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Hidden treasure lies in wait in Quadra district

Victoria is a city full of charming neighbourhoods, each one unique and distinct.

Victoria is a city full of charming neighbourhoods, each one unique and distinct. Hometown, by Victoria author Anny Scoones — and illustrated by local artist and Times Colonist art critic Robert Amos — is not just a book of facts about each of these areas, but a gentle stroll through a diverse region with a fascinating and layered history. With this selection, observe, pause, ponder, and have what Anny likes to call “a little think” on Quadra.

It’s a funny thing, but quite often the largest and most normal working-family neighbourhoods are ignored for exactly this reason, that they are quiet and modest and people go about their day-to-day business and there seems to be nothing original or spectacular or culturally unique in these areas. This applies, for instance, to the Quadra area north of downtown, spreading northward into the Peninsula toward the highway and the Saanich suburbs.

Perhaps it is exactly the quiet, normal lifestyle of these hard-working families that is in fact unique; we wouldn’t have a city without these neighbourhoods like Quadra, which are made up of quiet, tree-lined streets, modest family homes with bikes and toys on the front lawn, men washing the car on the weekends, and unpruned lilacs falling onto the sidewalks where children have done chalk drawings and played hopscotch. There are numerous recreational athletic parks and basketball courts where soccer and ball games are played by the local youth after school as they trudge home from public schools with loaded backpacks.

Natural, scenic landscaped parks and gardens in this neighbourhood are not as common as in the seashore neighbourhoods. The parks in the Quadra area serve a purpose other than for strolling and looking at nature — they serve families. There are community centres that hold “teen barbecue nights” and day camps in the summer. Sinewy boys glide along the sidewalks and jump off the curbs on their beaten-up skateboards. Mothers keep watch over their toddlers playing in the sandboxes in the numerous pocket playgrounds, and young girls in sparkly pink T-shirts talk together on the sidewalks as they amble home from school.

The Quadra lifestyle is simply just how we all live day-to-day, taking care of our families, friends, homes, lawns and cars, playing sports, paying our taxes, holding garage sales or barbecues for the neighbourhood baseball team, going out to dinner nearby on the weekend, returning books to the library, taking swimming lessons at the local pool, shovelling snow on the rare day in winter when we get it, building a snowman in the front yard.
There is something secure about normalness, something calm and nice about creating and living a life based on the routine of having a job and a family and a home.

Quadra Street is long, running from downtown all the way out to the highway, the length of Victoria, actually. At the downtown end, there are numerous heritage churches — huge old brick-and-stone structures with steeples, grand carved entrances and stained-glass windows. A block farther north, there are just as many new churches.

Up Quadra past the churches there are practical shops and services; this is what the Quadra neighbourhood is: practical, down-to-earth and family-oriented.

The Quadra neighbourhood has a “village,” which makes an interesting stroll in daylight hours (that’s when everything is open). The village is a few blocks long and is a colourful mix of ethnic restaurants, secondhand shops and the retro Roxy Theatre.

The Quadra neighbourhood is home to many new Canadians — it’s a multicultural neighbourhood. In the village you can eat Asian kabobs, Chinese duck, Greek souvlaki, Caribbean stew or Italian pizza. Farther along there is an Italian bakery and a Manila video store, an “Asian Emporium,” and a Mediterranean store full of cheeses, Turkish delight, nuts, spices, pastas, grape leaves, dried fruit and shelves of colourful cans of olive oil and tomatoes.

There’s a romance to an ethnic neighbourhood, a global, worldly, warm feeling amongst all the little food outlets with the smells of cooking wafting down the back alleys. In an ethnic neighbourhood, people are busy, food is being cooked, and there’s a good kind of human energy — hard, raw, working energy. This is what it means to be human, to be alive, all together with our different global traditions.

One unique heritage feature of the Quadra neighbourhood is its history of the garage. Originally, carriages were kept in carriage houses, but when the car came into fashion, garages began to be built; eventually, the garage became attached to the house.

“Cars began to move into the house,” says a local brochure on the history of the Quadra neighbourhood. And this in turn led to urban sprawl and suburban development because this design altered the footprint of the home — more room was needed for building when the garage was attached to the house.

The detached garages, carriage houses or garden sheds are often more charming than the main houses; one might have an old crooked weathervane on its peak, another an ancient climbing rose leaning on its southern side, crawling under the gables or a little window with original glass and windowsill standing the test of time.

At the northernmost part of Quadra Street is Rithet’s Bog, which buffers the neighbourhood of Broadmead, a newer suburb that stretches over the rocky bluffs and then slopes down toward Cordova Bay. The bog was donated by the Guinness family in 1994 as a nature sanctuary, and a group of devoted citizens has taken on the stewardship of the bog (with the Saanich Parks Department). Their most recent restoration project was to cut back a very aggressive, invasive bulrush, which if left unchecked would quickly grow over the entire wetland.

Rithet’s Bog is a peat bog. Peat bogs all over the world are diminishing; they are either being drained and developed or, more likely in many countries, the peat is being removed to be used as fuel or for horticultural purposes. Peat bogs form over thousands of years from decaying plants in a wet and poorly drained watershed. As plants decay, and the water and soil develop a high acidity level, plants such as sphagnum moss and other vegetation, insects, grasses and fungi thrive and also die and decay, creating the bog and the layers of peat. Peat can actually be the first stage of coal development. Some bogs, such as Rithet’s, are called “domed bogs” because the centre is raised from the heavy buildup of material — in Rithet’s, the dome consists of coniferous vegetation.

It takes about an hour to stroll around the lovely gravel trail at Rithet’s Bog; on one side is a mass of bulrushes and willows, reeds and grasses, and then the trail takes you through the damper, darker, more forested section where dead trees are rotting back into the earth amongst the ferns and pines and dense native shrubs such as Indian plum and snowberries.

Throughout the walk there is a distinctive smell — a fresh, soft odour of natural decay, of nature working with all her microbes to decompose everything in the bog; the smell reminded me vaguely of Gran’s kitchen in summer at dinnertime, when we’d have boiled peas from her garden and new potatoes with mint. Decay does not have to be foul-smelling — in a bog it is a wonderful, working whiff that filters through the thick growth that Mother Nature is labouring on.

Rithet’s Bog is named after the prominent Scottish businessman (and mayor of Victoria from 1884 to 1885) Robert Rithet, who owned much of the land in the area and bred racehorses in the early 1900s. One of his most famous horses was in fact named Broadmead, which really does sound like a winner. Rithet’s businesses were shipping, flour, steel, real estate, canning and Hawaiian sugar.

Rithet drained the bog (which originally was a source of cranberries) for agricultural purposes, using his draft horses, which had to wear large, flat wooden shoes so they didn’t sink in the mud. As soon as agricultural production ceased, however, Mother Nature quickly took the cultivated field back to the deep, wet, decaying bog that it truly wanted to be, for all of us to enjoy.

Excerpt from Hometown: Out and About in Victoria’s Neighbourhoods, TouchWood Editions ©2013 Anny Scoones

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