Cities

Why are fewer people goin’ down the road? Behold the new Halifax!

IRENE PARIKHAL August 1 1976
Cities

Why are fewer people goin’ down the road? Behold the new Halifax!

IRENE PARIKHAL August 1 1976

Why are fewer people goin’ down the road? Behold the new Halifax!

Cities

For years, when they thought about the place at all, Canadians (other than Nova Scotians) tended to regard Halifax as a dowdy garrison town that only came to life in wartime. Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising and Thomas H. Raddall’s Halifax: Warden Of The North helped cement the image of proud but faded families living in a near-perpetual fog. British sailors actually used to pray to be spared the indignities of “hell, Hull, and Halifax” and two generations of Canadian men cursed the often unfriendly city that sent them off to European wars. Native Haligonians left as quickly as they could amass the coachclass rail fare to Montreal, Boston or Toronto where a better life beckoned. No more. Today the exodus has been reversed, and people are moving into Halifax of their own free will. The warden of the north has become the sophisticate of the east—a metamorphosis that often surprises but always delights visitors and still leaves lifelong residents faintlybewildered.

Instead of littered streets and dilapidated buildings, dismal beer halls and shocking cafés, the city now offers striking skyscrapers and charming restorations, swinging nightclubs and gourmet restaurants good enough to win rave reviews from no less an authority than Craig Claiborne, the New York Times' food critic. The city is booming—a prosperous oasis in the more familiar desert of Maritime poverty. Retail sales in the greater Halifax area last year were $585 million. In 1972-73 Halifax doubled its first-class hotel rooms. The metropolitan population (including Dartmouth, across the harbor) has climbed steadily in the past decade to 240,000. Indeed, Halifax has become a kind of Atlantic regional capital, a closeto-home urban alternative for New Brunswickers. Prince Edward Islanders and Newfoundlanders, as well as Nova Scotians.

Their critics are reluctant to admit it. but real-estate developers were largely respon-

sible for the renaissance of Canada’s oldest city. The developers—increasingly controversial as the city became steadily richer—had a solid economic base to build on: the regular pay cheques that flow from a provincial government, a major military installation and five universities. Up to 1957, when the Canada Permanent Trust Co. opened a new office building, there hadn’t been a significant structure go up in downtown Halifax for four decades. Since 1957, however, the new buildings are almost too numerous to count. Once the developers got started, it seemed there was no stopping them. Bulldozers gleefully flattened slums. Cranes loomed everywhere. Projects were conceived and completed at an astonishing rate. The psychological impact of Scotia Square—a massive (for Halifax) retail and commercial development put up by a group of Nova Scotia millionaires (including the late Colonel J. C. MacKeen, the late Roy Jodrey, grocery magnate Frank Sobey, the brewing

Olands, entrepreneur Charles MacCulloch)—was incalculable. It was an $80million adventure in bricks and mortar, spurred, as MacKeen once put it, by a realization that “something was lacking in our city . . . We all wanted to take part in its progress and development.” Today Scotia Square embraces 100 retail stores, theatres, 18 restaurants, three office towers and a trade centre all sitting on what the city’s development director, Robert Grant, says “used to be 35 acres of absolute slums.”

If Scotia Square was the beginning of the rebirth of Halifax, the realization that the city had valuable older buildings was the next stage. In the late 1700s, Halifax was the unchallenged commercial centre in British North America. Shipping, banking and merchandising empires began there. Hollis, Granville and Water streets were the St. James and Bay streets of their day. Eventually, much of the business melted away to Toronto and Montreal, but the buildings remained, albeit in evermore rundown condition. Many of them have now been saved from the wrecker’s ball by a different kind of developer—Historic Properties Ltd. The company, headed by John Fiske, and the three levels of government shared the eight-million-dollar cost of restoring a cluster of stone buildings along the waterfront, buildings that once housed exotic cargoes and Victorian businesses. Boutiques, craft and antique shops,

art galleries and restaurants now draw tourists and dollars to a part of town respectable people used to shun. “Four years ago,” says Fiske, “maybe a wino would wander down to the wharf. Now I see 200 or 300 people pass by my office window every hour. People are excited to see the city core change from dilapidation to a recharged area.”

Projects such as the one by Historic Properties not only win the approval of tourists (800,000 will visit Halifax this year, spending an estimated $50 million);they also reassure local residents concerned that the old port city was in danger of losing its character. Such groups as the Heritage Trust fought to save historic buildings. Individuals such as Louis Collins, a school principal who is the city’s honorary historian, argued against mindless development. Says Collins, who is so well known that a bulldozer operator once tried to hide when Collins came strolling by a demolition site; “There has been a developing pride in Halifax, partly as a result of the restoration of the waterfront and battles that focused people’s attention on their city for the first time. People have a feel for their city which has crystalized. It used to be there among the older people, in a quiet sort of way. Now I think it’s among the young.”

Mayor Edmund Morris, a former MP and radio commentator, believes a new dy-

namism is at work in his city. But, he hastens to add, “our attitude to life is more relaxed than some other cities. Most of us don’t live at the pace of Toronto or Vancouver.” Maybe not. But they’re moving faster than Haligonians did for a century. Says Dr. Henry Hicks, a Liberal senator and former Nova Scotia premier who is now president of Dalhousie University (medicine, dentistry, law as well as undergraduate courses): “Halifax needs to keep the momentum going. There is a very healthy local initiative here.” Hicks credits “an infusion of newer and younger men in business and finance” with the new prosperity, and notes, approvingly, that “the hold of the old Halifax establishment has diminished.”

Certainly, there is no evidence of a slowdown. During her visit last month, the Queen turned the sod for a $ 14-million convention/sports centre which will replace the decrepit Halifax Forum as home of the Nova Scotia (American Hockey League) Voyageurs. Both the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and the T-D Bank are building office towers (16 and 19 storeys respectively). And no less than $250 million has been earmarked for projects along the waterfront.

But the boom in Halifax is not all business and buildings. The cultural side of life is thriving too. Aside from the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, the Neptune Tfieatre and the various facilities offered by Halifax’s universities, tl * city has several good art galleries, shows first-run movies and stages cabaret acts ranging from the pretentious to the raunchy. Disco-bars abound, as do restaurants. The New York Times’Claiborne found the seafood at the Five Fishermen “impressive” and described the inelegantly named Fat Frank’s as one of the most elegant restaurants in North America. Among other popular if expensive eating places: The Henry House, a stunning restoration on Barrington Street; The Gondola, known locally as Pino’s; and the gourmet restaurants of the Chateau Halifax and Hotel Nova Scotian.

Halifax’s rare blend of the modern and the traditional has rekindled a civic pride that until recently was muted. The city has always had its magnificent harbor, and long enjoyed its parks, gardens and the old Citadel. Now it offers so much more. As Robert Stanfield, the former leader of the federal Conservatives who still represents Halifax in the Commons, puts it: “Halifax is a beautiful city, one of the half dozen in Canada with a distinctive character and flavor. I hope its future development will reflect and be in keeping with its character and tradition.” IRENE PARIKHAL

IRENE PARIKHAL