If Streets Could Talk: Hespeler

When I was in high school, I would spend most summer weekends taking trips to Becker’s, the corner store on Fisher Mills in Hespeler — a neighbourhood and former township within Cambridge.  

Things couldn’t get much better than slurping cold slushies on a hot summers’ day, while chatting with friends on the bleachers at Victoria Park and discussing essential topics, like the upcoming school dance. 

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Throughout my entire childhood, the hands that owned the corner store, along with its name, changed so often that I literally just kept calling it Becker’s. Even when ownership changed, it’s shell still remained the same, acting as a fixture of my adolescence, a staple within the place that I grew up. No matter how many times it changed, it would always be Becker’s to me.

I know this is overly simple logic, but I was a kid after all, and it’s the simple things that really mattered, just the same as adventuring around Hespeler was both the most mundane and most thrilling form of entertainment. 

It was my job as a kid to explore the unexplored, and Hespeler had much of that to offer. 

There was a sort of rush in figuring out where the roads of Hespeler led, as well as its alleys, its trails and its tracks. 

The more paths you know like the back-of-your hand, the more you really begin to understand that neighbourhood itself. Whether it was cutting across the train bridge over the river on my way back from high school, mainly to take sick selfies with my new LG Shine at the time, or biking through the trails at Silver Heights Park, I was generally always on the move.

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But often enough, I’d also find myself coming to a halt downtown. As you venture down Guelph Avenue, all the way across the river and over the bridge to Queen Street, you’ll find the original village on the river. It’s lined up with charming little shops and restaurants at the edge of the ever-flowing Speed River. 

One of Queen Street’s most obvious landmarks is the historic factory that overlooks the river. It’s of those places worth exploring as a kid, even just investigating it from the outside was like standing in the shadow of a sleeping giant. It’s almost as if you could hear its soft breathing, waiting to be awake, once more.

The building itself was once a woolen mill established in 1864 and was the largest mill in Canada, at the time. Something that was once a part of Hespeler’s growth, lay vacant for years. 

As a kid, the abandoned factories and run-down lots looked like a spot for a grand adventure, but as I got older I saw them for what they really were — a missed opportunity to be something much more productive for local residents.

What little charming shops did exist on Queen Street often closed and were replaced with something similar, never really lasting too long, like the loss of Video 99 which will always leave a giant gaping hole in my heart (RIP.)

As I reached my senior years at high school and then eventually my university days, I made more and more friends from out of town. They’d generally ask me what there is to do in Cambridge, and I’d always reply saying: “well … there isn’t really much to do there.” 

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There simply weren’t many opportunities for social interaction for adults, or reason to stick at all around after you’re done school. And it’s unfortunate because for a small place, it certainly does have a lot of character. 

To me – and I think to many – Hespeler is little more than a pitstop. It’s conveniently situated next to the 401, so that you can quickly get to other cities where there is “stuff” to do.

Guelph, Waterloo, Kitchener are basically a stone’s throw away. 

So, when my friends and I were at a driving age, we’d make our way to patio bars in Kitchener or arcades in Brantford, and even though I’ve lived in Hespeler for 25 years, the older I got, the less time I’d spend here. 

And eventually, I started to forget about what made it special to me.

However, on my drives back home from Laurier, where I attended school, I’d get subtle reminders of the familiarity of Hespeler’s charm — the same I felt when I looked at Becker’s.

As I approached my suburb, sometimes I’d catch a glimpse snoopy atop his house on Beaverdale Road — yes, quite literally a house with a gigantic snoopy on top — or the smiley face hill as I approached from Hespeler road, always happy to see me.

But, most of all what caught my eye every night was a sign labeled “#HOPE” at the edge of someone’s yard, lit during cold winter nights, fairly close to the corner store on Fisher Mill’s. 

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I never questioned why it was there or who lit the sign up every night, but just that it had become a familiar mark, letting me know that I was nearing my home. 

For years I felt much more connected to the community in Waterloo than Cambridge, and mainly because I naturally gravitated towards it, because there was a feel that there is more emphasis was placed upon local businesses rallying together to build a stronger community. But, as I graduated university and started spending more time in my forgotten town, I realized that changes were a lot less subtle now.

A construction project to revitalize the abandoned factory as the new home for Riverbank Lofts, has begun. The forgotten mill was once a beating heart for the Village on the River, but as time changed, the town no longer needed it. This act of transforming an outdated space into something functional for today’s generation is a much needed spark of innovation for Hespeler to reach its potential.

And with a lot more hot-spots springing up like The Village Well pub or Four Father’s Brewery, I now find myself starting to ask friends from out of town to join me here, in Cambridge, to socialize. 

It’s not to say that there were simply no worthy places before, but the kind of energy you can see going into bringing more life and diversity to this core area of Cambridge is quite striking. Witnessing the city and businesses really start to view Hespeler as an opportunity to invest in is a much-needed step in the right direction. 

I sincerely hope we see much more of it in the future because as wonderful as I think this kind of “uncovering of Hespeler’s potential” is, there is still a long way to go.  

As more changes roll in and Hespeler begins to grow in unexpected ways, I think it’s safe to say that its character and charm will always remain. We’ll see it in the colourful graffiti splashed across ally walls, or the sound of the rushing water as we walk across Jacob’s Landing and it’ll still feel familiar — just as the corner store by my house will always feel like Becker’s to me.