Where am I?

In August we went downtown for the first time in quite a while. Walking along Birmingham Street with the Mills block demolished, and new and newish buildings to the right and left, I suddenly had the feeling you get when visiting a strange city: an excited sense of alertness because you don’t know exactly where you are or what you’ll discover next. In an instant I realized, at least in this part of town, I could not conjure up the old soul of Halifax, the place I’ve lived for seven decades.

On several subsequent trips into town, I mused about this feeling of visiting a new town, and took some photos to help clarify my thoughts. It’s a journey.

Spring Garden or Ulaanbaatar?

The Spring Garden Road rebuild is very exciting, and the hints I’ve seen of the design and materials indicate it will be a game changer. For the moment the disruption of the street work combined with the building construction creates a strange, could be anywhere, boomtown illusion.

It brought to mind our visit to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, then in the throes of rapid and chaotic modernization.

It will be fascinating to see how establishments on Spring Garden respond to their tasteful new streetscape. Do you think a certain segment of the businesses will preserve their “$10 Pitchers ALL DAY” tendencies?

Cross South Park and you reenter familiar territory, and stroll the most attractive sidewalk in Halifax. Nineteenth-century planners conceptualized this generous sidewalk as an extension of and transition to the Public Gardens. There’s an idea.

In a decade or so the new landscape beside the Doyle on Brunswick Street should have a similar feel. For now it is another pleasant surprise.

Return to Zone No

Up South Park the new streetscape has gone a step further with a grassy barrier separating and screening pedestrians from the bike lane (!) and traffic. And to top it off, a low wall provides endless seating, facing the Curve and Pavilion buildings. This really feels like somewhere else.

Fifty years ago, just down the block at the Lord Nelson, there was a long-running battle trying to stop the wrong people from sitting on a very similar wall, that faced Spring Garden. The hippies who staged sit-ins on The Wall will be scratching their bald heads today. It’s just amazing how fair people can be (says Randy Newman).

Separating the Curve and Pavilion is a terrace/mall that provides a pedestrian link to tiny Annandale Street. This is a real public benefit. The space also displays the swell sculpture CSTD 2-9, by local artist John Macnab.

In about this same location there used to be another artwork I really enjoyed. It was a sign in the alley beside the old YMCA, with laboriously stenciled lettering and a message I perversely read as offering 24 hour parking in zone no.

So what do I really feel?

I expect and often celebrate change in our urban core, so I was surprised by my “where am I” feeling on Birmingham Street. But when I reviewed Street View from a few years back I started to recover the depth of experience I had with this block. Here is a little summary.

On the left in the photo below is the entrance to Mills men’s clothing department, a domestic-scaled space, that would have been front parlours of a nineteenth-century house. The clothing selection was limited but carefully chosen, I fondly remember a canvas coat.

Next, going south, is the King’s Crown where I had haircuts, although I had a longer history with their location on Spring Garden. And then M Home, where we purchased a number of pieces of furniture. Every day I sit on their green sofa.

Before the barbershop a tropical fish shop filled that space with banks of bubbling aquariums. The yellow door led up to a space that I first knew in the mid-1970s as the studio of textile artist Sandra Brownlee. Our friends Mern and John lived there later, and we enjoyed many meals and celebrations together.

This is the Mills men’s shop soon after it opened in the 70s. Bob Parker was the architect of the clever design, which provided a model and standard for adaptive reuse that the development community largely ignored.

Demonstrating how new energy can reanimate old buildings, the Daily Grind took over the Mills location. Decorated for Christmas in a picturesque snow storm it was stunning. Looks like a place you’d like to visit, don’t you think?

Around 1975, Sandra Brownlee asked me to take some photos of her work. Here she sits at her loom in the studio above the Aquarium House (or was it a hairdresser’s?).

We staged her brilliant runner cascading out the front door onto Birmingham Street.  In 2014 Sandra received the Saidye Bronfman Award, Canada’s foremost distinction for excellence in the fine crafts. The short video produced at that time is fun.

When I stood on Birmingham Street last summer I didn’t recall all these old memories, everything around me was new. This is of course an old person’s dilemma, and as we speak people are forming their own unique histories with the block. I hope theirs are as rich as mine.

To be continued. 


The bus shelter ad has the tag line “a world without limits”, which describes the surroundings but sounds like a recipe for trouble.

About the author

Stephen Archibald

It’s Stephen Archibald doing the noticing. I’m a huge fan of Nova Scotia’s material culture and cultural landscapes. Twitter (@Cove17 ) made me realize I could share what attracted my attention (perfect for my very short attention) and I’m gratified when folks enjoy my content. Pleased to meet you on the internet.