Although I grew up in a small town, I often visited relatives in downtown Toronto, staying there all summer for student jobs, so I was always comfortable in a big city. I chafed at things my rural hometown lacked, like a movie theatre, comic or game or used book store, or even (at times) a bowling alley or video arcade. Especially in the tween and teen years before I could drive, my small town felt stifling. The big city always seemed the place where anything was possible and compatriots could be found to share any interest, unlike the comparatively limited activities and views small town life offered.
After high school, I lived in cities like Kitchener/Waterloo, Windsor, and Toronto. Then a small Korean town followed by a megacity: Seoul. In Korea, even small towns connected to major cities with frequent and affordable transit.
Returning to Canada, we settled in Barrie, which certainly billed itself a city. But I was disappointed to learn it lacked many urban attractions I expected of a community of 100,000+. Instead, it seemed trapped in some sort of limbo between town and city, with a nasty undercurrent of anti-urbanism.
Luckily, over the following decade-plus, Barrie has managed to grow in urban offerings and diversity, even faster than the actual growth in population. The arts scene is improving, despite continuing push-back around City funding of the Maclaren Art Centre or arts grants. The Barrie Film Festival has expanded the number and scope of their offerings, adding the annual Reel Stories documentary festival and a series of outdoor screenings. The first Barrie International Comedy Festival was a great success, portending a new annual tradition. The Mady Centre is constantly busy hosting productions by several theatre companies and musical series. We even finally have a second library branch(!)
Transit links are improving, the bus system evolving from suburban-style hub-and-spoke toward urban-style grid. GO train service is restored and growing at two new stations, offering north-south travelers a pleasant rail alternative to the daily 400 grind. City council seems to have lost some of their past small-town fear of higher density development or tall(ish) buildings, and are tackling problems through forward-thinking plans instead of the reactionary responses or head-in-sand approach of past decades.
Meanwhile, my daughters enjoy weekly German classes offered free by the local school board, where the most wonderful teacher helps them connect with family roots; the program offers instruction in a variety of other languages to offer the same benefit to families of many backgrounds.
But what really brought it home for me today is food. Three years of shopping & cooking in Korea instilled Korean cuisine habits in my family that we had to satisfy with periodic shopping trips to Toronto’s “K-town”. Just recently, several of our Korean staple ingredients have become available at Barrie locations like Local Foods Mart and Wholesale Club, which means we can now get by with a lot fewer grocery runs to the Big Smoke. On top of that, downtown Barrie (I refuse to call our lowest elevation “Uptown”) now features a real Korean restaurant, right at the Five Points, named (appropriately enough) “home town house” (Ko Hyang Jib).
Finally Barrie is becoming the home town I hoped it would be when I settled here. I now feel confident that whatever your particular interest, be it a genre of jazz or blues or chamber music, or a flavour of ethnic cuisine or a style of theatre or comedy or film, if you can’t find it here now, you will soon.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.