When we call a community a "city" we may be referring to two different things. First, a "city" is a community with a large population, which has different characteristics than rural communities by virtue of its size. Second, under Newfoundland and Labrador's municipal law, a "city" has greater autonomy from the provincial government than a "town" of similar size. By both of these definitions, St. John's was Newfoundland and Labrador's only city in the 19th century, and was joined by Corner Brook and Mount Pearl only in the latter half of the 20th century.
By virtue of becoming the island's naval base in the late 17th-century, St. John's, a fishing community which had been much like Ferryland or Harbour Grace, became the seat of government. The impact of the naval presence helped St. John's became a much larger community than the outports during the 18th century, and stationing of a garrison there further stimulated the town's growth. By the 19th century, some manufacturing occurred, giving rise to a population of working men and women who were only indirectly employed by the fishery. Commercial and government activity allowed St. John's to develop a small body of middle-class professionals, artisans and a working-class.
The increased population diversity and size allowed the city to develop a range of social institutions, including fraternal organizations, libraries, and churches. Businesses also created a public life. The large number of "public houses" which provided alcoholic beverages, provided more than refreshment and entertainment - they gave citizens a "public" place in which to exchange information, culture and organize political actives. Newspapers also gave the community a sense of cohesiveness, which might have otherwise not existed, and articulated public opinion.
One common characteristic of cities is the exploitative relationship that they have with communities in their "hinterland." Rural communities feed the city and provide resources for export and to be turned into manufactured products. The city supplies capital and consumer goods to the rural population. By the 19th century, merchants in St. John's, specifically those who occupied buildings on "Water Street," increasingly dominated the import of supplies and export of fish for all of Newfoundland and Labrador. These firms extended credit to merchants in rural communities, and exported the fish that the outport merchants supplied.
Those merchants residing in St. John's thus took part of the wealth generated by people working throughout the island and Labrador. Merchants in the capital city accumulated sufficient wealth to invest in manufacturing, shipping and the seal fishery - making them the business leaders of the whole colony. When the seal fishery moved to the use of steam propulsion and steel hulls, for example, only ship owners in St. John's could afford to purchase such steam-driven vessels. Ship owners in large, economically successful, fishing towns, such as Harbour Grace, were unable to purchase these expensive steamships, leaving the industry to the business community of St. John's.
Not everyone in St. John's profited from the labour of others, of course, and many of the working families in the capital city were relatively poor. A common characteristic of cities is a geographic separation of the housing of different classes. While the wealthy and poor may have lived in relative proximity to each other in outports, in larger communities the two groups were separate. In St. John's the commercial properties had exclusive use of the waterfront, while the working-class occupied neighbourhoods in the east end of the city. Housing was poor, sanitation next to nonexistent and poverty rife - making such areas no more glamorous or prosperous than rural communities. The more affluent neighbourhoods of the west end were further from the smell of fish and smoke of coal.
Mount Pearl and Corner Brook
St. John's gained municipal government in 1888 - the only community to do so in that century - and was incorporated as Newfoundland's first city. As a "city" rather than a "town" it had more autonomy on the raising and spending of money. It was not until late in the twentieth century that the paper mill town of Corner Brook and Mount Pearl were accorded the status of cities within the municipalities' act. Employment in the Corner Brook paper mill had made it a populous town. The city gained shopping, hospital and educational facilities, for example, that were absent in all but the few large communities. This made the town a service centre for Western Newfoundland, and the presence of government offices intended to serve the western region. Corner Brook thus became an important administrative centre. In recognition of the larger population size and economic diversification of Corner Brook, it assumed the greater autonomy of "city status" in 1981.
As economic expansion caused the geographic and population growth of St. John's, nearby communities grew as well. By the late 20th century, the manufacturing and transportation industries based in Mount Pearl's industrial area and the large number of its residents who commuted to St. John's for work stimulated rapid growth in the town. In 1988 it assumed city status under the Municipalities' Act. The growth of Mount Pearl, St. John's and neighbouring towns caused the developed areas to meet each other at the point where municipal boundaries divided them - rather than maintain the clear physical gap between the communities that had existed. Municipal boundaries thus became artificial and sometimes a source of friction between municipal politicians, as the region around the capital became one large community in all respects except local governance.