My Town - A Sense of Similarity, A Sense of Difference


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So, I've been a Kitchener-Waterloo resident for eleven years. Why am I still here?

I moved to Kitchener with my parents back in 1991. The arrangement was just about perfect; by selling our house in Toronto, and buying where houses were $200,000 cheaper, I was able to attend the University of Waterloo's School of Urban and Regional Planning, without paying for my own apartment or dorm room, and my father was able to semi-retire. I still loved Toronto, but my father had found that the city was getting busier and a little meaner. He yearned for someplace quieter.

But not too quiet. My parents sat down and wrote out what they wanted in a town: a university, an old downtown with a good mixture of stores, lots of trees. If we hadn't set down roots in Kitchener, we would have ended up in London, Ontario, a city of 300,000 that reminded my father of the Toronto of his childhood in the 1950s. For me, Kitchener reminded me of the Toronto of my childhood in the 1970s. There was a viable downtown (two, actually -- or, rather, five, but we hadn't encountered Cambridge, yet) with lots of old architecture. There was a good mix of stores, and the place hadn't yet gentrified to the extent that Toronto's downtown had -- not that this is a bad thing, but these touches in Kitchener gave me something to hold on to and identify with. This integrated us into the community faster; gave us points of reference that we could understand.

It wasn't long, however, before we picked out the city's differences, and embraced them. It wasn't that we loved Kitchener more than Toronto; Kitchener was different from Toronto, and there were things unique to Kitchener that further fostered our sense of community.

Kitchener-Waterloo, despite holding 500,000 people, despite growing rapidly, despite housing two universities and a community college, and despite being a centre for heavy and high tech industry, is still a country town. Within thirty minutes of driving, you will see farmers fields. There are still active farms within Kitchener's city limits. The Saturday farmers market in downtown Kitchener grounds the city's connection with the countryside. Immediately to the north of Waterloo, the village of St. Jacobs blares its Mennonite culture and its fields and its larger farmer's market across the region. Kitchener is a farm town, a Mennonite town and a distinctly German town. That's something that no other city in Ontario has, and it's something to be proud of. St. Lawrence Market in Toronto is dominated by the urban frenzy around it, while the Kitchener Farmers Market and St. Jacobs are dominant landmarks themselves.

And Kitchener is a German town, unlike Toronto. From the first Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite settlers to the time the town was called Berlin, and beyond its controversial renaming, this city has remained a centre of German immigration, and has a huge list of families with German names: Zehr (including Carl Zehr, our mayor), Eby, Krug, Schneider. For tourism purposes, this Germanic character culminates in the largest Oktoberfest in the western hemisphere, but for most everybody else, it means hearing German accents and language on the street, German street names, German cuisine, and a stronger cup of coffee.

At the same time, other cultures have been welcomed to, especially recently. We've seen a Chinese community spring up from almost nowhere. Irish influences are appearing in Oktoberfest. The multiculturalism that is Toronto's major selling point is starting to come to Waterloo Region.

Similarities and differences establish and develop relationships which make cities unique, and make them homes. Kitchener has these similarities and differences. I am proud that I live in a city that stands out from the crowd a little. I am comfortable living in a city that reminds me so much of my childhood home. Waterloo Region has welcomed me, primarily by just being itself.

Next Article: A Sense of Optimism

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