Colours of Georgestown

By: Ting ting Chen

During September 2018, I was part of the Folklore field school held in Georgestown, a neighborhood in downtown St. John’s which is bordered by Military Road, Monkstown Road, Empire Avenue, and Bonaventure Avenue. I didn’t grow up in Georgestown. I come from the Far East where the cultural context is dramatically different from that of Georgestown. But after spending one month here, I am greatly impressed by the cultural diversity and vitality in this neighborhood, and I already feel home here.

Only a few neighborhoods in St. John’s have their own associations, and Georgestown is among one of them. This neighborhood is very well organized while has its own vitality. Georgestown Bakery, Georgetown Pub, Century Park, and the Basilica all contribute different colors and hues to the palette of this neighborhood. And “colors” are what attract me most in this place.

This neighborhood never lacks color. The houses here are as colorful as jellybeans; they are just like “Jellybean Row,” the term that was invented to describe the colorful houses in St. John’s. Once I met a Georgestown resident who lives very close to the brewery. She told me, pointing to her red house a few meters away, that her house together with other colorful houses nearby are called “Jellybean Row”. However, I learned that it is a debatable question as to where “Jellybean Row” is. Some people believe that the rows of colorful houses in Georgestown were the inspiration for the name while others maintain that Jellybean Row refers to houses down by Quidi Vidi Lake. No matter how this argument is settled, it is undeniable that the diverse colors bring this neighborhood more light and life. Georgestown Bakery, one of the most important buildings in this neighborhood, is one vivid example of how colors can speak. This purple – or some people might prefer to call it pink – building has been woven into the Georgestown neighborhood’s daily life. However, this bakery was a “kind of boring color five or six years ago,” Stephen the owner of the bakery told us. “It was white with a red top.” Then Stephen decided to change the color of the bakery, to “have a bit fun with the color and take a risk.” He chose the “riskiest color” he could think of. “I am happy with the color. I like it,” Stephen smiled. Throughout the Georgestown neighborhood, there is not another building that has the same purple as the bakery, and there is not another place that provides the same amount of pleasure in taste and smell.

Interestingly, this neighborhood –and in a broader sense, the whole of St. John’s – wasn’t colorful at all before the 1960s. After St. John’s was burnt down in the 1892 Great Fire, the city was rebuilt and repainted in a hurry. No diverse range of colors was used in this reconstruction – perhaps only four or five colors in total. At that time, St. John’s looked “kind of deadly dull,” as Prof. Shane O’Dea put it. Houses were painted in plain and simple colors, and no contrasting colors were used on the window frames or doors.

Things began to change in 1960s when “urban revitalization” took place. At that time the local government took measures to redevelop and improve the neighborhoods in downtown St. John’s. David Webber, who worked for the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, “started to repaint the buildings we were restoring in this bright range of colors with a bright range of contrast – in a very good color sense. And the effect was electric,” said Prof. Shane O’Dea. Webber’s experimental use of colors was monumental and unprecedented in St. John’s. People were amazed by these houses with bright and contrasting colors and started to move down to these colorful downtown districts. Colors began to spread gradually in St. John’s, like daisies blooming one after another in the spring breeze. The reason David painted the houses with colors was simply to bring the city more vigor and light. However, as time goes by, the colorful layout of St. John’s becomes the “center point of the Newfoundland tourism development schema” and “tourism was really built upon that image of St. John’s,” Prof. Shane O’Dea added. Georgestown, a downtown neighborhood, began to become colorful probably around the same time as urban revitalization took place.

If you would like to search for “colors” in Georgestown, the Basilica of St. John the Baptist is a place you should not miss. Not only does the Basilica have a fantastic range of colors both inside and out, but the colours used in the construction of the Basilica demonstrate “cohesion.”

The construction of the Basilica took place in 1839, and was completed in 1855. Sixteen years of construction created this magnificent church that was the largest church in North America at the time. Before the Basilica was built, “there wasn’t virtually anything up on that hill before the Basilica went there,” Prof. Shane O’Dea told us. The Basilica was perhaps part of the inspiration for people at that time to think it was a good idea to move to the area around the church, and thus Basilica can be considered one reason why the nearby neighborhoods, Georgestown included, grew up and thrived.

The construction of the Basilica depended on collective efforts of many ordinary citizens of St. John’s. For example, in the winter of 1839, when some big stones needed to be carried from Signal Hill to the construction site of the Basilica, 6000 people voluntarily showed up and helped to drag the stones on sleds across the frozen harbor. In 1841, when failure struck the English Bank and the funds for the construction of the Basilica dried up, 10,000 people donated thousands of pounds to support the construction. People from Georgestown are among them. Bishop Fleming managed to record in the “Cathedral Register” the names of people who contributed to the construction of this church. The Basilica, glowing with its grey limestone and white granite, also symbolizes the color of cohesion, though it is a color that cannot be visually seen.

The interior of the Basilica is full of visual pleasure, including 63 stained glass windows. Each of them has unique colors and patterns. “According to the Irish government,” Dr. John FitzGerald told us, “this is the largest collection in the world of 20th century arts and crafts Irish stained glass.”

The first stained glass came to the Basilica in 1859. After that more stained glass windows were added. During the past centuries, all these stained glass windows were anonymously donated by individuals and groups. We believe some of them came from Georgestown. “These windows belong to people who donated them because of their relationship with God and their particular faith, and we won’t be betraying that trust. We have to respect the donations and we have to preserve the heritage and memories,” Dr. John FitzGerald added. These windows, which are full of bright and contrasting colors, serve as a bond not only between the congregation and their faith , but also between the Basilica and the neighborhood.

My field school in Georgestown is over, but as a folklorist and a photographer, my exploration of the “Colors of Georgestown” is just beginning. If you come to Georgestown one day, please drop by the Basilica and ask the staff who work there about the story of how molasses made the colors of stained glass brighter and made St. Patrick’s red robe even redder. And please drop by the Georgestown Bakery and buy a treat from this purple shop. I am sure both your stomach and your eyes will be greatly satisfied by this colorful community.