(Or St. Jonhs as was the mistaken spelling stamped on a pipe from the Casavant Freres 1967 pipe organ in Gower Street United Church) is at once a source of my pleasure and my discontent.
I love its old churches, Gower Street United in particular as it’s the poor cousin to the more splendid Basilica and Cathedral. It’s a much better used as a performance hall than either, and to my thinking has more character. It was the recent refurbishment of its pipe organ that got me thinking about the place. The workers from the firm in Quebec, the only Canadian company in the trade, spoke enough English to converse with me and were exceptionally tolerant of my curiosity about the old instrument. They had removed the 2200 pipes to get at the guts of the thing, resealing air works and replacing leather works, and then replacing many of the original pipes. The work is costing a lot of cash, way more than the original price of the thing when it was first installed in ’67. But that’s the way of things isn’t it. We all remember that the dollar in ’67 was a much more significant amount than today, that’s the slow march of inflation.
I love the old part of this town, to me its people more than anything define the place though prominent land marks and buildings do remain at the forefront of my images when the name comes up. It’s not simple to define the people anymore, they are a mixed lot. The singular “townie” moniker goes nowhere with this population. It used to be that the basic resident of Gower Street and vicinity could be summed up as an English Irish hybrid whose ancestors squabbled on the cobbled streets and learned to get along, remarkable as that’s something they couldn’t do in the old countries. Nowadays, they come in all colours and certainly races, there’s a sprinkling of spice in the salt.
The town is not big really, you can walk around everything which is downtown proper in a short time, no more than an hour is necessary. All the roads which spoked out from the water front originally connected the other coves and bays on the North East Avalon, routes which expansion of the city followed and can be marked on a graph charting time to place. It was only after the second world war that the city expanded beyond Empire avenue, once the rail road route connecting the east end with the old train station. The University is a 60’s phenomenon. Each decade seems to have brought expansion, growth was paced and deliberate. It’s hard to describe what is old St. Johns now, that’s a matter for individual experience. My kids think it’s all old.
Getting back to downtown however the character of the people is unique still. There are still accents which I remember from my earliest days coming here, and they are an assortment as anyone here can tell you better than I, of mostly old Irish sounds along with some British influences, and a sprinkling of things from the Bays of the island. By in large though they’ve not become homogeneous, rather they have developed and progressed over time so that the sound of long time residents here can be from nowhere else. Instilled right in the dialects is open friendliness. If you speak like this it’s in the language, you can’t help it. That’s the feel as you talk to shop keeps, business owners, cabbies and even the shysters who would take you for your dollars if they could, you’d feel good about losing to a person so likable!
The place is not immune to change however. There is a force afoot called greed, long described as one of the seven deadly sins. It’s having its hand here.
Perhaps the most unique character of the whole downtown is the Battery where the fishing families plied their trade until recently in open skiffs, catching cod on the grounds adjacent to the narrows, not more than a few miles off, drying the salted fish on flakes that only a generation ago disappeared, selling it to exporters right here in the harbour. Their trap boats gave way to longliners as happened elsewhere, but the region along the waterfront at the base of Signal Hill is at once wonderfully Urban and Rural. It belongs here but could be along the Mediterranean or the Biscay coast. It got to be this way owing to the generations of people who built it. Now it’s largely a museum to that bygone era but there are families resident still who were involved.
Newcomers have arrived and some, seeing a chance to make a million or two, are hawking for over two million the properties that they bought for 30 to 60 G fifteen years back. It has the net effect of making the whole area unaffordable to the very people who built it. The next generations will not stay. They will be, and for the most part are being replaced by people who have no connection to the heritage of the place, no loyalty to the community, and no real interest beyond speculation and growing the property values. The very thing that makes them richer, makes us poorer.
Inflation has it that currency unit values decrease as time goes on, but what really defines the value of currency in any state of economy is the mark of what a unit of currency purchases. If it takes two million to purchase a few cobbled together buildings, twice refurbished and newly painted in the battery then that’s what it takes. That quickly becomes the definition of two million dollars. The trouble with that is it applies broadly. Once accomplished there, then the same applies to Gower Street, the west end and so out into the adjacent communities. Coming generations won’t afford these properties, simply because the average wage earnings can’t keep up with such realty induced inflation. So we sell the place to those who can afford it, American perhaps, German, I don’t know, but usually someone who has wealth elsewhere and no real interest in the region other than a second home for when warmer climes get too hot. Its unique character changes with that.
What about it then, why do I care? Should I care. I see the same thing happening all over the island. Is the Battery just a symbol of the most unique area in town or is it the banner at the head of a provincial queue?
But my children can’t afford land and housing almost anywhere here on the island now. All because the real value of land, housing, properties is so overblown. That will be our undoing. Will the next generations here know where this came from? Will they speak with the same friendly voices and will they care? In another 50 years will anyone fund the next refurbishment of the Gower Street United Church Organ? Will there be any next generations? Such is my discontent.
St. Johns, 2011