There’s something unique about growing up in a small town. It’s everything people stereotypically describe it as: you know every person that passes by, there are the old families that have been here for generations (half the town is related) and if you’re not, then you’re close with the families who are.
I grew up in the same house my entire life, where my grandmother lived across the street, and my uncle two houses down. A similar story for many people raised in Ayr, a small town nestled in between Galt and Paris.
As kids, we spent our days down by the old watering hole, playing road hockey in the streets, biking endlessly around town, and hours just laying in the tall grass. To clarify, it was the ‘90’s not the ‘50’s.
Throughout my childhood we talked about wanting to “get outta here,” to move somewhere more exciting, all the while taking for granted how lucky we had it to have such a tight-knit, safe community.
Even after “making it out” myself, having lived in multiple different places since high school (Vancouver, the Netherlands and Japan), and finally returning home this past year, I find myself back in Waterloo Region, back in my old town, with a fresh appreciation for the beauty in the countryside and in our small quaint downtown, but I also recognize the changes happening in our community.
Now, as I stroll through the old downtown, I can still see the ghosts behind the new facades; behind the new dental offices, law offices, marketing firms, I can picture the old hardware store, the antique store, The Millpond Cafe where I used to have breakfast with my great grandfather, the General Store where I have a faint memory of walking to with my mother to get some baking supplies.
I walk along the route my brothers and I used to take to go to and from school everyday: starting by the old arena, through the downtown, and slightly up the hill to Ayr Public School. My strongest memory of our walks was my younger brother, Jake,who somehow always managed to have change on him — most likely “borrowed” from our dad’s change jar — so we could stop after school at one of our regular shops to get a snack.
We would stop at the Cream of the Crop for chocolate raisins, or the Little Short Stop (that was a quarter of the size it is now) for 5cent candies. There was the bakery where Jake and our neighbour Konrad would buy those long 99cent cheese breadsticks and smack each other with first before eating. Now a dental office, that bakery remains just another distant memory, where people walk through the front door for root canals opposed to kids who buy big breadsticks.
Since I’ve grown up here, the size of our town has doubled in population. People now say that Ayr’s on the “map” since our growth has brought us a Tim Hortons, a brand new community complex, and the new Foodland with a decent sized LCBO inside. Now Ayr houses around 4,000 people, with plans in place to double that number in the next five years.
I appreciate what growth does for a community and am proud that Ayr is a desirable place to live, but on the other hand, I feel some sense of loss, that the Ayr of my youth is no longer there and in a short time, the village will appear even more different than it does now. I can’t help to wonder with all this expansion, how will Ayr maintain its identity? How will we preserve that small town atmosphere that people move here exactly for, and what causes so many people to stay? As we grow, will all this be lost, or is there a balance that can be struck?
Recently, I met with Mayor Sue Foxton to discuss these changes in Ayr and where she sees the community headed. We reminisced about the days when she taught swimming lessons to me, and half the village, in her backyard pool. I asked her if that Ayr still exists?
Foxton assured me that as a community re-invents itself, the echoes of the old town will still ring through. That these certain activities may be lost, but the spirit of community and togetherness is still alive and well. She pointed to new growth, such as the condo developments being built downtown that will attract more people, creating a more vibrant business community.
While yes, sometimes we cling to the nostalgia that was our childhood home, it’s also important to make room for new growth without sacrificing a sense of familiarity.Just the other day I went downtown Ayr with my brother for a snack, and sure enough Jake had some spare change in his pocket.