Last week I read something that really bothered me.  You can read it here; it’s a local writer’s thoughts on what it’s like to live here in my hometown, Peterborough, ON.

There’s lots of praise in the comment section about the way she’s evoked the city.  But I read it, and I don’t see Peterborough there at all.  I see a generic small Ontario city, coated in a thin veneer of Peterborough, just enough to give you a vague idea or a sense of homesickness. It comes across as a sweet small town, a quiet, idyllic backwater that overwrought Torontonians can fantasize about retreating to.*  The writer and I live a few kilometers away from one another, but what it’s like for me, living here, is a completely different thing.

Our house is in the old north end, on the edge of the student ghetto. It’s half-way up the hill, sometimes called Smith Town Hill.  Our neighborhood is full of century homes in a mix of conditions, a part of town that just won’t gentrify.  Your bike gets stolen from your front porch.  But even the neglected homes have a a fading respectability and grace; those whose owners care for and love their homes have a neighborly comfort and beauty.  Bastions of community in an area where absentee landlords own too much, these homeowners refuse to pack it in and move to an easier, ‘nicer’ part of town.  Maybe they can’t afford it, or maybe they feel the way I do, but I think they’re fighting the good fight, keeping heritage buildings and the old north end livable.

Petty crime is high here, but I always feel really safe.  I walk alone a lot, and often late at night, but I always feel that help is within call.  Students are up until the wee hours, and there are a lot of eyes on the street at any time of day.  From our front windows, you can see out over the old parts of the city: the Quaker Oats factory,  East City rising from the river, Armour Hill. And from our house, you can walk pretty much everywhere.

If you wander downhill and over to George Street, you’ll find Garden 579, a lot that lay vacant for years before a community garden project asked the landlord for permission to use the space. There are community gardens all over town, all a part of the Peterborough Community Garden Network, but Garden 579 has a place in my heart because it’s not merely that wonderful thing, an urban greenspace, but also a gathering place and a labour of love.  Hosting potlucks and open jams, workshops and community feasts, it’s a place where even the most marginalized can feel welcome. You can see the work that they’ve done with few resources, the decorative and useful things that they’ve created to make the lot more than just a garden.

If you keep walking east, you can take the London Street footbridge over the river and into the park that once was a rail yard. On the banks of the mighty Otonabee, there’s an island where you can wade out into the river or relax in the shade.  It’s not obvious from the Rotary Trail, but it’s not exactly a secret, and it’s one of the most beautiful spots in the city to spend a sultry Summer afternoon, basking in the gentle breeze off of the water.

There’s a myth about Peterborough, that just like Rome we were built on seven hills (I can only think of three that might count). When you start poking around, there are plenty of local myths, legends, and stories – the midnight ride of Red Dog Ray, the witch-burning on Armour Hill, the ghost in the basement of the Purple Rooster.  Local historians pay them no mind or dismiss them as nonsense, but I like them; our oral culture is stuck on these stories, and since we keep repeating them, they must mean something to us.

I’ve heard it said that back in the days when it was called “The Electric City” (because, when electricity was new and expensive, Peterborough had it in spades), it was also a thriving centre of the sex trade (something that never seems to make it into the tourism brochures or panegyrics on local historical figures).  Those second and third floors of the downtown heritage buildings are full of long, narrow rooms with peeling wallpaper that seem to evoke late-19th-century brothels in my mind.  If you start paying attention to the history of what’s now the Entertainment District, you’ll find that a lot of those buildings were hotels with saloons on the ground floor.  The last hold-outs from those heady days of the ‘Gay Nineties‘ (1890s, that is) are The Red Dog Tavern, The White House Hotel, and The Montreal House,  all seedy dives to greater or lesser degrees, all with their own charms.**

I’ve climbed those stairs to the studios on upper floors downtown – solid, well-built stairs to cold rooms where artists paint and musicians rehearse under bare bulbs.  I’ve set myself down on a grubby futon and passed a bottle of wine from hand to hand with friends in the dark of night.  You can hear the city hum while the windows rattle and shake with passing traffic, and the odd drunken student goes woohooing away up the street below.

When you step outside, sometimes the air smells like maple syrup and oatmeal cookies, and sometimes it smells like candy.  That’s Quaker Oats, the factory on the river.  When you smell that delicious air, you should stop and give a quiet sigh of thanks that we’re an oatmeal town rather than a pulp and paper town.
On my way to work, I walk by the Victorian-Industrial architecture of the Canadian General Electric Corporation and its neighborhood, an area I’m becoming increasingly interested in.  Both of my grandfathers worked there; half of the city’s grandfathers worked there.

I love our old neighborhoods.  I’ve watched and worked over 20 years as the arts community, the student population, and our oddly passionate city bureaucrats have transformed a dying heritage area full of bingo parlours and dollar stores into the thriving heart of the city once again.

Down on Lansdowne, you can get every generic experience you’re looking for.  You’re in Anytown.  There’s the mall recently updated to look even less like anywhere in particular, and the big box stores, and the crap chain restaurants and fast food and the comforting monotony of sameness.  There’s nothing Peterborough down there, except for the Saturday Farmer’s Market, and hockey and lacrosse (at which we, as a city, excel most years).  I’ve walked those store aisles until I’ve forgotten a little of who I am and where I was.

One Winter night I stood in the falling snow in my backyard and heard faintly through the snow-muffled air the sound of the clocktower striking eight.
One Summer night I was walking home up the hill, and all at once there was a chorus of windchimes from every porch, though the air was still and close.

From my house on the hill, it’s a fifteen minute walk to some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, made by real chefs who are passionately, feverishly concerned about their food.  There’s great live music, terminally underpriced, and theatre, terminally over-acted.  There’s a distinct visual tradition here, an artistic style that impresses me with its depth and humanity.  There’s The Market Hall, under the clock tower, with acoustics so lovely that being in the theatre is a joy whether on stage or in the audience.

Our Mayors bluster and fuss, our arts community praises itself until all critical thought is treason, and our best and our brightest can’t afford to live here and put food on the table. I won’t deny that Peterborough has problems.  Often enough I’m furious, or sad, or just sick to death of this little town, sometimes so small-minded and petty.

But there’s a magic here too, one that’s kept me here despite my best intentions, one that draws people back when they move away.
No one really wonders why I stay.

* I take issue with a lot of things in her article, but the one that sticks out for me is this idea that there are Hell’s Angels in our Santa Claus parade.  I missed this year’s parade, but I suspect she’s talking about the Peterborough Harley riders float. Do these pictures from the 2009 Santa Claus parade look like an organized crime syndicate?

**I’ve never had time to do any concrete research, but it’s something I’ve always been curious about.  If anyone can point me towards more information about Ptbo’s less official histories, I’d be glad to talk to you!

*** I’ve used a lot of other people’s photos as well as my own in this article; please hover your mouse over the images for the photo credit, and click for the original.  They’re great photographers, and you should check out more of their photos!

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18 Responses to I guess I do like it here.

  1. Well done, Candace! I had the same response to that article when it was circulated via facebook last week. We miss the grit of Peterborough…and it’s ghosts. (Who are real! Just ask Lee!)

  2. Candace says:

    Thank you! My sister and I had a full-on grouch session about it over breakfast one morning.
    I would love to hear Ptbo ghost stories!

  3. Niki Higgs says:

    I think my favourite ghost is the jumper on the river-side of Quaker Oats.

  4. Wyatt Lamoureux says:

    Nicely and eloquently put, Candace. This is the Pbro I’ve seen in my short ten(!) years here. I mean, really, how can you write about this town and not mention the smell of Quaker Oats? Well done.

  5. Chris Jones says:

    Very well written Candace! This is more like the Peterborough I know. Throw in the odd broken store-front window that some angry drunk smashed in a fit of rage and it’d be perfect! Nice work!

  6. Candace says:

    Ooooh, tell me more! Would that be a ghost related to the Quaker Oats fire 100+ years ago?

  7. Dennis Glenn says:

    Very good article Candace!
    I couldn’t agree more about generic Lansdowne St. and ‘crap’ chain restaurants.
    Although, this is a scurge effecting most, if not all, North American cities.

    I too would love to hear ANY Peterborough ghost stories.

  8. Melanie says:

    Well said! I live in the thick of the student ghetto and get funny looks when I tell people I love my ‘hood. Nothing hides here. The ugly is all out in the open and I too feel safe here. Being carless, we can get to everywhere from here easily. My sprogs earned and learned their independence here – I’m not sure a different community would have fostered that the way Peterborough does.

  9. Paul C says:

    Hey C, Nice article, but I was a little taken aback by the section on Garden 579. Has it been re-opened? I know that due to one person complaining that the landlord decided to remove his permission for FNB to use the space this past fall. It would be awesome if it were coming back though!

  10. Candace says:

    Hey Paul,
    I hadn’t heard about 579 closing until this afternoon, and I hadn’t heard it was a complaint-based closure (I was away or busy most of the Fall). If that is the case, that sucks! Is there something we can do about it?

  11. Chris Watson says:

    I’ve been away for a decade, and the thing that I miss the most is walking home on a clear winter’s night down the greenbelt, the polystyrene sound of dry snow, and the hum and malty smell of Quaker Oats.

  12. Liane says:

    Hey Candace

    I really enjoyed reading this, thank you. Two things. The ghost in the basement of the Rooster? DEFINITELY not just a story. My little brother worked at (and later managed) the Rooster/2nd Floor lounge for many years. He even lived upstairs for the last bit, and he has quite a few odd stories… Sean used to be the kinda guy who didn’t believe in ‘that sort of nonsense’ but, hey… experiences change people’s ways of thinking. You should talk to him sometime.

    The other thing – my Daddy has mentioned often since my childhood about how he learned that Peterborough is ‘the only other city built on seven hills, like Rome’. Just a few weeks ago I found myself wanting to learn more about that. Unfortunately when I asked, Dad doesn’t know how to reach the elderly Peterborough archivist who mentioned this to him so many years ago. But, here’s the hills I came up with – what do you think?

    Baker Hill
    Tower Hill
    Park Hill
    Armour Hill
    Smith Town Hill
    Corrigan Hill
    Murray Hill

    I miss living in Peterborough sometimes. Thanks again for a great post.

    Cheers,
    Liane

  13. Ernie says:

    Hi Candace!

    This was a great read and a wonderful description of the Patch. I take issue with one thing though….how you took use of some of the photos without permission. I clicked on just one of the photos and noticed that the Flikr page clearly says “all rights reserved” and then I see your post telling the photographer that “I hope you don’t mind but I used your photo…” . You asked permission after the fact on a photo which was marked as “all rights reserved??

    As someone with great knowledge of the arts community that is an unforgivable mistake. The rights and value of all artists (especially photographers) have been trampled upon and devalued continually thanks to the internet. People have a general attitude of “it’s on the web so it must be ok to take it”. Please do not use photographs without permission again, it damages your credibility.

    Other than that, it was a great read.

    E

  14. Steve Guthrie says:

    Great Article Candace! You should come on one of our Trent Valley Archives Ghost Walks this summer. We cover a lot of ground (and ghost stories) but there are more out there than we can include. And on most walks, we end up hearing about more ghosts! The latest I heard was about the children who drowned in Jackson’s creek at the James Hamilton Foundry where Jackson creek retirement home stands today. Apparently, there are several places in the area, including the old St Peter’s school where you can hear children laughing and playing.
    Steve

  15. Candace says:

    Hey Steve,
    Thanks so much! I’m actually volunteering to lead the Eerie Ashburnham ghost walk twice in July, and I’m hoping to be involved with the Little Lake Cemetery tours in October. I can’t wait!
    Candace

  16. Candace says:

    Hey Ernie,
    I understand your position, but I think that in this case, the rules are lagging behind the times. None of the photographers whose photos I used had any problem with it, and some even thanked me. By linking to them and notifying each of them that I’d used their photos, I think I did the responsible thing; most people online just take your pictures and use them without credit.
    I understand, as a writer and photographer, that anything I post online can (and will) be taken, re-posted, left without context or credit, or given another person’s credit. It’s the danger of using the Internet. I think being responsible, notifying the photographer and linking to them (and taking down the image if requested) is good enough, and I think it’s something in practice that people recognize.
    Thanks for your comments,
    Candace

  17. Cara says:

    Great article. Although, I thought the other article was great too. I am torn. I am currently selling my house in Oshawa (a city that also has vastly different views, depending on which part of town you live in), and am contemplating moving to Peterborough. I have lots of friends that have grown up there. I can’t decide if I want to move there. The first article made me fall in love with the city. Your article made me want to run away and not make the transition. Not that you made the city sound bad, but you definitely made it seem like it’s not worth the move, and that it would be a step backwards.

    I was all excited yesterday, looking forward to the move. Now I want to re-evaluate our plans.

  18. Candace says:

    Hi Cara,
    That’s a funny response! I guess it depends on what you’re looking for; if you want to shop in the same shops that you can get to in any city, the big box stores and Costcos and all that, you can definitely do that in Ptbo. If you want to experience real culture, you can do that in Ptbo, too. But if you’re really interested in generic things, it’s probably better to move to a Toronto suburb like Etobicoke or maybe Markham or North york; it sounds like that might be more your speed.

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