Scott Crawford, community developer with the ONE (Old North End) Change group, sits in his office on Victoria Street with an aerial map of Saint John’s north end. He points out abandoned houses, one after another, in the shadow of a vacant, sterile Main Street.
“Starting in the 1970s it went from being a working-class, family-oriented neighbourhood, to a neighbourhood that was completely consumed by poverty,” he said.
With a poverty rate of 40.9 per cent and with some of the oldest housing stock in Canada, the area can mimic blight of Detroit: a muddle of abandoned homes and gaping lots, ghosts.
Yet Crawford is hopeful for a Main Street deserving of its name. It was once lined with a string of shops and flats— a hub of activity. But the hub was destroyed by urban renewal, a process that unfolded in the 60s and 70s to retrofit cities to absorb surplus capital— in the form of sprawling housing developments— and accommodate the ever-increasing amount of cars. In the process of building static freeways and vapid viaducts, whole neighbourhoods— dense, inner-city communities— were demolished under the mantra of progress.
“Saint John ended at Adelaide Street [where the north end begins] and anything past, since 1970, really didn’t exist,” said Crawford.
What was touted as progress 50 years ago— sprawl, shopping centres, and freeways— is now condemned among city builders as antiquated. Plan SJ, a new municipal plan, is aimed at reversing the damage done by urban renewal with Main Street at its heart. The plan was designed to end urban sprawl, which has seen Saint John’s suburbs in the Kennebecasis Valley flourish— there are approximately 50,000 people living in various Saint John bedroom communities. The city proper itself, vastly spread over 300 square kilometres, has a mere 70,000 citizens.
Throughout its history, the land surrounding Main Street making up the bulk of the north end was a bustling, even thriving, urban village. In fact, it was once a city of its own— the city of Portland, New Brunswick. And according to the 1881 national census, Portland was among the largest municipalities in Canada. It would later amalgamate with Saint John.
“The way that things are today isn’t the way things always were— and it doesn’t have to be they always will be,” said Crawford.
Morgan Lanigan is a senior architectural technologist at Acre Architects, an award winning boutique architecture firm in Saint John. He looks to Main Street with sanguine eyes and sees only the promise of the past. His idea to help rebuild Main Street has garnered attention from across the city.
“I noticed a big disconnection between the uptown and the north end and thought there must be a better way to reconnect the city and bring back what Main Street used to be: a prime commercial corridor, a mixed-use neighbourhood.”
Main Street, today, stands as a relic of urban renewal and post-war urban planning trends. Instead of building cities for people, they were built for their cars.
The city drank the Kool-Aid, according to University of New Brunswick professor Greg Marquis. Marquis researches urban policy, with Saint John as his primary case study.
“It’s kind of an urban wasteland really,” he said.
The result of urban renewal is far from what was intended for Saint John. At the time, city planners and politicians expected by the year 2000, the city’s population would be well over 200,000. However, since 1971, its population has only declined. It is left with infrastructure built for a much larger population, leaving a heavy tax burden on the existing citizenry.
The initiative, which lasted nearly two decades, unfolded in three stages. It began in the east end of the city, removing tenement housing, and then the same process was meted out in the north end. The Saint John Harbour Bridge was the last piece. Its gaunt pillars stand over the foundations of what was once an urban grid.
“The projects would not have happened without the support of the business community,” said Marquis, “The idea was that it was going to create a more competitive city for investment.”
The urban renewal projects, as in cities across North America, hinged upon the interests of the private sector. The liminal position of the business community encroached on the development public space. Projects lacked public consultation yet K.C. Irving was directly involved in discussions of the placement of the city’s harbour bridge.
Though over 1,500 families were displaced, communities destroyed; there had been no revolt to halt the ‘progress’ in Saint John. There was no upheaval like in Halifax with the planned waterfront freeway, or in Toronto where the irate citizenry protested the planned Spadina Expressway. Marquis believes this was because many of those displaced didn’t own their respective buildings; they were lower-middle class renters.
Today, citizens of Saint John still feel the sting. The veil has been lifted. The promise of investment: broken. The city has the highest property tax rate in the province and continues to see service cuts to essential services— as well as the privatization of water— with each passing municipal budget. Meanwhile tax breaks for the city’s mainstay employer, the Irving group, persist.
Morgan Lanigan, who lives in the north end and maintains the area is slowly gentrifying, plans to help rectify the mistakes of past planners. Dense neighbourhoods sustain cities, not sprawling suburbs.
“It was the true urban neighbourhood urban planners are trying to go back to now.”
Lanigan’s vision includes removing the designated highway status Main Street currently holds. This would lower traffic and enable the street to become pedestrian-friendly.
“If you move that on to Hillyard Street and Paradise Row you can divert [traffic] to streets that are more suited to that kind of traffic.”
For Lanigan, the 650-meter stretch of Main Street that he hopes to rebuild would reinvigorate the struggling north end.
“Main Street as it is now isn’t doing us any favours.”
There is one thing hindering Lanigan’s vision: Saint John’s economy with an unemployment rate continually hovering around 10 per cent. To redevelop the area, again, would take significant investment, but Lanigan is committed, stolid.
“We’ve been planning this for two or three years now because we now it’s going to take time, we are going to get through these boom and bust cycles. But we have to keep planning how we are going to grow this city. And the next logical step, for me, is Main Street.”
Native to Saint John, Peter studies journalism and sociology. He has written for, or contributed to, the Media Co-op, Campbellton Tribune, Telegraph Journal and the New Brunswick Business Journal. Reach Peter on Twitter @PD_Johnston
This article first appeared in the New Brunswick Beacon.