Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Don't worry, St. John's; you may not be oldest, but you've got other stuff going on

From made-up "traditions" to tearing down old buildings, St. John's is known for some dubious things beyond its age, writes Edward Riche.

Made-up 'traditions,' tearing down old buildings, fencing off the harbour ... the list goes on

The fence that cut off public access to much of St. John's harbour didn't sit well with many residents. (Gary Locke/CBC)

So St. John's is not the oldest city in North America, so Mexico City has it by a few centuries, what odds? What comes with age? Dotage, decline, dereliction.  

Look at the infrastructure; that's aged and crumbling and it is nothing to be proud of.  

St. John's city council, even its newest members, show some of the cognitive deficits that come with advanced years. No fun confronting the fact that they are a danger to themselves and those around them and someone is going to have to take away their car keys.

I wonder if St. John's has a chance of clinging to the title on the basis of demographics. It's a greying community and does little to attract or retain those noisy and restless young people. Some retirement communities in Florida or Arizona might have the City of Legends but it is worth investigating.

Maybe just stick with "City Of Legends," which — being a completely fabricated handle — is, in fact, a legend in itself. Maybe that's too "meta."  

All the same, with our love for inventing tradition, like Mummers Parades and Screech-ins, it's accurate.

Writer Edward Riche is not sold on the parade in downtown St. John's as part of the annual Mummers Festival. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

There's a case to be made that venerability was never for the capital. St. John's can't stop knocking down old heritage buildings and putting up shiny new short-lived ones.

It loathes the harbour around which the old place was founded, turning its back to it and then fencing it off. The rest of the world is opening up and making more accessible its water frontage.

Not St. John's; the harbourfront likely just reminds everyone of days gone by when fishing was the main trade. Who wants to remember how that went? Move on.

They swapped rabbits hanging in the butcher's door for Lean Cuisines at the Merrymeeting Sobeys. Fact is, this "oldest" thing was getting … well … old.

The weather? Oh, we've got that nailed

Walking in St. John's can often mean getting to know the steep streets on a close, personal basis. (CBC)

There are many other things besides age where town genuinely leads the continent. Weather. Surely St. John's is the weatheriest settlement in the new world.

The place has it all: rain, snow, wind, freezing rain, all in the same morning. Are we the slip-and-fall capital of North America? On the very day St. John's was mourning its loss of oldest city status, it was being buried in 42 cm of snow.

Celebrate that. Okay, maybe not.

St. John's drivers might be North America's worst. Listening to Maggie Gillis or Nancy Walsh reading the CBC news from my current Happy Valley–Goose Bay redoubt, I gather the Outer Ring Road is a daily death rally. Dashcam footage from Torbay 500 or the bypass are a new horror genre.

In St. John's, this Christmas I noticed that townies take the new and perfectly sensible roundabouts as an invitation to improvise rules of the road. We are a storytelling culture, so we use our indicator lights as a narrative device, telling other drivers we have made a turn.

A massive pile of snow was dumped from Water Street in front of Oliver's restaurant during a January storm. (Oliver's/Twitter)

To do so in advance, before executing the turn, would be giving away the ending.

Most St. John's motorists do not consider deterioration of road conditions a reason to slow down. Townie wheel men and women are motivated to "give 'er," to sooner be clear of the hazard in front of them. It's a singular, proactive approach that distinguishes us from the rest of the continent.

Not sure how one articulates, in the terms of achievement, the fact that metered parking seems to have stumped St. John's or that it is the only jurisdiction where meters are routinely destroyed for the change inside. "North America's Skeet Capital"?

It was time to ditch the "oldest city" and "first colony" hooey once St. John's city council started issuing that easy and meaningless land acknowledgement to a lamentably extinct people who had the sense to live elsewhere on the island. 

"Oldest city" and the current mania for "decolonization" were a terrible fit.  

"North America's Most Foolish Place" remains a claim that is unassailable. 

St. John's is the kind of city where big trucks and roundabouts don't always mix. (CBC)

More with Edward Riche

If you've enjoyed this column, you may enjoy this conversation the author had last year with On The Go about his latest novel, Today I Learned It With You. 

Edward Riche talks about his new comic novel about a dysfunctional city hall and a man who is transitioning to a deer. 7:18

In 2012, Riche spoke with The Next Chapter about his book Easy to Like. 

"Easy to Like" with author Edward Riche 15:56

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

Edward Riche


Edward Riche writes for the page, stage and screen. He lives in St. John's.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.