This streetscape is one of Saint John’s treasures. The group of “jellybean” buildings are c.1860 Second Empire row houses with sophisticated carved window and door surrounds. They are colourful and quaint, old and attractive. They remind us the time when most buildings in the city centre were wood, and the fact that most burnt in the Great Fire of 1877.
A few steps down the street in either direction are modern office buildings, brick and concrete, glass and steel. They house scores of office workers, shops and businesses. They are tall enough to command a view across the city. They are not particularly notable as architecture and do not attract tourists, but they are also a vital part of the city.
The beautifully painted row houses are now locally famous because a citizen’s group lobbied — successfully — to save them from the wrecking ball. The city was concerned that they were decrepit and needed the land to build a new office building. Over time, the old wooden buildings became more expensive to maintain, and the new concrete buildings became easier to construct.
The question is always one of balance, between a city’s historic heart and its economic vitality, between something old — to keep us rooted, and something new — to give us wings.
Photo taken on January 20, 2011
Memory works in mysterious ways. We can’t remember what we ate for breakfast yesterday, but we can remember who hit the final home run for the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1992 World Series*. I occasionally forget my phone number, but I have never forgotten the phone number sung by Stompin’ Tom Connors in the radio ad for PEI++. Childhood memories are the strongest of all.
I’ve been thinking about memory lately because I’m helping my dad with his memoirs, which he would like to have published in some form. The most interesting part of his life story (in my opinion) is the period between school and marriage, when he had many adventures and met the love of his life. But in order to get to this story, a good third of what he has written is about his childhood — home and family, boats and cows, fishing and stamp collecting, school teachers and neighbours. The sights and smells of those early days are still so fresh to him, but more recent years run into each other, their details blurred.
And it’s not just the debilitation that comes with age, because I’ve begun to realize my memories are the same. The memory of hurts and high points from my youngest years are stronger than those in more recent times. I can walk around my parents’ back yard and say with absolute certainty: here is where I fell and cut my hand on the broken bottles; here is where I found Trixie; here is where my dad hung the swing; here is where I hid and cried for my mother to find me. Whatever happens between age 6 and 16 is written in stone; anything after that is malleable, edited or erased by the passage of time.
++ “eight-double-zero, five six five, seven four two one…”
Photo taken on November 1, 2010
There’s no question of reconciliation. The siding is different, the doors are different, the steps are on different levels. The colours clash, the decorative details don’t match, the parking signs don’t even agree. Yet here we are: two neighbours with adjoining walls, sharing the same side of the street, the same views from the front steps, the same noises and cooking smells. Maybe it’s important to maintain some difference, and keep our separate ways, separate.
Taken on May 7, 2009
Yesterday the wind switched direction, blowing strongly from the south. It was a relaxing wind, warm and full of dreams. But it felt like fall. Last night I went out and talked sternly to my tomatoes, still green and undersized. My feet were cold in their sandals. This morning at 6 am it was still dark, only a hint of blue in the east. I can feel the change coming, the nearness of autumn, the breath of snow on the air. No, it’s too early, I cry… but I know in my heart that I cannot stop the seasons any more than I can make those tomatoes grow faster. So I am spending as much time as I can outdoors, basking in the last of the summer sun, trying to store it deep in my bones to last through the winter.
This parking garage in the North End has a lot of doors. The blue paint is peeling and the hinges are rusty. You can see how the wood is worn along the edges where the water has seeped in over time. There is a “no parking” sign, half missing. And Christmas icicle lights hang from the edge of the roofline. It has been there as long as anyone can remember. Even if you don’t remember, it will be there.
Taken on April 22, 2010
Yesterday, when we drove by this church in Black River, just outside Saint John, the sky was cloudy and fog was gathering in the creek valley down the road. On the day I took this photo last year, it was a perfect early summer day. We were heading back to town, driving with the windows down and enjoying the fresh salt breeze off the Bay of Fundy, when we saw this little country church. It may be true that travelling via the winding roads and small communities is much slower than taking the highway, but the views are much better!
Taken on June 7, 2009
Much of New Brunswick is still wild, and that which is not heavily forested is farmed. As you drive along the river valleys, you can see fertile fields, dairy cows, apple orchards, hay bales, barns. Living in the city, it’s easy to forget that we can enjoy our urban lifestyle only because the settlers came before us, clearing and plowing and farming the land. It’s easy to forget the hunters and trappers, fishers and loggers, collecting food, furs, timber and masts for the explorers and travellers along our shores. It’s easy to forget the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) peoples who named and befriended this part of the country, and taught the newcomers how to survive. Today, on Canada Day, I remember.
Taken on June 8, 2009
If I lived here, I would plant flowers along the walkway, heaps of waving cosmos and clumps of cheerful pinks. I would have a glass jug of fresh lemonade in the refrigerator, with lemon slices to make the lemony taste last when the ice cubes melt. I would keep stacks of old magazines and cookbooks in the enclosed porch, and an old couch for catnaps on hot summer days. I would walk out into the garden in bare feet, my toes delighting in the cool grass, and return with sprigs of basil, parsley and lemon verbena. I would sit on the step at the side door on warm evenings, and look up at the sky, and dream.
Taken on June 15, 2010
Sometimes it helps to start with the bones. When the light is wrong or the colour distracting, look for the bones. Reduce the image to light and shadow, line and form, and you will see the essential structure appear, the bones which give shape and rhythm to the whole. This solitary building at the side of the road has strong bones. Whenever I go by I look up at it and wonder about its origins. I think it was once a coachhouse; I imagine prancing horses and proud carriages passing by. And now it is a place of memories, a place with strong bones.
Taken on June 15, 2010
Windows are eyes — they reveal and conceal, look outwards and in. The graffiti scrawled on the window panes caught my eye first. Then I saw the sign, leaning conversationally against the inside of the glass, which says: “Never mind the dog, beware of owner.” The paint is past peeling, the wood is worn and rotting at the joins. There is no barrier, no tidy garden or grassy verge between this house and the sidewalk. At first glance, the prospects seem bleak for the inhabitants of this tired house in the old North End. But there is more to the picture. Look the other direction: eyes are windows. See the bright blue sky and lush vegetation. See how life thrives wherever there is light and air and water. Look both ways before you judge this street.
Taken on May 22, 2010
These cedar shakes are the cat’s meow when it comes to siding. Cedar has a natural preservative and lasts a long time. It is local and plentiful, and environmentally friendly. But like any other type of wood siding, it requires upkeep. Many of the older frame houses have held on to their vintage wood, although vinyl is gradually covering the city. Vinyl siding is lovely to look at, at least for the first 20 years, but what happens after that? Houses aren’t being built to last 100 years any more, either — I’d be surprised if the new ones last longer than 50. They don’t build houses like they used to.
Taken on May 6, 2010
Imagine a city without trees, where concrete and tar turn apartment blocks into ovens. Imagine a city without sky, where you can’t tell the weather without watching TV. Imagine a city where parking lots are the only parks, where pigeons are the only birds, where everyone spends their whole lives indoors. Now stop. Look out your closest window: do you see a tree? Do you see sky or something green and alive? Good. Now turn off your computer, go outside and play.
Taken on June 21, 2009
There are times when distractions fall away and all you see is line and colour, shadow and light. At other times, a face catches at you, a brief glimpse of an unguarded look, eyes with wordless need. When I see this little girl, watching from her tower window, I wonder is she lonely? Or does she prefer her detached view of the world, where we are always on the other side of the glass.
Taken on May 22, 2010
When I lived in Ontario, I missed the fog. There was smog, yes, but it’s not the same. The fog has life to it. It moves and hunkers down, opens up and closes in. It creeps up from the cold Bay of Fundy, cooling the air, muffling the sound of traffic, softening the shadows. It can move surprisingly quickly, slipping into town the moment you’ve turned your back. I always knew, growing up here, that a day at the beach is not complete without a sweater, because you never knew when the fog would come in.
Taken on May 31, 2009
I remember it was raining. I was walking with my camera, with the lens cap off and my finger on the shutter release, taking random photos along the street. Then I stopped and looked up. I had been wanting to capture an image of this building, but I was puzzled how to show its size. Then I realized that it doesn’t matter, that the building has a petite charm all its own, a perfectly balanced sense of itself. So in the end, I didn’t have to do anything except take the photo, and smile at my yellow rain jacket dimly reflected in the window.
Taken on May 7, 2009
Bigger is not better. More stuff does not equal more happiness. Life is a process of trying new experiences and sorting, always sorting. Our responsibility is simple: we must separate the good from the bad, to cherish that which enriches our lives, and let the rest fall away. We must open our hands to receive, and to let go, and repeat until our hearts burst, until we can say: this tree, this view through the window, this sky, this is enough.
Taken on April 25, 2010
There is a ruggedness about parts of the city that appeals to my Maritime heart. There’s something about the way the old houses cling to outcrops of bare rock that expresses the stubborn tenacity that is part of life here. There’s sadness here, but also strength, and the two qualities spring from the same source, the same history, the same foundation.
Taken on May 22, 2010
The North End is one of the oldest parts of town. This once-thriving community is struggling to find its heart again, drawing on its collective memory and its history of surviving tough times.
Taken on May 22, 2010