Last week I read something that really bothered me. Â 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. Â But I read it, and I don’t see Peterborough there at all. Â 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.* Â 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. Â Our neighborhood is full of century homes in a mix of conditions, a part of town that just won’t gentrify. Â Your bike gets stolen from your front porch. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â I walk alone a lot, and often late at night, but I always feel that help is within call. Â Students are up until the wee hours, and there are a lot of eyes on the street at any time of day. Â From our front windows, you can see out over the old parts of the city: the Quaker Oats factory, Â 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 thatÂ wonderfulÂ thing, an urban greenspace, but also a gathering place and a labour of love. Â 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. Â It’s not obvious fromÂ theÂ 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. Â 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 itÂ intoÂ the tourism brochures or panegyrics on local historical figures). Â 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.Â Â 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. Â 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, Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â That’s Quaker Oats, the factory on the river. Â 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. Â Both of my grandfathers worked there; half of the city’s grandfathers worked there.
I love our old neighborhoods. Â I’ve watched and workedÂ overÂ 20 years as the arts community, the student population, and our oddly passionate cityÂ 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 everyÂ genericÂ experience you’re looking for. Â You’re in Anytown. Â 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. Â 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). Â 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. Â There’s great live music, terminally underpriced, and theatre, terminally over-acted. Â There’s a distinct visual tradition here, an artistic style that impresses me with its depth and humanity. Â 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. Â 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. Â I missed this year’s parade, but I suspect she’s talking about the Peterborough Harley riders float. Do these pictures fromÂ theÂ 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. Â 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. Â They’re great photographers, and you should check out more of their photos!