I was back in my hometown -- London, Ontario -- this week for a couple of days. I'd rented a car and had an hour to spare so I decided to drive back to the neighbourhood of my youth. Cliche, I know. But I did it, thinking it would be the same sleepy, quiet hollow it was for the decade or more that I lived there. But instead i ran into community concern over buildings and bridges .... Read on.
Living near the Core of London, Ontario
My early years were spent living near the core of London, Ontario, first on one side of the Thames River high on a hill overlooking the river in a post WW-II era apartment complex with tons of kids.
When I was six, we moved to Moir Street on the other side of the Thames River, living first in one one house (left picture). It was a rough personal transition crossing the river ... a six-year-old yanked from a living situation with dozens of kids (and even kid 'gangs') ... to just me, sitting forlornly on the steps of a new house, the only six-year old on a street of older, retired folks who rocked on their front porches every evening and worried about the lively family of 5, then 6, who moved in and took over the little street. Apparently I went into such a black funk that my mother brought some of my playmates from the apartment complex to visit and to help me adapt. Poor me.
A few years later, we moved next door to a larger house on Moir Street (pictured, right side of photo below). It was larger to accommodate a larger family, had a garage and even an apple tree in the backyard.
Once acclimated, I thrived on Moir Street, making new friends and exploring the neighbourhood. It didn't have a formal name then but, to me, it had defined boundaries that formed a square -- busy streets that I couldn't cross on three sides of the square (Wharncliffe, Dundas and Oxford) and the river and Blackfriars Bridge bridge on the fourth side.
The warren of tiny streets and narrow alleys was my safety zone, a playground where I walked, biked, skipped and roller skated. The houses ranged from rundown, deserted wrecks (we were convinced some were 'haunted') to Victorian relics from the early days of Ontario history to well-manicured boxy bungalows and two-storied homes.
The neighbourhood is also shaped like a bowl. We lived at the bottom of the bowl in what were once the flood plains for the Thames River. In fact, the area had been flooded twice in the past century before the Springbank Dam was built and a breakwater constructed along the sides of the river (in picture, left).
By the time we moved in, the area was flood-free, and I used the breakwater walls for climbing practice in the summer months.
As I drove up and down the little streets last week, I was struck by signs dotting nearly every lawn: "We love Blackfriars! Build homes, not boxes". Hmmm... what's going on I wondered?
A bit of research turned up facts I hadn't known: the area of my youth was known as 'Petersville', named after one of the original London families. In recent years, it has become known as Blackfriars Community, to honour the century-old Blackfriars bridge spanning the river.
The signs were there to protest development plans for three houses (like the one pictured left) to tear down the single-family homes and erect 10-bedroom rental duplexes designed for students. Rumour is that the area would go from a family to a student community.
Organizing and lobbying by community residents have halted those development plans (at least for now). Letters to the editor and petitions to City Council urge the City to maintain the density ratios and historic character of the area. So far, City Council has agreed with them, and, in fact, has fast-tracked an application to make the area -- now formally known as Blackfriars -- a 'heritage conservation district' which would in effect provide the sought-after protection.
I kept going, hoping to drive over the old Blackfriars Bridge that I remembered as the fourth side of my 'square' world. Blackfriars Bridge is located, wait for it, at 0 Blackfriars Lane.
In my early years, the bridge both fascinated me as an idyllic wonder (like the painting, right) over the river and scared me with the clackety-clack of vehicles on the wooden boards.
Alas, there was no nostalgic trip over it this time. The road was barricaded with signs announcing it was 'closed due to construction'. Not even foot traffic.
Back to a little more digging. I was surprised to learn that it was built in 1875 and is now 138 years old, if my math is correct. It is one of only 19 wrought-iron bridges remaining in North America and one of the few still permitting vehicular traffic. No wonder it now recognized as a London landmark, with a heritage designation!
The bridge was closed to vehicles earlier this year for maintenance, apparently just one of a string of ongoing repairs to maintain the structure.
Ominously, the City is also considering its future and an expensive structural inspection will likely determine its fate. Community residents are watching closely for the options that Council may recommend, ranging from a pedestrian-only to more hardier repairs to support traffic.
Hopefully, there won't be a dumb decision to have it look like its namesake in London, UK that also crosses the Thames River. Personally, I find the UK version of Blackfriars Bridge pictured right to be pretty ugly. Give me iron quaintness anytime!