something old, something new

jellybean row

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

of place and memory

the tire swing

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.

*Joe Carter
++ “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

the front porch

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.

o king

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

forever blue

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

red barn

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