Where goes the neighbourhood?

Gentrification is a cure that will save the north end, fixing a run-down and dangerous part of Halifax. Gentrification is a curse that will drive out low-income residents and Disney-fy a vibrant artistic neighbourhood. Discuss.

Imagine dozens of tourists passing by the Public Gardens and Peggy's Cove—and making a bee-line for what's left of one of the oldest surviving inner-city neighbourhoods in Canada: peninsular Halifax's north end.

They'd come to see the area's saltbox-shaped houses; its Georgian architecture; its tiny one-and-a-half storey houses; its four-storey decaying Brunswick Street mansions; its oft-touted housing development, the post-Explosion Hydrostone houses; and its most maligned public housing development, Uniacke Square.

Like pilgrims, they'd line up to step inside the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, the oldest African church in North America, 175 years old this year.

They'd view buildings that once housed large, wealthy families—now carved up into housing co-ops, rooming houses or flats. Or other more modest houses, once home to large working-class families, that have been renovated by young professionals, gay and straight.

It's an idea floated by poet and playwright David Woods last summer, that Halifax's north end, specifically Gottingen Street, should be a tourist destination—not just the area where the Harbour Hopper sleeps at night, but where it brings visitors.

In fact, the founder of the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia, who is also the associate curator of African Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, resents the fact that tourists are, as he puts it, "actively discouraged" from going to an area which used to be a real destination.

But then again, visitors are one loss in a long list of losses, he says: banks, a liquor store, a grocery store, theatres, nightclubs, a barbershop and a fine clothier, the New York Dress Shop—all left, or were forced to leave, the once-thriving street in the past 20 years. Ironically, even the Salvation Army thrift shop moved to Strawberry Hill, he points out.

Add to that a decision municipal planners made in the 1960s: in an uninspired move, houses were razed to build an overpass, the Cogswell Interchange. An anomalous, unwalkable mini-expressway that extends down to the waterfront, it's routinely derided as an urban planning mistake in a 258-year- old city otherwise known for its narrow, pedestrian-friendly streets: it screams Keep Out. Just beyond it is Scotia Square Mall. The combination turned Gottingen Street into a wasteland.

Conspiratorially, Woods red-flags the fact that several Gottingen Street anchors moved only a few blocks away in the years following the building of the Cogswell Interchange—just far enough to pull shoppers away from supporting the local retailers: the liquor commission and two banks moved to Agricola; and Sobeys—which, he recalls with genuine disdain, wasn't like stores in other parts of the city because it sold "the leftovers" from other city stores—relocated a mere five blocks away to North Street.

Sonia Edworthy also believes that the north end should be toured. She's the co-founder and co-archivist at the Anchor Archive Zine Library, located in a tiny, unrenovated house on Roberts Street that her landlord, who runs a business around the corner on Agricola, hangs onto for the parking, says Edworthy. A large, rusty anchor leans against its front stoop.

Edworthy, a planning studies graduate of Dalhousie University, organized two north end tours last year—a gentrification tour for kids and a studio and art tour for Eyelevel Gallery's Go North! artistic festival. She's also part of the Neighbourhood Tour Group, a collective that's creating a north end gentrification zine they hope to launch later this month. Sponsored by HeartWood Centre for Community Youth Development, the project's operating on a shoestring budget of $300.

"In the zine, we're struggling with different opinions, struggling not to squeeze them into one perspective—to parallel the public discussion about gentrification," she explains. "A zine allows you to make a conversation about gentrification more complex. It's not just rich and poor, new and old."

All I want for Christmas is a place to live.—Sticker scotch-taped to a traffic light pole at Almon and Windsor.

Very few people actually agree on where the north end begins and ends. In part, some people just want to dissociate themselves from Gottingen. It's a debate that goes back at least to the 1970s, when homeowners at the most northerly end of the street, seeking to protect their property values, petitioned the city to change the name of their end to Novalea.

The notorious legacy of Africville is also part of the back-story: in 1968 in the name of "urban renewal," the City of Halifax acted on a threat that it had been mounting since at least the 1950s and bulldozed to the ground the black community, which itself included houses, shops, a church. In its place, the city erected the foot of the MacKay Bridge in a swath of green grass it named Seaview Park. Homeowners who had already endured a steady stream of vindictive acts—rail tracks, a jail, raw sewage, a garbage dump, an infectious diseases hospital, a slaughterhouse—were poorly compensated and forcibly relocated, some to Uniacke Square and another social housing development, Mulgrave Park. Other descendents of Africville settlers now own houses in the north end.

But in recent years, a new kind of renaming has happened. In 2002, the Africville site was designated a National Historic Site. And last year, Gerrish Street, which intersects Crack Corner, the heart of the most maligned area of the north end, was renamed Buddy Daye Street. Buddy Daye was the first Black Canadian junior lightweight boxing champion, who also went on to become the first Black Sargeant in Arms at the provincial legislature.

Reclaiming a word is a way to regain power. Take the word "gentrification," for example. Coined in 1964 by British sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the makeover of city space inhabited by one class of people by a more affluent class, it was a negative term. Yet many of today's north enders plainly use it to mean a positive economic impact: they're fixing up or "gentrifying" their street. Others, like Rebecca Parker, a youth worker at the Uniacke Square Youth Centre, use it in a way that more closely resembles the original meaning: to her it means the recent quadrupling of the price of houses on the street where she grew up.


—Stenciled on the retaining wall in a vacant lot on Creighton near Buddy Daye Street above a Century 21 sign lying in long grass.

No matter where you draw the boundary line, Halifax's north end has a checkered reputation.

It's violent. Several swarmings happened along North Street last summer, and a cab driver was stabbed in the arm at the corner of Charles and Creighton. A few years ago, a bicyclist was knocked to the ground by kids wielding a two-by-four. Prostitutes hook and drug dealers sell on its corners.

It's also ripe with social agencies: the Micmac Friendship Centre, Community Y, North Branch library, Mainline Needle Exchange, Direction 180, Dalhousie Legal Aid, North End Parent Resource Centre. Hope Cottage, Pendleton Shelter, Metro Turning Point, Metro Non-Profit Housing Support Centre and the Parker Street Food and Furniture Bank. Even the Department of Community Services' main office is on Gottingen.

It used to be home to more arts groups like the Black Artists Network, which left last year—because, says Woods, their landlord inflated the rent. Among the other departures are Wormwood's Dog and Monkey Cinema, Halifax's only repertory cinema, now defunct; and the Atlantic Film Festival, Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative and Centre for Art Tapes, all of which are now in the CBC Radio Building. (One of CFAT's first homes was in the former Alexandra School on the corner of Brunswick and Cornwallis, where $250,000 condominiums are going up now across from St. George's Round Church.)

The Gottingen Street area still has numerous committed small businesses—Kit Kat Pizza, Soul Clippers, Turnstile Pottery Cooperative, Vogue Tailors, Alter Egos Cafe and Backpackers Hostel, Black Business Initiative, Seadogs Bath House, Bob and Lori's Food Emporium, Forbes Restoration, Shake It! Dance Studio and Shop, Monster Comic Lounge, Scotia Pharmasave—and one world-renowned architecture office, MacKay-Lyons/Sweetapple, all persisting in the neighbourhood despite high insurance rates which keep others away.

Until two weeks ago, it also had Taz Records, which joined the list of adventurous enterprises that gave Gottingen a try, including Noble BMX which last year moved to Quinpool Road.

It's where pungent aromas waft—beer hops, automotive paint and roasted coffee beans—and sounds like a vibrating automotive drill echo.

And it's also upwardly mobile. Eleven years ago, you could buy a two-storey fixer-upper in the north end for $60,000—calculating for inflation, that's $75,000 today. No more. Now its houses routinely run for at least $200,000.

About to push a new sale high is a house on Falkland Street owned and rebuilt by Kiwi Construction: the massive reconstruction, out of scale with all of the neighbouring houses, is currently for sale for $600,000.

An economic upswing and a renewed interest in downtown living are changing the north end—again. Over the past 15 years, many of the cheap houses have been bought and renovated by the same artists who were renting in the north end—some of them film industry workers who leveraged their earnings into property.

It even had Woods wondering: "You look around and you see this white middle-class moving in," he ponders. "And you think, "Hey, maybe I could have stayed.'"

But many black kids like Woods didn't stay. Why would they when there were few opportunities—when businesses were moving out, not in?

"Gentrification" is a word Hal Forbes reserves for the building of large, out-of-scale "super houses." He's given it plenty of thought because the term is also an accusation that has, over the years, been hurled at him.

Forbes bought his first house in the early 1980s, the Creighton Street house he still lives in, while working as a costume designer for Neptune Theatre—"I scooped the Salvation Army next door," which was looking to expand, he says.

He started property renovation as "something to pay the bills between theatre and film jobs," and then started buying other houses. He rents them out and he's also sold some—most notably, a one-plus-half-storey on Maynard Street which edged up the market.

"Some people have accused me of "Disney-fying' the neighbourhood," Forbes admits. His palette—warm oranges, greens, reds—is stately, and his properties feature well-proportioned windows and robust fascia moldings.

But for all their eye-pleasing nature, his houses really never had it so good—until now. His work is changing the look of what was historically a working-class area into one that appeals to the young professionals it's attracting.

In early June 2006, an accountant named John Fraser wanted to build two houses on the corner of Cogswell and Creighton Streets at the foot of Citadel Hill. A rundown rooming house where two men were murdered used to stand there—until a fire burned down the building. You could hardly get any closer to Ruth Glass's original definition of gentrification.

Fraser was applying for variances to build the houses more than 265 percent larger than the by-law allows as of right. He had a rough idea what he wanted these to look like: his drawing was copied from an existing architecturally-designed building in Halifax's south end.

The three city councillors at the community council meeting, including District 12 city councillor Dawn Sloane, acting on the neighbours' concerns, approved the variance—but on only one of the lots. Today, it's nearly complete.

No one wanted an empty corner. Or another monster house. After all, the neighbours—many of whom, like Forbes, have lived in the north end for more than 20 years—have planted their own roots in the neighbourhood, and so there are ways in which they don't want to see it grow.


—Spraypainted on Agricola and Cunard at the base of apartments overlooking the Common.

The underlying message from the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty, a grassroots direct action group with an office in a dilapidated building on Agricola Street, is that some new owners are changing the area into one where poor people can't afford to rent.

Its focus is two-pronged: HCAP is pushing the province to introduce rent control and, at the same time, championing tenants' rights before the Residential Tenancies Board. It alleges that some building owners are increasing rents without making improvements and without taking into account whether the tenant can afford the increase.

"TransGlobe is one of the biggest agents of gentrification," maintains volunteer Cole Webber, who's one of several members advocating for people who've seen their rents increase as much as $150 in four months. "People on income assistance can't afford that."

TransGlobe, which did not return a request for an interview, owns 21,000 residential units across Canada and has, in the past two years, bought up several apartment buildings in HRM, including the former Brunswick Towers and two low-rise apartment buildings on Charles Street. The buildings look like they're being improved—the renamed Ocean Towers got a fresh coat of purple paint, and all of their buildings have new, bright blue awnings.

Some of the Coalition's tactics are offensive—unofficially, HCAP takes responsibility for dozens of grafittied anti-gentrification messages that have sprung up on houses, apartment buildings and businesses in the north end over the past two years.

"Any resistance is a good thing," says Webber. "Good political messaging is a good thing. When it does economic damage, some of our members support that."

But HCAP also plays the vital role of saying what many people can't say, maybe because they're too busy busting their butts to pay their rent—or they were pushed out of the neighbourhood. Or they don't have an address and they eat their meals at Hope Cottage. Or because they died in a rundown rooming house.

Graffiti—even though it is against the law—might be, like telephone pole postering and zines, for example, another appropriate way for the disenfranchised to express the truth.

And even if you don't like HCAP's methods, they're clearly just pointing out that there is an elephant in the room: gentrification.


—Stenciled on the side of the former Maritime Demolition lot, rumoured site for a new condominium development on the corner of Maynard and Harris.

Up the street from HCAP, Fred Connors spent $200 removing the gentrification graffiti that defaced Fred. That's his Agricola Street salon/cafe/gallery, a former Scotiabank building that he renovated four years ago. It's a fashionable space—white furniture, white paint, white fixtures—which expresses Connors' flamboyant tastes, not a hostile community takeover, he says.

Connors' thriving business, along with Norman Flynn Design, Statement and Creative Crossing, is being credited with transforming Agricola into the Gottingen Street of old—even though those stores are modern boutiques, not mom-and-pop shops like their neighbours Mid-East Foods and Nauss Bicycle Shop.

Capp Larsen, another HCAP member, says that what offends her about Fred is the same thing that offends her about the musicians who play across the street at Gus's Pub and Grill, an institution among working class north enders: just as the bands and their fans are pushing out Gus's typical customers by changing the demographic, so Fred's $100 haircuts and $5 coffees, because they're priced out of range for most people who lived in the neighbourhood, are shutting people out.

But Connors estimates that one-third of his customers actually do live north of the Halifax Common. He says that until gentrification escalates into an open invitation for Wal-Mart to build in the north end, HCAP should save the money it spends on spray-paint to house the homeless.

Last summer, David Woods said that twin threads of racism and anti-poverty wind their way through people's attitudes toward Gottingen Street, so that people move between sympathy and beating up the street: "Everything around it is getting built up, but it's nothing. Nowhere else will you see this—in no other city."

So what would it take to rejuvenate Gottingen Street? Money, for one thing. That's according to Darren Ruck, a presenter at last summer's Uniacke Square Community Conference. Ruck was raised in the north end. Like Woods, he moved to Dartmouth.

"Investment is the common denominator of communities that are vibrant," says the financial adviser with Scotiabank. "It's next to impossible for people to build wealth without owning property."

Andrew Murphy has no compunction about gentrifying the area—"Yes, this is it," he announces when asked if he feels he's part of gentrification. He's clear that "it" is a good thing: he's seen the neighbourhood switch from being a place he wouldn't visit at night when he was in high school into a safe area. Gone is the crack dealer who lived across the street when Murphy bought the old Glubes Furniture store on Gottingen Street and Cornwallis in 1991 and converted it into his office and storage rental units.

Murphy is doing his bit to reinvent the building as "affordable housing"—uniquely, for artists.

"We hide our artists in places like Bloomfield School and Pier 21," says Murphy, referring to two defunct, low-rent spaces which used to warehouse artist studios—similar to the Manual Training Centre building on Cunard Street, also owned by HRM.

He's planning to build lofts and integrated live/work spaces in the spirit of his collaborator, Montreal architect Avi Friedman, but phase one is six townhouses for professional couples looking to buy their first house. Two have sold for $295,000—the same price as the new condos being built overlooking the Common. Another two are nearly complete.

But the key to Murphy's Georgian-style townhouses' affordability is that the three-storey houses—shorter than he could have built as of right—include a rental property below: basement apartments accessed off the street by stepping down a well staircase into a private exterior "yard." It's a form of urban housing which HRM has never seen—and therefore, a zoning nightmare for Murphy when he started converting.

Right now, he rents the Gottingen Street storefront space to Eyelevel Gallery—"I couldn't rent it to anyone else," he says plainly—and an upstairs studio to Alison Cude Fine Ceramics for $400/month. That's half the cost of the tiny, storefront space another potter, Allison Moz, was renting at Creative Crossing on Agricola and Charles.

The smart Glubes Loft Townhouses and lofts seem like a good fit for an established artist like Cude. But they won't be affordable for the poor people who still live around Gottingen Street; possibly not even for the middle-class NSCAD students who've taken to renting further north in the north end.


—Stenciled on the sidewalk at Bauer and Falkland, with an anarchy symbol in place of the "A."

Because there's more social housing than any other type of housing in the north end, it's probably slowing down gentrification. And not all social housing is run by the Metro Housing Authority: an astonishing five percent of Canada's 850 housing co-ops also call the north end home.

In 2004, the north end Council of Churches reported that one in 10 of the neighbourhood's 7,000 residents—a number which has not changed in more than 20 years—is on social assistance. Of those, one-quarter are single mothers, many of whom live in subsidized housing.

Many housing co-ops have a lot going for them: community gardens; an ethnically diverse, outward-looking and politically active membership; stable housing charges. Organized by groups of communally minded people in the 1970s and '80s for whom "landlords" and "management" were dirty words, their policies are less concerned with property value than with providing safe, affordable housing. They've stopped people from buying up huge swathes of the neighbourhood and putting up O'Regans-style parking lots or apartment buildings.

Co-ops are also at an exciting precipice as the ones first established are about to complete their mortgages—meaning they'll have money to reinvest, renovate and possibly even expand.

But the sustainability of housing co-ops is in jeopardy—in part because there's been no new government investment in the idea, but also because of a general shift in social values—away from communal living and toward greater individualism. It's a fact that's led the Department of Community Services to force some poorly managed co-ops into external management.

While an outside-managed co-op is still run by an internal board of directors, co-ops have to divert a substantial amount of money to the management company, which collects rent and drafts budgets. Despite the alternatives—co-ops in financial straits, or fewer co-ops—external management is no longer very cooperative.


—Stencilled beside the door leading up to a second-storey apartment on Agricola Street.

HRM By Design is a project that's a by-product of the city's new 25-year regional plan. It recognizes the desire for vibrant neighbourhoods, inviting streets, beautiful architecture and splendid public spaces throughout HRM—and involves a series of forums for soliciting community input.

At the next forum on Tuesday and Wednesday, HRM By Design will gather public opinion on what the city refers to as two "opportunity sites," areas which are slated for re-development. One is the area around St. Patrick's High School, slated for demolition this fall. The other is in the north end.

Now there are many "opportunities" in the north end—vacant lots and, according to councillor Sloane, up to 40 empty houses. But HRM is focusing its attention on a site bordered by Gottingen Street which includes the Holy Trinity Anglican Church and several other buildings: Staples; Propeller Brewery, formerly home to Wormwood's and now also artists' studios; the former Norman Wade and Enterprise rental car buildings; the Marquee and the "twelve apostles"—12 tiny, brick rowhouses which once served as marriage quarters for Citadel Hill soldiers.

"It doesn't mean that everything on the site is being redeveloped," points out Andy Fillmore, HRM manager of urban design, who also makes it clear that the church is not yet for sale—and neither are the other buildings. Just that HRM has earmarked it and the Quinpool Road location as a "sites that are in a state of flux."

"There's no specific target in term of "We're going to develop every square inch of vacant lot,'" says Austin French, HRM Manager of Planning Services, of the regional plan. "What we need is those people who are dissatisfied to show up at these opportunity sites forums and say how they'd like to see it done in the future.... So I hope that when they participate, they will have come away with a different point of view—not as people who don't feel that they'll have an impact."

Of the empty houses and vacant lots, another member of HRM By Design is hopeful that they will vanish as a more clearly articulated vision develops of what north end residents want and HRM will permit: "It's about expectations," says Frank Palermo, head of the Cities and Environment Unit at Dalhousie University's School of Architecture and Planning. "Really that land is in a "holding use' because don't really want to build. But they're thinking, "Someday I might be able to build something....' With a clearer vision, then they'll let go."


—Spraypainted on the new Creighton Street townhouses designed by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects.

Unlike Hal Forbes, who renovates and refinishes, Brian McKay-Lyons is an architect who has stuck to in-filling discrete parts of the north end with modernist, urban street scale rowhouses.

His four-storey townhouses, which have taken almost two years to build, are high end: although they reflect the shape and size of what exists, there's no pretense of "affordability" about these houses, which purportedly cost their new owners considerably more than a half-million dollars each. But like the Glubes Townhouses, the lower unit is a separate, income-generating apartment or office space.

"We're trying to fill in the holes so that the neighbourhood can be more contiguous. Less fragmented, less likely to be knocked down and replaced," says MacKay-Lyons. "I started doing that a long time ago."

MacKay-Lyons is also among the first of the artists who moved into the north end, and decided he wanted to help the neighbourhood—in his own way: "I argued for high density low-rise and high amenity, as opposed to high-rise apartments all over the north end," he explains. "Decades ago, the peninsula was intended to be re-zoned R3, R4 buildings—this neighbourhood would have gradually been knocked down—this is before it was perceived as a heritage area."

And, despite having the temerity to set up shop on a struggling Gottingen Street, the prospect of having their office computers stolen again compelled MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects to install the first real gate in the north end—a heavy, iron wall that tracks past a large industrial window set in concrete block.

There are developers creating genuinely affordable housing for poor people in the north end. The Creighton Gerrish Development Association has been picking up the slack left by the federal government when it killed new funding for co-op housing with a project designed by Niall Savage and spearheaded by Grant Wanzel. Wanzel's been working with several community housing groups, including Metro Non-Profit Housing.

After building 29 apartments on the corner of Buddy Daye and Gottingen for the hard-to-house—the building also incorporates the housing support office and a weekday morning coffee shop for the poor and homeless—the Association then developed six semi-detached houses on Creighton with subsidized mortgages for first-time homeowners whose incomes are less than $50,000—again, that was twice the area average three years ago. Even councillor Sloane qualified for one of the houses, despite some protest by anti-poverty advocates.

The non-profit's next phase is 12 rental units of apartments which will be more affordable than phase one and less expensive than phase two, to be built on the corner of Buddy Daye and Creighton.

In this way, the Association is attempting, in a respectful well-designed manner, to knit together a section of the north end that otherwise contains several glaring holes: numerous partially burned rooming houses and many of the vacant District 12 houses that councillor Sloane is trying to have cleaned up.

HRM anticipates 25 percent growth in the regional centre over the next 25 years. That's an average of seventy people per year, and a total of just under 9,000 people living in between Creighton, Agricola, North and Barrington in 2032.

Will they live in flophouses, $1 million condominiums and mixed-income housing? Will they work in boutiques, home-offices and a grocery store and credit union down the street? Will Direction 180 have a new, architecturally designed facility? And the Bloomfield Centre—will it be a vibrant mix of co-housing, subsidized childcare, artist facilities, a community newspaper and a new state-of-the-art Community YMCA?

Imagine, too, that we could travel back in time. Hop on a tour bus to an Africville which has not been razed. Its Seaview Baptist Church intact. Where Africville homeowners were given what they requested and needed—electricity, plumbing, full employment. A grocery store, banks. No dump, no tracks, no infectious diseases hospital. Imagine Africville houses with heritage status. A living, breathing National Historic Site.

"It's a healthy thing, having renters and owners side by side. But in a policy way, we haven't found a way to make that work," says Frank Palermo, who also worked as a city planner in Calgary during the 1970s. Palermo says that city's east end did it by preventing commercial interests from displacing the residential. So did downtown Vancouver in the 1990s—a fact which has not translated into a solution for its notorious east side.

"The eclectic mix. One would hope that we could find ways for that to continue to have life. Otherwise the north end becomes the same as any other area we find in any other city."

Lis van Berkel is a freelance writer and co-owns a house in the north end, where she has lived since 1989. That’s also the year she first heard the word “gentrification.”

Support The Coast

At a time when the city needs local coverage more than ever, we’re asking for your help to support independent journalism. We are committed as always to providing free access to readers, particularly as we confront the impact of COVID-19 in Halifax and beyond.

Read more about the work we do here, or consider making a donation. Thank you for your support!

Comments (7)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Get more Halifax

The Coast Daily email newsletter is your extra dose of the city Monday through Friday. Sign up and go deep on Halifax.

Recent Comments

  • Re: The truth about great white sharks in Nova Scotia

    • I believe there was one more incident about 15 years ago that was reported by…

      Posted by: Morris Green on Aug 7, 2022

  • Re: Why Schmidtville matters

    • Agree 100%! It's amazing what you and the group have accomplished for the protection and…

      Posted by: Donna Brinson on Aug 4, 2022

  • Re: The politics of imagination

    • Really enjoyed this article, thanks for sharing. Evidence of the difficulty of pulling past what…

      Posted by: Bloctopods on Aug 4, 2022