Amid the booming beginnings of the automotive industry at the turn of the 20th century, an Ontario man named Colonel Robert Samuel McLaughlin moved to Oshawa, Ont. The city was still relatively new; cars even newer. But the innovation, matched with McLaughlin’s mark, would long monogram the city with two famous letters: GM.

General Motors of Canada is the company McLaughlin founded back in 1918, but its impact is still highly visible in Oshawa, a city of just over 140,000 people. GM car and truck assembly plants have long been employment draws for residents in bordering cities Ajax and Whitby to the west and Clarington to the east, making the automotive industry a lynchpin of Durham Region.

McLaughlin’s legacy is sealed in the vast, well-kept Parkwood Estate, the home he held until his death in 1972. Parkwood, just north of downtown Oshawa, was given to the city following his passing and named a National Historical Site. The estate, now a mainstay of Oshawa history, continues to hold regular tours of both the mansion and gardens and provide rental opportunities for weddings and other events.

For sporting and other entertainment events, head south to the nearby 5,500-seat General Motors Centre. While it opened less than three years ago, it’s had no trouble in bringing certain oomph to Oshawa. From housing home games of the OHL’s Oshawa Generals to an upcoming concert by American hip hop artist Akon, the arena’s multipurpose mandate well serves the city’s diverse demographic.

But GM isn’t the be-all and end-all of Oshawa. “It used to be GM … but now, not so much,” said 18-year-old Codi Bilander. The high school student realizes the hit Oshawa’s taken due to the recession, plus the impending closure of the GM pickup truck plant, which will scrap over 2,000 jobs.

But Bilander knows an industry does not make a city. He hails his city’s quiet lifestyle as a refuge from the big city.

“It’s not crowded at all like Toronto and New York. In Oshawa, you never even bump shoulders with anyone, really,” he said. And apart from industrial change, Bilander said he’s seeing a change in the city’s age-range: More young people are sprouting up.

“Usually we go to movie theatres. Sometimes there are open mic nights here, too,” he said from downtown Isabella’s Chocolate Café, one haunt occupied by area youth.

The surge is surely linked to the presence of Durham College, its headquarters and main campus located in the city’s north end. The school has an enrolment of about 30,000 full- and part-time students across its Ontario campuses. The stream of students has demanded more student housing, visible in new developments across from the campus.

And any Oshawa development is likely to follow the eastward trend of reduced real estate prices, like in Whitby and Ajax.

“People should move here for the price. I think it’s cheaper to live here than Toronto,” said Robyn Ewington, 27. She moved to Oshawa four years ago, seeking a starter home to share with her boyfriend. Ewington lucked out, finding one with a price tag of $131,000 on which she said she enjoys helpfully low mortgage payments.

“What we could afford was the Oshawa area to begin with, so that’s what brought us here,” she said.

Ewington came for the prices, and stayed for the parks. When she gets a day off work, she said she heads south to Lakeview Park with her boyfriend to take in the scenery.

“We go to the lake a lot, sit there and drink our Tim Hortons,” she says with a laugh. “On the weekends, it’s crazy. Especially in the summer, there are so many people at the lake, there are people having parties in the gazebo … It’s just like … wow!”

Best of the best

• Best Bar: The Stag’s Head Pub & Grill (22 Bond St. E.). Patrons may enjoy a game of billiards, or playing one of the arcade-style games inside. Daily specials are displayed on a chalkboard, including Monday’s $3.25 deal on domestic bottles of beer.

• Best Fest: Fiesta Week (June 21 to 27, 2009). This family-friendly multicultural event kicks off with a parade on Father’s Day and concert in Memorial Park. For the week, pavilions are arranged throughout the downtown, featuring samples of 17 different cultures’ cuisines. “Passports” for the week are $8 for adults, $4 for seniors and free for children under 14-years-old.

• Best Gallery: Robert McLaughlin Gallery (72 Queen St., Civic Centre). The largest public art gallery in Durham Region houses collections, a library and restaurant, and provides educational tours and facility rentals. Admission by donation.

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