October 16, 2014 update: According to this post on the blog Kingston Cam, several houses along Barrie Street, West Street, and other similar areas used to be student housing before Queen’s and/or rich people bought them and fixed them up. Thought it was a useful piece of information in light of what I’ve written here. Moral of the story is remember I’m writing this blog with a memory that goes back to approximately 1996.
I was sitting at work a while ago looking at the Queen’s Journal (a recent issue for once, not one from 1895) and came across an article called “The Divide” which is about “housing disparities on either side of Barrie St.” (You can read the article here.) It describes how housing is generally better-kept outside of the student ghetto, the neighbourhoods west of Barrie St. where many students rent houses. The article uses William St. as an example, where rather nice homes can be found east of Barrie, and boxy, crowded houses west of Barrie.
The Barrie St. divide seems to bring up an interesting case of what you might call a collective city memory. Passed down from citizen to citizen, we’ve learned throughout the years that what’s on this side of Barrie St. is nice and should be kept that way, while what’s on the other side is somehow not as important. Although I’ll be telling this story with very broad strokes – to go into all the details of why certain neighbourhoods turn out as they do is beyond the scope of a blog post, not to mention my own capabilities – it’s likely that the Barrie St. divide is quite an old one.
It’s tough to know where to begin with this, so I’ll just begin at the beginning. Barrie St. wasn’t part of the original Kingston plan developed in the late eighteenth century. At that point, West Street was the appropriately-named western limit, or at least it was by 1815. Between 1832 and 1840 Barrie St. was built and functioning as the town limits, perhaps after land was set aside in the hope of constructing parliament buildings there (this land later became City Park). Here’s a map from 1841 which illustrates the case perfectly, showing the proposed division of Lot 25, “1st concession of the township of Kingston but within limits of the town.”
Here, Barrie is the vertical street on the left. Johnson runs horizontally at the top, and William is underneath it. You’ll notice that the continuation of William St. cited in the Journal article hasn’t even been built yet. However, Earl and Johnson do continue past Barrie. If Barrie was the town limit, what can we make of that?
It probably goes without saying that just because a town has limits doesn’t mean that nothing is going on beyond them. In this case, there certainly was a lot going on west of Barrie, only the development was spottier. In contrast to the city proper where, broadly speaking, the upper-to-middle classes lived and worked (it’s hard to talk about “classes” in this place and time, but bear with this conceit) the outskirts of Kingston had a more mixed population. Of course there were farmers, but there were also members of Kingston’s elite who in the 1830s and 40s built villas in the privacy and health of the countryside, and several satellite villages mostly composed of poor immigrant labourers. One of these villages, Stuartsville, was found immediately west of Barrie in an area that today is full of student housing. (I’ve written about these topics in several other posts which I’ll list at the end.)
The Stuartsville area, for example Earl St. between Barrie and Division, even now has a “working-class” feel even though the vast majority of the original village is long gone. Arguably, the place just never shook off the associations. Although by 1850 the town limits had been shifted further west to the future site of University Avenue, Stuartsville wasn’t formally annexed to Kingston until 1858, amid much protest by residents who wanted to keep their low taxes.
Seen this way, it starts to become clearer why the east side of Barrie St. attracted a wealthier population who built expensive and durable stone houses (and later fashionable brick ones), while the west side was often home to working-class people in wooden houses which haven’t lasted. They were later replaced with plain frame and brick houses to serve a similar socioeconomic population.
However, it’s clear that there are nice homes west of Barrie, including older homes and many comparable to those further east. The only difference is that many houses west of Barrie have been converted to student housing, while many east of Barrie have not. This undoubtedly has a lot to do with the position of the university, but there are houses further east that are roughly equidistant from campus, yet retain a far more genteel aura. It seems that being west of Barrie and further from the downtown core, these houses are seen as less valuable. How and when did they appear on the scene?
Limestone houses in the ghetto are generally found closer to Barrie St. and were probably built before 1860, like most limestone buildings. However, the land around Victoria Park, which contains a healthy portion of student rentals, was not developed until the 1870s. Before then, it had been Ordnance Land (I haven’t found a great definition of what this means; my vague definition is “government land”) and it wasn’t built on. In 1873 Victoria Park was laid out and the land around it divided into rectangular lots. They were sold throughout the 1870s and 80s, and possibly beyond. Much of this housing was designed as a middle-class streetcar suburb, and isn’t architecturally remarkable.
However, some housing closer to campus is more individual. For example, in the 1890s land around the intersection of University and Union was divided into lots. A series of brick houses were built there, several of which would cut a fine figure further downtown, and most of which are still standing and being used either by Queen’s or as student housing. (It may be interesting to note that University Avenue was a new name in the 1890s; previously the street was known as Gordon Street. I think it’s possible some “re-branding” was going on.)
Additionally, the west side of University Ave. south of Union featured spacious homes where professors often lived, and the same could be found on Stuart St. Sadly only a few remnants of this domestic past remain on campus: one example is the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Most of these houses were torn down in the 1960s and 70s to build new university halls. Although the “heritage” movement is a relatively recent phenomenon, and we might not make the same decisions today, I do think there is a mindset presently and historically that undervalues the architecture and landscape west of Barrie.
I also think that this probably trickles down to the boundaries of the student ghetto, and that it probably has some basis in Barrie St. at one point being the town limit, officially and in the minds of Kingstonians. Clearly there are a lot of factors here that I haven’t gone over, and really this is more of a thought exercise than a structured argument. Nevertheless it’s my personal response to the Journal article, and here’s hoping that the history of the student ghetto area – not to mention the housing that students have to live in – is given more respect.
Much of this post was based on research I did for earlier posts, such as the following:
Further sources are:
McKendry, Jennifer. “Illustrated Chronology of the Williamsville Study Area.” PDF file, 2011.
*This document was formerly available to download on the City of Kingston website. However I don’t know if it’s still available, because I haven’t been able to find it again. It’s possible that it was taken down, but if you’re interested to see it I imagine you could just send an email request. That’s the trouble with online sources: they have a habit of disappearing…
Stewart, J. Douglas and Ian E. Wilson. Heritage Kingston. Kingston, ON: Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University, 1973