 2014



Every year, in the biting pre-dawn of late winter, the city's own March Madness occurs. Just before 7 a.m., with the playbook studied and laptops and cell phones arranged, tens of thousands of Torontonians crack their knuckles a final time before bending into position. Then the hour turns and the frenzy begins: a tornado of refreshed browsers, redialled numbers, and profanity, as parents compete to access the Toronto Fun registration system and claim for their kids some of the city's 70,000 summer-camp spots.


The demand for private camps can be equally ferocious, and even more absurd. Heidi Pyper recalls walking through Trinity-Bellwoods one summer, years ago, with her baby strapped to her chest, as campers from Art in the Park chased each other across the grass. "They were under the trees and making big paper-mâché heads and it looked really perfect," she says. "I thought, ‘Oh, I'm going to sign my daughter up for that.'" Now that she's seven, the time had come.

The program does not allow electronic registration: If you want in, you have to show up. Having heard stories of eager parents arriving before the doors opened at 9 a.m., Pyper's friend, who owns a bar on Ossington, agreed to head over after last call; Pyper would relieve him at 6 a.m. When the friend got to the community centre, he was greeted by a crush of parents, their folding chairs shoved into the April snow. It was three in the morning, and he was 121st in line.

Everyone in Toronto is jostling for limited space. We sharpen our elbows for an inch of standing room on the streetcar every morning, or race to outbid each other on a crumbling west-side semi with a garbage bin-sized backyard. If it seems as though the city has become ridiculously crowded, that's because the city has, well, become ridiculously crowded. In five years, the rate of downtown population growth more than tripled compared with the three previous census periods, surging past 16 per cent. The downtown core also outpaced growth in the suburbs for the first time since the early '70s.

Echo boomers-the generation born between 1972 and 1992-have been responsible for 70 per cent of that rise. While the median age in Ontario hovers around 40 years old, in Toronto's core, it's lodged in the mid-30s. Not surprisingly, then, birth rates have gone up in neighbourhoods particularly attractive to (and still comparatively affordable for) thirtysomething urbanites. In Danforth East, for example, the number of children under four climbed nearly 49 per cent between 2008 and 2011. Over that same period in the Waterfront, the increase was more than 60 per cent.

Growing up with the luxury of less density, many echo boomers played catch in the street or rollerbladed without helmets to the local school. Now that they're parents themselves, they have rejected the snoozy suburbs-instead, they want to live, work, bike, eat, and see the odd Raptors game all in the same place. The city has responded with nearly 12,000 floors of residential construction built or under consideration in the past decade.

If only it were as easy to break ground on a new community centre or a public park. Urban families are intimately acquainted with crowded drop-in classes, daycare waitlists, and bottom-heavy elementary schools. It hasn't turned them off of the downtown core yet. But this generation of parents isn't just after the convenience of living near the hot-yoga studio and the cool new ramen spot. They also want a full roster of activities for their kids-French immersion, hockey lessons, cooking classes, and circus camp. And if this pace and cultural shift continue, it's going to demand a dramatic reimagining of childhood in Toronto.

Some 20 strollers are parallel-parked outside the Harbourfront Community Centre's free drop-in class on this spring afternoon. Inside, under a mural of The Cat in the Hat, a diverse group of mothers and a pair of fathers jiggle babies on their laps. While they sing their way through "The Wheels on the Bus," a two-year-old in a strawberry-printed dress gnaws on a neon-yellow plastic bowling pin. When she loses interest, an orange-haired boy in denim overalls, who had been planted between his grandmother's knees, makes a beeline for it.

As the buildings have grown in the Waterfront, so, too, has the population-first by 28 per cent between 2001 and 2006, then 75 per cent in the following five years. Seven out of 10 residents are echo boomers; the rest, it can feel, are their kids. Five years ago, the community centre's baby drop-in program might attract 10 parents, but now, 40 of them appear, with the Wednesday class so popular it had to be split into two. Drifting away from the singalong for a chat, half a dozen parents give some variation on the refrain that these classes are as crucial for them as for their offspring. "They save my sanity!" says Shivani Nene, 30, who lives across the street, noting that the drop-in was a particular refuge during this brutal, relentless winter.


Parent drop-in programs serve an especially important function for newcomers, who often don't have access to the support of their extended or even immediate family. In Thorncliffe Park, most of the 20,000 residents have recently arrived in Canada. The neighbourhood also has more kids under 14 than any other Toronto census tract, with a full 10 per cent of the area's population under four years old. "We open our drop-in class at 9:30 in the morning, and by 9:45, all 28 spaces for families are full," says Nawal Al-Busaidi, manager of family-support services at the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office. "It's the same with the 1:15 p.m. class." In addition to supporting child development, staff help newcomer mothers untangle the immigration and education systems and lead discussions on women's safety and health. Both pediatricians and gynecologists make regular visits. "The place is not labelled anything other than a child centre," Al-Busaidi says. "So women can ask for any help they need without stigma or fear."


read online at The Grid

Entered Date: 
6 Aug 2014
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