Shea Heights Winterfest became a chance to learn the neighbourhood’s inspiring history for one local journalist
Shea Heights Winterfest is a late February 4-day festival consisting of 11 different events. Embracing all age groups in the community, there’s family swimming, outdoor activities, a movie night, darts, 2 bingo games, and 1 50-plus and one open to all ages.
For artists, there is a talent show and a snow sculpture contest. For athletes, a basketball skills competition and an awesome teen event, The ‘Amaze-Teen’ Race. Not to mention a community brunch for a buck!
I brought 2 friends to the festival’s closing bingo game on Sunday afternoon. Perhaps a tad over enthusiastic, we played too many cards for us to handle. We struggled to keep up to the game’s quick pace and understand the advanced jargon at play. These people were not messing around. The room was silent save for the low muttering of the numbers just called as people scanned their cards.
The thick pleather-bound bingo cards, good for generations of use, splashed colour through the room; bright green, orange, or blue. A bingo angel at the next table helped us when we occasionally lost the plot. My comrades were better at this than me, but in the end I won a different prize. I was given a gift of the book Melissa Earles-Druken and Ruth Wilkins wrote, Shea Heights: The Real Story Of Our Home.
Shea Heights history is shrouded in mystery. One pretty much has to go to provincial archives to find anything at all, there’s nothing online to research. I asked Melissa about Father Leo Shea, whose image hung on the wall above us.
I knew that the area was once known as the Blackhead Road Area, but somewhere along the line had become Shea Heights. Was it changed in his honor, I wondered. She answered yes, and gave me the book.
An hour later, book in hand, having totally bombed at bingo, I went home and embarked on one heck of an inspiring journey. I’d known Shea Heights had once been known as a “hard spot,” but it was evident to me that this had not been the case for a long time now. I had not stopped to question how the transition had happened, but this book told the story of hard won battles to secure basic services.
People originally moved up “the hill” in the 20s to escape city taxes. They built basic homes, had large families, and provided for them with jobs, generally hard labour on the docks, in the city below. There was no water or sewer, or many other amenities till the Urban Renewal Schemes of the 1960s.
These gains did not come easily. When the city had decided to “deal with fringe areas” like Blackhead Road (now Shea Heights), they did it with fantastic rhetoric of improved lives and services, but an attitude in practice that was at best ignorant and worst contemptuous of the rights and needs of the populace.
Householders returned home to houses that had been demolished while they were at work that day. Ditches were dug right in front of front doors with no advance warning. Distress and concern amongst residents led to the creation of the Householders Union, or simply “the union,” as it was called. The residents considered it their voice.
Shea Heights historian Leo Horlick said, regarding opinion of their understanding and impact, “when they went in to talk for ya, you knew you weren’t coming out on the short end of it.”
Father Leo Shea was appointed area Roman Catholic priest in 1964, during the time of Urban Renewal, and “rolled his sleeves up” to counsel and advocate for his parishoners during this difficult time. “People first, priest second” was his attitude, and he is still revered as a champion of the neighbourhood.
Many feel he worked himself right into the grave, dying of a massive heart attack in 1970 at the young age of 37. Happily, he got to see his dream come true before his untimely death, the construction of a medical clinic in Shea Heights, a major gain for the community.
Since then Shea Heights has modernized completely and continues to add to its infrastructure. An annexation to St. John’s in 1984 has made it appear on paper now like any other outlying neighbourhood, but it retains a strong individual character.
The ceaseless efforts of community volunteers supplies the staff and fundraising to run festivals like the Folk Festival and Winterfest and the fundraising for construction of a War Memorial for Remembrance Day ceremonies.
The ability of the residents of Shea Heights to organize and work collectively for the common good has won them success over many obstacles. In that sense, they are an inspiration to the province’s librarians, arts professionals, entrepreneurs, and everyone else feeling the heat of the current government, budget, and provincial economy.
It’s easy to feel demoralized, and sometimes it’s a long, hard fight, but now and again, the people win.