Changing The Battery

Elling Lien speaks with Folklore grad students Maureen Power, Jed Baker, Rita Colavincenzo about what they discovered in their three month study of a St. John’s neighbourhood in dramatic transition from traditional fishing village to upscale neighbourhood.

The class of eight produced an exhibit called “Making Waves” which is expected to go on display at The Rooms Provincial Museum in the spring of 2007. A sneak preview presentation was given on November 30.

Cover illustration by Jonathan Adams.

Maureen Power: MP
Jed Baker: JB
Rita Colavincenzo: RC

So what is Making Waves?

JB: Essentially what it was, the presentation on Thursday was the culmination of a class that we have been doing this semester called Public Sector Folklore. Jerry Pocius was the professor and in the fall, before the semester started, we got an email saying for this class we’re going to be working with The Rooms, and we’re going to be creating an exhibit on The Battery. That’s the class.

JB: We were told to go to the Battery and find out about it.

So you were probably petrified… “We have to make an exhibit?!”

RC: [laugh] Well you have to look at who made up the class. It was a combination of Canadians and Americans. Many of the Canadians weren’t from here, and some of the Americans had to ask “Where is the Battery?”
I knew it as a place to walk through to get to Signal Hill, but I didn’t really know what the Battery was. I knew there were all these paths… I knew it was really picturesque…
But beyond that, I didn’t know a lot. I didn’t know anyone that lived there, or the history.
Then all of a sudden we started just going down there, talking to people. That’s how it started.

MP: I was one of the only two Newfoundlanders in the group, and I had experience with the Battery before. I had family that grew up there, and I was a downtown rat as a child.
…On New Year’s Eve I would go to the Battery to set off fireworks five minutes before midnight, just to make the crowd downtown go crazy. Didn’t you ever do that? [laugh]

So that was you!

MP: Still though, I never thought of the Battery in the same way I do now. I had always taken for granted that place as a Newfoundlander. I’d never really thought about it as a separate community separate from St. John’s. But then I went there and realized…

JB: “A Place Apart” was one of our earlier titles for the exhibit…

MP: We identified three groups through our research that made up the Battery. Obviously we couldn’t talk to everybody, and to represent every single person in the Battery in the exhibit would be next to impossible, so we were trying to identify different groups. One of them was the original fishing community, Mr. Pearsy and Mr. Wells and the Sweetapples and the Garlands and the Prettys, and they were the original fishing community still there.
And then there was the Bruce Peters and Bill Alderdice, a retired Geography professor from MUN. They were part of a group of educated and artistic people that came in during the 70s, looking for cheaper real-estate…
Because of course there wasn’t any plumbing in the Battery until 1983. So it was a low-income area…
And then all of a sudden, in the past maybe ten years it became this really desirable place to live because it was so unique and so separate, but close at the same time.
You have a lot of money to be able to build a new building in the Battery, because you have to hire an architect to do it and St. John’s has strict rules about that particular area … And these people come in and they re-create the space. They’re building these new buildings.
So those are the three waves. We tried to take aspects of each of these three waves and look at them.

When did you decide that there were three?

RC: Not right away.

JB: …Personally I’m wary about the three waves idea. Ultimately it’s artificial. It’s something we imposed upon the place.
But it’s not totally off the mark.

MP: In academia, you’re always kind of preaching to the converted. You’re talking to a lot of academics about the same subject that they study, you know? But when you’re doing a museum exhibit on public display, you’re speaking to the public. You’ll have schoolchildren coming in that you have to consider. So we had to approach our fieldwork with that in mind. So we decided on the waves to package what we’ve learned through our fieldwork.

How did you go about it?

RC: People gravitated towards what interested them right off the bat. They knew where they wanted to go and who they wanted to talk to. For example, someone who was really into the artistic …
There are people we met just wandering through, talking to people.

JB: It’s too bad because now the class is over, because I feel like there’s a lot more we could do now, after that presentation.

RC: It could be double the size, triple the size, so we also have to work with the time we had, regardless of what people say . We wanted to create rich material in the time we had, as opposed to covering double the amount of people. That’s what we’re taught in Folklore – it’s better to be narrow and focused and make what you do rich than to do a lot and have it not be so good.

What is cultural richness?

RC: The people that Maureen and I talked to, in the fishing group, they just had so much to offer. We were able to talk about the history of the Battery. They brought in information about the avalanche that happened in 1959 which some people don’t even know about. I think there was something on the History Channel, but it’s weird that’s how most people find out about it by watching the History Channel – and people don’t know about it by talking to other people in their area.
One of our informants’ parents died in the avalanche. Incredible, you know? He told me in our interview.

MP: Okay. Richness. You just say “Fishing was important in the Battery,” and that’s a sweeping statement, but if you talk to Mr. Wells and you hear about his story: “When I was growing up there was tails flipping all over the place in the water, fish everywhere, and me and my brothers used to go out and jig cod. Now all I have left here is memories.”
…You know it’s a fishing place, but then you have one person who has all these memories of what it was like to be an inshore fisherman in Newfoundland and how much it affected his life and how much the cod moratorium changed his entire life, his children’s lives, changed his space, changed everything. We did three hours of interviews with Mr. Wells and all his stories…
The Battery, as a place – the Upper, the Outer, whatever – but to these people the Battery was water. Their fishing area was off Cape Spear, so that was their road. It wasn’t limited to the rock. It expanded out into the ocean, to the fishing areas, and that’s where they lived and what they did. It wasn’t just the twine store. It wasn’t just the Battery, it was their way of life.
So when you talk to people like that who have this connection to the place and to a way of life, it just adds so much more than if you’d just say “It was a fishing place.”

JB: Especially when you consider in 20, 30, 50 years, there will be nobody around any more who remembers what it was like back then. So it’s a matter of preserving that information. And that was one of the things that we realized, even right from the beginning, that the residents in the Battery were enthusiastic about that aspect, about getting that information out.

How worried are you that you’ll romanticize what you’re looking at with this?

MP: That’s a constant debate within Folklore. When you’re studying something like the Newfoundland fishery,
For me, everybody’s gone out west. Everybody’s left Newfoundland. I’m the only one that’s moved back. So I for sure have a really romantic idea of what it’s like to have a traditional community.
But people have to move on, they have to make a living. People can’t live off memories. You have to go out west. You have to have a job.

RC: I think it is romanticized to some extent but we were trying not to do that… But you know, when you remember things you usually, usually people remember more good things from the past than bad things.
…There are a lot of Newfoundlanders like that are tired of the salt box houses and the laundry hanging and the mummers, and I understand that, and that’s why we don’t want to only look at that.

JB: The exhibit focuses primarily on the present.

MP: Yes, we tried to avoid looking too hard at the history of the Battery.

JB: It was more about who lives here now, what does it mean to them. What’s their life like now. It’s more of a snapshot of the Battery at the moment, with a little bit of the past, and a little bit of “where’s it going?”
The things that are happening in the Battery are happening all over Newfoundland. It’s making this transition.
We wanted to lay everything out to open up dialogue on what it means, where’s it going?

Do you think it should be preserved?

MP: The fact that people are moving in and building houses isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because if they weren’t in there building these houses, what would be there? Things would be falling down and in disrepair.

RC: I think the fear is similar to that in other places. I spend time in Ireland and it’s often looked to as an example of what Newfoundland could be. Now it’s so expensive there. It’s frightening to think that the property could shoot up so much that the people who live there could never afford to live there any more.
It happened in Ireland.

MP: It’s happening in the Battery. The property taxes are rising.

RC: One of the guys that I interviewed said that someone approached him and asked how much his house would be to buy, and he said “You don’t have enough money.” And then the person answered “Yes I do!” “No you don’t,” he said. “I’m not selling this. Not while I’m alive.”

So what’s going to happen to the Battery? You’ve spoken to a lot of people in the area, so you must have an idea…

RC: We know what people think, but we don’t know what money, bureaucracy and politics are going to make happen.

JB: I can’t imagine anything really drastic happening, but I imagine more people will move in and buy up the exorbitantly-priced houses, fix them up.
Physically I don’t imagine it changing a whole lot, because of the restrictions we were talking about.

RC: The people who are living there now are moving there because they like the way it looks. So they’re not going to do anything to change the way it looks.

JB: They’re going to try to make their houses look like the houses do there now, or did ages ago even. So it’s possible that they could even get more …

MP: …What’s going to change is the community. Because as the Garlands, and the Wells, and the Pearcys move on – they’re the old families and they all know each other.
Mr. Wells was telling me how the first catch would go to the community. The first catch, everybody would come down and share it.
That community is not there now in the same way. They don’t know their neighbours. I was talking to one of the residents the other day and she was pointing to the different houses saying “they’re strangers now, they’re strangers, they’re strangers, we don’t know them…”
So that’s going to change.

RC: But there still will be a community.

MP: But not in the same way. Newfoundlanders – my parents — would knock on their door and say “welcome to the neighbourhood.”

JB: But by its physical constraints it’s going to be a place apart for as long as it’s there. It’s on the side of the rock, it’s not a part of any other neighbourhood. It’s by itself there.

Unless they tunnel through Signal Hill.

MP: But what’s a community? Is it the physical buildings and their approximation or is it how they relate to each other?

Intangible cultural heritage – culture that isn’t physical [like tradition and stories]. Is that what you’re talking about when you’re talking about the community?

JB: Yes. Yes.

RC: Yes.

So is it possible to preserve that culture in an area like the Battery?

MP: …Is preservation ever possible in any situation? Preservation is never possible, because people are always reinventing culture as they live it.

JB: They seem to be doing an all right job in the Battery in my opinion, with the twine shop and Pearcy’s store.

MP: But the store isn’t functioning any more…

JB: But as a museum, that’s …

RC: In fact one of the Pearcys was thinking of applying for a grant to help keep up the building…

Those are the buildings, but what about the intangible? The tradition?

MP: That’s going to change.

RC: That’s where we come in. That’s what the exhibit is trying to look at.

Distill it, bottle it…

JB: …sell it to tourists. [laugh]

MP: We record it and document it.

JB: We’re using Folklore for the good of the public. An exhibit is a way to move the research from the academic realm and use it to educate. We found out what was going on, and now, hopefully, it will be in a museum in a number of months, and it will be online for as long as the internet will be around.

How do the people you talked with feel about being the subject for an exhibit?

RC: They love it.

JB: People were very enthusiastic about speaking with us, and having it recorded and having their thoughts recorded, and keeping it alive, as it were.

RC: Initially, some went “Why do you want to talk to me? I don’t have anything to offer.” They might not say that exactly, but one guy I interviewed, he said “I don’t know if you got anything from that. I don’t know if I helped you at all.”
In many cases in Folklore, the person you talk to won’t know what you’ll do with that information. Normally you take it, you write a thesis or something, and maybe you give them a copy, but it’s really amazing to bring in the museum aspect. To make an exhibition out of it.
Then the people you spoke with can come and see it, and it’s a little more obvious that what they do matters, and that people care about what they’re up to.

JB: The reaction [at the exhibit preview] was a good indication that people in the public care. There was a great turnout at the presentation, and the people liked it, and were interested in what was going to happen with it. We filled some need – we weren’t even aware of it till that morning – but we did something that is important, that people care about.

Making Waves, an exhibit by graduate students in Memorial University’s Public Sector Folklore class, is expected to open in the spring of 2007 at The Rooms Provincial Museum. For more information, contact MUN Faculty of Arts Communications Coordinator Leslie Vryenhoek at 737-8292.

Photo by Elijah van der Giessen

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