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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Road Trip: Saint John, New Brunswick — solid urbanism

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We spent a quick night in Saint John, New Brunswick last Friday en route to Nova Scotia. Though Saint John’s glory days, when it was a busy port on the Bay of Fundy coast, have long passed, the city still has a solid, urban feel to it. We spent the evening wandering around the downtown peninsula — or “Uptown” as it’s known in Saint John due to its hilltop site — and found a remarkable number of gorgeous buildings that are intact. Somehow this city has avoided the plague of parking lots that have gutted so many of our great downtowns. There is a massive amount of potential in Saint John to populate these building with various small and creative industries, shops and studios. I am traveling with my Mom who lived here for 8 months in 1966 on her (typical Maritime) migration from Nova Scotia to Ontario. We negotiated the city by simple wandering, but also by mom’s ghost memories like “There used to be a Chinese restaurant over here.” Here is a quick photo tour of Uptown.

1970s metropolis view.

King’s Square is a formal city square. You can still smell the glory of the Empire from here.

Adjacent to King’s Square is the Loyalist Cemetery and it functions as a city park.

Some commercial buildings have more upscale operations, but many are still in use. Is that a CN Tower in the bingo hall window? Maybe it’s the Calgary tower — Alberta has replaced Ontario as the place people migrate to for quick jobs, so perhaps it goes either way.

Some gentrification, but not much. Saint John is the kind of city where, if you ignore the model year of the cars, you might think it’s 1955, or 1964 or 1973.

Abstract empire.

Public art sponsored by (drumroll): Moosehead Brewery.

Waterfront properties have a collection of busy patio bars and a little marina for pleasure boats. We were able to see the Canada Day fireworks from here a few hours later (they had been postponed by rain). Old working Saint John seen across the bay to the west. The famous tidal “Reversing Falls” are located just upriver to the right.

The Saint John streetscape has a hilly San Franciscan feel to it.

Artifact from the early Mulroney era.

In and around the Trinity Royal historic district.

Cans and cauldrons on the streets. In Saint John, folks are encouraged to toss their trash in with a certain amount of elegant stretching.

Great houses found downtown. Check out the interesting facades built at the bottom of the staircases in the lower photo that either hide them or protect them from the harbour, just across the road.

Rare parking lot.

Saint John has become a stop on the North Atlantic cruise ship circut. This Carnival ship absolutely dominated the city as it came into port. They are truly floating cities.

Goodbye Saint John, as seen from the Princess of Acadia ferry to Digby, Nova Scotia.



  1. Definitely a lot of beautiful buildings, nice weather doesn’t hurt the photos either. There are a few boarded up buildings and lots of the shots are devoid of people (not sure if that was intentional); is it just a quiet town or is it a case of an emptying out of the core?

  2. Man, that hilly street has a really high floss Scottish feel to it. It’s like you could turn the corner and expect the Royal Mile to pop up.

  3. I grew up in SJ, having a certain love-hate relationship. Lots of fog in the summer makes these shots quite rare indeed. Shawn hits on many valid points: not much has changed over the past 20 years or so with the heydays being the early 20th C, fantastic old stone and brick buildings in the core (following the great fire) and most of the growth taking place in the burbs (which are only 20 minutes away).

  4. Thx for posting the story & pix! Now I know I’ll have to visit. I was lucky to have a summer job in Halifax one summer, and it’s quite similar, lots of older buildings, hilly streets, walking pace to life and the city.

  5. I grew up mostly in SJ as well (that’s my high school in one of the pics) and I’m chuffed that you managed to make it look so lovely. I’m surprised there wasn’t a shot of the Market in there though.

    I think the main reason for the lack of gentrification is that the majority of people who would gentrify leave the city in search of jobs. And the people who stay — like the people I went to high school with, now in their early-mid 30s, aspire to a bungalow in Quispamsis rather than an apartment on Germain St.

    Rocketeer: it’s not a very lively place at night — for the most part the streets uptown are empty after dinner, except during special events. Sadly, one of the biggest local draws, Festival by the Sea, was shuttered a few years ago after 20 years of success.

  6. A couple of other notes:

    The redevelopment of the old Red Rose Tea building into condos is quite nice, and retains the building’s flavour (pun intended).

    Also interesting is the Centerbeam development, whereby a number of Trinity Royal’s buildings are being hollowed out and connected to create offices for Irving Oil, with some similarity to the way NSCAD’s campus was created. The carpeting doesn’t look quite as graceful as original wood floors though.

    This development, I must admit, is less delightful.

  7. The market was closed when I was there, looked nice though.

    There were some people on the streets, not many though, so the photos are a fair representation.

    Was approx 7-9pm on a friday night. July 4th.

  8. PS Julie> That last “less delightful” link you provide says that “Saint John is poised to become the new Calgary.”

  9. The redevlopment of the Red Rose Tea building was fine for the building they kept but the building they tore down, the one with the sign on it and also the place where tea bags were invented was torn down for no reason other than to create more parking.

  10. Although I was born in Montreal, I grew up in Saint John during the 70’s and 80’s. This put me in an interesting position of feeling “not from there” but a Saint Johner nevertheless. Whenever I show photos of my childhood to my friends here in Toronto I often get looks of amazement when they realize that the city is peppered with some of this country’s finest examples of turn of the century Victorian architecture. You can imagine my disappointment when I have to inform them that, for the most part, the buildings are in disrepair and the downtown core is a wasteland of abandoned buildings and dollar stores (see photos “King Square Cinemas and The Bargain Shop which sit prominently on the highly praised King Square quadrant for examples). Julie said it best when she described the typical resident of aspiring to a suburban lot up the river. Most Saint Johners are not urbanites and the amazing uptown/ downtown areas are reserved almost exclusively for the tourists.
    I hope someone from Saint John will read this and tell me that I’m wrong and there is a big movement to live and work in the core of the city but as sure as there will be fog for half the summer, I’m sure most Saint Johners will remain happy in their suburban bungalows.

  11. Uptown Saint JOhn is usually pretty busy on friday and saturday nights on the boardwalk during the summer and to some of the nearby bars. It is becoming busier than ever before and is still foggy for half of the summer. The buildings are slowly being repaired, and witht the new refinary opening, i’m sure the uptown area will grow.

  12. I’m happy to hear that the buildings are getting the respect that they deserve and they are being repaired and/ or restored. Uptown was always pretty busy on the bar front. It was great to start hanging out on an actual boardwalk as opposed to the AQ on the west side back in the eighties (yes, I know that dates me!) but Saint Johners need to go beyond the Friday/ Saturnight pissup and start investing in living and working in the downtown/ uptown core for it to truly flourish.

  13. You definitely took photos of the essence of Saint John. Very well done.
    Ann-Marie Clements
    Green REALTOR

  14. As far as Saint John becoming the next Calgary is concerned, this issomething that is most likely to be true. Currently, there is 44 billion dollars (yes you read correctly – billions) of dollars in new construction planned for the Saint John area, which in turn, is expected to create some 33,000 new jobs! With new high-rises, shopping malls, the booming cruise ship business, there are now more positive things happening in the city then there are negative ones. Besides, you never know who your going to met on the streets these days, as I recently ran into Rosie O’Donnell, who seemed to fit into the local population quite nicely.

  15. Its about time We had our turn, lived out in Calgary for five yrs. was good experience, but found alot of Westerners Think we’ll all poor or are fishermen, no fishermen in my Family that i know off. If i did couldn’t be more prouder all the same.
    Do have some poor family, not every Family is well off.
    The Maritimes were Thriving Before Confederation, then when the Maritimes jumped on board we got screwed.
    All the big Manufacturing, Corporate jobs went to central Canada.
    Quebec & Ontario and Western Country thrived while the East Coast got the big door slammed in our face.
    If it wasn’t for the Sec World War the Maritimes would have even fallen further behind.
    I took Social Studies in school, know my country well, love all the country the same.
    Talk to some people west of the Maritimes, you might as well be talking to Americans.
    Governments turn people against one another. Canadian government has to do more to make sure Canadians know more of ourselves.
    Always scratched my head, with so much History, As much as Halifax or Quebec city, which cities i love, we are still not known.
    Things are changing, its our time to shine, people here have been depressed & told promises for many yrs. with no help from Ottawa.
    You would not go to a city in the States or Europe having a city like Saint John with so much history be let to run into despair without notice.
    Think about it now i love my city being its size, if we had grown with populations like Boston or New york we would have more pollution and crime both i can do quite well without.
    Things are looking up for Saint John, just a jewel that needs a polishing that’s all.

  16. I loved your photos, they made me smile. I was born in Saint John, lived there for the first 7 years of my life. I brought my daughter back last summer, very memorable. King Square is my favorite place. My Grampie would take us there to feed the pigeons. He used to work at the Admiral Beatty Hotel, sadly, it no longer exists. Thanks again for your wonderful photos.

  17. I am from Saint John, NB. I enjoyed your photo’s and agree that SJ is a great city, one of the first cities to be formed in our country. I have travelled all over the country, lived in the big cities and on the country farms, but there is definality no place like home.

  18. Saint John does seem very quiet but it has a lot more to do with the fact that the city just hasn’t grown much at all than with suburbanization.

    To put things into perspective, back in the mid-19th century Saint John was on par with Toronto in terms of size and much wealthier and better established. By the 20s and 30s it was seriously stagnating and in recent years it’s fallen to the point where its economy and population have more in common with Sudbury or Thunder Bay.

    Very recently (last couple of years) there’s been a lot of economic activity so hopefully we’ll see things turn around and come back to life. In the meantime, there’s always Halifax.

  19. I am a “Saint Johner”. Thanks for the beautiful pics, especially of the architecture of some of the older downtown buildings,of which we are so proud. It’s not uncommon to see visitors snapping pictures as they walk by. I have stopped and taken pictures of people in front of some of the buildings. They never cease to be amazed that a ‘stranger’ will stop and offer to take a picture of their group together. We are known to be the friendliest city in the east, and I am very proud to help make it that way. A great place to bring up children….and the city IS growing! Yes, so are the suburbs, but Saint John is booming!

    I am proud to live in my city. Yes, it has it’s downfalls, but what city doesn’t? And we get nowhere NEAR the fog we used to have years ago. This summer wasn’t great, but we did have a lovely fall to make up for it!

    Please come visit us..I would be happy to give you a guided tour.

  20. My wife and I had a wonderful, but too short, stop at St. John this past October. Weather was surprisingly warm and pleasant. We were from a cruise ship which sailed out of Baltimore, Md. Our St. John tour bus driver/leader was terrific. I enjoyed seeing your pictures, they brought back good memories. I didn’t see one of the restored Imperial Theater. I remember stopping there and at the historic market. Both sites were very impressive, as was the town and its people.


    Rockville, MD, USA

  21. I was born in St. John New Brunswick June 1957. I moved to Ontario in June 1963 with my parents. I have been to many places all over the Globe but have not been back to St. John. I lived on Ashburn Lake Road. Don’t remember the # but would love to find out. I hope to make it back in the summer of 09.. Love to find out if any one here lived or lives on that street.

    Best regards,


  22. I’ve lived in Saint John all my life… the pictures were really nice… but it’s not as great a place as you might think… one night of picture taking in an area that is pretty much shuut down between 6 and 7pm (besides a couple restaurants), is not a realistic representation of our “wonderful” city