History of Downtown Fort William

Compiled By Derek Silver

After World War II, a population boom combined with social engineering from governments backed by corporations pushed populations out of city centres and into newly developed suburbs, where every family would have its own home, every home would have its own garage and every garage would have its own car, all run on cheap, abundant oil.

In 1954, Intercity Mall was built just north of the McIntyre River in what was then the city of Port Arthur. That marked the beginning of the end for the downtown cores. The removal of everyone who had any form of financial success left downtown rents low, making them more accessible to the poor who previously lived among middle and upper class people. Crime and poverty in city centres skyrocketed. Intercity, on the other hand, was clean, new, safe, and had ample parking for the cars that everyone suddenly owned. By 1960, the traditional North American downtown was dead.

This alarmed many communities (especially in the United States, where those suburbs were entirely separate cities, often in entirely separate counties). In 1962, Rochester, New York built the first “downtown mall”. Midtown Place (which is currently under demolition) was supposed to revive the downtown area, by turning into what the suburban shopping centres were. They saw that people wanted a large, indoor facility with many shops and ample free parking. They had a theory that, if they could turn downtown into that, it would be revived. The concept of the downtown mall was born.

Midtown Place didn’t do what it was supposed to. Unlike the suburban malls, it was in an undesirable area, far away from where people now lived and rather cramped in a neighbourhood populated with poor people and full of crime. This didn’t stop the urban mall craze, though. Almost every city in North America has one. Many were built on reclaimed land adjacent to downtown (like Sault Ste. Marie’s station mall), some were built on demolished blocks of historic buildings (like the Keskus and Winnipeg’s Portage Place), and some were built by closing formerly busy streets and building an aisle in its place (like Guelph’s Old Quebec Street). Victoriaville is an example of the latter. Not only was it built on a busy street, it was built on Fort William’s former Grand Junction (the point at which a street car can go in any direction it wants–often the busiest part of a downtown; of course, the streetcars weren’t around by then but that’s a different, equally horrific tale).

By 1980 almost every city had realized that bulldozing a large part of the downtown to build a replica of something from the suburbs was a horrible idea that barely changed the state of downtown. When Victoriaville was constructed, many cities and urban advocates campaigned against the idea, predicting its eventual failure before it was even built. The city went ahead with it anyway.

To make up for the blocking of what was originally Fort William’s main east-west arterial, Simpson Street was re-routed to connect to Arthur Street, a process that destroyed a large portion of the city’s former warehouse district. Victoria Avenue was left as a minor arterial, its eastern extremity (which was by 1980 in bad shape) was left almost inaccessible. (By almost, I mean you had to make a turn. Every car’s worst nightmare.)

While Victoriaville certainly didn’t revitalize downtown in the way it was intended, to blame it for the situation is to ignore the 25 years of neglect and suburbanization that preceded its construction. Victoriaville and Keskus were not the cause of the downtowns decline. They were reactions to it.

Today, Victoriaville operates in a manner similar to many larger cities’ underground malls or “plus 15? systems. It is a climate controlled connection between office buildings, with stores catering primarily to those people. Around 1,000 people work in this building and the buildings attached to it. Many local businesses (primarily in the food sector) are thriving here. (There are two Robin’s Donuts franchises across from each other in the centre of the mall, but getting a coffee at lunchtime is still a harrowing ordeal.) It is actually doing better than many of the smaller suburban malls today (particularly Northwood and County Fair, which are just a few stores away from being Dead Malls), and many of the people who work here enjoy it. In this aspect, the mall is an asset to the business community of the downtown core. Yet there are still those who want the building torn down, so that Victoria is once again opened to traffic. They forget one thing…

By: Derek Silver


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