My Past, Its Past

I almost can’t believe this building once existed in Halifax. It stood at the corners of Hollis, Granville, and the now-gone Buckingham Streets.

A Long-Gone Flatiron Building in Halifax

I stumbled upon the “Vintage Halifax” page on Facebook yesterday and I simply had to go through it all. The experience left me with even more mixed feelings about that city I called home for more than two decades — most of my adult life. It reminded me of something I wrote in a series of postings from June 2007 that was my way of convincing myself that the time had come for me to leave Halifax.

…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.

A sharp observer on the Vintage Halifax page, noticing that cars were driving on the left-hand side, noted that the shadow of Halifax pictured above likely dates back to before April 1923, after which authorities ordered that people should drive on the right. The shadow I remembered and about which I was wrote in 2007 dated back to July 1982 and the decade or so that followed. The flatiron-style building shown above was long gone by then, but the building in front of it, next to which the car is parked, still exists: it is now the first building to the right as one enters Hollis Street from the Cogswell Interchange.

I really knew nothing about Halifax prior to 1982. Some — although I don’t remember exactly who — had told me it was a rough and dirty port city and a bigger version of Saint John, New Brunswick, which I agreed at the time was an ugly and old industrial port city that reeked due to having a papermill just up-river from downtown. Thus I had no desire to go to Halifax until my longtime friend The Quad had to go consult with occupational therapists at a hospital in Halifax — an appointment that coincidentally came up mere days after BeeGoddessC suggested that I go to Halifax to talk to Danny. Since the Quad and I were inseparable at the time, I went along for the ride to take him to Halifax on a Sunday so that, once in Halifax, I would try to reach Danny to invite myself to stay a few days at his place beginning the following Tuesday.

That Sunday was beautiful and sunny and, when we arrived in Halifax, my jaw practically dropped to the floor. Rather than finding a dirty little port city, I found, as we drove across the Macdonald Bridge, a polished, gleaming seaport with an impressive, modern skyline. Even though I’m no longer fond of Halifax, I can’t take away from the fact that it does have an impressive skyline for a city of its size — one that has densified in the decades since I first set eyes on it. And, coming from little ol’ Moncton, New Brunswick, that had no skyline to speak of, I felt like I was “discovering” a mini-Montréal that existed, without my knowing it, less than 200 miles from my doorstep.

At that time, the Scotia Square / Historic Properties complex had been in existence for at least 10 years. The whole neighbourhood pictured above had been razed in the mid-’60s to make way for it. Looking at pictures yesterday of the dilapidated neighbourhood that used to stand in its place, I can understand why the city had been so bent on “urban renewal.” However, attitudes about development being what they were back in the ’60s, the way the plan was executed earned it much-deserved criticism. It would never happen today unless an epic catastrophe destroyed such a vast area that would then need to be refilled. It radically changed the face of Halifax but, ironically, that face I discovered that day in July 1982 was but one of the components that made me fall so hard for that city.

Less than two years after that first visit, or one year after graduating from high school, I decided to take a second “sabbatical year from school” and lived in Halifax for 16 months. Fate then had me return to live in Halifax in September 1987 when I decided to study public relations at Mount Saint Vincent University, and I managed to find work afterwards that kept me in Halifax until March 2008, which I deem, with hindsight, as about a decade longer than I should have stayed there.

Indeed, I went from finding no wrong with Halifax to finding everything wrong with it. For right or for wrong, I came to see it as a place where mediocrity wasn’t just accepted but celebrated. And, in a further twist of irony, as more and more quaint old buildings were being destroyed and replaced with characterless condos, I could no longer find that city I had loved so much.

This observation strikes me as somewhat odd because I’m not the type of guy who opposes development. I like the look and feel of modern big cities. But perhaps that’s just it: I came to see Halifax as an impostor — a big small town that hadn’t a clue what it wanted to be — and, indeed, that rough and dirty port city about which I had been told when I was a kid.

Looking at all those pictures on Vintage Halifax, I could see why the city had earned that reputation. However, as I looked at those pictures and thought of that city I left nearly five years ago, one thought crossed my mind: “Old wine, new bottle.” Worse still, I almost couldn’t see why I had once fallen so hard for it. Sadly, today, I can enumerate far more areas in Halifax than I can in Montréal where I wouldn’t dare walk alone at night. And that, along with many other factors, leaves me not missing Halifax one bit …except for my friends who still live there.