While I live and work in the Greater Toronto Area — in beautiful Burlington, a town that we love and have adopted as our home — my origins were in the humble, working-class town of St. Thomas, Ontario. With a population of 33,000, St. Thomas’ claim to fame, oddly, remains that it was the place where Jumbo the elephant was killed by a passing train in 1885. I remember being a kid in the town when they decided to further celebrate this infamy. After much debating, they ordered a statue at the grand cost of $50,000, holding a parade to celebrate its arrival.
For years the speculation raged about which high school football team would paint the elephant pink first,though I can’t recall it ever actually happening. Strangely, the elephant’s rear is pointed at one of the main roads coming into town.
As St. Thomas is located just a couple of hours down the highway from here (15 minutes South of London, which is another town that my wife and I lived in for several years. Thus far we’ve remained Ontarians, although Calgary has oft enticed us), we still visit regularly to see friends and family, and did so this weekend to celebrate my son’s first birthday. Thanks for hosting it, Michelle. Hopefully you don’t find green-icing anywhere unexpected.
Visiting St. Thomas
I took a couple of pictures of St. Thomas, usually while one or both of my children slept in the backseat.These were generally taken out of the car window, or with my son in my arms, so manage expectations accordingly. Most were taken very early on Sunday morning, after my son decided to wake up at 5:30am, and then promptly fell asleep the moment we left for a coffeerun.
The relatively early hour explains the dearth of activity in the city (after a summertime all-night game of Empire during my mid-teens, my friends and I would hop on our bikes and ride down the center of the main street right after sunrise. It was surreal having no other human anywhere in sight).
A Great Stomping Grounds
Growing up in St. Thomas, at least in the pre-teenage years, was fantastic, though I didn’t appreciate it as much then: The city hosts numerous natural areas, most with significant elevation features. One great area was, and probably still is, affectionately known as “suicide” because of its narrow, ultra-steep trails, bordered by countless head-cracking trees. Nothing matched the exhileration of wailing down one on an old, brakeless BMX bike, relying on the perfectly applied use of one’s foot in the front wheel forks for any stopping power…hoping to avoid locking the wheel and catapulting head-first through the air. Another youth delight was courtesy of the railroad history of the town: an extensive networks of train tracks and train bridges crisscrossing the town. These railroad networks were the sneaker highway, the fossil searching grounds, and playground.The bridges were the source of many unintentional Stand By Me re-enactments (or rather pre-enactments).
A Tale of an Industrial Town
The general feel of the core of St. Thomas is of a somewhat decayed, almost US rust-belt type town, which makes sense given that it saw the same boom-bust cycle of those US towns: After the geographical happen-chance boom of railway faded, the city relied heavily upon the automotive industry (the vulnerable
St. Thomas Ford Assembly Plant sits nearby, and many supply firms were located in St. Thomas). This reliance on one of the most vulnerable sectors of the economy meant that every economic cycle was greatly amplified: The smallest economic blip meant automotive industry shutdowns that reverberated through every industry in the town. During every downturn St. Thomas usually hosts an unemployment rate far above the average. The general demeanor of the town was often of paranoia and fear-mongering, with the long predicted closing of the Ford plant being the primary worry for years on end. The general attitude was often one of being impotent bit-players, awaiting the moves of some far-off business executive to cast one’s life asunder.
Throughout the town, gorgeous old turn-of-the-20th-century brick houses have been slashed into numerous apartments, and/or are falling apart due to neglect. Much of the city’s retail space sits empty, or full of very low-end retailers (e.g. dollar stores). Other areas of retail have seen a resurgence (such as the building of a new retail complex featuring a new Walmart, Canadian Tire,among many others).
Resurgence as a Suburb
In other parts of the town, old houses are starting to be reclaimed and rejuvenated, and new subdivisions are sprouting up. St. Thomas is becoming a suburb of London. Amazing to consider this — when I was a kid in this town, London was some far off mythical place that one only ventured to under extreme conditions. Now it’s rightly a short commute, and some wise Londoners are getting a steal for some structurally sound, beautiful old houses in St. Thomas’ core, or in very well planned new subdivisions.
Nonetheless, St. Thomas’ industrial roots still show through. The town has far more big-old-pickups per capita than anywhere — often featuring the name of the driver and his S.O. stenciled on the doors — and smoking is far more prevalent than you find in the GTA. Owing to its automotive history, the town has an extraordinarily high prevalence of so-called “domestic” makes, with Hondas and Toyotas being a very rare sight (something I never noticed until we invited a friend to a get together in St. Thomas. He asked if he should worry about his Accord getting vandalized. The concept seemed alien to me, but looking around I was amazed to realize that probably 99% of cars on the road were of the “big 3”. Here in Burlington, I doubt the big 3 account for more than 50%). During a great breakfast at a local restaurant, I overheard a conversation that brought back flashbacks of why I was so desperate to leave the town as a teenager: A group was debating who was a “Chevy Person” and who was a “Ford Person”. When I was a youth, such inane conversations, and bizarre corporate loyalties, accounted for most conversation, and sales were brisk of “Calvin urinating on the opposing camps corporate allegiance”. This was the St. Thomas version of crips and bloods.
The Clarity of Distance (Time and Space)
The dearth of real opportunity, coupled with too much inane chatter (such as car brand allegiances) had me fleeing St. Thomas at the first opportunity, but looking at it now I’ve grown a fondness for it, warts and all.
EDIT 2016-09-24 – I’ve watched St. Thomas from afar, and of course many friends and family members still live there, and while a lot has changed since this was first written (Tito is no longer in Pinafore, Waterworks no longer has a pool, and the Ford assembly plant closed down), most still holds true.
Nonetheless, the town has a certain draw. Given that my wife is in a very mobile career (healthcare), and I’m primarily a remote software developer, the idea of relocating to St Thomas is an appealing one. To give an idea of the motivation — the appreciation on our current house in Burlington alone could outright, 100% pay off a rather nice, 5 bedroom home in St. Thomas, and let us launch forward in a new, debt free lifestyle.
It is an idea that appeals to me.