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WENDY ELLIOTT: Halifax, I hardly know ye

Wendy Elliott. File
Wendy Elliott. File - SaltWire Network
HALIFAX, N.S. —

During my university days, I literally got to spend two summers on the streets of Halifax. What a memorable time that was – selling flowers from a bright yellow cart on the sidewalks of the city.

While there were artists at the time selling their work along the wrought iron fence at the public gardens, nobody had ever sought permission to vend like European flower sellers.

I remember my buddy Sue and I hitchhiking to Avon Valley Flowers in Falmouth for carnations. Then we went before city council with a bloom for each councilor. Of course, they said ‘yes’ with a bribe like that. In the end, because we were the first, a vending machine license was bestowed.

With Valley flowers and that cart with bicycle wheels, we traipsed from Scotia Square to Spring Garden Road on our learning curve. Locally owned businesses prevailed in those days – except for Birks.

And such characters we met along our route: from Clyde loudly flogging the daily paper, to the fellow in banker attire wearing red women’s spike heels, to a lovely ex-ballerina on the arm of a much younger husband.

Once Mayor Walter Fitzgerald stopped for a boutonnière, then several Russian sailors talked us into buying huge lobster skeletons wired together. Boy did they stink after a few days!

We got to know the white-bearded bookseller on Argyle Street since he liked to chat and a waiter at the Cameo Restaurant on Spring Garden brought us cold drinks on hot days. We’d blow soap bubbles at potential customers while socking away our fall tuition.

The day generally ended at the Clyde Street liquor store in order to catch men buying themselves a bottle on the way home. “Take the little woman home a bloom or two,” Sue would say, tossing a little guilt their way.

As evening settled on the city, we rolled the flower wagon up to Robie Street and our summer digs at the Dalhousie dental students’ frat house. There wasn’t much nightlife to be had during those pleasant days. There was a decent jazz club down by the Commons, but we generally preferred sipping tea at Diana Sweets.

So lately spending time on the peninsula, I found myself mourning the Halifax that was – the stately Victorian architecture and the human scale of the city. Now cranes and characterless developments dominate. Often it looks like any streetscape in North America.

The new convention centre on Argyle is abominable, especially after a visit when I spotted lawn chairs gathered round a fake blue-lighted bonfire a storey above the pavement. Now two gigantic developments have been given the nod for the corner of Robie Street and Spring Garden Road and the bottom of Quinpool Road.

Haligonians tell me it feels like developers are the de facto planners for the region as they race to get ahead of Centre Plan approval. “People love Halifax because of its unique character. We don't need to look like Toronto,” Angela Capobianco wrote in a letter to The Coast recently. Even comedian Cathy Jones got out to a council meeting lately to protest the fact that councilors so blithely ignores the wishes of residents.

Due to public outrage in the late 1960s, Halifax did preserve the Historic Properties, but the city has no heritage districts and few intact blocks of historic buildings like the Granville Mall. I would suggest that tourists don’t want to gawk at downtown office blocks, but a Jane Austen era tour of Halifax lately proved popular.

Back in May an advocacy group called Development Option Halifax called on the mayor and council to require HRM planning staff to provide 3-D models in order for citizens see what the Centre Plan’s changes to the city will really look like, before the plan is approved. Model maker and architectural student Hadrian Laing noted in the group’s news release that, “It should be done for all developments.”

I wish that a model had been made before a developer was allowed to obscure the view of the Halifax Citadel from the new central library on Spring Garden Road. Once in a great while Halifax does get it right. The $57.6 million library is a stirling public addition and that outlook should have been protected.

The well-utilized library serves as a true gathering place. Last week I heard three languages, none of them French or English, spoken in the vicinity of the library just as India Fest was unfolding. The city is embracing newcomers, which is great, but I mourn the city’s unvalued built heritage.

Former Advertiser and Register reporter Wendy Elliott lives in Wolfville.

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