SAINT JOHN – Nostalgia is powerful in cities, especially old cities. Saint John is an old city, where the past is preserved in the original street grid and hundreds of old brick buildings, many of which were constructed in the 1870s. Physically, parts of Uptown Saint John – including the Trinity Royal Heritage District, Orange Street and the south side of King Street – have changed little over the last hundred years.
Uptown contains some of Canada’s greatest streetscapes. The heritage districts are a unique mixture of buildings: elegant stone and brick office buildings; narrow three-storey townhouses on tree-lined streets; many small churches and a few large cathedrals; flats, homes on small lots and walk up apartments. The blocks are short and the streets are narrow. Some buildings have stores, restaurants or offices on the ground floor and few buildings are taller than five stories. Garages and parking are mostly hidden in backyards. This is good urban form: compact, walkable, densely built, mixed use and human scaled. This looks like the places Jane Jacobs studied and championed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
But it’s not exactly that type of place, not anymore. The buildings and streets are the same but the city has changed, sometimes dramatically. The south side of King Street is lined with historic storefronts and brick and stone mid-rise office buildings, but the north side of the street is composed of modernist office towers and a hulking concrete shopping mall. Other changes are less obvious. Factories and workshops, once the base of Saint John’s prosperous industrial economy, have left the City centre. The streetcars that ran up King Street are also gone. Some buildings have been torn down and replaced by other buildings or parking lots.
There’s also been continual social change: the Uptown population has declined; wealthier families have generally left the core; television, telephones, the internet and radio have all changed how people socialize and entertain themselves; and mobility and affluence have increased.
Our society and economy have changed immensely over the past century. Uptown has changed as well, even if many of the buildings and streets have not. Uptown looks similar but functions differently. Uptown continues to change as new residents, generally young workers and empty-nesters, move into the historic centre, attracted by its urbanity: walkable blocks, unique retailers, bars and restaurants, historic homes, beautiful streetscapes, live shows and art galleries. But today’s urbanity is pale and tepid compared to the urbanity of the past. Uptown lacks the population density, the commerce and industry, the rich mix of uses, the bustling street life and the strong web of small businesses, social groups, sports teams, clubs and societies that existed in the past.
Cities as described by Jane Jacobs in Death and Life or Douglas Rae in City: Urbanism and Its End are relics of a different era. It’s tempting to think that since the buildings and streets from that era have survived then less tangible social aspects of the city should have survived. It’s tempting to think that we can use places like Uptown Saint John as a model to recreate the diverse, bustling cities of the past. But cities are much more than streets and buildings. Cities are also people, businesses and institutions. Buildings and streets can only evoke the past, they can’t bring it back.
photos by Gillian Barfoot