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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Uptown Nostalgia in Saint John

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Princess Street

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.

streets of purple

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



  1. unfortunately, I have to agree with much of what Sean says. While I love the buildings and layout he is right that the uptown is also the people and the social interaction. But, I do think that much of that remains in uptown Saint John because we are a city that changes so slowly and many people have lived uptown for decades. We need to get the population up…as Eric Teed said for many years, we need multi-level housing in the Southend that has elevators and attracts seniors as well as young people to live there. We also need some good, high paying employers in the uptown to attract residents who have income to spend.

  2. A city core is a fragile environment; it needs care and tending. Finding a healthy balance and monitoring (and adapting to) change should be the priority of the municipal government, because without a healthy core, the city is only a husk.

    I believe Saint John’s revitalization of the 1980s has paid off. Yes, some of the old heritage buildings on King Street were torn down to make way for a “hulking concrete shopping mall”, but before that change, the uptown was grey and dreary. It was a big risk to take, but without the connected network of indoor pedestrian paths and shops that was built back then, the city would most likely have lost its uptown vitality to the invasion of the big box stores. Other cities were not as well-prepared as ours.

    I agree that there is a lot of value in the historic buildings that remain uptown, but the city core must be a place of the future as well as the past. The city must keep taking risks, and engaging its citizens in nurturing a healthy community that will last through boom and bust, through many small deaths to renewed vitality.