This small city, on the north shore of the Bay of Fundy, is struggling to survive. Fortunately, it is as tenacious as the tide. It might not be here at all if Samuel de Champlain hadn’t been passing through on St John the Baptist Day in 1604. Then the Loyalists came, and even the passing centuries and waves of immigrants – from places as diverse as Ireland, Vietnam & Syria – have not completely managed to erase the city’s starchy Britishness.
Proud Edwardian homes line stately streets radiating out from the city centre, where stalwart brick establishments – which once sold dresses, furniture, sandwiches and other sundries – serve small batch beer and upscale coffee. A predictable sprawl of suburban neighbourhoods mark the city boundaries on three sides (the fourth being the sea). But if you turn left instead of right, just here, or you follow untamed roads lining the broad river (that empties tumultuously into the harbour through treacherous rapids at low tide and then reverses direction with nearly as much gusto at high tide), you will find another city composed of fading wood frame houses that have seen too many winters, many perched on rocky outcrops that would daunt any modern developer.
This is a city of contrasts, of wealth and poverty, of opportunity and apathy, of growth and decline, steeped and in many ways stuck in history. An underlying resentment simmers within many deep-rooted residents, expressed as a certainty that nothing will ever be as good as it once was. When the glory days occurred is up for debate, but the economic downturn could be traced back to the turn of the century, when steam had supplanted sail, and industry, people and prosperity all packed their bags and moved to Upper Canada.
Like many Maritimers, I moved to Upper Canada as well, looking for something more than the few opportunities available at home, wanting a taste of big-city life and independence. I lived in Ontario for nearly 20 years before I came home. Yes, home.
There is something about this city that gets under your skin. It could be the salt air or the fog, the small-town friendliness or the historic heart, or it might just be the familiarity of the particular spaces that became mine while I was growing up, especially the wild places where I wandered, and wrote bad poetry, and learned how to listen to my heart.
I’ve been back in this city for nearly 10 years now and I cannot imagine wanting to make my home anywhere else. That doesn’t mean I don’t plan to leave – I hope to travel and explore for many years yet – but this is where I will return, the place of my heart. This is Saint John.