Awhile ago I found myself mired in the suburban sprawl of Ensenada, a city 90 minutes south of Tijuana. Somewhat unsurprisingly, it looked a lot like Mississauga.
The thing about Mississauga, the city I grew up in, is that from a North American perspective, it is extraordinarily unoriginal. It’s a city characterized by strip malls, oversized grocery stores and wide roads that is built up around a giant shopping mall. If Mississauga was a video game you might correctly determine that the designers got lazy and just repeated the same scenery over and over again and then omitted any pedestrians and put everyone in cars to save time animating people. People don’t walk in Mississauga even if they’re just going down the street to buy a bag of chips. They get into their cars and they drive and then they go into a store that looks exactly like hundreds of other stores, buy their chips and drive right back home. This way of life is so much the norm that friends who used to see me walking 20 minutes to an outlet mall used to stop their cars and wonder aloud at what the heck I was doing walking. They’d offer me rides and when I declined react as though what I was saying didn’t make sense.
This is, of course, the case in many North American cities. Which is, I guess, the problem. A little later in the week I left Ensenada and toured its neighboring wine country. It was stunning and each winery had a personality, something that distinguished it from the other wineries. The scenery changed, the people changed, the architecture was varied. People growing up in wine country have particular memories around it that are evoked by specific, unique experiences - a statue, a building, a bookcase, art, rolling hills, a cellar stocked with wine bottles and barrels from that region - whereas people growing up in the suburbs have memories tied to asphalt and brands. The thing is, what often lets me know, in the midst of a rush of misplaced nostalgia that I am not home are the stores: the names aren’t right or, in particularly jarring circumstances they are all the same, but they happen to be in the wrong order.
Ensenada was notably different - the language was different, the background scenery different and instead of gleaming white, utterly unused antiseptic sidewalks it had rocky dirt walkways - but while standing at the centre of a strip mall, facing a large grocery store it was shockingly and - I want to say - inappropriately similar to a place hundreds of miles away. The size and dimension of the shops, the way the grocery store positioned itself, the lay out of the parking lot - all of these were stolen from my childhood and reproduced perfectly. Add a few Subways, Second Cups, Timmy’s and Pizza Huts and I could be in Mississauga.
There are all sorts of things wrong with urban sprawl. It does terrible things to your health and the environment but I feel like it’s also responsible for adding an unfortunate generic gloss to people’s memories. I say unfortunate because I don’t work for or profit from a large brand, which probably finds some sense of glee in the notion that my childhood, for lack of anything else to anchor itself on is attached to corporate logos and infinitely reproducible food stuffs.