It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s small and claustrophobic, it’s isolated, and it’s home. I love it. The climate is terrible – last summer notwithstanding. It’s ridiculously windy. It could’ve been the wind that’s lifted us toward the wing-melting economic sun. Could’ve, but isn’t. It’s the oil.
My hometown and my current city is St. John’s, the largest city in, and the capital of, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The island of Newfoundland sticks out into the North Atlantic, seemingly begging to be battered; by the ocean currents and the Gulf Stream, by wind, and by economic whims. This place has seen its share of economic tumult – truth be told, this is the umpteenth edition of this post as I tried introducing a bit of economic history, but I finally decided that that opened a whole new can of worms; so many interpretations, so many ways to get off course. So, I abandoned it. In fact, this post will mostly be about forcing ideals to fit into a predefined system. It sounds very complicated, like some academic pursuit, but I just couldn’t decide on a better way to say it. I hope that didn’t deter many people from reading this.
When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, there was far less money in St. John’s. The oil boom hadn’t hit yet and, in fact, in the 90s, a moratorium was placed on cod, the biggest fish catch for the city and province. ‘Fish’ in St. John’s, meant ‘cod’. When that fishery was closed down, the province’s population was at its peak of about 580,000, over 30,000 of whom lost their jobs. People had to leave to find work. Then, in the late 1990s/early 2000s, oil production ramped up, more wells were discovered, vast mineral deposits were found and by the mid 2000s, money came into this province like never before. The money, however, doen’t change the fact that Newfoundland and Labrador (the island is Newfoundland. The bigger, northern and western, land portion is Labrador) hasn’t moved. It is where it is and all the money in the world is not going to change that. We’re still at the eastern edge of an enormous country and continent. There’s a small population. However ‘connected’ we think we are, there’s still geography to contend with. The rest of North America is not ‘right there’ – unless you take that to mean, ‘on your computer or phone’. I went to university in Ontario and 4 of my former roommates and best friends live near Toronto, I don’t have the option of going to hang out whenever I feel like it. It’s not a matter of hoping in a car for a couple hours. I need to pay for a flight, a three and half hour flight, on an airline’s schedule. That’s life. We see each other when we can, but it is, and has always been, 2000 kilometres away.
There have been notable changes in this city in recent years. There are more flights. There are more stores. The tourism industry has really improved. There are more jobs. St. John’s, especially, is attracting more, and different businesses. One thing that hasn’t changed is that people need to live here. Money’s spent and taxes are lowered to encourage more ‘development’, but keeping this city accessible year-round doesn’t appear to have caught on as part of ‘development’. In January and February, it snows here. In March and April, it snows and slowly clears. In January and February (a little bit in December too), the snow makes the roads narrower, and makes the sidewalks non-existent. In fairness, there are sidewalks around schools and around some businesses, but if you want to, or have to walk from your house to anywhere, you’re walking on the narrow, often slippery streets with the cars. That’s the situation I find myself in, I don’t drive (due to my brain injury), but I do walk and I love walking around this town. It’s also my main/preferred mode of transport. When there are places to walk. Unfortunately, I have to take a cab, or a bus that goes primarily to the mall, for a third of the year.
I love this place, and not because it has box stores or because new, big companies have come. Every city has a couple of landmarks that are unique. I’m lucky enough to have grown up, and now live in a city that has, as its landmark, it’s geography which has permeated into a culture and attitude that make this place so special to me. I hope we’re not losing it. I hope this city doesn’t get the idea that this oil money is going to carry us through for eternity. It’s not. For the another 20 or so years, maybe, but let’s not get carried away. This is not the fault of oil or even the money that came with it. It’s about everyone who lives here. What’s forgotten in our pursuit of some imaginary utopia full of endless choice and perpetual opportunity, is that we elect a government to run the city/province/country for us, so not everyone has clean the streets, run the port, manage the sewer system and do all of the other stuff that allows a bunch of people to live in a small area. That’s where the idea of government came from. That’s the reason for it to exist. We elect people and parties, not because they bring tangible objects with them, but because we like their organization of priorities.
The priorities of this town have shifted and they’ll shift again to something else that some people won’t like and some people will. That’s how government works. Governments don’t have endless supplies of money, especially now. They (those people running government) also don’t get to keep the money they don’t spend. It goes to other priorities. Therefore, government can’t keep on encouraging further developments/expansions/attracting business by giving tax breaks or by providing other economic incentives, without cutting back in other areas. Or, they could try raising taxes, but it’s much easier to complain about government services than to help pay to make them better.
No matter the new money coming into this city now, it won’t last forever. I gave a very brief synopsis of the very recent economic times of this city, to try to bring to mind the economic cycle. There are ups, that we try to make last as long as possible, and there are downs, that we tell ourselves are only momentary. What makes this city great is that people live here. Why should it be that for a city in 2013, with a relatively new source of additional income, it’s residents are denied the freedom to go places without a car? Snow is not a new development in St. John’s. It’s always snowed here. It’s not a shock. Nor is the abrogation of responsibility of City Hall to do anything about it.
This is not a plea to City Hall to clear sidewalks, this is a reminder that a city should be accessible to its residents, for the whole year.