Photo by Martin Connelly
The people of the Battery are coming together to fix their neighbourhood, and have formed a new neighbourhood association to get it done.
By Martin Connelly.
Last winter the storm surge came in hard and fast, like a one-two punch. First in January, and then again on February 5th storms pushing waves up to eight meters high ravaged The Battery and Quidi Vidi Village. On the morning of the 6th, while the rest of St. John’s woke up to shovel out their cars, residents of Quidi Vidi and Outer Battery Road were already up, hoping desperately that their property wouldn’t wash out into the harbour.
In the wake of the storms, deputy mayor Shannie Duff went on the record saying the city needed to help protect the areas, while Mayor O’Keefe told the CBC that “if you’re talking about private property, then the private property becomes the responsibility of the private owner anywhere in the city.”
Rebuilding the Battery became a matter of public debate. On the one hand, it was private property, and why should public money go into fixing up someone’s shed? On the other, the Battery is a crucial piece of St. John’s heritage—its image is instantly recognizable, and is used widely by Tourism Newfoundland.
Walter Burry, an Outer Battery resident, put it this way: “It’s the same story all over town. Council wants the place for a tourist attraction, but they won’t put no money in it.”
Beyond the fact that the city couldn’t help with personal property, the big problem in all of this is that once you start doing repairs, the whole building needs to be brought up to code—and because the damages were done to harbour-side structures, it has to be an engineered design, which costs money.
Outer Battery residents and property owners held a series of emergency meetings, which eventually lead to the birth of the Outer Battery Neighbourhood Association (OBNA). “They were really in crisis,” said Elizabeth-Anne Malischewski, secretary of the Georgestown Neighbourhood Association. “Their place was falling into the ocean.” Malischewski offered practical advice about bank accounts, incorporation, and association constitutions, all of which needed to be settled before the association could gain official status, which it did on April 6th.
“We decided to come together to help people with repairs, to try, as much as possible, to keep things they way they are,” said Joanne Butler, OBNA Secretary. “When the fishery ended, people kind of forgot about the Battery, and I think we kind of forgot about ourselves, too. The storm brought some immediacy to it.”
One of the buildings almost swept out to sea in February was Jack’s Twine Store, which Loraine Michael, MHA for Signal Hill-Quidi Vidi, described as “the heart and soul of that community for over sixty years, as well as a popular St. John’s tourist attraction.” Jack’s Store straddles the line between public and private. Mr. Wells owns the property, but it serves as a community space, somewhere for weddings, parties, and naturally a scatter drop or two. Mr. Wells and his store also featured prominently in a Rooms exhibit, lending some credence to the claim of heritage value.
Starting in March, even before the OBNA was officially formed, residents started a grassroots fundraising effort to save the store, which was hanging precariously out into the harbour. The call went out on Facebook and Twitter, and the CBC aired a three part documentary about Jack by Chris Brookes, a fellow Battery resident (and OBNA chair). That fundraising campaign officially ended on June 19th, having brought in $6176. Future funds will go into the OBNA account, and will be available to the whole neighbourhood.
The same day, the OBNA held it’s first public event, a public barbeque and sign unveiling. The sun was bright, the wind was blowing, and there were burgers and dogs on the grill. It was open to all, but mostly it was for the neighbourhood. People talked politics, history, and they also talked about their children and grand children. It was a community gathering.
Twine Shop owner Wells was on hand chatting in the parking lot. He didn’t really want to talk about the store, but was positive on the subject of the new association.
“I’ve lived here 77 years,” he said. “And it’s bringing people together, people who never met one another met this year.”
Halfway through the afternoon, the music stopped and people gathered in a loose semi-circle to watch Michael and Brookes unveil the new Outer Battery sign and collection box.
“The main purpose of this event is that we all get together,” said Brookes. “But we also have a new sign and a donation box.”
“Tourists who come to St. John’s aren’t coming to walk on Elizabeth Ave, ” said Michael. “They’re coming to walk through the Battery.”
The sign relates the history of the neighbourhood and the inshore fishery, and it shows before and after photos of the damage. The hope is that some of the walkers (Parks Canada counted 84,000 on the North Head Trail between May 15th and December 15th, 2008) who pass by every summer will put a loonie or a toonie in the box. Without government support, this is how the OBNA hopes to raise the funds it needs.
Five months after the storm, a lot of the early questions have been answered. The city won’t help the Battery financially, but it hasn’t been wholly unhelpful. “What the city has agreed to do is act as a point of contact,” said Duff. “Residents have to come in with a proper plan of what they intend to do stamped by an engineer, but once they have that plan the city will do it’s best to facilitate the other required permits besides the city permits.”
On the other side, the Outer Battery Neighbourhood Association is officially ratified, and moving forward with systematic deliberation. “The association’s role is to facilitate for and help individuals,” said Butler. “We have to be in compliance with code which is expensive and difficult. We want to do things right, and carefully.”
For the time being, the OBNA is focusing on fundraising and organizing. Birds have come back to nest on the Battery, and it’s illegal to disturb a nesting sea bird. “We never used to get the gulls in here,” said long time resident Ches Sweetapple, “they used to stay way out.” With the fishery gone, the seabirds have come inshore, and for now at least, they’re doing their part to protect the structures that remain.