The story of a neighbourhood

How student living at Queen’s has changed over the years

A group of Queen’s students stand in front of Victor Hall boarding house in 1901.
A group of Queen’s students stand in front of Victor Hall boarding house in 1901.
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Some things never change: students stand outside a boarding house at 186 University Avenue in the 1930s and today.
Some things never change: students stand outside a boarding house at 186 University Avenue in the 1930s and today.
Credit: 
Supplied
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Stumbling back to the 1840s and strolling across the land currently classified as Aberdeen Street would likely be an experience eerily similar to today. Accompanying the expected detritus of broken bottles, litter and discarded belongings would be a high concentration of poverty-stricken tenants, bodily waste—from animals, not keg-party leftovers—and individuals foreign to, and ostracized by, their surrounding community.

Lot 24—or, more colloquially, Stuartsville—was the first suburban settlement in an area now claimed almost entirely by students. Developed by George Okill Stuart in the 1830s, the plot—adjacent to the residences of wealthy land-owners to the south—was envisioned as a haven for distressed immigrants and other working-class populations. Primarily occupying Agnew’s Lane (now William Street), Dunce or Young’s Lane (now Clergy Street West) and Earl Street, Stuart’s slum reached a population of 2,286 in 1848 and, not unlike today, was variously derided at public meetings as an “overgrown and populous suburb,” “crying evil” and a “millstone around the neck of Kingston.” However fleeting, the largely Irish-Catholic community of artisans and labourers, immigrants and outcasts left a permanent imprint on Kingston. The wealthy and architecturally-conservative institution of Queen’s University juxtaposed with the cheap, humble homes of the migrant student community is a legacy that can be attributed, in part, to Kingston’s Irish working-class.

Annexed by the city in 1850 along with the rest of the land west to Collingwood Street—what is now the most concentrated student area in Kingston—Stuartsville, despite its inevitable change of character, became closely associated with the University and its students while remaining the exception to Queen’s limestone expansion in the decades to come.

Before the neighbourhood’s annexation, the newly founded Queen’s College quickly bought two houses on William Street—a decision influenced by complaints from parents about the evils of the Queen Street taverns in this “booming metropolis of 6,000” —to accommodate and educate its 10 pupils. Over the next decade, board members and professors would change hands as heads of house, inevitably developing the formula for what would become one of the greatest sources of Queen’s spirit and comradery over the next century: the student boarding house.

Although the original university boarding house was closed in 1854 when Queen’s moved to its present-day campus, relations between students and the Kingston community grew more congenial as locally-run boarding houses abounded. Typically, a boarding house would consist of 10 to 20 men and a landlady or family who would serve them three meals a day as part of their rent—the University began to house women in special residences early on.

In the Journal, students expressed their contentedness with such arrangements and many—such as Adam Shortt, the first economic historian in Canada and future Queen’s professor—described boarding house life as one of their fondest undergraduate experiences. Even Principal Grant would, when stumbling across a family building a new house, often persuade Kingstonians to add an extra storey for students.

As Queen’s tiptoed into the 20th century, the boarding house mentality was becoming institutionalized.

The first significant threat to boarding house life was the fraternities debate, which began in the early 1920s. During this time, embryo-fraternities—generally associated with particular faculties or pre-existing clubs—developed informally. Claiming that loyalties to fraternities would detract from loyalty to Queen’s, the AMS revised its constitution in 1930 to ban such organizations and ratified the decision in 1934.

Chuck Campling, Sci ’44 and ArtSci ’90, arrived at Queen’s from Saskatchewan just as the tensions regarding fraternities began to simmer. He recalled the concerns voiced on campus about the possible segregating tendencies of fraternities on what was a tight-knit campus.

“We were all just one big fraternity,” he said. “We didn’t need any pockets of isolated fraternities.

“My opinion is that the focus was on campus. The studies, the military activity, the dating activity, eating and living was close to campus.”

Campling, a retired Queen’s engineering professor, first lived in a boarding house at 39 Division Street before moving to Albert Street. In his fourth year, the University underwent a major housing crisis, causing some students to withdraw their placement due to exorbitant competitiveness in the housing market. The student population had grown in size by a third and a substantial number of veterans were returning. Without much advertising, Campling said, student housing was largely dependent upon good fortune.

“That was the challenge,” he said. “I came in from Saskatchewan, for God’s sakes, and I had to somehow find myself a place to live.” To cut costs, Campling decided to tutor his landlady’s son in math. He affectionately remembers the family dynamic that orchestrated life in the boarding houses.

“You had a relationship with your landlady,” he said. “I remember on one occasion—I was new and friends with the landlady but was less so with the landlord—I was out on some sort of date in the evening and left my key and I went and slept the night on a bench in the gymnasium. When I arrived in the morning and the landlady let me in she said disapprovingly ‘Chuck,’ like I had been bingeing all night. You know, we had this kind of almost mother-son relationship. That was typical I think.”

Bingeing, although seemingly commonplace throughout the student community today, was a non-issue, Campling said.

“Just pretty dull,” he chuckled. “At least by today’s standards.

“I have no recollections—and it wasn’t because I was drunk—of alcohol consumption at that time. It just wasn’t a factor.” But it wasn’t only drinking—off-campus eating wasn’t considered a priority either, Campling said. The Queen’s Tea Room—a commercial establishment unaffiliated with the University—was popular, but most students drifted between their home-cooked meals and dinners at the Student Union building, now the JDUC.

“The neighbourhood belonged to the people that owned the houses, not the students; we were more guests,” he said, adding that there wasn’t any tension between the students and the greater Kingston community.

“The place is bigger [now], there are more students, and I just think it’s a different scene,” he said.

Like Campling, Bill Glover, ArtSci ’73 and city councillor for the Sydenham district, lived at 238 Albert Street. Although not a boarding house tenant himself, he remembers the last vestiges of boarding houses in the area. Queen’s invested significantly in on-campus residence in the late 1950s and 1960s, which greatly contributed to their decline. Glover defines his years at Queen’s as a time when the student community was transitioning to its current state.

“While I was at Queen’s, the student population broke 10,000 for the first time,” he said. “Then the province lowered the drinking age from 21 to 19.

“The size of the University and the change in the drinking age significantly alters the social dynamic.”

For Glover and his peers, the now-defunct McKamey’s Manor—near the current Portsmouth Tavern and run by the same outfit as Amey’s Taxi—was the pub of choice. Bedore’s—which still exists at the corner of Earl and Frontenac Streets—was the neighbourhood convenience store. The A&P at Barrie and Princess Streets was the sole student grocery store. But beyond these select few locales, Kingston services were not nearly as accessible to students as they are now.

“I lived below Earl Street ... and I had no reason to explore the outer extremities,” Glover said. “In my last year they moved Richardson [Stadium] to West Campus and people thought that was the backside and beyond.

“I would maintain that the idea of a relationship with the community is a bit of a non-starter. Queen’s encompasses a group of people who are essentially all the same age, all on the same journey, all living in an area, all working at the same place. I think, quite realistically, the student body is 90 per cent self-contained and inward looking.”

But Don Rogers—founder of Save Our Neighbourhood Action Group and a former city councillor of 15 years who represented the same district as Glover until 2004—said this disregard for the community is detrimental to the quality of life for both students and Kingstonians. He points to the disconnect between the University’s administration and the municipal government over the housing issue in the past 50 years as the main catalyst for unrest.

“Queen’s, from time to time, has said ‘We’re in the education business and not the housing business,’ and that has tended to be the attitude, that housing is a city problem and not a Queen’s problem,” he said. “So for many years they’ve washed their hands of responsibility for the community.

“In the 60s and 70s there was a mushroom of enrollment. They hardly added a single residence in that time. Queen’s has been playing a catch-up since the 60s and 70s and haven’t done a good enough job, so they’ve pushed students out.

“I think it was the spurt in construction—in the last 10 or so years, after about a 20-year lull—with the building of Chernoff Hall, Stauffer Library ... that compounded the simmering problem of these imperceptible changes by pushing the problems out to the fringe.”

Other historic trends, such as the ‘Ghetto’ or boarding house mentality and landlord negligence, have augmented an already tense relationship, Rogers said.

“The other things that I’ve seen, what I trace as the root cause, is this particular culture of Queen’s where one of the advantages is that you can live within a few neighbourhoods of the University,” he said.

“This is quite exceptional in terms of other Ontario universities. And Queen’s for a while promoted this. It was basically a marketing tool for high school students ... so even the administration was pushing this concept.” The push to cram students into old, ill-suited houses has been an equally harmful trend, Rogers said.

“It was very incremental, probably imperceptible,” he said. “The first thing that happened was landlords bought houses to rent to students, but never changed the amount of rooms. But then, after a while, landlords started raising the roofs, extending the backs, adding these huge additions.

“In fact, University Avenue used to be a very graceful, stately street with almost mansions, from my understanding. It’s an interesting reference point. The houses we see now are not how the University or community intended them to be. ... We have changed the usage and that’s what’s created the problems.

“I wish I knew exactly when the tipping point was. But there was a certain tipping point when the attitude changed, when students weren’t viewed as friendly neighbours but a threat. If you could avoid reaching that tipping point on any given block, that would be well worth it.”

The Ghetto grows up

1785: Reverend John Stuart arrives in Upper Canada and takes up Lot 24.

1811: Archdeacon George Okill Stuart inherits Lot 24 after his father’s death.

1830-1850: Stuartsville, a labourer and immigrant neighbourhood, is developed in Lot 24 by Archdeacon Stuart in the area including Clergy Street West, Earl Street and William Street.

1841: Queen’s College founded.

1847: Queen’s operates a boarding house on William Street at eight and nine pence per week with the addition of a cook, housemaid and manservant.

1850: Kingston expands westward to Collingwood Street

1854: Queen’s moves to its present-day campus and closes William Street boarding house. Students begin to live within Kingston community.

1879: Thomas Rudd subdivides land on both sides of Division Street from Earl to Johnson Streets.

1921: Richardson Stadium site signifies westward expansion of Queen’s.

1921-1923: Queen’s purchases four houses on Union Street.

1925: Ban Righ Hall for women founded.

1930: AMS revises its constitution and outlaws fraternities.

1933: Decision overturned at a mass AMS meeting.

1934: Fraternities prohibited as it’s discovered that the medical fraternity, Psi Delta Phi, is affiliated with an international fraternity, Nu Sigma Nu.

1942: Due to housing shortages, male students receive temporary accommodation on cots in the gymnasium.

1944-1945: Students forced to withdraw due to lack of housing in Kingston.

1946: Housing office established to place students in community lodging.

1952-1958: Adelaide, McNeil and Morris Halls constructed, signaling a shift in student life to on-campus residence.

1965: Victoria Hall built.

1985: The Victoria School—built in 1892—is closed citing a lack of feeder-families. Queen’s buys the property, where Goodes Hall sits today.

2008: Save Our Neighbourhood Action Group (SONAG) is founded.

-Taylor Burns

Sources: Queen’s University, Volumes I and II and Queen’s University Heritage Study 1998 (www.queensu.ca/camplan/reports/heritage/index.html)

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