I have an appreciation for scar tissue

No, I am not a particularly big fan of David Cronenburg.

It’s just that I like communities that have gone through tough times and came out the other end even stronger. There is kind of a grittiness and toughness that you would never see in a community that has never felt any real collective stress.

Consider Pittsburgh.

I am now reading a biography of Andrew Mellon – one of the original robber barons – and one of the wealthiest men in the world – then (and even compared to current times when you look at wealth as a percentage of the national economy).

PS – I had to stop reading the Richard Florida book. I felt my brains melting and dribbling out my ear. It felt like reading a hybrid of a David Foot, Tony Robbins and David Lee Roth. Some people think he’s a genius but, if so, he’s over my head.

But I digress.

Mellon’s grandfather actually came to Pennsylvania via Saint John, New Brunswick. It would be interesting to see what might have happened if all the people that started in Saint John actually stayed in Saint John.

Anyway back to Pittsburgh. It was the epicentre for industrial America for close to a hundred years from the early 19th to the early 20th century. It spawned many of the country’s wealthiest men and had serious environmental challenges long before Al Gore. But times changed and it slowly fell from influence and prosperity.

In the words of the great philospher Def Leppard – It’s better to burn out than to fade away. True for them, at least, but maybe true for communities as well. A few years ago I visited a town in Quebec on the road to Labrador that had literally razed. The mill or mine that was there was taken out of production and the whole town taken down piece by piece. All that remains is the foundations of the buildings and the grown over streets. But there is a certain elegance to that. Sink or swim, I guess.

But Pittsburgh is making a comeback. Richard Florida seem to like picking on the city in his books but I like what I am seeing there. I’ll have to get down and visit one of these days.

Saint John has a little Pittsburgh in her and maybe that is why I have always had a soft spot for the Port City. She was never as large but in her heyday around the time of Confederation, Saint John was as big as Halifax, Detroit and Baltimore (population). She was a major port and a key stop on the shipping routes. She was also the hub of trade between the Maritimes and New England. But along came Confederation and reoriented trade east-west in Canada. The national railway was put in as was the St. Lawrence Seaway and that marginalized SJ even more over time. Again, the slow burn – not the flashy exit. Even in the early 20th century, Saint John was easily the most dominant urban area in New Brunswick and still a fairly major player.

So it was quite sad for me to see Saint John actually slip into population decline in the last couple of Census periods. At the county level, the Saint John population today is about the same as in the 1950s.

And, of course, from an economic development perspective, as goes your most dominant urban centre, so goes your province. In order for New Brunswick to get back on the economic rails, we need a strong and prosperous Saint John.

Like Pittsburgh, I think that Saint John will make a strong comeback. These things take time – decades – generations sometime. But we are starting to rethink historical trade routes again. We are starting to rethink our industrial development policies. We are starting to understand the importance of our urban areas. People are actually thinking about roads, rail and ports and the long term impact of these assets to a province’s economic development.

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0 Responses to I have an appreciation for scar tissue

  1. mikel says:

    That’s just embarrassing, I’ve stuck up for you plenty of times, but attributing a Neil Young quote from 1979 to Def Leppard is worthy of being tarred and feathered in my book!

    Pittsburgh is actually past its renaissance and has started to slip once again. It’s resurgence was in the nineties, when property taxes and the wealthiest people and corporations were sinking heavy duty money into it. There was massive beautification programs going on there and a lot of community development ideas.

    That’s a lesson for St.John, if you don’t tax the wealthy, you have to count on their largesse. The Irvings haven’t exactly been great tenants, and their latest contribution, a la U2, will do little for the harbourfront except advertise their affluence and give some construction workers some longer jobs before they leave.

    It’s worth noting that much of the reason that people always continued their sojourn to the states was its history of grassroots democracy. There was tons of corruption and stuff like that, but anybody that spends time in the US will quickly note its grassroots civic activism. In Canada those types of development are always tied into a top down bureaucracy that also had lots of corruption-but also has serious binds on development models.