Torontonians may like Saint John’s housing prices, but they also love anonymity: Teitel
Saint John, N.B., isn’t yet a Portland, Ore., or an Austin, Texas. What it is, however, according to its mayor, is exceedingly friendly, writes Emma Teitel.
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Last week, Don Darling, the mayor of Saint John, N.B., a city of roughly 70,000 people, posted an unusual but enticing proposition to his Facebook page: “Hey Toronto and Vancouver, move to Saint John NB, we have jobs, you can buy a house for well under 200k and our commutes are measured in minutes. Contact me and I will share with you how much I love my city and how much we want you.”
Included in the mayor’s post was a CBC news story corroborating at least one of his claims about life in the province. According to the CBC, citing 2016 census data, “New Brunswick has some of the lowest commute times in the country . . . . In big cities like Toronto and Montreal, commuters needed an average of 34 and 30 minutes to get to work, respectively.” In Saint John, on the other hand, the average commute was 20 minutes. Darling’s personal commute from his house to city hall? Seven minutes.
The mayor told me this on the phone recently after I took him up on his offer and reached out. Like thousands of Toronto and Vancouver residents who read Darling’s Facebook post, which has since gone viral, not to mention the dozen or so who contacted the mayor asking about Saint John as a result, I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Namely, why should I heed the call of a man I had never heard of and move my wife and dog to a tiny city I have never visited?
Well, for starters, I would be able to afford a house. Prices are exceptionally low compared with Toronto and Vancouver, where $150,000 won’t even land you a poorly constructed, dark-as-a-dungeon bachelor condo. In New Brunswick, not only can you buy a house for $150,000, you can buy a nice house — far bigger and sturdier than your boss’ crumbling, semi-detached million-dollar-plus Victorian in Riverdale.
And for Torontonians used to a flat, drab, landscape, Saint John offers natural beauty, a feature Darling did not hesitate to sell during our conversation.
“I’m sitting in my office right now staring out at the Bay of Fundy,” he said, before launching into a speech about Saint John’s affordable housing market. Darling, 47, is a lifelong resident of the small city and a businessman new to politics. He was elected last year on a growth platform; he would very much like to grow the city’s population and in doing so, grow its tax base.
“We have more formal strategies for growing the population,” he told me. “But Facebook and Twitter, these things are powerful. You can send the message out and try to appeal to someone that’s maybe been stuck in a car for 45 minutes.”
Like, say a Torontonian who lives uptown but works by the water, or a street car rider who has been burned by delays and short-turns one too many times (though the King Street Transit Pilot is great so far).
Darling is adamant: “It’s not perfect here (in Saint John) but I’m going to argue that this (city) is going to give you one of the best chances in the country of living a great quality of life.”
There are few Canadians, except perhaps Drake, more enthusiastic about their hometowns. (And maybe sometimes a little bit too enthusiastic. Last year, the city of Saint John launched an initiative requesting property owners clear out the junk in their front yards. “We’re not as clean and tidy as we should be and there’s a direct linkage to pride,” Darling told the CBC.)
But the mayor’s civic enthusiasm comes at a convenient time. Hassan Arif, a sociology professor at the University of New Brunswick based in Fredericton, says small cities are in a unique position to attract big city talent not only because major metropolises in Canada are increasingly unaffordable, but because “in the 21st century a lot of big city stuff is coming to smaller cities.”
In other words, hipster enclaves, a thriving arts and culture scene, pride parades — it’s old-fashioned, if not downright ignorant, to suggest that big cities have a monopoly on these attractions, especially when what big cities tend to do best is price out their creative class.
Arif points to the popularity of Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas with young professionals, for whom New York City, L.A. and Silicon Valley are insurmountably expensive.
But Saint John isn’t yet a Portland or an Austin. What it is, however, according to its mayor, is exceedingly friendly. “I met folks here last Friday from Egypt and they could not believe that they could come to this city and on their very first visit meet the mayor,” Darling said. “It’s a very connective community. If 30 days after you’ve moved here you’re not ingrained and part of this community you’re not trying very hard.”
Alas, this is where Darling loses me — or rather scares me — as there is nothing I would like to do less than “try hard” or “try” at all to become ingrained in a community. No matter how many angry emails I get from Torontonians who insist they are the paragon of friendliness, I know I’m not alone in this feeling. Big city people visiting small towns and cities may relish their warmth and bemoan the coldness of home. But after an exhausting foray into the world of saying hello to everyone on the street, we’re happy to return to the urban fold and curl up in our cocoons of anonymity.
Unfortunately for mayor Darling, what many Torontonians love even more than short commute times and fresh air is not knowing our neighbours. Saint John: you don’t want us.