Nfld. & Labrador

Ghosts, buried automobiles, and shuttered storefronts: A guided tour of Georgestown

Folklore students lead participants on a walking tour of the historic St. John's neighbourhood.

Residents learn about St. John's neighbourhood in walking tour led by MUN students

Participants in the Georgestown walking tour head down Hayward Avenue. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

It's a grey Saturday afternoon in St.John's and one of the city's most historic neighbourhoods is bursting with activity. 

Graduate students in the folklore department at Memorial University are in Georgestown to guide a crowd of over 60 people on a walking tour to share what they've discovered after spending the month conducting interviews and exploring the area. 

With Signal Hill and The Narrows looming in the background, Memorial University PHD Candiate Ting Ting Chen addresses the crowd. 

"None of us grew up or come from this neighbourhood, but after spending one month here, every one of us feels at home," she says.

The tour started in front of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Animated stories unearthed by the folklorists hold the audience rapt, ranging from the believable (tales of old ice cream shops and pinball halls) to the mythical (haunted houses and buried automobiles).

"I just loved how many people grew up in this neighbourhood who still have very fond memories," said Katie Crane, a Masters student in Folklore at Memorial University.

"It was really interesting to see how people interacted with the landscape and how their lives are shaped just by the streets and the laneways and the green spaces here."

The walk started outside of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist, which was consecrated in 1855, and continued through Barnes Road, Hayward Avenue, Fleming Street, and Mullock Street.

Along the way, the wide array colours on the neighbourhood's century-old homes — bright yellows, cool purples, blushing reds — provide a vibrant backdrop for the tour.

Ting Ting Chen took photos of many of the colourful homes in Georgestown and combined them to make this mosaic. There's a wide range of different colours and hues in the neighbourhood. (Submitted by Ting Ting Chen)

Changing neighbourhood

Longtime resident Elizabeth-Anne Malischewski, who has lived in the neighbourhood for 28 years, says the community is what makes Georgestown such a great place to live.

The Georgestown Neighbourhood Association, which Malischewski helps run, hosts regular community events, including an area yard sale and barbecue each summer.

"I think one of the reasons that people know each other [here] is this is a very walkable neighbourhood. Students walk to various schools, and people walk to shopping, and people walk downtown," said Malischewski.

"If you walk you meet people, and you look into people's eyes, which is not what you do when you're in a cars." 

The Georgestown Pub is known for hosting dart leagues and weekly karaoke nights. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

But there are still signs of uncertainty in the area, including worries from an aging population and some population turnover from rising gentrification, she said.

Participants on the Georgestown walking tour, including neighbourhood residents Elizabeth Oliver (centre in maroon shirt) and Elizabeth-Anne Malischewski (to Oliver's right) learn about the history of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

"I know that some elderly people are very worried for example about the tax hikes," she Malischewski.

"When the evaluation of your house keeps going up, then it can create problems for people on fixed incomes."

The increased desirability of the neighbourhood has also pushed some residents out, she said. 

In front of the Georgestown Bakery, walking tour participants learned about how the smells coming from places like the bakery, the brewery, the pub, and the coffee shop unite the people who live in the neighbourhood. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

"There used to be a fair number of boarding houses and now those houses are being completely renovated and I don't know where the people who lived in these boarding houses are going," said Malischewski​.

"I think that's a loss to our neighbourhood because a diverse neighbourhood is a more interesting and exciting neighbourhood."

Memories of old days linger

CJ Guadarrama, a graduate student from Utah, says he learned quite a bit about these changing demographics during his month studying the neighbourhood. 

"Residents of this neighbourhood have a very nostalgic and happy memory of what it once was," he said.

"There are generations of residents who live here that are sort of integrating with new residents and doing so in the best way that they can while maintaining what makes Georgestown, Georgestown."

Alyson Small, a graduate student in the folklore department at MUN, explains some of the history of Maxse Street — including the street's reputation for wild Halloween parties. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

He said decades ago the neighbourhood was comprised of a mix of Catholic and Protestant residents, and that families were likely to have as many as four or five children per household.

These days, while there are still three schools surrounding the neighbourhood, the sound of children playing in the streets is rare.

Akseli Virratvuori stands in Davies Field, a public park hidden within Georgestown between William Street and Maxse Street. He tells the crowd about a longtime rumour that two automobiles were buried underneath the field many decades ago. That might just be why there are two large bumps in the park. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

"Children grow up and move away and they don't come back," said Guadarrama

"But what remains is grandchildren who will come by on visits and still go and play in their neighbourhood. There are definitely moments, Christmas, Thanksgiving, in which you can see a lot more children around because everyone's back home."

Nadia Sarwar tells the audience about the ghost of 70 Fleming Street. The home is said to be haunted by Mrs. Hunt, who can sometimes be seen moving the rocking chair in the living room back and forth. On the front of the house is a sign that says "In 1832 on this spot nothing happened." (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Onto next generation

Elizabeth Oliver, who has lived in Georgestown for 45 years, thinks the local demographics are poised to shift again.

She believes that a lot of people who moved there years ago and renovated their houses will be looking to move again as they enter retirement.

"We're going to need to move. When you get to be 80, you don't live in a house that's got three floors," said Oliver.

Katie Crane and CJ Guadarrama were among the graduate folklore students tasked with researching Georgestown. Both said they found a lot to love about the neighbourhood, including the sense of community, and its rich history. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Already, she sees signs of what the neighbourhood might look like in the coming decades.

"I think younger middle-class people will move in and then maybe we'll get more children," she said.

"I know of five neighbours of mine who have had babies in the last year."

If you live in the same neighbourhood for a long enough time, you'll see the subtle and more obvious waves of change, and as the tour wrapped up, many residents piled into The Lantern community centre for coffee and tea.

They stayed awhile, sharing memories of what the neighbourhood was like, and tried to envision what's to come.

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