Grade 5 book gets go-ahead

City council has granted the school board’s $3,000 request to print an additional two-year supply of the grade 5 resource book “My New Westminster: a Neighbourhood History.”

The book, originally funded as a 150th anniversary project and authored and illustrated by Literacy Visual Arts Coordinator (yes, we have one of those) Jill Doyle, explains the history of New Westminster and tells the story of each of the city’s neighbourhoods and schools.

At Monday night’s council meeting, students from Lord Tweedsmuir Community School brought smiles to the trustees’ faces with enthusiastic speeches they had prepared about the book.

“I think this book is great because it is not a textbook,” said Ben, a grade 5 student. “We can fit it into our desk easily and we can write in it. But most of all we get to keep it to look back on when we’re older.”

Classmate Fatuma said that having just moved to New Westminster last year, the book has helped her learn more about her new city.

“When reading this book I feel as if I am watching a movie,” she said. “The movie has adventures and is exciting. I learn something from every scene and I have a fun time learning.”

Their teacher Tanya Kaselj reiterated their praise, saying that she herself has learned a lot from teaching the book and she thinks all New Westminsterites could benefit from giving it a read.

The New Westminster Public Library does have several copies of the book available for those who are keen to learn about paddle wheelers and the gold rush but who don’t happen to be in grade 5.

Of dumbwaiters and wraparound porches

Monday marks the beginning of heritage week in B.C., and while New Westminster’s kids sharpen their pencil crayons to colour in Victorian homes, I’ve been waxing nostalgic about the city’s history and reflecting on the importance of preserving our urban heritage.

Galbraith House, located at the corner of Queen's Avenue and 8th Street in New Westminster, was built in 1894. Once decaying and in a state of collapse, Galbraith House has since been bought, renovated and turned into office suites and a conference centre.

There are around 1,000 registered heritage homes in New Westminster, and in my own neighbourhood, Queen’s Park, weekend warrior types have lovingly restored many of the area’s 100-year-old homes to their former (and in some cases, probably better than former) glory.

(If you’ve got some spare time to kill and are as fascinated by “old stuff” as I am, the Heritage Resource Inventory — an unofficial list of heritage properties drawn up by the city and some summer work students in the 1980s — provides hours of cheap thrills.)

Growing up in New West, servant stair cases, milk doors, laundry chutes and fold-out ironing boards made my childhood environment every bit as stimulating as my friends who grew up in more rural areas, building forts and playing games of their own invention in the woods.

After it was abandoned but before it was torn down, my brother and I spent our summers playing hide-and-go-seek in the overgrown gardens and empty swimming pool behind the A.M. Parsons house down the street (that’s what the HRI calls it — we, for some reason, called it the boat house).

"The boat house," captured sometime around 1985 as it appears in the Heritage Resource Inventory.

Over the years, we’ve dug up countless treasures in our backyard, including half a dozen ebony piano keys, a collection of  glass medecine bottles and a ladies boot that I would expertly carbon date to the “Barkerville era”.

Aside from the fact that I still have nightmares about the bullet lodged in the doorframe at Irving House, growing up in a place so steeped in and proud of its heritage as New Westminster is has contributed to my curiosity and my appreciation for this place.

Kids in most cities don’t get much of an education about their city, but events like May Day and girl guide trips to the old penitentiary (now home to my physiotherapist’s office) meant that I did.

Two years ago, the city introduced a unit on the civic history to the grade 5 social studies curriculum with the interactive book, My New Westminster: A Neighbourhood History. Elementary students now get the unique opportunity to learn about New Westminster’s beginnings as a Gold Rush pioneer settlement, to its regal days as the capital of British Columbia, to the Great Fire and the ensuing rebuild.

When so much of our attention is drawn to what is new, it’s important to take the time to think about what came before. Buildings, monuments, cemeteries, street patterns and homes are all important reminders of our city’s remarkable achievements, conflicts and changes. I’m grateful to live in a city that understands and values that.