Inside the square
Although the housing project was supposed to perform social miracles, it’s become both stigma and scapegoat. But people who live in Uniacke Square are determined to let others see their neighbourhood—the good, the bad, the surprisingly ordinary—as they do.
by Stephen Kimber
"Some?" he says, extending a small hand in my direction. No thanks, I answer. The boy shrugs, thrusts his other hand deep into his bag of freshly-popped microwave popcorn, hauls out what must be three hands-full in his one tiny but fully outstretched hand. "It’s extra buttery," he tries again, gesturing toward the bag. "Says so right there."
He presses the heel of his palm up to his mouth and shovels in as much popcorn as he can. Some spills onto the floor. He looks down, then over to see if the supervisors, a couple of older teenaged girls, have noticed. They haven’t. The boy looks back at me, offers an open-mouthed, popcorn smile.
His name is Tray. He’s eight years old, a Grade 2 student at nearby Joseph Howe school and one of a dozen kids of similar age hanging out this afternoon in the gym of the George Dixon Centre on Gottingen Street. A few girls are sprawled on the floor in one corner of the cavernous room, colouring and talking quietly. On the gym floor nearest us, half a dozen boys are trying, without much success, to shoot basketballs into the adult net in front of the stage. Others are chasing around the gym floor, playing a made-up game of tennis-baseball.
The scene feels familiar. This could be any after-school program anywhere: kids spending a few hours snacking, drawing, reading or just blowing off pent-up energy under the loose supervision of older teens.
Tray is trying to figure out what I’m doing sitting on the edge of the stage writing in a notebook. He offers me more popcorn.
"His name’s not Tray," another boy informs me as he dribbles a ball past us. "It’s really Tray-VON-tey!" And laughs as if Tray should be embarrassed. Tray affects not to notice.
Instead, he glances over at the two teenaged supervisors sitting on the other side of the stage and then turns and points conspiratorially toward a shadowy figure in the office beyond the two slit windows at the far end of the gym. "See that big, tall white boy," he tells me, and then looks back at one of the black teenagers and announces, as loudly as he can: "He’s her boyfriend!"
Justine Carvery, the teenaged girl in question, wheels around. "You don’t know what you’re saying," she tells Tray. She’s smiling, but there’s a don’t-bug-me teenager flash in her eyes too. Tray sees, knows better than to say it again. He goes off to find a broom instead.
Meanwhile, one of Justine’s co-workers is busy mediating a dispute between two girls.
"She said, "Shut up’ to me so I said, "Why don’t you make me then?’" one girl pleads her case. The other interrupts, claims that’s not the way it went down.
"OK, OK. PAUSE!" The teenaged overseer has heard enough. "Both of you…Keeshaw, you don’t put your hands on any person, you understand. And you…"
Out on the gym floor, another little girl in pigtails has claimed Justine’s attention. They’re playing badminton in the middle of the gym. Or at least the little girl is. Justine is holding a racquet, waiting distractedly for the pigtailed girl to actually hit the shuttlecock. Pigtails tosses the bird up in the air again, swings, misses, laughs, picks it up again. Justine looks around, bored.
"Everyone!" a teenaged boy—big, tall white boy?—calls out from the other end of the gym. "Balls away! Time to clean up! Everybody get in line."
Tray is back beside me, manoeuvering the spilled popcorn into a dustpan with his broom. "We’re going upstairs to read," he confides.
The remarkable thing about this scene is how unremarkable it is. And how remarkable that sometimes seems.
"You don’t even know me."
Denise Levangie had to admit the girl was right. She had misjudged Justine Carvery, and would happily concede as much, if only the girl would stop talking at her.
It was the early fall of 2006, and Levangie, a program coordinator at the Halifax Regional Library’s North Branch, had been casting about for a few young people to participate in a leadership program called "Youth and Community Together 4 Peace" she and Annette MacIntyre, the youth librarian, were attempting to start. The idea was to identify a few teenagers from the Uniacke Square area—kids with untapped leadership potential—and get them working together on a project that would not only teach them practical and leadership skills but also encourage them to find out more about themselves, their neighbourhood and their place in the larger community. And, not coincidentally, let them tell that larger community their thoughts, concerns and dreams too.
In the long term, Levangie and MacIntyre hoped the young people they trained would teach those skills to a new group next year, and that those kids would then teach more kids, and so on and so on.
The details of the specific project were fuzzy—Levangie and MacIntyre wanted the kids to figure it out—but they hoped the young people might end up with something that would show the world, and themselves, a different side of Uniacke Square than the one in the media.
Levangie and MacIntyre had already chosen other participants: Lindell Smith, a 16-year-old student at St. Pat’s High, whose goal is to work with sound as an audio technician; Kadeem Hinch, also 16, a student at QEH who’s interested in art and was to be involved in designing a cover for the multi-media DVD cover; and Dyrell Nelligan, an 18-year-old St. Pat’s student with artistic flair who dreamed of becoming an architect.
An unassuming Grade 12 student, Dyrell had worked at the library as a summer program assistant and now helped younger kids with their homework as part of another library after-school program. A few nights a week, he also supervised Night Hoops, an evening drop-in program at the Dixon Centre. "Every year," explains MacIntyre, "you see some kids who reach the point where they’re ready for "it.’ Dyrell had reached that point."
Levangie and MacIntyre had another girl in mind to be part of the program too, but then, one day at school, Dyrell offhandedly mentioned to Justine what he was going to be doing, and Justine immediately marched over to the library to demand Levangie include her too.
Justine, a funny, feisty 17-year-old, lives across from Uniacke Square with her grandparents and three of her four sisters. Though she’s given up on an earlier ambition to become a lawyer—"too many years of school"—she’d also discovered from a recent stint working part-time in a KFC restaurant that she didn’t want to do that either. So for now, she has settled on the idea of becoming a nurse, which wouldn’t take as long as becoming a lawyer, and would be more useful than working in fast food. "I want to help my community," she explains simply. Which is why she works at the Dixon Centre’s after-school program. And why she wanted to be part of Levangie’s leadership program.
Ironically, Justine’s name had come up as a possible participant in some earlier discussions, but Levangie thought the Grade 11 student would be "too shy" for what they had in mind.
Now, as Justine hectored Levangie about why she should be part of the project, Levangie knew she couldn’t have been more wrong about Justine being too shy. "My first thought was, "So she really isn’t going to shut up!’" Levangie laughs. "And then I thought, yes, she should be part of this."
"This" has now evolved into a multimedia presentation called "Our Turn To Speak," which the young people are presenting at a public meeting at the library tonight (Thursday, March 1). They’ve invited the mayor, the police chief, local councillors, the area’s MLA, educators, justice system officials and the heads of some key community organizations like the library, the Dixon Centre and the Community Y. The intention, says Justine, is to "get their attention," and let others see Uniacke Square—the good, the bad, the problems and possibilities—as they do.
The reality is they don’t see their community the way the rest of the world too often does.
"Some local businesses blame Uniacke Square for the area’s decline. Many white Haligonians see it as a ghetto… "the black eye that’s hurting the rest of the community.’" (Atlantic Insight, January 1988)
"As a Halifax resident who has lived in the city’s north end for more than 20 years, I am upset that I heard about yet another shooting or stabbing occurring in the "north end,’ only to hear later that the incident took place in Uniacke Square." (Letter to the editor, Daily News, November 3, 2002)
Uniacke Square has always been as much about perception as reality.
When it opened on May 7, 1966, the official dream was that Uniacke Square—a 250-unit public housing project, surrounded by a new library, a new recreation centre, a new school and a new post office—would mark the local dawning of the new age of enlightened urban renewal that had already swept through much of the rest of North America.
Africville, a "tarpaper shantytown" hugging the city’s northern edge, and the over-crowded, firetrap slums of Halifax’s drab downtown would both be bulldozed out of their misery to clear space for the birth of such miracles of modern urban life as an interconnected shopping-centre-hotel-office-high-rise-apartment heaven known as Scotia Square, and a futuristic expressway called Harbour Drive that would ring the peninsula, efficiently zipping suburban commuters in and out of downtown through a fancy new Cogswell Street interchange.
The people whose homes, communities and histories were to be wiped out would be better off too—or so the promoters argued. They’d get the chance to live in modern, efficient, subsidized housing for a few years until they made their inevitable—if magical, mysterious—transition from former urban poverty to future suburban prosperity.
But even before the end of the ’60s—less than three years, in fact, after Uniacke Square opened its doors—a federal task force concluded such large-scale public housing projects only created "ghettos of the poor." Though that report effectively ended future experiments and discredited the theory massive public housing complexes represented either sound urban planning or healthy social policy, many of the original projects, including Uniacke Square, are still around 40 years later.
Far from being transitional housing for families on the highway to suburbia, they’ve become traps for low-income people who can’t afford to move on, even if they want to. And putting so many poor people together in one place helped turn the projects into breeding grounds for exactly the kinds of problems they were supposed to alleviate: poverty, family breakdown, high dropout rates, drugs, crime…. Today, two-thirds of the residents of the Square are women, and two-thirds are under 25. Unemployment nudges 60 percent.
The neighbourhood around the Square has become a favoured dumping ground for all the do-good service agencies no one else wants. There were four such agencies in the Gottingen Street area when Uniacke Square opened; today there are 20, including Adsum House for homeless and abused women and their families, Turning Point for homeless men and Hope Cottage, which provides meals to those who need them. (Interestingly, there’s a needle exchange program to provide clean needles to drug addicts, but you have to travel far out of the neighbourhood to find a facility to treat addiction.)
While social agencies attached themselves to the Square like barnacles, grocery stores, banks and retailers deserted the area faster than rats from a sinking ship.
People who lived near the Square did their best to pretend they didn’t. In the ’80s, residents north of the Square actually petitioned city hall to rename their section of Gottingen Street to Novalea Drive to protect their property values.
Thanks in part to such notoriety, newcomers aren’t eager to move to Uniacke Square either. While there’s a waiting list for units in other Metro public housing projects, the vacancy rate in Uniacke Square hovers around 10 to 12 percent.
The stigma feeds on itself.
Irvine Carvery—he’s Justine’s cousin—knows all about that stigma. He knows about the other side too. These days, he’s the Halifax Housing Authority’s property services manager, responsible for the care and maintenance of the authority’s north end housing units, including Uniacke Square. But back in September 1967, when he was 15, his family moved into the Square from Africville. His memories of the 10 years he spent there are mostly fond. "The only thing I didn’t really like was that there was so much cement," he says now. "That was a culture shock."
Neighbourhood life, however, was "very community orientated. A lot of the tenants came from Africville, but not the majority. Some were from the Prestons. And there were residents who came from the local area, and from where Scotia Square is now. Whites and blacks. Everyone got along."
Marcus James’s memories are similar. James, 40, is the youth services person at the North Branch library. Though he grew up in the Prestons and Spryfield, he moved into Uniacke Square soon after he got married. He and his wife lived on Sunrise Walk for 15 years, raising three kids. "There was lots of love then," he says. "I can remember family barbeques that would turn into community barbeques. In those days, you could send your child outside knowing that if someone saw your kid doing something they shouldn’t, someone would call and inform the parents right away."
That’s not to suggest there weren’t problems then too. But the problems usually began once you left the comfort and safety of your own community…when outsiders realized you came from the Square.
"[Uniacke Square is] a great spot for [the Salvation Army’s mobile soup kitchen] if they’re really interested in serving people that are homeless and need free meals… Maniac Square… There’s a lot of poor people down in that area." (Spring Garden Road merchant Tony Joseph, CBC Radio interview, February 2004)
"Najaf. Fallujah. Gottingen Street. These are all places in which members of the American military are advised to exercise caution, because conditions there might not be safe." (Editorial, Daily News, August 20, 2004)
* * *
Justine Carvery’s and Dyrell Nelligan’s memories of growing up in Uniacke Square are remarkably similar—to each other, and to the recollections of Marcus James and Irvine Carvery from years earlier.
Justine remembers summer days hanging out at the playgrounds at the Dixon Centre or behind St. Patrick’s-Alexandra school. "You’d be on the monkey bars or the jungle gym. When you got bored of that, you’d go and play hide-and-seek." If you needed a drink or to use the washroom, people in the Square would welcome you."
Dyrell talks about sledding down Dixon Hill in winter, playing pick-up basketball in summer. During the school year, there were after-school programs at the library, or the Dixon, or the Community Y. "You were never bored," he says.
They weren’t bored at school either. Not in the beginning. Dyrell remembers their neighbourhood elementary school, Joseph Howe, as "fun. I’d wake up every day wanting to go to school." He pauses. "Not all grouchy like now." The students were a mix of black and white, most from the neighbourhood. There were black teachers, too—like Garfield Symonds, who wasn’t afraid to dance on the table if that’s what it took to make an educational point. "He took us all to his house once for a barbeque," Dyrell recalls.
"The teachers were nice," adds Justine. "They respected you."
At noon, they attended a lunch-hour program at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church where Mrs. Upshaw made sure you said grace and washed up before you got fed. "It’s shut down now," Justine says. "It closed before I started junior high." (The United Way’s decision to cut off funds for the black church’s lunch program still rankles Marcus James, especially after the "predominantly white" St. George’s church later got funding for a smaller scale program. "The Cornwallis program is still dearly missed," he says. Kids who would have attended it now often go without, he points out, or end up shoplifting lunch, getting caught and "ending up with a criminal record.")
When they graduated from elementary school—Justine in 2002 and Dyrell in 2001—they chose different paths through junior high.
Dyrell and a dozen of his friends left the neighbourhood for what was supposed to be academically superior Oxford, a predominantly white school 2 kilometres and a world away from Uniacke Square.
"Grade 7 was the worst year of my life," Dyrell says now. "I had the feeling I wasn’t wanted." There were no black teachers, and he and his friends felt they had to hang together for self protection. From time to time, he’d overhear another student using the "n-word." That could lead to a fight. Dyrell was suspended three times in one year. "You had put on an act, Macho Man, so nobody would do anything to you."
By last fall, three years after Dyrell had moved on to high school, tensions at Oxford had reached the point where, as the Daily News reported, some parents had begun to "yank their kids" out of the school. The newspaper’s story didn’t mention race; it quoted mostly white parents who referred instead to "incessant bullying and disruptive behavior," which many in Uniacke Square took to be code for blaming the black kids from Uniacke Square.
Justine’s experience was different, but not better. She attended the neighbourhood junior high, St. Patrick’s-Alexandra. The problem wasn’t so much with the social aspects of her schooling—she was among friends—but with the quality of the education she received. "I wasn’t learning very much but, at the time, I didn’t know, so it didn’t bother me. It was easy and I thought, "I can ace this.’"
She remembers the moment she realized she couldn’t. It happened last year in a Grade 10 math class at St. Pat’s High. The teacher had written an equation on the board. "Now everyone should know this one," he told the class. "You learned this in Grade 8." There were nods all around. Justine didn’t nod. She’d never seen the equation before. She didn’t have a clue. Panicked, she looked around at the faces of the other students. Only four or five others looked as puzzled as she felt. Most of them had gone to St. Patrick’s-Alexandra Junior High too. And that’s when she knew. "I wasn’t well educated. I never went to a proper junior high school."
It was the beginning of an important turning-point moment. At first, Justine was too embarrassed to ask for help, afraid the other students would look down on her. She stopped going to class. It wasn’t until she finally smacked up against the realization she might fail the class—the first time ever—that she decided to swallow her shame and get help. These days, she says, she’s scraping through in math, "struggling it out."
Not everyone, of course, is as determined as Justine.
"Police arrested 18 people in and around Uniacke Square in an early morning drug bust yesterday." (Daily News, May 8, 2006)
* * *
There are street-level drug dealers who work the corners near Uniacke Square who like to portray themselves as "community-minded citizens." They stage local events and even buy school supplies for needy neighbourhood kids, encouraging them to stay in school.
"A lot of these dealers, they’re just out there because they have to pay the rent," Marcus James tells me. "They’re not making a lot of money. These are not the big, white, south end drug dealers. Some of them are just saying to the younger kids, "Stay in school. Don’t make the mistakes I did.’"
Irvine Carvery doesn’t even want to hear the "good dealer" argument. "It’s just not acceptable," he tells me. "These aren’t people to look up to." He thinks there’s inevitably a more sinister motive behind the helping hand. Sometimes it’s a way to win community support—parents "get sucked in" by the dealers’ apparent generosity so that, "if there’s any ever [police] action against the dealers, the community rallies around the dealers"—and sometimes the goal is recruitment, pure and simple.
The problem is that recruiting a kid into dealing drugs in the Square is easier than it should be—largely because there are often few other opportunities to make a decent living. "Kids see these guys with pockets full of money and then they look at their own lack of opportunities," James says. "It’s money versus… what? They choose the money."
"They call themselves G-Loc… And people… say they’re being terrorized by youth gangs just like them." (Chronicle-Herald , May 5, 2006)
* * *
"Hey, Marcus," one of the boys called out, breezing into the library, clearly giddy with excitement. "You seen us on the news?"
It was the spring of 2006, and Marcus James had indeed seen the story on TV. And he was disgusted. Not with the kids—whom he and others at the library had been trying to help steer down a straight and narrow path through their turbulent adolescence—but with the media. The media had taken "five young men…five…little…boys…just starting out in life," a bunch of 13-to-17-year-olds who had built their own bicycles but also occasionally did stupid things, and turned them into a street-hardened, 130-strong gang known as G-Loc. G-Loc, if you believed the hype, was responsible for "robbing, raping, swarming, stabbing" and god-knew-what-else.
Although the police were careful not to call them a gang—describing them instead as "loose knit groups of kids roaming the streets looking for trouble"—journalists weren’t nearly so reticent.
It wasn’t the first time James had noticed just how easily reporters could connect the dots from youth crime to black youth. In October 2004, after white Halifax teacher’s aide Theresa McEvoy was killed by a stolen car driven by a white young offender, James got a call from a TV reporter asking him to organize a panel discussion with black teens from the Square to talk about youth crime. Marcus James shakes his head.
Calling the kids he’d been working with a youth gang, James says now, had the double-whammy effect of making even more outsiders afraid of venturing near Uniacke Square, further isolating the community, and, at the same time, encouraging the kids themselves to try and live up to their TV/video/movie image of how a gang-banger was supposed to act.
"All the work we put into those kids was undone in a couple of days," James says. Suddenly they were out spray-painting their G-Loc logo everywhere. And causing more serious trouble. And now? Well, now, just a year later, some of those same kids have lived up to their media billing. "It’s become a major problem. And now there are girls involved too." Marcus James shakes his head again. "There are bad things going on, and they should be reported," he tells me. "But if the media is going to report on the bad things, they should talk about the good things too."
"Grim-faced police officers fanned out yesterday morning across a Halifax neighbourhood notorious for the number of weapons-related crimes on its streets searching for clues after a policewoman was shot…after a confrontation with a group of people during an arrest." (Daily News, June 24, 2002).
"The boy, who cannot be identified under provisions of the Young Offenders Act, is one of two 16-year-olds Halifax Regional Police have charged with attempting to murder a man in a shooting Wednesday afternoon in the Uniacke Square housing project off Gottingen Street." (Chronicle-Herald, November 1, 2002).
"Police are investigating three shootings [that have] rattled residents in a neighbourhood that’s seen several similar shootings in recent months." (Daily News, Oct. 16, 2005)
* * *
"My other issue" Jenise Smith begins, pauses, laughs. "Oh God, I got so many…"
It is October 12, 2006, and Frank Beazley has brought his travelling town hall road show to the multi-purpose room at the George Dixon Centre where, just a few hours earlier, Tray and his friends in the after-school program had been asked to vote on whether their teenaged book reader should read them a story about Michael Jordan’s basketball career or Robert Munsch’s Mud Puddle (Munsch won).
Since he became police chief five years ago, Beazley has staged annual neighbourhood meetings like this one throughout the regional municipality to talk directly to local communities about their policing concerns. A dozen north end residents, including Smith, the vice president of the Uniacke Square Tenants’ Association, are here tonight. There are almost as many cops in the crowd.
Beazley, a big affable man whose interest seems genuine, is happy to report back on a promise he made at last year’s meeting—to set up a new community policing centre in Uniacke Square. It opened in April in one of the Square’s vacant units. "I’m proud to say that we haven’t had a serious crime since," Beazley says. He also lauds the two young officers—Dean Simmonds and Amy McKay—who staff the centre.
That, at least, is one sentiment Smith is quick to share. "Can’t get no better than Dean and Amy," she says, to nods of approval around the room. (Last week, Simmonds was named Halifax Regional Police Office of the Year.)
But not everything about the new office wins praise. Rebecca Parker, a youth worker, tells Beazley many see the new centre "as something that’s there to keep an eye on us, not something that’s there to improve the relationship between us and you."
Smith adds the plexiglass wall just inside the entrance is unwelcoming. And why isn’t there a friendly local face to greet visitors once they get inside? And what about that police cruiser that keeps blocking Mrs. Johnson’s wheelchair? And how long is this community policing office going to be around anyway?
Beazley listens, makes notes, tries to reassure. "I’m here for the long haul," he tells them.
The community’s skepticism is understandable.
Back in 1989, after three unsolved drug-related murders in the area in less than a year, more than 350 residents packed the North Branch library auditorium to demand action. The police chief at the time promised to open a community policing office on Gottingen Street.
He did, but that office turned out to largely "ineffective," according to Marcus James. It closed in 1999 and wasn’t replaced until last spring.
Dyrell Nelligan was just a baby when the original community police office opened. He learned about it while reading old newspaper clippings as part of the research for his group’s presentation next week. What struck him most, he says, was the startling similarity between what the police chief said back in 1989 and what Beazley is saying today.
"They’re still talking about the same things," Dyrell says. "But nothing changes."
For Justine, the biggest surprise of her research was to discover that there’d once been a Sobeys grocery store across the street from the library. It closed in 1987, two years before Justine was born, part of an exodus of community services that has included banks, movie theatres, the post office clothing shops, a department store, even a shoe repair shop.
"HRM should lobby the NS Dept of Community Services to consider selling at least half of the units in Uniacke Square to their current occupants, to create a critical mass of pride of ownership and community stewardship." (Halifax Public Facilities Needs & Opportunities Strategy, April 2004)
* * *
There was a time when Uniacke Square meant more than just the housing project. The Square was the soul of a vibrant, largely black inner-city neighbourhood whose rough psychic borders extended south to Cornwallis Street, west to Agricola, north to North and east to Brunswick. Some even gave it the hopeful acronym CAN-B.
But that community is now shrinking back in on itself as new co-ops and condo developments aimed at young downtown professionals press against the edges of the neighbourhood and pressure mounts to free up more peninsular land for middle-class housing.
"A lot of young people won’t go south of the library or north of the Square anymore," Marcus James says. "They don’t feel welcome. The people here see all these $250,000 condos going up. They know that those kind of places and low-income housing don’t go together. Guess which one goes?"
"Yeah," Irvine Carvery allows, "it still raises its ugly head. People will come up to me and ask, "Irvine, are they selling Uniacke Square?’" Perhaps because there are still a few residents who remember the Africville relocation of the sixties, there is an almost palpable fear Uniacke Square could become "Africville II." As the Square’s property manager, Carvery tries to reassure people. "But, you know, people are concerned. They don’t want to have to leave."
Which illustrates one of the ironies of the story of Uniacke Square. Whatever its image in the larger community, and in spite of its many real problems—and no one would deny they exist—the reality is that Uniacke Square is still "home" for a lot of people.
It’s not even a bad place to call home.
There’s the North Branch library for starters, a unique institution that’s been a focal point of community life for the past 40 years. In times of crisis—from dealing with drug-related murders in the late eighties to coping with the death of a popular young woman from a traffic mishap a few years ago—the community gathers at the library to rally, or recover. Important organizations like the Black Educators’ Association and events like African Heritage Month began here. Besides the usual assortment of traditional library staff—including many part-timers from the neighbourhood like Dyrell—the North Branch boasts people like Marcus James, whose vital but amorphous role as youth services person doesn’t have an equivalent in most libraries.
"This is not your typical library," James says proudly. It isn’t. It’s a lot noisier. After school, dozens of neighbourhood kids pour into the library to do their homework. Or hang out. Or to work on larger projects like the "Youth and Community Together 4 Peace" program Dyrell and Justine are involved in.
Down the street from the library, there’s the Community Y and, up the street, the Dixon Centre. The North End Family Resource Centre, a neighbourhood organization which has been providing parenting education, child care and children’s programming for over 20 years, is now located in the Square next to the community policing centre.
Within the Square itself, there’s now an active tenants’ association that’s sponsored everything from neighbourhood cleanups to a family fun day. They also operate a community food coop. And a group of local women known as the PEP Bro Divas—Dyrell’s mother, Donna Nelligan, is one of the Divas—have organized and operated an outdoor skating rink on the Dixon field for the past two winters.
Sitting in his Gottingen Street office, Irvine Carvery enumerates some of those pluses. "It’s not all bad," he says, adding with a laugh, "no matter what you read."
"[Uniacke Square is] changing for the better…I can’t see myself moving outside from here because we have so much to learn here." (Jenise Smith, quoted in the Daily News, September 16, 2006)
* * *
"So…" Denise Levangie is trying to nail down some dates over the next few weeks when the kids can get together and finalize the presentation they’ll be making March 1. "Saturday. One to three. And then Tuesday at six. Does that work?" She makes notes on a sheet of paper.
Seated across the table from her in a meting room at the library, still dressed for the evening cold in an over-sized grey parka and a toque with the peak turned backwards, Dyrell does his best to distract her.
"You know Marcus and Annette don’t like you," he says quietly, slumping forward, laying his head on the table to hide his smile.
"We could meet Monday," Levangie continues, ignoring him. "The library’s closed, but—"
"They’re using you. That’s what they’re doing." He reaches over, takes her coffee cup, flips up the lid, takes a sip.
"Dyrell!" she says finally in mock exasperation, "stop acting like a seven-year-old."
Dyrell and Annette MacIntyre had spent the afternoon at a meeting between the St. Pat’s-Alexandra School Advisory Committee and the area’s MLA, Maureen MacDonald. The meeting was to talk about the future of the area’s schools. Dyrell was supposed to take notes he could share with Justine as they decided what they want to say about education in their presentation, which is now just two weeks away."
"You didn’t take notes!" Levangie scolds him.
"I didn’t have paper."
"Annette says she gave you paper."
"I didn’t have a pen."
For all his lack of notes and clowning around, however, it’s clear Dyrell was paying attention during the meeting. When Levangie asks him what happened, his answer is direct: "They want to take the schools out of our community."
They do. Before the province fired them in December, the Halifax school board had approved a long-term capital plan for new schools on the peninsula. The plan includes closing three south end Halifax schools and replacing them with one super-elementary school. Though that, perhaps not surprisingly, is the proposal that’s generated the most press and the most controversy, the plan also envisions closing all three central city junior highs—St. Pat’s-Alexandra, Highland Park and Oxford—and replacing them one new mega-junior high by 2012, and then, the following year, shutting down all the area’s current elementary schools—Joseph Howe, St. Pat’s-Alexandra, Oxford, St. Joseph’s-Alexander MacKay—and moving the children to two new larger schools. There are rumours one of the sites being considered is Kempt Road, about 3 kilometres from Uniacke Square.
Because the decision to close the schools is being tarted up as "amalgamation," there are no rules requiring the board to consult with the community first. There are those who fear the proposal may be a "back door" way to close north end schools the board hasn’t been able to shut down any other way. "It isn’t the first time they’ve tried to close these schools," says MLA MacDonald.
It isn’t. That’s something else Dyrell and Justine also noticed during their research—just how hard their families have had to fight to keep their community’s schools open, to get crosswalks, to…well, to achieve just about anything.
These schools are important to the community as more than just schools, Annette MacIntyre points out. "If they took the schools away, this library would be a very different place." So would the Dixon Centre. And the Community Y. So would Uniacke Square.
Levangie has stopped making notes. "This is definitely one issue you guys should think about what you want to say in your presentation," she suggests.
Dyrell nods. He’s no longer clowning around.
"Our Turn To Speak", a presentation from young residents of Uniacke Square, takes place tonight, March 1, at the North Branch Memorial Library. Event begins at 6:30pm.
Stephen Kimber, The Coast’s Special Features Editor, is the author of Reparations, a novel about the Africville relocation.
Click on the cover photo to view an accompanying photo gallery by Andrew Danson Danushevsky.