This past weekend I spent 24 quick hours in Thunder Bay, a city that does not live up to its name: it could have been called Sunny Bay. And rather than thunder, the sound most heard in the city is that of machines struggling against the cold. Car engines barely starting, then wheezing along. Snow tires making that loud hum on the road that seemed to be in harmony with the moaning that was coming out of me as I went on a few walkabouts around the city. They were short, usually no more than 15 minutes as my (in)ability to brave the -36C temperatures for very long has me wondering if I’m a good Canadian after all, though I did have the most exquisite ice cream head ache I’ve ever had (without eating any).
Thus my exploration of the city was limited to whatever was 15 minutes outside of my downtown hotel (above). That is, downtown Port Arthur, as Thunder Bay has two city-centres. Adjacent municipalities Port Arthur and Fort William were amalgamated in 1970 (the first mini-megacity?) and named Thunder Bay, but many long time residents still refer to the two cities by their original names. The space in between, the wonderfully named “intercity,” was described to me as standard big box wasteland. Downtown Port Arthur looks out over the bay to The Sleeping Giant (top picture) that has some of the highest cliffs in Ontario. This elevation, mountains rising out of the water, gives Lake Superior much more of a sea or ocean “feel” than does Lake Ontario.
Below is a quick and chilly photo tour of Port Arthur.
There is an impressive stock of pre-war buildings downtown, built when the mills and shipping made the area prosperous.
The magnificent streamline modern former Eaton’s store still stands, but is now home to a call centre organization called Teleperformance. Look into what were once window displays and you will see rows of customer service folk wearing headsets plugging away at PC desktop computers. These jobs may help offset the loss of the high paying resource-based jobs that used to fuel this town’s economy, but it is likely a difficult (and downward) transition.
The building is put to other good (re)use though. In the basement around back is Definitely Superior, the only functional artist run centre between Winnipeg and Toronto. They have access to the kind of massive cheap space that big-city organizations can only dream of. The organizers I met described to me an upcoming event this year that will take over empty buildings and abandoned lots in and around downtown that will be like a sort of mini Nuit Blanche. It’s encouraging when grassroots arts organizations attempt to generate excitement around an urban neighbourhood in ways standard Business Improvement Area schemes can’t by themselves.
Parking lots often include outlets where people can plug their cars in to keep them warm.
I walked a quick loop uphill into the neighbourhood just north of downtown. The wooden 1970s bandshell is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and has a bit of Scandinavian flair to it. The High School in the background was built when public structures were thought of as important enough to warrant castle-like architecture.
I found an impressive amount of interesting modern buildings in Thunder Bay. There were more than shown here, but my painfully frozen fingers kept slipping off the camera buttons.
Buildings like this give a sense that it was once surrounded by similar structures when Port Arthur was at it’s peak.
The above photos were taken along Bay Street, the sort of bohemian strip of Thunder Bay. The city is also home to the highest Finnish population outside of Finland. The Hoito Restaurant, located in the Finnish Labour Temple, is one of a few restaurants that compete for the “best pancake” title.
Sadly, I was told people routinely “blow their brains out” in this parking lot outside of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s Charity Casino after they have lost everything inside. Unlike the casino in Windsor that has the huge American market to draw on or Casino Rama in Orillia with the entire GTA as a market, the Thunder Bay casino attracts a largely local crowd, and its negative effects are more profoundly felt.
My night walks went undocumented as it was just too cold to bring out the camera. In fact, 7 minutes out I had to duck into the closest bar to warm up. It was a place called “The Office,” a rough sort of bar where I initially wondered if I was in over my head, but I forgot how wonderfully small city bars work — they’re much more diverse and mixed up than big city establishments where every subculture has their own place or night. The first person I saw was the wasted man at the bar who slurred “just get a drink” to me. I did and took position in the back and watched, and only then noticed how diverse it was.
There were the dive bar drunks that catch the eye first, but also students, folks who were over 40, working class guys in baseball hats and plaid coats, a few tables of nerdish looking kids having a fun night out and more ethnic mix than you would find at a standard West Queen West bar (including approximately 1/4 aboriginal Canadian as Fort William First Nation is located just outside town). The DJ played Madonna, Justine Timberlake and other similar dance songs until the cover band went up and played Neil Young, AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses songs (followed by Timbaland and more dance music). The segue was seamless, and through it all the girls with the low rise jeans and midriff tops kept dancing, one arm in the air, one constantly pulling up their pants. In Toronto, if it wasn’t for our public spaces and public transportation, this kind of mixing would occur much less routinely because our quasi-public spaces are much more segregated.