John Crosbie says he hardly recognizes his own city anymore.
The province’s lieutenant-governor says St. John’s has boomed so much, sections of it are sometimes unfamiliar to him.
“It’s astounding to drive around. Sometimes I just can’t recognize the areas I’m driving through,” he says, describing such boundary-busting developments as the new subdivisions and big box store district off Kenmount Road.
Crosbie grew up in St. John’s and served as deputy mayor for a short time in the mid-1960s before his storied provincial and federal political careers.
In another five to 10 years, he expects the metro area to be even more unrecognizable.
“There's tremendous building pressure all around St. John’s,” Crosbie said, adding the market makes it hard for young people to get a start in life.
“It’s hard to get a piece of land at a reasonable, moderate price,” he said.
But he said many people don’t seem to want bargains, showing little hesitancy in spending on large upmarket homes, as opposed to “a nice, comfortable place.”
“The market for it has no signs of slowing down,” he said.
Crosbie’s current borrowed residence, of course, is the sprawling Government House on Military Road, with its spacious 20 acres of grounds.
It borders Circular Road, where grand homes were built more than 100 years ago when wealthy families had servants, and also raised large families.
But Crosbie can remember a time when those homes fell out of favour and were going for $15,000-$16,000 in the decades after the Second World War when St. John’s residences were spilling out to modern new subdivisions, like Churchill Park and beyond.
Crosbie’s family lived on Water Street in early years, and then moved to Rennie’s Mill Road when a relative passed away. Bannerman Park, Military Road and the area around the Newfoundland Hotel comprised the city’s east end — an incredible notion today when the east edge of development is miles away at Stavanger Drive.
He recalled his wife, Jane, lived in a rural area — Burton’s Pond, now the site of a group of Memorial University residences.
“She walked to school every day to St. John’s,” Crosbie said.
The crossroads at Waterford Bridge Road and Old Topsail Road was once the edge of Ward 2 Coun. Frank Galgay’s world.
He grew up in the 1940s and ’50s in the modest working-class neighbourhood around Victoria Park — his father was a merchant seaman and longshoreman.
“I remember Joe Smallwood speaking in the back of a truck with a megaphone on McKay, two streets up from the park,” said Galgay, as he sat on a bench in the park where he played as a boy.
Smallwood was hawking Confederation with Canada.
The park of Galgay’s childhood was teeming with kids every day, and featured water cascades and a natural swimming pool by Tooton’s, a longtime photographic studio.
While he describes the neighbourhood, the park is empty until a small group of children in an organized recreational program arrive.
But in Galgay’s day, play was freestyle games of ball between swimming in the crowded pool; picnicking families filled the park on weekends. Bowring Park was out in the country.
The area around Victoria Park was surrounded by boot and nail factories, the railroad yard, corner stores and small shops that have gone by the wayside. A strong sense of community, centred on church, school and neighbourhoods, that has been lost among the urban sprawl, he said.
“It’s more impersonal now. Some people never even get to know their neighbours,” he said.
Kilbride and the Goulds were also country areas, and farmland belonging to families such as the O’Briens and Gullivers ringed the city, Galgay said.
In the 1970s and ’80s, developments pushed out to Cowan Heights in the west and MacDonald Drive in the east, he said.
In 1970, Galgay bought a home in a brand new subdivision in the northeast of St. John’s, between Ennis Avenue and Logy Bay Road.
Some of the migration has come full circle — in the 1990s, the downtown residential and commercial areas enjoyed a resurgence that is now spreading to the centre of the city — around St. Clare’s Hospital. But measured by the spread of development, the area is no longer central.
One of the most out-of-place throwbacks is the moniker “west end” fire station on LeMarchant Road by the corner of Bennett Avenue.
“I didn’t anticipate in my wildest dreams the changes and developments that have taken place in St. John’s,” Galgay said.
Crosbie noted the oil and gas industry’s economic effects on the Avalon Peninsula has put growth pressures on communities surrounding St. John’s.
He said when he bought 20 acres of pond-front land for just thousands of dollars in the 1960s in Portugal Cove, most people used such properties as summer homes. Now, elaborate year-round homes command several hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He said the concern now is such areas getting overbuilt.
Crosbie said that driving around rural Newfoundland over the past few years as lieutenant-governor, the interest in rural development is also evident, especially as people from outside discover the sea vistas.