Monday, May 30, 2011

The Forest City or how London took a negative and made it into a positive.

Some quibble over whether or not London can call itself  The Forest City.

The London Free Press is running a series "about figuring out who we are as a city." The paper sees this as "a  difficult but worthy task."

As part of the series, the paper looked at the possibility of rebranding London. According to the reporter doing the majority of the writing: "(The Forest City) means little outside London. Never heard of it before I came here and is so generic it describes nothing. Plus it’s not true." (As you can see by my photo, blurting out "it's not true" is a little extreme, but admittedly London could do better.)

Once I would have readily agreed with the reporter but having lived in London for more than three decades I have come around. The Forest City name has a long history; It goes back more than a century with roots deep in the early years of our southwestern Ontario city. The city has a trademark tree logo which they stick everywhere. Talk about branding.

The London tree symbol on the roundabout/overpass at Hale and Trafalgar.
What do the numbers say about London and trees?
  • Estimated number of trees in London: 4.4 million (source: The London Free Press)
  • Number of trees per London resident: 12 (source: The London Free Press)
  • Forest City's approximate woodland cover: 24.7% (March 2011 report)
  • Species of trees growing on City-owned land: 120 (City of London)

When the paper recently interviewed some Londoners, one of the participants in the panel discussion said:

When I'm in a different town I notice — they don't have the mature core or, like, where's the trees?

We are The Forest City, of course, and you notice that when you're not in The Forest City that we really do have a beautiful downtown. And I've noticed that with family that come into town. They say, "Look at the trees. I can't believe there's trees down all these streets and it's gorgeous."

London has lots of pastures and farmland on its outer edges.
I'm surprised that the woodland cover for London hits 24.7 percent. London contains a lot of farmland and pasture. I'd have thought that all the open land would have dragged down the city's coverage number.

In Ontario, London has a larger tree canopy than Brampton, Kitchener, Mississauga and Toronto. When it comes to cities in the States, the London coverage is just below the American average. Clearly we can do better but we aren't bringing up the rear with our tree coverage numbers either.

Oh well, I prefer to believe my eyes. This city has a lot of trees: Tall trees, twisted trees, green trees, red trees, flowering trees, broad-leafed trees, evergreen trees . . .

The Forest City: It's a beautiful name for a beautiful city.

Tall trees, twisted trees, green trees, red trees, flowering trees . . .

* Check the numbers. We are a Forest City!

One last thing on branding: It was pointed out to the local paper that no one this blogger spoke with in Brighton & Hove, England, knows a thing about the rebranding of Hove with the snooty "Hove, actually."

Even reporters at the local paper in Brighton & Hove say it never happened. "Hove, actually" is still interpreted as somewhat snooty and uppity and better left unsaid, unless you laugh as you say it. You must make your humorous intent clear or risk coming across as an upper-class-wannabe twit.

In defence of the paper's story the reporter said: "The point was how Hove took a negative and made it a positive." But Hove didn't! London did! In the beginning The Forest City label was not said as a compliment but over the intervening years London successfully put a new spin on those words and now owns them.

The Forest City was once home to a Canadian version of a Carolinian Forest.

Hove to, actually

The London Free Press is pushing the benefits of branding to successfully market a city or a town. As an example of successful branding the paper is using Hove, England. The paper tells us visitors to the area often confused Hove with its larger and very close neighbour, Brighton.

"Oh, you live in Brighton," the visitor would say. The Hove resident would invariably reply, "Yes, well, Hove, actually." That phrase - Hove, actually - became the town's brand and identity. At least that's the story according to The Free Press. It's a good story, but possibly not so true today.

The paper based its report on an interview with Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at the Schulich school of business at York University. Middleton grew up in Brighton with his parents who later moved to neighbouring Hove. The paper could not have picked a better source to gain insight into the branding of Hove.

Still, I questioned some of the stuff in the story. For instance, why does the movie Love Actually enter into this discussion? Why would a film that has nothing to do with the little coastal town give the branding phrase a bit of a pop? Not one person I contacted in my investigation saw any connection between the Hove response and the romantic-comedy set in London.

I decided I must contact Alan Middleton. He was very gracious and answered my e-mail immediately. He wrote: "the basis for the phrase had nothing to do with the movie (no idea where that reference came from)."

My guess is that the reporter asked Mr. Middleton a question linking the movie and the Hove phrase. Mr. Middleton being very gracious simply made a reply based on the reporter's question. When I worked at the paper I watched many a skillful reporter coax supporting quotes from an unsuspecting people during interviews.

Randy Richmond, the London Free Press reporter, has argued that London, Ontario, would benefit from a rebranding exercise. London needs to find a clear identity and boldly brand itself. Of course, this would be an official branding exercise. Was this ever done in Hove? Mr. Middleton told me he didn't know whether the phrase 'Hove, actually' was ever used officially. It did appear on a postcards, he said.

Using the Internet and social media, I was able to talk directly with people living in the Hove area. I asked them about the success of the phrase "Hove, actually" in promoting the small, English city. I was told the phrase is not used to promote the area. The response carried, and still does, a bit of nasty "we're better than they are" baggage.

I talked by phone with senior reporter Anna Roberts at The Argus, a newspaper in the area. She made it clear to me that today Hove is no longer a town or a city but simply part of the English coastal town of Brighton & Hove — the two communities effectively merged in 1997.

When asked about the use of the phrase "Hove, actually" in the sense of branding, neither she nor anyone else in The Argus newsroom could recall any official use of the phrase. When read the part of The London Free Press story referring to Hove she said emphatically, "That's not true." When I brought the movie Love Actually into our conversation, she was puzzled. Contrary to what was reported in The Free Press, the "Hove, actually" phrase got no boost from the movie, she said.

Today there is a free monthly paper that reflects today's municipal reality and usurps yesterday's separatist catch phrase. It's the Brighton & Hove Actually monthly community and business directory .

I received an e-mail from Ruth Allsop, marketing officer for Brighton & Hove. She confirmed that the phrase is not part of a branding initiative but "a bit of an in-joke among residents" who see Hove as being slightly more up market than Brighton. Allsop assured me that "this isn't the case."

Today, if the area has an official branding phrase, it's "London-By-The-Sea", a name that goes back some two and a half centuries according to the Capture Project launched by Eurotowns in 2004. This is a network of 19 towns and cities from 11 EU countries formed to stimulate the economic development of its members, with a particular focus on the knowledge economy. Through their membership the Brighton & Hove City Council aims to expand the knowledge economy and create better local jobs. Today, the twin city is an important educational centre with two universities and many English language schools.

Actually by Brighton artist Amanda Taylor.
I was also able to reach Brighton & Hove area artist Amanda Taylor who has a Website Illustrious Brighton showcasing her work:


"I live in Brighton and both my mother and daughter live in different parts of Hove. We've all moved here within the last 4 years.

I had no idea that Hove had tried to use the 'Hove, actually' phrase officially. So I guess the public attempt at branding, as you call it, has been abandoned.

But it is a phrase used all the time. I guess it started along the lines of  'Do you live in Brighton?' 'No, Hove actually.'

We are joined now . . . Brighton and Hove needed to merge . . . the larger community has both areas bringing their strengths to the table."

She confirmed that the 'Hove, actually' response is felt by many to be tainted by a tone of aloofness, of superiority. Another person told me it is always best to follow the phrase with a laugh to ensure not being misunderstood.

Oh well, Brighton & Hove are at least booming through the global economic downturn: Right? Wrong! You see, despite the glowing story in The London Free Press about attracting employment through branding, The Brighton and Hove Free Press reported last December:

"Unemployment remains a key issue in Brighton & Hove:

A new report from the Office of National Statistics shows unemployment levels in Brighton & Hove are the highest in the country, with four people unemployed for every job vacancy in the city."

For rebranding purposes, the phrase "Hove, actually" appears to be dead in the water; Hove to, actually, you might say.

Hove to: a sailing term indicating a boat's sails have been set in such a manner that the boat is no longer sailing forward, it is no longer making headway; It is almost stopped, drifting sideways.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Forest City: A rich past of fading memories

Brightly painted metal trees decorate the downtown of the Forest City.

A few Saturdays back, we learned when The London Free Press reporter Randy Richmond was a boy, his father felt too comfortable living in London and so he uprooted his family and moved everyone to Hamilton. Apparently Richmond's dad found Hamilton properly uncomfortable.

Richmond, not sharing his father's enthusiasm for discomfort, retraced his father's footsteps and returned to London. He believed he was moving to a "white-collar, life insurance, banking, university town." When he repeated his "white-collar" schtick for the editors at the paper, they corrected him: "You're wrong. London is a blue-collar, hard-driving, automotive town."

Richmond and the editors at The Free Press were both right and wrong. Yes, London is a white-collar town, but it is also a blue-collar community and this white/blue dichotomy has been London for more than a century.

Like the mythical elephant examined by a team of blind men, cities are big, complex and the impression they make depends upon one's perspective. Like that mythical elephant, whose parts add up to one strong beast, London's mix of white-collar business and blue-collar industry added up to an economically resilient urban powerhouse.

When a recession hit Canada in 1982, I recall folk saying and The Free Press reporting, that London was better positioned than many other communities to ride out a recession. That great, local economic mix gave London both resistance and resilience. It was said London resisted sliding into the ultimate depths of a recession while bouncing back quickly at the end of an economic downturn.

This is no longer true. London's  economic muscle has atrophied over the passing years. This past recession, possibly the worst to hit North America since the Great Depression, walloped this city especially hard.

What has occurred in London is not unique. Cities right across North America have suffered similarly. Change is not unexpected, yet it is not always anticipated. In fact, the changes that have frayed the economic fabric of London over the past decades are encouraged by our economic system. And make no mistake, plant closures are part of our present system. In researching this post I discovered one big player in the closing of a once major Canadian manufacturer is celebrated on a government website. Despite the job losses with which he is connected, he is seen by some in government as a Canadian hero. I'd say more, but I don't need the potential hassle.

McClary/GSW: The plant in London, Ontario.
No one should be surprised to learn that a business started in London in 1847 by John McClary had much of its final chapter written in Mexico, in China and deep in the executive offices of giant American multinationals: General Electric and A.O. Smith.

The loss of the London McClary operation was not just a London story. The business approach that doomed the London operation has rippled across the country and tainted succeeding year. Thousands of Canadian workers have been adversely affected and many Canadian cities. London is not alone. This is a nation, a global story and not just a local one.

In 1927, six Canadian companies, including the McClary Manufacturing Co., joined forces to form General Steel Wares Inc. or GSW. McClary, the oldest concern in the GSW enterprise, flourished for decades under the GSW umbrella.

Yet in the '70s, the large McClary/GSW plant on Adelaide Street closed and was demolished with production moving to Hamilton under the Camco name. Camco stood for Canadian Appliance Manufacturing Company. GSW was a minority shareholder in Camco, controlling 20 percent of the stock, while GE Canada was the majority shareholder in Camco, the largest maker of home appliances in Canada.

The unholy union of these two unequal partners, GE and GSW, was tense. I believe the first legal action taken by GSW against partner GE was filed in 1992. It was later settled out of court but another litigation was started by GSW in late 2000.

Despite its size and the apparent financial muscle behind it, Camco faced problems. In 2004 Camco closed its Hamilton plant with the loss of 800 jobs. The reason for the closure? GE moved its refrigerator production to China, according to the CBC.

A year later, Camco was taken private by Controladora Mabe S.A., Latin America's biggest manufacturer of home appliances. Interestingly, GE reportedly owned 48 percent of the Mexican company. Camco Inc. was delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange.

When the Camco deal was being put together, GSW announced it was reviewing the fairness of the Mabe offer for Camco. According to the Globe and Mail, the review was no surprise as John Barford, the chairman of GSW, claimed that in the past GE has not done enough to help Camco prosper. GE's treatment of minority shareholders in the Camco operation had often been mired deep in a legal dispute. With this latest acquistion, more litigation appeared to be in the wind.

But a year later, GSW was itself  the object of a takeover play by A.O. Smith, the giant Milwaukee, WI, based water heater manufacturer. At the time, GSW employed more than 1,700 people in Canada and the United States.

The GSW name lingers on today but the rich range of products and thousands of Canadian jobs associated with those letters has disappeared. In 2013, A.O. Smith closed the GSW water heater plant in Fergus, Ontario, leaving 350 workers unemployed and their pensions in question. GSW water heaters are still sold in Lowes but the units are no longer made in Canada.

Lots of workers, not only those in Fergus, Ontario, were left with serious concerns for their pensions as all this wheeling and dealing unfolded. In August, 2014, Mabe Canada declared bankruptcy leaving hundreds of Canadian pensioners and workers with under funded pensions. Read: GE and Mabe Screw Canada.

After the announcement, the Régie des rentes du Québec took over the provisional administration of the Mabe Canada pension plan. 1600 workers were affected. One is left to wonder how the executives, those workers at the top of the business food chain, made out.

In writing this blog, I've learned businesses are often not simply shuttered and closed but purchased, merged, downsized and hollowed out of value, with every action often accompanied by layoffs and buyouts as once-successful-business are downsized to oblivion. The downward spiral can be unbelievably complex with outcomes devastating to both communities and workers. Consider the following list of companies:

  • McCormick bakery, founded in London in 1858, closed by Beta Brands in 2008
  • London Life, founded in London in 1874, taken over by The Great-West Life in 1997
  • The London Free Press, founded in London in 1852, bought by Sun Media in 1997, subsequently bought by Quebecor Media Inc.
  • Canada Trust, with London roots going back to 1872, taken over by the TD Bank Financial Group in 2000
  • Labatt Brewery, founded in London in 1847, is now part of the global producer AB InBev. The purchase of Labatt resulted in job losses outside London but, for the moment, the home plant appears safe. But, with the owner of the brewery on another continent, there are no guarantees.

The old Hole Proof Hosiery building with its yarn drying tower.

There are lots more names in London's past but many departed London decades ago. Their London connection has faded from most folk's memories: Carling Brewery, Hole Proof Hosiery, Imperial Oil, Perrin Bakery, Ruggles Motor Truck, all fall into this category.

This Dundas St. E. building once housed Ruggles Motor Truck.

I met a developer at a recent downtown improvement meeting who said the most important ingredient for improving a downtown or a whole city is jobs. Jobs mean money and money means being able to afford a better city. No jobs and no money doesn't mean shelving all city improvements but it does make the job far more difficult.


A classic yellow brick London home.
Randy Richmond has waxed poetic about The Brick this week. It's a nice piece, accompanied by a short bit of video. It's worth a look if you've got the time. But, as you might expect, the brick does not symbolize for me what it does for Richmond.

For me, the London yellow brick mentioned by Richmond symbolizes the loss of local answers to our urban needs. Once London had numerous brickyards with working kilns pumping out thousands of yellow bricks. All that's left from that time is Brick Street. The brick makers are gone.

When the Adam Beck home on Richmond Street above Oxford Street was moved and rebuilt, replacement yellow brick had to be brought in from the deep south of the United States. It was impossible to find enough good, local, yellow brick for even one home.

It's true that after London's great fires in the 1840s, yellow brick replaced wood in the construction of new housing. But wood made a comeback and locally-made yellow brick dropped from sight. The development of balloon framing using less lumber, going up faster and requiring less skilled labour rang the death knell of the solid brick home.

By the time the Westmount subdivision was built by the Sifton family, true brick homes were history. All the homes in Westmount, and subsequent new neighbourhoods in London, are wood frame construction with platform framing replacing the older balloon framing method. Brick is only a veneer in new homes. It is non-load bearing. This is why homes can be totally brick on the front, facing the street, and only partially brick on the other sides with the second floor often sheathed with vinyl.

Modern townhouses in the Westmount subdivison. Very little brick was used.

And many of the bricks today are not only not made from London clay, they are not made from clay at all. Often bricks used today in London are concrete. Even the bricks denoting a Sifton home are not clay bricks.

Homes today are brick veneer, vinyl sided, paneled with material to imitate wood siding or stucco but under the skin all homes are wood. Despite the great fires of the 1840s, behind the veneers, homes today are wood.

The lumber no longer comes from The Forest City. The clay brick plants are gone. Even London's vinyl siding factory, Vytec, has closed.

Vytec, founded in 1962 by London businessperson Andy Spriet was owned by the French manufacturing giant Saint Gobain at the time the plant was closed. According to The London Free Press, Terry Off, Vytec president, said:

"They will take production to the U.S. I was watching the faces of workers when the announcement was made. It was heartbreaking."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Seeking a creative city? Think Kabul, Afghanistan.

When I read the description of London, Ontario, in my local paper, I was appalled. According to The London Free Press my city is dull and boring. Just the descriptive words one wants associated with one's city. These are not the descriptive words to post on the Internet for the world to find on googling London, Ontario. Nice work, Free Press.

I decided to do some googling to discover what the world finds when they google boring cities and stuff like that. Surprise, my search didn't lead to London, Ontario. But it did lead to:

  • Waterloo, ON — "This city is boring, has awful weather and worse food."
  • Orange County, CA (San Francisco, Long Beach) — "Depressingly boring"
  • New York, NY — "Overrated, boring place, just left of rural Alabama"
  • Catalina, CA — "No points of interest . . . you can walk it all in under 20 minutes"
  • Miami, FL — "Another lifeless boring place"
  • Albany, NY — "The most boring place in the world"
  • Phoenix, AZ — "The most boring large city in America"
  • Hamilton, ON — "If you thought Mississauga was boring, this place is worse — "

Gosh, what a surprise. I found folk bad mouthing Hamilton. Who would have thought? The father of The London Free Press reporter Randy Richmond fled to Hamilton when he could not take another boring day in London according to Randy Richmond, the reporter who wrote the London is boring story.

Heck, if some folk find Hamilton boring, why go on with this search? Clearly, the number of places that have been called dull and boring must be just about infinite.

Still, if boring puts London, Ontario, in the company of places like New York and San Francisco, what company do we keep if we become a Creative City as The London Free Press suggested in another story? Answer: Try Kabul!

Yes, that's right. A few years ago Newsweek featured eight creative cities in a piece looking at The World's New Culture Meccas. Kabul, Afghanistan, made the cut along with Tijuana, Newcastle/Gateshead, Marseilles, Cape Town, Zhongguancun, Antwerp and Austin. The BBC agree that these eight cities are "the world's new culture meccas."

So, if you don't like boredom, don't move to Hamilton like Randy Richmond's dad, move to Kabul. No boredom. Guaranteed.

This weekend, end of May, 2016, the paper ran another hatchet job on London. This one was penned by Larry Cornies: Safe, average London: Canada's wallflower.

This afternoon I took my six-year-old granddaughter to see the Cirque du Soleil show Toruk: The First Flight at Budweiser Gardens in downtown London. During intermission I had a short chat with a lady taking the seventh inning stretch. I asked her if she had read the Larry Cornies' piece on the city in The London Free Press. He called the city Canada's wallflower, I told her. "Oh," she said and shook her head to indicate "No." She explained, "I don't take the paper. I find it dull and boring."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Suburbs are a state of mind.

American suburban life has influenced the Canadian perception of suburbia.
Randy Richmond, The London Free Press reporter out to discover London Ontario's soul, has a blog called Urban sub. Striving for interaction with his London followers, Richmond has a page encouraging readers to: Ask me anything. I took him up on his request and asked the following:

"How do you define a suburb? I think of suburbs as distant places, involving long commutes to work. If I walk does that mean I do not live in the suburbs? I have walked from The Free Press to my London home; I often biked to the paper in 15 minutes. You live in the city, Randy. You live in a newer neighbourhood but little different from many older ones. I think you live in London, not a suburb of London."

Randy replied quickly and in some detail:

"Hey, thanks for the question.

I think suburbs are defined by their nature, not their distance from the city core. (My drive in rush hour is about 20 minutes. * People in Byron have about a 30 minute drive. That is getting to commuter status.)
Suburbs are traditionally laid out in a non-grid road pattern, with dead ends and crescents, with wider lots, garages for each home. In general, they don’t have a shopping core such as a downtown or Wortley Village has. There’s a sense in a suburb, right or wrong, of having streets with less traffic, wider lawns, more space, more community parks, shopping centres, bigger but a bit blander of everything.

Having said all that, in London, a lot of suburbs do have some qualities of village neighbourhoods and even the downtown.  You are right about that.

As well, not all the suburbs in London are the same. Westmount was built with the idea of having services close by to everyone. Oakridge seems a little more like the suburbs of the 1960s, where everyone had to drive. Some of the newer ones seem a little like that as well.

In some ways, I guess, suburbs is a state of mind."

First, you have to admit that Randy gave a good answer to my question. When he says, "In some ways, I guess, suburbs is a state of mind," he may be onto something. He is certainly onto something when it comes to London.

In the somewhat distant past suburbs were the residential, bedroom communities lying outside the city limits. They were bedroom communities for the big, urban centres. Living in the suburbs was often cheaper than living in the city proper as the homes had neither city water nor city sewage. Septic tanks were the norm and can still be found in some distant outlying developments. (There are still a few homes inside the London city boundaries that retain their original septic tank systems.)

My original London home sat near the Forks of the Thames and my mother, who lived with me at the time, used to walk to Simpsons and Eatons in the city core. I thought I lived downtown, technically I lived in London West as downtown ended at the river, it certainly wasn't a suburban home, but a 102 years earlier that area had been the municipality of Petersville, a London suburb.

Byron, where I live now, was a separate community until it and the surrounding land was annexed in 1961. My entire neighbourhood was built decades later. One could argue my home is not suburban; It has always been in London. My neighbourhood is not a bedroom community and never has been. I have city water, city sewage and I pay city property taxes, yet almost everyone agrees that I live in a suburb. Yes, Randy is right, "suburbs is a state of mind."

Wider lawns and more space is often more myth than reality.
Until relatively recently, garage-forward houses jammed onto to narrow lots were relatively rare in London, except in the pages of The London Free Press. The local paper carried a lot of stories about suburbia that sounded far more like a description of life in Pickering, Markham or Mississauga rather than Byron or Masonville.

I used to argue this with the former editor-in-chief Paul Berton, even backing up my arguments with pictures as evidence, but to no avail. The mythological suburb was too deeply etched into his consciousness. As Randy said, "There’s a sense in a suburb, right or wrong, of . . . "

Newspaper all too often report the sense, even though it is wrong, rather than reporting the reality.

* [I figure 15 minutes gets me from my home in Byron to the paper. My wife who worked near the paper said it never took her more than 20 minutes to make the trip. Byron is getting to be a big place and I figure there might be some distant spots where the residents are 30 minutes from downtown but I cannot imagine that there are many spots like that. I used to drive the local news editor home occasionally and he can confirm that it never took me half an hour to get him home, not even with a requested stop at Tim's.]

Monday, May 16, 2011

The thing of it is, it isn't true.

Five tracks level crossing in downtown San Diego.
As I have said before, Randy Richmond is a poet. On Friday he posted almost a poem, The Thing of It Is, a visual and verbal ode to the rail system dividing London and messing with its traffic patterns. He tells us, "Only small towns have downtown railway crossings." 

Huh? Where do these ideas come from? Level crossing are not uncommon in even very large cities.

Last summer I spent six weeks bumping across the United States and Canada in my old British roadster. Morgan roadsters have a notoriously hard ride. I joke my 43-year-old car still has its original shocks because the damn suspension doesn't do any work.

When I'm doing extra bumping, such as when I'm bumping over level crossings, I notice. And I noticed lots of them in both large cities and small towns. And I cursed every single one of them.

Even a well maintained 5 track crossing, such as the one I found using Google Street Views, can be a teeth jarring experience for a Morgan driver. And where exactly is this level crossing? Why, it's in downtown San Diego, California. Not exactly a small, boring, backwater of a place. (Photo at top of post.)

Note how Montreal's Ave. Clanranald is broken by a rail line.
With 53 level crossings, London actually may have earned some bragging rights. Unlike many, many towns and cities, I haven't checked this thoroughly, but from the high number it seems possible that London boldly builds level crossings rather than simply allowing train tracks to cut streets in two.

Roundabout/Overpass: Amazing, innovative but that's London.
And as Randy mentions, London just built a new overpass and it's a $16.3 million doozy. This baby is an amazing, innovative solution to a decades old traffic snafu at the intersection of Hale Street, Trafalgar Road and the CN tracks. The City of London floated a roundabout above the main CN Rail lines into London. Wow!

Have you ever seen anything like this? In North America, how many roundabouts are also overpasses? Even naysayers like me have to admit it's a pretty cool solution.

(In the interest of accuracy, I must say lots of places have done away with many of their level crossings or, like Brantford Ontario, never have had them at all on certain major roads. Admittedly, there is tension between railroad right-of-ways and the city streets they cross, but it is not a problem unique to London.)

Level crossing are common in Windsor, a city two hours west of London.

Who's London? The London Free Press examines The Forest City.

London, The Forest City, as seen from my Bryon home.
The London Free Press is running a series, Who's London, and reporter Randy Richmond is putting this Southwestern Ontario city under the journalistic microscope. He is out to discover the "city’s identity, or lack of identity."

Richmond has a blog, Urban Sub, on Tumblr where he tells us:
"Every workday morning, I leave the suburbs and cross the river to the downtown, where I write stories for the newspaper."

I'm not sure where Richmond lives today but when he started at The Free Press I took his picture posed in his London neighbourhood in the western part of the city. Back then Richmond lived about seven kilometres from work, or a few minutes by car from the paper. I could walk from Randy's home to The Free Press, given the time, he lives that close to work.

Since moving back to London, Richmond says he finds London dull, just as his father did before him. His dad was "a little too comfortable in London." He uprooted his young family and moved to Hamilton. I don't know if his dad found Hamilton suitably uncomfortable but maybe he did; He stayed.

I enjoy reading Richmond's stuff, but he's often more of poet than journalist. His words in that first story got me thinking about suburbs and how one defines them. I have often felt Richmond has a love/hate relationship with suburbs and I have wondered why he lives in what he thinks of as a suburb.

Richmond's Urban sub blog invites his readers to Ask me anything, and so I did. I asked: "Why do you live in the 'suburbs' and not downtown?" Here is his reply:

"Space, bit of nature, and a comfort zone.
Got three kids who like to run around the yards and the street they live on.
Needless to say, I needed space for them and for me to escape from them from time to time.
I grew up in the suburbs of a small town. (A strange thing in itself.)
I have lived in downtown neighbourhoods and felt a bit cramped. That’s just me though.
I know I will be tempted by a downtown condo when I get older."

What a great reply. Very honest. And now I know why I am often at odds with Richmond when it comes to his views on cities. I, too, grew up in what I thought of as a suburb, of sorts, Windsor. When I was a young boy, Windsor felt like a suburb of Detroit. Driving north on Windsor's main street, visitors often mistook the tall skyscrapers of Detroit for Windsor's downtown.

As a young boy my friends and I often spent our Saturdays bumming about Motown. It was as easy to get to Detroit back then as taking the bus, the tunnel bus. We could leave home and be in Detroit in less than thirty minutes. The big city offered lots to do: The Detroit Zoo, Belle Isle and its aquarium, and two amusement parks. There was Bob-lo if you had the time and Edgewater if you didn't.

As a teen I often went to Detroit for clothes. J.L. Hudson's was great for conservative stuff, everyday high school attire. But for that special look, the Friday-night-sock-hop look, it was Todd's Clothes which was opened in 1931 in downtown Detroit by Nathan "Toddy" Elkus who gained fame as the designer of The Zoot Suit. No one carried a better line of shark-skin fabric clothing than Todd's, or tighter men's slacks or had a better selection of narrow-brimmed hats. If you were not careful, you could leave Todd's with the look Lou Rawls' gently mocks in his mid 60s' release of Street Corner Hustler Blues.

I'm very comfortable in cities. Downtown neighbourhoods don't make me feel at all cramped. Certainly not London's. My first home here was just across the Thames River from downtown. I lived on Wilson Street and collected hardballs knocked high and foul by batters at Labatt Park.

My lot went back about 185 feet and I never longed for any more yard. I had more yard when I lived near the core than I do now in Byron. Randy's reason for living in the suburbs, I had "three kids who like to run around the yards and the street they live on," rang completely hollow with me.

His talk about needing a "bit of nature" also rang false with me. When I sought a hit of nature back when I lived near the core, I portaged my canoe to the nearby Thames, launched it at the forks and paddled past herons and turtles to Springbank Park and back.

Richmond writes: "I know I will be tempted by a downtown condo when I get older."

I'm already older and I am already tempted but I'd rather live in downtown Byron than downtown London. Let's be honest, when you get right down to it, is downtown Byron all that distant from downtown London?

It rarely takes me more than 15 minutes to drive downtown. Mapquest agrees.

(I think of suburbs as distant places, involving long commutes to work. Some urban experts put the cutoff at half an hour. If it takes more than thirty minutes to drive downtown, you live in a suburb. If it takes less, you may  not live in the core but you do live in the city.)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Question: Are the suburbs our future?

A new apartment soars above the core. It has a suburban twin.
When I read the question in The London Free Press that became the title of today's post, I thought the question was at least sixty years out-of-date and getting a wee bit stale.

By some calculations, the suburbs of North American cities have been outpacing inner city neighbourhood growth for more than a half century. In the past, many believed the suburbs were the future, today many still believe it, and in the world of tomorrow there are numerous reasons to believe the suburbs will remain the urban growth sweet-spot.

That said, cities once gave every sign that they could sprawl outward forever but a change may be in the offing --- but I wouldn't hold my breath. It seems for the first time in years, some urban cores are growing faster than their outlying suburbs.

Builder reports an EPA study, Residential Construction Trends in America’s Metropolitan Regions, that found permits in certain central cities and first-ring suburban neighborhoods are outpacing greenfield developments.

Smart growth proponents have long predicted that the ever-greater expansion of suburbia would one day reach its limit, prompting a renewed interest in central city living. A new EPA report suggests this trend is well underway, with residential permits in downtown areas and close-in suburbs more than doubling since 2000 in 26 of the largest metro regions in the United States.

The shift has been especially pronounced in some big cities, such as New York, which saw its share of regional permits increase from 15% in the early 1990s to 48% by 2008. In Chicago, housing permits inside city limits rose from 7% to 27% over the same time period.

Will this trend come to London? Is the inner city core our future?

[I doubt the core is our future. But look for more high density infill developments right across the entire London urban landscape and definitely watch for more residential and high-rise office development throughout the core.]


I found this on the Web. It seems the suburbs may have been hailed as the future as long ago as 539 B.C. Supposedly, the following comes from a letter written on a clay tablet to the King of Persia:

"Our property seems to me the most beautiful in the world. It is so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home we are away from all the noise and dust."

No dust? Must have been all those suburban lawns.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sun News asked Bell to suspend the broadcasting of their signal

If you read the story in The London Free Press today, you might have thought that it was the decision of Bell TV to suddenly deny Bell subscribers access to the new Sun News Network. According to the article Fans demand: I want my Sun TV!:

"Sun News fan, Susannah Sears, has created her own Facebook group for people who're upset they can't watch Sun News through Bell."
"Luc Lavoie, head of development for SUN News, is encouraging Bell satellite TV customers to give Bell a piece of their mind."

I found the Facebook page to which the article refers and read a posting reportedly from Sun News itself. The new network posted the following:

"We have asked them [Bell] to suspend broadcasting the [Sun News Network] signal."

It was the Sun Network itself that cut the feed! I tried to post a link to the online version of The Free Press story but could not find the story. I did fine a version of the article carried by the Toronto Sun. The Toronto version I found admits in the last paragraph that "Quebecor actively shut down the channel."

After finding the article, I added a comment and read a number of the others. Here is a sampling:

pauljensen75 wrote: 
"Read any other media outlet and you'll soon learn Sun removed the service from Bell because Sun wanted more money for the signal. This "news" article is a lie brought to you by a company with a vested interest in the outcome. Can you say "conflict of interest"?

This is an example of a news organization writing news to serve the corporate parent's purposes.

Hey Sun (TV, online, in paper, etc.): you only get one reputation. And it's "news stories" like these that make it obvious where your rep is headed."

pieridy wrote:
"I'm happy to have a right-leaning network on the air, but from what I've seen so far, they take the same approach to the facts as FOX down south - that is, omit details, twist, distort until all that remains is spin, conjecture and implication. From what I've seen, the right has no other way to support their arguments; as soon as you look for evidence to support their positions, everything falls apart."