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Special Photographs by our Special Featured Author, Joe Barkovich

[--All photographs are copyright Joe Barkovich 2014]

Main Street Bridge Under Renovation 2014

Pathway Along The Old Canal, Looking North

Along the Old Canal Looking in Direction of the Main Street Bridge

Canal-side Amphitheatre

Demolition in Progress

[RELATED LINK: Reporter - Joe Barkovich]

Reporter: Joe Barkovich

By Joe Barkovich

Just call me a “hometown boy”. Having lived here, Welland that is, for six decades and then some, I think I’ve earned the appellation.

I love this place. I know it like the palm of my hand. I discovered alleys and avenues, side streets and main drags when I was kid, driving my Huffy balloon tire bike around town from sunrise to sundown, especially in the summer holidays.

We lived in a tight-knit part of town back then, the early -50s to the mid-60s.It was the King Street neighbourhood, especially the part from Fourth Street to Sixth Street, although some might include Seventh Street even though it was on the other side of the railway tracks.

We had three neighbourhood mom and pop grocery stores in the space of two blocks: Spitali and Sons (later Silenzi’s), John Husnik’s store and Ideal Meat Market. Old man Gronski’s shoe store was between Husnik’s and Ideal Meat Market, which was a neighbour to Mr. Hannah’s Rexall Drug Store. Then there was Doc Singer’s office and Morrison’s department store at the corner of Sixth.

I can’t forget Pete Santone’s barber shop – where you could sit for hours listening to stories about Welland and Crowland Township politics, as well as other news, rumours and gossip. But the gem of the neighbourhood, at least in my books, was Joe Miller’s sporting goods and variety store. We bought our penny candy there, as well as sunflower seeds – everybody, more or less, chewed sunflower seeds back then and our pop – do you remember a brand named Evangeline, and of course Orange Crush, which came in brown, “ribbed” bottles as I used to call them.

This was a blue-collar part of Welland, big time. Folks worked at places like Plymouth Cordage, a rope maker, Electro Metals (later Union Carbide), Wabasso, better known as the “cotton mill” and of course the Page Hersey plant, a pipe maker, to name a few. Other big employers were Atlas Steels and John Deere. All are gone now.

I said it was a tight-knit neighbourhood because it was. It was ethnic (largely Croatian, Polish and Italian), francophone families and overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Everyone knew everyone else. On Halloween nights, when it was chilly or downright cold, you could expect to be invited into one baba or another’s kitchen for a bowl of homemade cabbage soup – just to warm you up! What a touch of class that was.

Way back then, we lived with my maternal grandparents but made the move to the west side of Welland when I was in my mid to late teens. I never wanted to leave Welland, and so I didn’t. I had two jobs in my lifetime – one in the financial services industry and the other – the love of my life – at the local newspaper. Started there in the spring of 1969 and left in the fall of 2012.

I witnessed many big events in Welland’s life story over those years – like in December, 1972 when a crowd estimated at about 25,000 jammed the city’s downtown to watch the ceremonial closing of the Main Street bridge; because a bypass section of canal was built, lakers and salties no longer would move through the city’s downtown and the Main Street bridge, a vertical lift bridge, would no longer go up and down to let them pass through. That was “progress”, it was said, but “progress” cost us dearly. A part of Welland was lost forever after 1972.

But the bridge is still with us, and it has become contentious. A paint job and infrastructure project is currently under way, having started in the spring and scheduled for completion in early fall. All that time, the bridge is closed and out of service to vehicular traffic and pedestrians. The consequences on Welland’s downtown are ongoing and will of course be subject to evaluation as the project goes on.

But there is also so much good happening here. We have the International Flatwater Centre, where some of the Pan American Games water sport competition will be held next year, joining rowing, canoeing, kayaking events and races that are held here regularly. We have the Illuminaqua concert series, musical events held at the canal-side amphitheatre near the Main Street bridge – a fantastic venue, one that other communities would just love to have. My hometown also celebrates ethnic and cultural diversity, holds an annual Rose Festival and is home to the “peninsula’s tastiest party”, the Niagara Food Festival. That’s just a small, small sampling of life in this hometown boy’s community.

My hometown never ceases to amaze me. Discoveries are still to be made daily, all one needs to do is roam and wander. My balloon tire bike is long gone of course, but there are other ways of getting around and about. The kid who rode it is a fading memory, but it doesn’t mean his spirit, thirst for adventure and discovery are no more. I will always be a “hometown boy” and am proud of it.

(Joe Barkovich, a Welland native, was a long-time reporter and city editor at The Tribune. His hobbies include growing roses (the City of Welland rose is Welland’s official flower), blogging (http://fromareportersnotebook.wordpress.com/) and volunteering with various community organizations.)

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