This excerpt from Halifax:Warden of the North
— the first of the new chapters I wrote —
concentrates on one of the most dynamic periods in the history of the city.
Scotia Square. Harbour Drive. The View from the Hill. Encounter on the Urban Environment. Black Panthers. The 4th Estate. Annexation and regionalization. University expansion. Cultural renaissance.
By the early 1970s, Halifax was at a crossroads. Several of them, in fact. The central issue was the future of the city’s historic downtown. On one side were the real estate developers, impatient to transform the multi-consultants’ visions of futuristic, fantastic expressways and heaven-headed high-rises into concrete urban renewal reality. On the other side was a ragtag collection of citizen activists and history buffs, equally adamant that the city’s admittedly crumbling waterfront heritage and priceless harbour views must not pay the price for progress.
The preservationists were led by Lou Collins, an affable, bearded middle-aged school teacher, scout leader and amateur historian. In 1964, while researching a book on downtown buildings, he had discovered that a proposed high-speed Harbour Drive Expressway through the downtown would wipe out a collection of dilapidated but historic waterfront buildings. Though his initial attempts to save them were rebuffed, Collins preserved, eventually cajoling council into appointing a Landmarks Commission, which he chaired.
By 1970, the preservationists had been so successful in changing public opinion that Harbour Drive had not only been scrapped—bequeathing just a strangely orphaned massive concrete from-nowhere-to-nowhere Cogswell Street Interchange to posterity—but the city had also issued a continent-wide call for proposals to bring a collection of seven abandoned waterfront warehouses back to commercial life
The result was Historic Properties, a delightful harbourside complex that reinvented those dowdy warehouses as trendy boutiques, pubs, restaurants and office space.
That, in turn, spawned the establishment of the Waterfront Development Corporation, a crown corporation whose mandate was to manage, in an accessible, tourist-friendly way, 53 acres of prime waterfront real estate on both sides of the harbour. The WDC became responsible for constructing a walkable, water’s edge boardwalk that would eventually stretch from Historic Properties to Pier 21, the old immigration shed and former prime entry point for generations of new Canadians, which would later become a museum.
The working waterfront, meanwhile, nudged southward to the edge of Point Pleasant Park with the opening of the Halifax International Container Terminal. “This historic event,” noted the Canadian Geographical Journal, “must have brought back memories … of the days when 50 odd per cent of British North American shipping was Nova Scotia-owned, Now Halifax is again to the fore with the largest container operation in Canada and the third or fourth in North America.”
While those various changes made the downtown waterfront more publicly accessible, they did little to protect the iconic view of that same harbour from Citadel Hill. New and ever taller office buildings had begun to pop up like weeds: in 1965 the Royal Bank announced plans for a 13-storey bank tower at the corner of George and Hollis Streets; the next year, the Bank of Montreal one-upped its rival with a proposal to erect a 17-storey edifice on Hollis directly behind the Royal, thus enabling it to place its corporate sign strategically above that of the Royal for anyone looking down from Citadel Hill.
Not everyone was amused. “The Citadel is Halifax,” declared Brenda Large, one of the editors of The 4th Estate, a feisty new twice-monthly newspaper that served as an antidote to the establishment Dennis papers. “To hundreds of thousands of Canadians,” Large continued, the Citadel “represents the spirit of the city. Strict views bylaws can be enacted which will still leave room for some high-rise buildings in the downtown. But high-rise buildings should never be allowed to overcome the dominance of the Citadel.”
That debate had heated up in the late sixties after Halifax Developments Ltd., a new corporate entity composed of some of the province’s most successful business families—including the Sobeys, MacKeens, Jodreys, Connors and Olands—broke ground on a massive $29.5-million complex on the 17-acre site of a demolished slum neighbourhood on the northern edge of downtown. The project, which boasted a shopping centre, two office towers, three apartment buildings and a hotel symbolized, for some, the new face of Halifax. Gushed Maclean’s: “It generates an excitement about tomorrow that Canada east of Quebec hasn’t felt since the death of sail a century ago.”
But by the summer of 1969, with the first 16-storey office tower—complete with “computer-programmed elevators”—and the high-rise apartment complex thrusting upward and blocking out part of the view of the harbour from Citadel Hill, many Haligonians began to have second thoughts.
Although there’d been little public opposition to the Scotia Square scheme when it was first proposed, the battle for Citadel Hill was finally joined in late 1971 when another local developer, Ralph Medjuck, asked for permission to top the low-rise Citadel Inn motel he’d built a decade before on Brunswick Street with an 11-storey addition. City staff argued against the proposal, claiming. Among other things, that it would interfere with the view north from Citadel Hill toward the MacDonald bridge.
The final decision landed in the lap of a freshly elected and already deeply divided city council. Its members included new faces like Robert Stapells, a 30-year-old come-from-away entrepreneur whose pitch to voters was that the city needed “a slate of good hard-core businessmen who will take this city by the seat of its pants and try to put it back on the right path.” But his pro-high-rise views were countered-balanced by those of David MacKeen, a 30something black-sheep son of the former Tory lieutenant-governor and a nephew of industrialist J.C. MacKeen, who represented the city’s poorest neighbourhood and had become a passionate advocate for its interests
Medjuck—a bright young lawyer-developer who’d built his first six-storey office building on land where his father had operated a grocery and antique store for 30 years and then gone on to convince an earlier council to waive its six-storey downtown height restrictions to allow him to build the 12-storey Centennial office tower at the corner of Hollis and Sackville streets—once again won the day with the city’s elected represented. But council’s 7–3 vote in favour of his Citadel Inn project came with a caveat. Council also asked staff to study the issue of how to protect harbour views in future projects.
It took three more years of proposals, counter-proposals, counter-counter-proposals and often bitter wrangling—“I am so sick of this damn view from Citadel Hill I could scream,” lamented alderwoman Margaret Stanbury at one point—but on January 31, 1974 Council unanimously approved a motion protecting 10 different views from the Citadel affecting 300 acres of prime downtown real estate. “In the larger sense,” author and activist Elizabeth Pacey would later note, “the decision represented a sweeping achievement in the pioneer field of environmental protection legislation.”
The decision was just one more sign of just how much the Warden of the North had changed. But just one.
“In the final week of February 1970, 12 specialists—most of them men of international reputation—gathered in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to take part in an experiment utterly new to the Western Hemisphere,” wrote Ken Hartnett, a Washington-based urban affairs reporter for Associated Press. “Their assignment, although it was never explained to the 12 in precisely these terms, was to take a community of 250,000 persons and turn it upside down.”
“Encounter on the Urban Environment” was the unlikely brainchild of the province’s Voluntary Planning Board, a citizen’s policy advisory forum set up by the Stanfield government and made up mostly of members of the local establishment.
“I told [the board] exactly what was planned [for Encounter] and what the likely implications were,” A. Russell Harrington, the president of Nova Scotia Light and Power Co. and the chair of the planning board, explained later. “And they didn’t believe me.”
Over the course of a week, the carefully chosen experts—six from Canada, five from the U.S. and one an American working in England, whose day jobs ranged from economists to black community organizer to industrialist to labour leader to journalist—spent exhausting days and nights meeting, listening, sometimes cajoling or arguing with Haligonians from every strata of society about what their city was and what it could be. The process allowed the traditionally powerless to finally have a voice and forced the powerful to listen, and respond.
Why were there no black faces working at Volvo, the Swedish car maker that had been lured with taxpayer dollars to set up shop in north-end Halifax cheek by jowl to a black neighbourhood? Why did Industrial Estates Ltd., the province’s business development agency, have such a lousy “batting average” when it came to attracting development to the provincial capital? Why were so few affordable housing units being built? Why was the city’s daily newspaper failing to cover what was really happening in the city? Why was the school system so awful? And why had the police really raided that radical educational commune attended by the police chief’s daughter? Why was the new container pier in a location everyone agreed was at the wrong end of town? Why had the city razed the poor but proud black community of Africville? And “what the hell has the new Human Rights Commission done about Africville” anyway?
What made the process so powerful was that the questions—parochial, petty, sometimes profound—got asked and occasionally answered in the full glare of television cameras. Finlay MacDonald, the owner of CJCH Television and one of the organizers of the Encounter process, broadcast the team’s nightly town hall meetings live. With only two English language television channels to watch, the sessions quickly became must-see events for Haligonians. No one knew what might happen next, or who might say words not otherwise permitted on television.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint specific changes that resulted from Encounter, there is no question the process engaged a previously apathetic citizenry in the affairs of their city.
Within months, thousands of blacks, trade unionists and social activists staged a march on city hall to protest secret plans by council to hire an American city manager the groups claimed was an anti-union racist. They won; the candidate withdrew.
Race had become an increasingly volatile issue in Halifax, in part because of the fallout from the city’s controversial early sixties decision to raze Africville and relocate most of its residents to Uniacke Square, a soul-less concrete public housing project on Gottingen Street near the MacDonald bridge.
Although the motives for destroying the community were complex and often contradictory—some saw the land as a necessary link in the planned Harbour Drive Expressway or as prime industrial development land, while others honestly believed the residents themselves would be better off in integrated, modern housing elsewhere—the reality is that few, including black leaders, paid much attention to the wishes of the residents. They, almost to a person, wanted to stay where they were.
Because so many black leaders had been intimately involved in the relocation process, they lost credibility and influence, especially among younger blacks.
Their champion was “Rocky” Jones, an articulate, forceful young radical who, along with his wife Joan, had run a federally-funded inner city youth project until city fathers successfully lobbied to have it closed. At one point, Jones shook what was left of the city’s racial complacency when he invited a number of members of the American Black Panther Party to visit Halifax.
Within months of their visit, Ottawa announced funding for a new black umbrella organization known as the Black United Front that it hoped would keep a lid on growing black power sympathies.
All of this social activism was faithfully recorded—not to mention aided and abetted—by The 4th Estate. Frank Fillmore, a horticulturalist and activist, and his 26-year-old son Nick, a wire service journalist, had started the populist alternative paper in 1969 because of what they regarded as the failure of the staid and tepid Dennis newspapers—which they snidely dismissed in their own pages as “the Old Women of Argyle Street”—to provide quality reporting and analysis. With its own various scoops and crusades—not to forget a gossipy “Farmer Brown” column that gleefully skewered members of the local establishment—the paper soon became must-reading for anyone who wanted to know what was really happening in Halifax.
The paper established its editorial bona fides with an early campaign against the city’s growing scourge of slum landlords. Thundered its opening salvo: “The 4th Estate, published in a city where the clear majority of civil servants and politicians don’t seem to give a damn about cracking down on anyone except those who cannot defend themselves, is declaring war on those who profit from human misery.” In each subsequent issue, the paper chronicled dramatic case studies of people living under “barely believable conditions” but didn’t immediately identify the landlord responsible. Instead, the paper gave the landlord a week to make the necessary repairs; if the repairs weren’t made, the landlord was warned he could expect to see photos of his slum rental “alongside a photograph of his own home” in the pages of the paper.
By the end of its first year, The 4th Estate had more than 8,000 paying subscribers and increased its publishing frequency to weekly.
In late 1970, a special national senate committee studying the state of the country’s mass media declared the Dennis newspapers guilty of “lazy, uncaring journalism” and concluded that “there is probably no large Canadian city that is so badly served by its newspapers [and] probably no news organization in the country that has managed to achieve such an intimate and uncritical relationship with the local power structure, or has grown so indifferent to the needs of its readers.”
That so many Haligonians seemed no longer willing to accept all of this was the real news.
Halifax had become a different city in other ways too. For one thing, it had grown physically. On January 1, 1969, the city annexed a swath of small outlying communities—Armdale, Jollimore, Purcell’s Cove, Spryfield, Kline Heights, Fairview, Rockingham and Kearney Lake—west of the peninsula. The move instantly tripled the city’s land mass to 13,500 acres and increased its population by 35,000, making Halifax not only the 13th largest city in Canada but also the largest in Atlantic Canada, regaining a psychic crown it had lost to Saint John.
A year-and-a-half later, the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission opened a second harbour bridge, a four-lane span across the Narrows that created new residential and industrial development possibilities in Dartmouth, Bedford and Sackville. (Unlike the MacDonald bridge, which had been named in honour of a late, lamented and legendary premier, bridge commission officials controversially chose to name their new structure the A. Murray MacKay bridge to recognize the contributions of the chair of the commission itself, a man virtually unknown outside its boardroom. For years after, many Haligonians refused to call it by its official name, preferring to refer to it simply as the “new bridge” instead.)
To serve this growing metropolitan area, the city finally traded in its electric trolleys for diesel buses in 1970.
Halifax’s economic and social underpinnings were also shifting. Although still vitally important, the navy was becoming a less dominant player in city life. The navy, which had been subsumed in the recently unified Canadian Armed Forces, seemed very much a junior player in this new military order.
At the same time, other players, especially the universities, were assuming more significant roles.
Dalhousie’s, the province’s largest and most important post-secondary institution, had gone on a building spree. In the space of five years between 1966 and 1971, the university officially opened the new Weldon Law School, the Sir Charles Tupper Medical Building, the Dalhousie Arts Centre, the Killam Library, a Student Union Building and the Life Sciences Centre.
Meanwhile, Mount St. Vincent, the small Roman Catholic women’s college on the edge of Bedford Basin reinvented itself as Mount Saint Vincent University in 1966 and began admitting men the next year. In 1970, Saint Mary’s University, which had been run by the Jesuits for the past 30 years, officially became a secular, co-educational institution.
As those institutions became less religiously-tied, the Roman Catholic, Anglican and United churches got together to found the Atlantic School of Theology to provide a degree-granting inter-denominational focus for religious education.
That forced the Anglican-operated University of King’s College to find a new role for itself, which it did with the launch of the Foundation Year Programme, a soon-to-be internationally recognized first-year “great books” program, in 1972 and the opening of a degree-granting School of Journalism in 1978.
In 1969, the Nova Scotia College of Art—founded in 1887 by Anna Leonowens of “Anna and the King of Siam” fame—morphed into the degree-granting Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. The change was more than cosmetic. Under the direction of its charismatic new president, a 32-year-old conceptual artist named Garry Neill Kennedy, the college quickly developed an international reputation as a centre for avant garde artists to congregate and make and discuss art. Art in America went so far as to call it “the best art school in North America.”
In 1974, NSCAD helped bring the many threads of change in the city together when it relocated its campus from the edge of Dalhousie to space in the new waterfront Historic Properties complex. The move was part of a concerted effort to make the city’s downtown core livable—and lively—even after the army of nine-to-five office workers had left for the day. The NSCAD students became the catalyst in the development of a new and lively downtown scene that included not only bars and nightclubs but also art galleries and theatre.
On July 1, 1963, Neptune Theatre, a new professional repertory company, launched its ambitious 13-play first season with a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. The new theatre was housed in the dramatically and expensively renovated Garrick, a former vaudeville and burlesque house on Sackville Street “that nice mothers told their children were Off Limits.” Though often financially precarious—the theatre, noted Saturday Night magazine in 1972, “experienced more fantastic ups and downs, and gorgeous triumphs and snatchings from the jaws of death than any theatrical production since The Perils of Pauline”—Neptune’s umbrella also helped shelter a lively and eclectic collection of short-lived independent theatre companies.
The concentration of universities also created an intellectual hub that helped attract important new scientific and research-related institutions. The Bedford Institute of Oceanography, for example, which would become the largest ocean research facility in Canada, launched on the shores of Bedford Basin in 1962. The Izaak Walton Killam Hospital for Children, a nationally recognized pediatric research centre as well as the region’s only children’s tertiary care hospital, opened its doors on University Avenue in 1970.
Those also helped make Halifax a logical regional centre for federal financial institutions and government departments, attracting an influx of well-educated, well-paid come-from-aways who “refused to accept much of what the locals had long taken as the city’s inevitable, inviolable social givens. Separate Catholic and Protestant schools, for example. Men-only taverns. The obvious lack of black faces in local business. The dearth of good restaurants. The inordinate role party politics played in determining whether you got a job or an appointment, or even an invitation to a weekend dinner party.
The ironic end result of all this social, political and cultural upheaval was that the rest of the world began to see Halifax as “the next best place.” In November 1979, Chatelaine described Halifax as “a beautiful city, a city fit for people to live in, big enough to compete successfully on just about any urban livability factory, small and personal enough for any individual to stay human.” Added the Star Weekly: “Halifax need no longer borrow from the styles of others but is quite able, thank you, to create its own.”