Walking in a Jane Jacobs state of mind

Jane’s Walks are a time for folks to gather in early May and do a close reading of their city. Each year there are many walk themes to choose from, so you can curate an experience that suits or challenges your sensibilities.

The walk leaders are enthusiastic story tellers who have a particular insight or passion for some element of the urban landscape. I have learned things that have become touchstones. An unknown (to me) section of Dartmouth I now understand by looking at buildings that were damaged in the 1917 Halifax Explosion but survived.

Leader Maura Donovan provided a whole new look at the Explosion’s impact on a tight-knit hamlet in Dartmouth.

From Kourosh Rad we learned that new developments in Halifax tended to be better built than many in Toronto. Halifax developers are building mostly rental units that they intend to hold onto, but in Toronto more condos are constructed that developers are selling quickly so they care a little less.

This January I spent a few days in hospital and remembered that urban foresters on a Jane’s Walk had referenced a study that showed patients in hospital do better if they have a view of trees. I made a point of often looking out the window in my ward. There was a good city view, a nasty snow storm, but not that much tree presence. I got better, but then again I wasn’t very ill.

Walking my way

Beginning in 2013 I led six Jane’s Walks, starting with stories I knew well and then pushing myself a little to learn and think about topics that I’d never presented before.

My first time out I was on familiar territory looking at decorative cast iron downtown. There is lots of iron once you know where to look, and everybody was given a little magnet which is why the pros are confident that column, covered with 15 coats of paint, is really made of iron.

Here I am caressing the oldest decorative iron downtown, the 1817 railing around Province House.

Photo Sheila Stevenson

The perfect conclusion to a cast iron walk is this 1860 complete iron façade on the Granville Street Mall.

The next year it was more ironwork, this time in the Public Gardens and Camp Hill Cemetery. An added bonus for me was to also salute objects made of cast zinc. Here we amuse ourselves looking at the Jubilee fountain with its zinc lady pouring water.

Photo Sheila Stevenson

We ended that walk in the cemetery at a couple of allegorical zinc figures on grave makers. Here is Faith pointing to heaven and holding a bible.

New content for me was the 2015 walk to look at the massive concrete buildings that were constructed on the Dalhousie campus in the late 1960 and early 70s. I remembered how I felt about these buildings when they were new (not totally favourable) and it was fun to visit them with new eyes. It was clear that some people on the tour were skeptical about the merits of these buildings but they were prepared to take a closer look.

I was surprised that many folks on the walk were unfamiliar with the modernist plaza at the Tupper Building. We experienced it on a beautiful spring afternoon and not during the windy bleakness of the dark months.

Preparing for this walk I developed a new appreciation for early precast concrete with exposed aggregate. On the 1967 Tupper Building the designers did not restrain themselves, using many colours and textures on this new product.

The Central Services Building and the Dalhousie Arts Centre were both constructed in 1971 and my appreciation of them has grown over the years. It is safe to say that not everyone on the walk was convinced by my enthusiasm.

The next year, 2016, I returned downtown to look at many crowd pleasing buildings from the last half of the nineteenth century that were designed by Henry Busch. Examples are the Italianate Style commercial building at the corner of Prince and Hollis and the Gothic fantasy of the Khyber on Barrington. What a contrast to the concrete Brutalism of the Dalhousie buildings.

I’ve always enjoyed the people that chose to turn up and often learned from them. For example on the Henry Busch walk there were several people who had lived in the house he built for himself and could report on that experience: cold in winter but no ghosts.

Photo Sheila Stevenson

Storm porches felt like a theme that needed to be explored because these little architectural gems are a defining architectural feature in several areas of the city but for some reason are under-celebrated. Also, once you recognize them as a feature (that takes about 30 seconds of instruction) you see them everywhere. I presented this walk on two years because the first time there was fierce rain. About four people were prepared to brave the elements and we had a very special and very moist ramble.

Last year I looked at Italianate Style architecture downtown with a particular emphasis on buildings designed by David Stirling and his associates.

Keith Hall

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, originally the 1869 Post Office.

The turnout was overwhelming and made effective communicating challenging.

Photo Emily Miller

In conclusion

I’ve enjoyed my adventures leading Jane’s Walks but last year I realized I’ve aged out and it was time to just savour the presentations of others. Hope to see you during the program this year and in the future.

What made it easy for me as a presenter were the volunteers who handled all the organizing and publicity. During my time I was well handled by Katie McKay, Sam Austin, Peter Ziobrowski, and Emily Miller. We should all be grateful for their service.

And special thanks to Sheila Stevenson who during all of my walks could be heard from the back of the crowd shouting “speak up!”

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.