Let’s bring the stores back to the Ward

December 9, 2009

Guelph Mercury, 09/12/09FromBlogGuelph

If you squint just right, you can almost see this place the way Tom Bradburn remembers it.

You’d believe the street that runs past his tiny vintage car shop at a fork in the road in Guelph’s old Ward neighbourhood used to be one happening stretch of asphalt.

From a triangle parking lot rimmed by Ontario and Arthur streets, he can point out the old burger joint, the Snow White laundromat, the bakery, butcher shop, grocery store and fish and chips spot. They’re all gone now.

Above the laundromat, the girls did the kind of dancing that only paying customers could see. Inside his own shop, long before he owned it, the men did the type of closed-door gambling that brought the police.

This was a neighbourhood with a real pulse, the kind of place where everything you needed could be had with two feet and a heartbeat. Tom, who has lived and worked here since he was five years old, remembers it well.

At some point in the passing decades, the Ward changed. Now neighbourhood grocers are boarded up. Corner stores are walled in and turned into rental units. Others are simply empty, waiting for a hopeful owner.

Just walk through this snug neighbourhood of brick homes and shuttered shops and you’ll get a glimpse of how vibrant the place used to be. But what happened to the Ward is more complicated than plant closures, changing bylaws, re-routed highways and demographic shifts. We changed, too.

Most consumers now bypass the Ward or treat it as a throughway to a larger grocery store or mall somewhere else. Those who live there hop in their cars when it’s time to buy something they need.

As Bradburn sees it from his cramped wood-paneled office, “more people are interested in going to a mall now, or a 7-11. It’s quick and convenient. In and out.”

At Sammy’s Variety, one of the few remaining convenience stores left here, co-owner Samantha Chang says she’s barely hanging on. She and a friend took over the landmark business on Elizabeth Street about a year and a half ago, and they’re still waiting on a day when they can actually pay themselves something for the time they put in keeping the place open.

To save money, they cut out lottery tickets and keep some shelves bare. And they try to do the things the big guys don’t do, like offer Italian-language newspapers for the old-timers and penny candy for the kids. They know their customers by name.

Meanwhile, the Wal-Mart on the northern edge of town is expanding. The parking lot is full. Chang says she simply can’t compete with the inventory and prices of stores like Wal-Mart and other chains. So the customers talk with their wallets, and choose to go elsewhere.

But when these kind of stores close, we lose more than just a business.

From the highest floor of City Hall, you can see the rooftops of the Ward. It’s inside this building where they’re talking a lot these days about intensification. They want denser, more walkable neighbourhoods. They’re talking about creating space for another 7,000 downtown residents. We don’t know yet where all these people will live. But maybe, with the right planning and a bit of luck, they can help bring new life to an old neighourhood. Maybe they’ll help create a new Ward where people start forgeting their car and walking again, out the door and down the block and into the corner store.

Imagine that—a neighbourhood that has everything you need, all on your street. Kind of like the one Tom Bradburn remembers.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based freelance writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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