The Outport as Penurb: Debating the Idea of Rural by Nic Hartmann

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Today’s post comes from our regular contributor, Nic Hartmann, a folklorist and PhD candidate at  Memorial University of Newfoundland. Building on his last post exploring concepts of rethinking community, Hartman explores the term “Penurb” and penurbia”—what scholar Joseph Goddard calls those “communities in a rural setting that are influenced by metropolitan ideas and people.” Hartman examines the role of this concept in his own work and sheds some light on those incredibly fuzzy boundaries  between concepts of urban and rural. 

Renews, Newfoundlandor Renews-Cappahayden, as it’s known on a geopolitical basis—is a small town of 310 people, though five years before it had a total of 421. Located about 90 minutes from St. John’s on Route 10known by many a tourist as the Irish Loop Drivethe town, like many, has encountered much change in the last few decades due to the 1992 cod moratorium and the resulting out migration that followed. The community’s school closed in 1989, and most residents have to travel north to other communities to purchase gas, food and other necessities. Many of them work in Newfoundland’s offshore oil & gas industry, leaving home for weeks at a time, but making communities like Renews their permanent base.

Two months ago I was there doing fieldwork when my informant, Mike, a lifelong resident of the area, said to me that his home town “felt urban.” I asked him what he meant by that, and he said that people in the area often have to drive to St. John’s for most of their shopping, services, and the like, yet have a home base in Renews. Having just driven from my home that is near a shopping centre and located in what was, at one point, the edge of the city, I couldn’t stop pondering the idea of the town as “urban.” After all, the community itself appears largely as it has for decades. Many of its houses are located near the harbour and often quite traditional in design, and there is very little car traffic, noise, or pollution to be seen. The biggest community in this part of the Irish Loop is only around 500 people, rather than the 106,000 of St. John’s. So how can a community with houses, a historic church, and a post office be urban?

I started to think about it a bit more and realized that this is the case with many communities around North America, including my own home town where growing up it was not uncommon for us to drive the twenty miles to Evansville for clothes shopping, entertainment, or spending time with friends on the weekend. In all directions from St. John’s, however, one finds subdivisions popping up in what were, at one point, small fishing communities. And in the rest of the province it is not uncommon for people from outside of the province- or country- to have purchased old outport homes to be utilized as summer (or even full-time) residences. (A classmate of mine, Emily Urquhart, has looked at this in her own research on summer residents in the Bonavista Peninsula of Newfoundland.)

While doing some research, I came across the term “penurbia.” According to Joseph Goddard at the University of Copenhagen, penurbia, which could best be described as communities in a rural setting that are influenced by metropolitan ideas and people, “is central to the American mind-set, as it combines the dreams, expectations, and experiences of the nation. While physically close to metropolitan areas, penurbia is not recognizably part of the metropolis, as it lies beyond the built-up boundary.” Such communities are rural in origin and nature, but are intricately linked to the urban via the people who move there, commute to jobs from there, visit there, etc. There has been much research on the inspiring nature of the rural on urban folk, especially in the area of nostalgia and on the influence of tourism, but this situation feels different than most in that men, like my informant, are extremely attached to their home community, and want to maintain a presence there, even if it means traveling abroad for work and having to drive to the city a few times a week for various things.

The tradition of Newfoundland men staying close to their home communities during their lives is one that is quite long-standing, even if it involved going away for extended periods of time to fish, work in the woods, or seek temporary opportunities on the mainland. Temporary, of course, could mean up to a few years, but the idea of home, and the desire to return there, is something that shows up frequently in Newfoundland folk culture. For some of my informants, their jobs offshore have been the way to fulfill that desire; having lived away for some time, often in urban areas, they have brought those experiences back to their home communities and mixed them with the traditions of the area.

Renews-Cappahayden now has nearly four dozen people working in the offshore industries, a sharp comparison to the mid-1990s when Mike was among the few. Though many communities are in decline in regards to population, many of them are nonetheless alive, bringing together what they see as the best of both urban and rural worlds to build a better life for the community.

Nic Hartmann spent most of his life in Southern Indiana, but for the last three years, has been based in Canada, where is he currently working on a Ph.D. in folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He has worked as a university instructor and as a students’ union official, and currently serves as web editor for the folklore journal Culture & Tradition. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland with his wife, Jen, and daughter, Mari, and is an avid dancer, baker and novice gardener.