Sitting on the patio at the Only on Hunter Street on a warm summer evening, cold drink in hand, indie tunes wafting across Jackson Creek from the Garnet, and a gallery of friendly faces in the crowd, you may be forgiven for concluding that Peterborough is the best small city in Ontario: all around you, you see people having an awesome time; they look stylish, interesting, and in love with life. An intriguing mist of evanescent pheromones hangs in air, like subtle perfume. Beware! You are falling prey to the seductions of the Hunter Street Bubble.
When you are in the Bubble, especially at the Only, all of Peterborough is cool and hip.
The craft beer you are quaffing is a gateway drug for this delusion. Hunter Street is the home turf of the alleged Usual Suspects. This alluring hipster paradise is particularly dangerous to aspiring election candidates; Peterborough is far more than the Hunter Street Bubble. I learned this the hard way when I ran for council in 2014.
If you watch City Council meetings, you have heard the Usual Suspects making presentations; these are the advocates for an array of good causes: progressive urban planning, better cycling infrastructure, and more action on poverty, to name a few. Some City Hall politicians believe that there are only about 50 activists in town who stand in the way of getting things done. An accurate view or a manipulative dismissal?
Now it is time to pay your tab, sober up, and head to the suburbs.
You will soon find other bubbles of which you are not a member. That’s fine, because you may not like them. What you may not know is how much they don’t like you. Fans of the Hunter Street Bubble tend to live downtown, be anarchists or at least left-of-centre, and be suspicious of unrestrained economic growth.
But the Usual Suspects aren’t a coordinated resistance to all the growth projects being planned by the business community and their allies at City Hall. There is only convenient stereotyping that some use to polarize debates and obfuscate issues. All sides play this game.
Resistance to mainstream policies has deep, partisan roots in Peterborough’s downtown political culture: the Save PDI campaign, the battle to stop the Parkway, the No Casino debate, the fight to save PCVS, the three Monsef campaigns, and the most recent provincial, federal, and particularly municipal elections. Advocates of growth see these resisters as idealistic fools, as tree-huggers with no understanding of how the real world works, and as professional citizens big on criticism but short on positive solutions.
In fact, many of the Usual Suspects who speak up at City Hall own homes, have careers, and hold investment portfolios. They favour smart growth, not growth to the exclusion of everything else. But they have short fuses for backroom deals that benefit those in high places. They are quick to accuse councillors of perceived conflicts of interest before researching all the facts.
The Usual Suspects are maligned, and not always unfairly, as being unduly partisan.
Some local media reporters pounce on this adversarial tendency. Other journalists take a more nuanced approach; they point out the inconsistencies on all sides over controversial issues while at the same time being careful not to annoy City Hall. The advocates of growth are correct in pointing out that the Hunter Street Bubble activists can be horrifically elitist. How often do the hipsters on the patio at the Only have conversations with the homeless on George Street before advocating on their behalf?
So are the Usual Suspects just a metaphor, an identity for a group that doesn’t exist? Whether you consider yourself an activist or not, all you can really control is how your thinking shapes your actions. Those activists inside the Hunter Street Bubble do not do themselves any favours with their stereotyping of the politicians and business leaders they dislike. And they can be intensely exclusionary. How often do known Conservatives drop by the Only? Hardly ever. Why? Ask them.
The 2014 Municipal Election taught us that elections are more about personality and neighbourhood credibility than they are about policies. Sure, policy statements matter. As a candidate, I developed policy statements that were part of my campaign in Northcrest. One of these policies was No Parkway. A mistake? Policies, at least at the municipal level, pale in importance when compared to personal profile, community service, and the strength of community relationships. Relationships, particularly relationships based on trust built up over years of community service, matter far more that policies. Northcrest, as it turned out, wanted the Parkway. I was a downtowner running in the ‘burbs. An unknown. An outsider. I lost.
How well do the Usual Suspects manage their relationships with other groups, like the business community?
Not very well. As citizens, we can choose to perpetuate this animosity, or not. Sure, let’s all work hard to elect a better City Council next year. But can we do this while turning down our contempt for the other side? This year’s Official Plan Review will be another opportunity to reach out to those we don’t agree with and together paint a compelling picture of an aspirational Peterborough of the future. These arch enemies in politics may be our customers, our employers, our students, our neighbours, and members of our families. Together we have to make this community work.
Photo by B Mroz.