Time to Say Farewell to Nova Scotia (Part 4)?
Because I had transfer credits from the U de M and chose to go to summer school, I completed my PR degree in 24 months. It was cheaper that way, and it meant that I finished my undergradute studies only a few months later than if I’d stuck to the translation program. I also took a part-time job at the university in my second year, and that placed my foot in the door for my first “real” job: managing editor of Atlantis. While today most students at MSVU and the PR program are from Nova Scotia, back in the ’80s, the PR program drew people from all over the country. Many very much liked Halifax and hoped they could find work here, but the market here was (and is) too small for the annual crop of graduates; I considered myself one of the lucky ones who managed to stay.
Yet, in many ways, Halifax is an odd place for me to have taken roots. While it is intrinsically linked to my coming of age, this rather conservative seaport city in “New Scotland” has absolutely no grounding for me, a first-generation New Brunswick francophone whose ancestral roots can be traced back generations in Quebec. Plus, ever since I first visited Montreal at the ripe age of 7, I have harboured a fascination for big cities — cities with populations greater than the whole province of “New Scotland” or even the four Atlantic provinces combined. When, as a teenager, I would long for the day when I could begin living, I always imagined myself in such a city.
But, it must be said, notwithstanding my rose-coloured glasses of youth, Halifax in the ’80s and ’90s was more vibrant and edgier than it is today — certainly more than one would have expected from a city its size. The promise of offshore oil and gas was fuelling the development and clean up of downtown; music from the East Coast was coming of age; a naughty and fun underground was thriving; daring, progressive politics were nascent; the gay community was political and could boast being the only one in Canada to fully own and operate the local bar… It was also a period when colourful, eccentric mayors presided over the city, which simultaneously was a source of embarrassment and amusement. It all made for a quirky little city set in beautiful surroundings, where out-of-control urban sprawl had not yet taken hold and a 30-minute drive in any direction led to some of the most idyllic spots one could ever imagine. And what made the city even quirkier was that it was located in a province with painfully old-fashioned ways, where only a few gas stations were opened on Sunday (on a rotating basis, no less), where stores were closed on Sunday and “shopping nights” were Wednesday to Friday when shops stayed opened until 9:00 instead of 6:00, where establishments licensed as “taverns” closed at 11:00, and where booze couldn’t be bought on Sunday except if served with a meal at a restaurant. Even my home province of New Brunswick was far less uptight!
I have this odd, very unscientific theory about what may have precipitated the change to what I perceive Halifax has become. Back in the early ’80s, many Maritimers viewed Halifax as a mini anglophone Montreal by the ocean. In fact, I find Haligonians back then, with their memories of Expo and the Olympics still relatively fresh but fading fast, used to identify more with Montreal than Toronto. And I think there were two tangible reasons for that: the fact Montreal only then was losing its status as Canada’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, and there were two daily trains between Halifax and Montreal instead of today’s six per week. While plane travel was extremely commonplace, so was travelling by train because it was cheaper and still convenient. As Toronto surpassed Montreal as the country’s dominant city and planes became the postmodern equivalent of Greyhound buses, Haligonians have been engaging and identifying more with Toronto, where the dominant language is the same as here. I know you’re probably all thinking that I’m just setting up another cheap shot against Toronto, a city for which I have avowed little affection, but I can’t help discerning the milquetoast hegemony of Toronto slowly imprinting itself on this little seaside city.
That being said, it must also be recognized that in the ’80s, Haligonians themselves planted some of the seeds for what their city has become. For instance, when I “discovered” Halifax in the early ’80s, the phrase “The Spring Garden Experience” was coined to describe the two city blocks of delightful little shops housed in the ground floor of unremarkable walk-up apartment buildings. By the mid-80s, misguided marketers failed to grasp that the “Spring Garden Experience” referred to cachet, not shopping; so they built not one, not two, but three malls on that special stretch of Spring Garden and promptly destroyed what had been a very good thing. The first mall (Spring Garden Place) might have fit in had it been the only one; the second one (Park Lane, a.k.a. Park Drain) has been downsized considerably since it opened; the third one (City Centre Atlantic) was a spectacular flop that no one dares talk about today for fear of recalling the horrors of that egregious mistake. And it was game over when Mickey D opened in the Lord Nelson Arcade. Today, no one remembers the phrase “Spring Garden Experience,” as there is nothing memorable about the product of cookie-cutters, easily exchangeable with what can be found in any other city.
And yet… Damning as that assessment is, I can’t deny that when I found myself driving along South Park at Spring Garden the other evening, with the sun shining and the leaves out and the pedestrians everywhere, I think I saw the ghost of the city with which I had fallen in love a quarter century ago. I wondered for an instant if perhaps my eyes had changed with age and thus were preventing me from seeing that the beloved is still here, or if indeed, as I fear, the beloved has withered to a pale shadow of its former, vibrant self.
I do know that my reaching middle age has to be taken into account. But as I kept driving along the city streets on my way home, I concluded that I had, in fact, only seen a pale shadow back there. A lovely shadow in its own right, mind you, but a shadow nonetheless.