Town mouse, country mouse

Peter
Peter Jackson
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When I was a youngster in the late 1960s, my parents bought a house in St. Joseph's, St. Mary's Bay. It wasn't a big community at the time: houses lined a mile or so of oceanside road, along with a couple of shops and a proud, wooden church at the turnoff leading into the town.

That church served as a landmark for the first couple of summers - and part of one school year - that we spent in St. Joseph's. It was white with green trim, and had a small, Romanesque dome on top.

When I was a youngster in the late 1960s, my parents bought a house in St. Joseph's, St. Mary's Bay. It wasn't a big community at the time: houses lined a mile or so of oceanside road, along with a couple of shops and a proud, wooden church at the turnoff leading into the town.

That church served as a landmark for the first couple of summers - and part of one school year - that we spent in St. Joseph's. It was white with green trim, and had a small, Romanesque dome on top.

Within a few years, the church was falling apart, and the town council was looking for a solution. A few residents - particularly some non-native livyers - were keen on seeing the old structure saved. But the council said no, it was too impractical, and the church was torn down. A nondescript-modern replacement was built on the other side of the road.

I was not quite in my teens in the early '70s, but I distinctly remember how many aspects of this rural community differed from the romanticized ideal which was all the rage at the time.

In St. John's, folklorists and musicians were busily reviving old Newfoundland cultural and musical traditions, travelling around the outports in an attempt to capture the raw essence of rural existence. They learned about mummering and boil-ups and subsistence farming, and they listened to singers and accordionists. Then they brought it all back to the lecture halls and pubs of St. John's.

I remember this movement quite well, and I also remember the dichotomy between it and the culture I came to know in St. Joseph's.

You'd see a few quaint, wooden dwellings and sheep on the streets. You'd also see a lot of vinyl siding and modern cars and TVs. The general store smelled of tar and molasses, but was mostly filled with modern goods and hardware.

In that post-hippie era, romantics and academics were flocking to the bays and inlets of Newfoundland to "rediscover" their rural roots. Meanwhile, many of the locals were busy modernizing their lives.

Almost every friend I had in St. Joseph's longed to get away from there. When we all grew up, many of them did. I would run into them on the streets of St. John's and on the university campus.

I've spent a fair bit of time in both rural and urban areas of this province since then, and I think I've learned not to stereotype the kind of people who live in both. I enjoy a quiet dinner party with fine wine and friends, but there's nothing like a time up at the cabin or out in the shed. People everywhere have all sorts of tastes and preferences, and most like to explore and adopt other customs as well as share their own.

But the stereotyping continues.

For the past dozen years, my wife and I have lived in the wonderful community of Portugal Cove-St. Philip's. And, like many fellow residents, we've been distraught to see politics in our town reduced to a not-so-low roar of bickering, litigation and investigation.

The problem is more complicated than many suggest. It's not just about a slate of "elitist" candidates sweeping into power and supposedly acting like dictators. It's not just about one or two loose-cannon councillors relentlessly throwing wrenches into the works. It's not just about muffler shops and hotdog stands.

It is, unfortunately, very much about a perceived cultural divide - a sort of town mouse, country mouse syndrome. That sentiment came across loud and clear in a Sept. 12 letter to The Telegram by Portugal Cove resident Randy Burry.

The author urged people to "take back their rural community" from the "small, self-important, elitist group" who only cares about "those with whom they are closely associated." No one, he said, is looking out for the "ordinary citizens."

The coalition/anti-coalition situation in the town is a quagmire few want to wade into. It's hard to know how widespread it really is, but a nasty polarization has emerged over the past four years, and that is a tragedy, because common goals and values are being lost in all the pro- and anti-coalition rhetoric.

Views like Mr. Burry's are uncharacteristically parochial, and do little to solve the town's problems. He raises the spectre of a class system where none exists.

What's needed is less confrontation and more communication. And communicating includes listening.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. He can be reached at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: St. John's, Newfoundland, Portugal Cove

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