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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Walking the Streets of my hometown, Trenton

In the 20th century, we are turning our faces back to the waterfronts of our towns and cities. Waterfront property has high prestige and matching taxes. Communities are turning former industrial slums into community parks and walking trails. Those properties beyond repair are fenced off, too contaminated for now.
This happened slowly. For the first peoples, then the UEL's who settled the Quinte area, the Bay of Quinte and the Moira and Trent Rivers were the highway. Settlers took a generation or so before they ventured far deeper into the bush than 'the front' of their townships. Human- and wind-powered craft navigated the waters. The waters were in control, exacting their toll of human life on shoals, in storms.
location of Al Purdy's childhood home, 134 Front St. Trenton

But mankind took revenge. The welcome early water-powered grist and lumber mills were replaced by increasing numbers of factories running on coal and steam. Environmental awareness was non-existent; waste products drained into rivers and lakes - convenience and progress the bywords. Shipping expanded - sail gave way to coal-powered steam, to petroleum based fuels. Railways developed parallel to the waterways to increase transportation capacity. Industrial development continued to expand beyond nature's capacity to heal itself. Human needs for coal, for petroleum based products, for space, trumped natural beauty.Waterfronts of towns and cities became vast industrial districts as factories and foundries became larger, more powerful, more toxic. Old photos of Ontario towns show industrial wastelands, with poor people struggling to survive amid them like the willows that somehow managed to plant themselves among coal sheds, manure piles and heaps of rusting iron.

Al Purdy's Trenton of the 1920's was this kind of town. In his memoir Morning and it's Summer (MS), his autobiography Reaching for the Beaufort Sea (RBS) and his novel A Splinter in the Heart (SH) he takes the reader along on his neighbourhood walks with his grandfather, his escapades as a boy, his long distance runs as a struggling adolescent - through the very neighbourhood that I drove around last week. On a particularly raw, cold, unlovely day.

We'll start here.

The photo is the empty lot where the house once stood, where Al Purdy and his mother Eleanor moved when Al senior died in 1921 and Al was 3 or 4 years of age. The Front Street house overlooked the river. Well, not exactly. Here I quote:

"The B.W. Powers coal sheds filled nearly a whole block on the river side of our street. I watched great teams of drayhorses struggling out of the sheds, their wagons loaded with canvas bags of coal, delivered by black-faced sweating men to the town stoves and furnaces." (p. 10 MS)
"Walking the streets of my hometown, Trenton....McLean's pumpworks across the street is a ghost building, although I can still visualize its tin-covered walls...Trenton Creamery is gone; so are B.W.Powers coal sheds." (p. 27, MS)

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