When my mom was growing up, St. John's was quite different than the way it is now. The west end? That would be past Patrick Street. The limits of civilization? In her day, there wasn't much past Circular Road and Empire Avenue.
Mom grew up about as far east as you can in the east end. Her family lived in a duplex (long, long gone) on Signal Hill, just below the bluff on which Cabot Tower rests. My grandfather was a telegraph operator. When the Second World War broke out, they were relocated to the city down below. The Kellys eventually settled on Cochrane Street.
A trip to the country involved trekking out to Long Pond, and through the farmland where Memorial University's campus now sits. The land near the university is now some of the most expensive real estate in the city, but at the time, there were just a few houses to be seen. Connecting roads like Torbay Road and Portugal Cove Road existed, but they were long, lonely drives.
Heck, it was almost that way when I was growing up. My wife and I were chuckling how Brown's Store on Portugal Cove Road was the last thing you'd see for ages on a drive out to the airport. Now you have to look closely for a spot that could be developed.
In our lifetime, our sense of St. John's has really changed.
Get ready, then, for another dramatic shift in the next two or three decades.
The new frontier
I was talking about this very issue a couple of months ago with Peter Gullage here in the CBC newsroom, as we were trying to imagine what St. John's will look like once a particular development — that would be "Dannystan," one of the rather irreverent nicknames that's been given to the land that former premier Danny Williams is going to be developing in the lands just south of Mount Pearl — comes into being.
"Our idea of the middle of the city," I said, "is really going to change." With it, we agreed, the very notion of where the east end is, the west end, and the centre of town.
That last point — the centre of the city — was coincidentally a topic that the St. John's Morning Show had some fun with earlier this week. Guest host John Furlong mused about where, exactly, the centre of the city might be, and when the show got the answer from city hall, it knew it had a golden opportunity to quiz the audience.
The answers rolled in, and almost all of them were not even close. Mile One Centre, one suggested. Or the Basilica. Or, my favourite, the intersection of Long's Hill and Freshwater Road, which I think would make the fish-and-chip shops in that fabled neighbourhood the proverbial centre of the universe.
The answer is not nearly so colourful.The middle (technically, it's the geographic centre) of St. John's looks like the middle of nowhere, at least for now. It's in a fairly nondescript field off Robert E. Howlett Memorial Drive, which you may know better as the Goulds bypass. It's quite near Cochrane Pond Road, if you're driving along that way. You can consult the gallery above for a good look.
This would strike many townies — including the ones who had guessed something like Cowan Heights or Topsail Road, the former being my own choice — as a mind-bender. After all, it really says something that pretty much all of what we consider St. John's is on top of the centre.
The Northeast Avalon is being filled in pretty dramatically. I lived in Paradise for 11 years, starting in 1988. During that time, Paradise changed from a little town with a country feel to a big town with a suburban feel. Conception Bay South grew even faster, with last year's census putting the C.B.S population at 24,848. (Take that, 24,284 residents of Mount Pearl.)
Personally, I think Paradise missed an opportunity years ago, to take a development path that would have been different. Driving through the town now is not a pleasure, and that's a real shame; it's congested with strip malls, wall-to-wall subdivisions and a lack of things, from trees to recreation to green space, that could have put the place on the map.
The outlying communities that hugged the coast, like Portugal Cove and Bay Bulls, also now feel like bedroom communities of an urban cluster. No one will mistake St. John's for Calgary, of course, but the oil industry that the cities share sure is changing the landscape.
Still, there's plenty of wide-open space. Well, at the moment, that is.
Look at the land assembly seen in the image above, which lays out what Danny Willliams has in mind: a $5-billion play that is so ambitious, it will take years — between 10 and 20, Williams said in December — to bring it all to fruition.
What will we see? The plan is to build subdivisions, not to mention retail (expect to see more of those so-called "power centres," featuring big box stores nestled around a common parking lot), restaurants, businesses, some light industrial space (i.e., a business park), maybe even a hotel.
I would think there would also be some public services, too, like schools. (Hopefully education officials are thinking if not actually planning ahead, so we don't wind up with another case of a school-less suburb that relies heavily on busing.)
I wouldn't be at all surprised, either, to see the provincial government decide to put the long-discussed west end hospital in this area, where land is plentiful and the Trans-Canada Highway will form one of the borders.
I also wouldn't be surprised to see the perennial issues of amalgamation flare up again and again, as the distinctions between Paradise and C.B.S. and Mount Pearl and St. John's become fuzzier and fuzzier. But that's a topic for another day, or another decade, as the case may be.
But there's no doubt that the St. John's of, say, 2030, will feel very different than than the one today — not to mention what it must be like to good townies like my mom, who marvel as it stands over how their city has changed in their time.