This is a guest post by Rob Jones, who shares some of his first impressions of New Westminster as a new resident of our city. You can read more from Rob on his blog, The Delete Bin, and also find him on Twitter @clippernolan.
There are elements of every city that makes it unique, makes them feel like home.
My experience with big-small towns is well established, even if I am a recent resident of New Westminster. Like New West, my hometown of Oakville Ontario was founded next to a busy waterway; it was a shipbuilding centre when it was first founded in the 1800s, nestled against the expanse of Lake Ontario.
There are other similarities of course – the high streets, the parks, tree-lined streets, the cozy community feel, and even certain idiosyncrasies that don’t appeal to everyone, but help to make the place what it is.
So, with this in mind here are 10 places of noteworthiness that I’ve discovered in my first few months here in New Westminster. There are some you know, and maybe a few you haven’t thought much about. Yet, if its true first impressions you’re after from a New West newbie such as myself, you’ve come to the right place.
In living on the other side of the Fraser for the last few years, I really missed the old-fashioned high street, the main drag that is within walking distance of home. Having done time in the land of big box stores, malls the size of the Death Star, and traffic-clogged main streets that seem to be excuses for big brands to plaster their names all over everything, coming to a place where this is less the case was a welcome change.
This is not to say that there aren’t big name stores along this intersection and surrounding area – there certainly are. But, somehow, the signs seem like less of a crass branding exercise, and more of a vital centre of small town commerce, even if this really isn’t a small town. This is one of the strengths of this area – maintaining that balance between the two solitudes of small town coziness and the convenience and energy of the city. 6th and 6th , and the surrounding area from the Library down to 4th avenue, epitomizes this for me.
Named after Colonel Richard Clement Moody (born in Barbados, where my dad was born and raised, coincidentally…) who founded New Westminster in 1859 , Moody Park rests between 6th Avenue and 8th avenue, and 10th street and 8th street. My daughter and I take walks there, conveniently located as it is just up the street from my apartment. It is a wonderland of monkey bars, slides, sporting fields, and soon enough, a pool too . The squirrels dart from tree to tree, hoping for alms from those walking their dogs or their kids. It is a place of innocence and good clean fun – by day at least.
It’s also been the site of many awkward exchanges for me with other parents, while our children are busy becoming instant friends in the playground. Strange how that works; that certain things that are insurmountable as children are conquered with the experiences of adulthood, yet with some things lost, too. I’m talking about the ability to make instant connections, and to hitch one’s imaginations to those of another without a second thought, and without much effort if any at all.
Where can you get a blazer, a set of towels, a comforter, a Spider Robinson novel, and an old-fashioned bona fide Faerie Queen china doll in one trip for less than twenty bucks? It’s the Salvation Army superstore on Columbia street, right at the foot of 8th street, of course, with the promise of ‘1000s of items arriving daily!’
Recently, I’ve had the occasion to go hunting for housewares, which I could do at a WalMart I guess. But with a treasure trove of cheap and charitable goods right off of New Westminster Skytrain, I can’t think of why I would. In other communities, many of these items can be found in various box stores. But, that’s just shopping, isn’t it. I’d rather go on a treasure hunt any day. And in the Salvation Army store, that’s what it feels like every time.
I’ve never seen anything like it. All along Columbia Street are a collection of wedding dress stores and tuxedo rentals, parked right next to each other as if there aren’t any other places to get this sort of thing for miles around. Also, with the selection of florists along here, one could practically source everything one needs a wedding, including specialty items. Want a vampire theme? No problem – they’ve got a dress for that, and quasi-medieval menswear to match. Name it, and you can probably get married in it.
And with the Paramount theatre just down the street, where athletically-figured women remove their attire for the benefit of male patrons to the strains of yesterday’s hit parade, the Groom can have his stag while the flowers are decided upon – all in one district! That’s convenience! And I haven’t even mentioned the tattoo parlor, which (if they have any sense) must have an ongoing two-for-one lovebird special. It gets you to the church on time, kids!
Before I moved here, I had the occasion to climb the hill in order to pick up my car from Artman Automotive. The shop, actually run by a knowledgeable and honest guy called Art, and is on Royal Avenue near Douglas College. This is roughly at the crest of one of the steepest hills I’ve ever had to climb, just shy of ‘Historic Brow of the Hill’, where I now reside these many years later.
During my ascent, being reminded of my mortality the whole way, the best adjective to describe me on achieving the crest of Royal avenue from 8th street was ‘vincible’, as in the opposite of invincible. But, once I caught my breath, I found that the view is incredible – the river, the expanse of downtown New West and the shores of North Delta, and the fatigued Douglas College students climbing the hill from New West Skytrain Station as if searching for Enlightenment itself. Yet, do I climb this hill everyday on foot, or do I take the trusty 123 bus, even if I have to wait without shelter, knee-deep in cigarette butts, and within earshot of multiple one-way teenaged cellphone conversations? I’ll let you guess, but the answer is as easy as 1-2-3.
This is another locale for me and my daughter; for walks and talks, lots of questions for her part, and few answers for mine. The quay is our place for paying homage to the world’s tallest tin soldier, the tugboat (courtesy of Expo ’86, and moved to New Westminster Quay the following year), the beautiful gardens, and the ducks and other waterfowl who walk the same routes as any quaysider in a living example of interspecies respect and understanding.
The quay has been the host of many an event since I’ve been here, from Philippines Independence Day celebrations to Canada Day Fireworks. It is a vibrant gathering place for the community, young and old. If only they’d open the Market again! What’s up with that?
One has to respect a town who celebrates the traditions of blowing sh*t up so enthusiastically. I am of course talking about my first trip to Queen’s Park during the Hyack Festival Anvil Salute, which occurs every year on the occasion of Victoria Day, the day in which we honour of the monarch who named this town of ours.
Queen’s Park is a shady environs where monkey bars and slides live along side an honest to goodness petting zoo – goats, sheep, and rabbits, not to mention non-pettable peacocks. But, when we were there, it was all about the gunpowder n’ noise in Queen’s Park Stadium . The combustibly-derived racket in question is perpetrated by guys dressed in some sort of period garb that might be described as Special Forces British Morris Dancers with demolition expertise. These flamboyantly attired fellows blow up anvils using very long fuses to the delight of a significant crowd. Where else are you going to get to see something like that?
Right along the railroad tracks on Front Street is Antique alley, a series of storefronts under the shade of the parking garage built above the road, supporting the parking requirements of shoppers and tourists that frequent Columbia Street and the Quay. There are antique shops along here of course, but also specialty clothing stores including a goth boutique, which is adequately rife with shadows, spacious as a cathedral crypt, and haunted by a very affectionate cat called Merlin.
What’s most striking to me is how full of character this strip is, yet how underdeveloped it is too. So many of the storefronts are seemingly abandoned, and some which aren’t just look like they are. Maybe this area is too closed off from the high street to be accessible, or profitable. Yet, it is charmingly seedy, and bursting with potential for more speciality stores, and in my imagination, a series of small music venues within stumbling distance of the Skytrain and bus services.
Three of my favourite words in succession have to be ‘all day breakast’. And waffles are comfort food, loaded with life-shortening, yet exceedingly life-affirming, butter and syrup, washed down with cup after cup of coffee. The Waffle House on 6th street provides all of this, plus free newspapers and (otherwise) no frills, and all in the commercial shadow of the IHOP, mere meters away. Yet, where else can you order something called a Jiffy Wiffy Waffle with a straight face?
I have hosted two female friends at this establishment at different times in recent weeks, which make me think that the staff there, if they remember me at all, must think of me as the kind of guy to use waffles in some kind of low rent seduction tactic, or possibly as a means of recompense for not living up to seduction’s promise. Where this is of course not the case (both women are good friends of mine), I think the tactic might have legs.
One of the first Skytrain stations I’d ever used was this one, dropped off after having visited a girlfriend of mine many years ago. I remember thinking that it was a commuter hub that was randomly plunked in the middle of nowhere. Yet 6th avenue and the Queensborough Bridge seem to draw significant traffic into it. I’ve come to know it as the ‘buses graveyard’, or ‘the land of apologizing buses’ – Sorry Not In Service. I wish they wouldn’t say ‘sorry’. But, I guess we are in Canada, aren’t we. Personally, I think ‘Out of Service – Deal With It’ would be more apropos.
Having come to use this station more and more, I think it really needs a reboot – maybe a bookstore, a café, even a convenience store. It needs something there where commuters, parents, and antsy teenagers heading into Richmond, can spend their time while their buses contemplate how sorry they are over the sin of being out of service. Perhaps the commuter traffic, and the revenue-generating traffic to any establishments placed there, might make that sin easier to forgive?
Here it is: I feel at home in New Westminster.
I like that it is community-based and there are a lot of places to take my daughter without having to drive. I like that it’s a bit weird too, like the time a guy yelled at me from across the street, asking me if I wanted to buy his radial arm saw – cash money, natch. I like that I can get Wifi in any number of retail locations within walking distance. I like that historic locations are treasured here, and that this town has memory – so many don’t. And I like that Stephen King’s IT was filmed here, perversely perhaps.
As a new resident, do I feel that there is room for improvement? Sure I do. But, it’s character that I most value in a place where I call home. And New West certainly has character. It has light and dark tones, civic pride, and urban decay. Yet, it is the spririt of the place that counts, defined as it is with a sense of history, blemishes and all.