Okay, Thunder Bay (map) is not quite in Minnesota, but it is the largest city northeast of Minneapolis, larger even than Duluth with over 100,000 people (though of course, when you get talking about metropolitan areas, the numbers change). “Thunder Bay” didn’t even exist as a named place until 1969, it was formed by the consolidation of the adjacent Lake Superior municipalities of Fort William and Port Arthur, Ontario. Wikipedia writes:
On 1 January 1970, the City of Thunder Bay was formed through the merger of the cities of Fort William, Port Arthur, and the geographic townships of Neebing and McIntyre. Its name was the result of a referendum held previously on 23 June 1969, to determine the new name of the amalgamated Fort William and Port Arthur. Officials debated over the names to be put on the ballot, taking suggestions from residents including “Lakehead” and “The Lakehead”. Predictably, the vote split between the two, and “Thunder Bay” was the victor. The final tally was “Thunder Bay” with 15,870, “Lakehead” with 15,302, and “The Lakehead” with 8,377.
There was more controversy over the selection of a name for the amalgamated city than over whether to amalgamate. A vocal majority of the population preferred the “Lakehead”. There was much discussion over whether there was any other city in the world that uses the word “The” in its name, which there is, as The Pas, Manitoba has “The” in its name, for example. The area was often referred to as the “Lakehead” before and after amalgamation based on its geographic location. It was seen as the “head” of shipping on the Great Lakes and the “rail head”.
Crossing into Ontario, and the Eastern Time Zone, from Minnesota, it becomes immediately apparent that the roads are in better condition. This is not due to the gas tax, which is higher, but not dedicated to transportation, but instead better management and different priorities.
Fort William was established by the Northwest Company (1803-1821) as a fur trading outpost. Today it is a living history museum (well worth seeing if you happen to be in the neighborhood, the Great White North’s equivalent of Williamsburg) replicating its final glory days in 1816 as the Hudson’s Bay Company took over the Northwest Company, but before this outpost was disbanded.
Since Thunder Bay is an amalgam, there is more than one Main Street. In fact the official Main Street is a desolate industrial serving street. There is also a High Street in the Port Arthur section, but that is mostly residential in that area. There are also lots of strip shopping centers and big box stores in newer sections of town. Instead the traditional main street in the Fort William part of town I took to be Victoria Avenue, which is bisected by an unfortunate 1980s urban mall: Victoriaville Center. This was locked shut on Sunday morning, presumably to keep out the locals, who were not among society’s victors.
Even on a Sunday morning, transit was operating, with Bus shelters ubiquitous. Parking meters abut the buildings instead of the curbs. Accessibility, particularly to growing rather than declining economic sectors, was lacking. Even the pawn shops and check cashing are going out of business. Transportation seems the least of Thunder Bay’s problems.
The buildings on the other hand, are mixed at best. Thunder Bay is literally a hollowed out shell of its former self, as illustrated by the Canadian Bank of Commerce facade. They shamefully let their building fall into such a stage of disrepair that only the facade remains. If the bank were out of business, that would be bad enough. But in fact it is still an operating entity (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce). Is this how they want their brand reflected? Now I guess it is better to preserve the facade than it be a completely empty lot. But the strongest bank in Canada should want to do something with this site, if only to fund a public facility if they don’t wish a branch.
In the US we are quick to praise Canadian urbanism, looking at Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and even Edmonton and Calgary. We do not somehow look to Thunder Bay.
Cross-posted at streets.mn