Thursday, May 02, 2013

Rethinking the Idea of "Downtown" Halifax

Part of being an aspiring book author means using Twitter so for the last week, I've been immersed in a new, strange and obsessive world. As a writer, thinker and talker, I find it challenging to express my thoughts quickly and in 140 characters. As someone who likes to know things, it's a bombardment of information. As someone who likes to learn new things and have the chance to consider other viewpoints, I find Twitter challenging.
My first experience with a Twitter conversation came today when I spontaneously replied to a tweet that was in a response to an article in the Halifax newspaper about the increasing number of empty stores/buildings in downtown Halifax. 
The tweeter called the story BS and said that two years ago, downtown was worse. I replied by stating that I go downtown to get my hair cut but rarely stay to wander, eat, shop because I find downtown empty and grim. He tweeted back, "Wow you sure are missing a lot" 
No one else jumped into the conversation and I didn't know who he was, if he was someone with a business interest in downtown or if he was just reacting to the article (Twitter Lesson of the Day: Consider every tweet you write the start of a conversation with a complete stranger) but I did reply. I said that there seems to me to be no connection between downtown and the waterfront, and that the downtown is sprawling.
When I consider the couple of tweets exchanged after that, I realize the conversation can't really go much further in this fashion. It needs a real conversation; actually, I'd hoped CBC Mainstreet, which follows me, would pick up on it and give us some airtime to have a proper debate because I find myself fascinated by this topic. That was a pleasant surprise, to find myself thinking about this as I drove a country road to do an interview for the newspaper, as my mother and I chewed over our experience with Halifax. My brain was totally engaged by this debate. (So let me says "Thanks!" to my fellow tweeter.)
I'd never considered it but as someone familiar with cities and someone who chooses to live in the country, and as a frequent visitor to Halifax, I have a very specific impression of Halifax: "Downtown" is the waterfront to Barrington Street, a wide swath to walk and explore. When you have lots of empty stores, it makes the streets seem longer than if there are stores and cafes and people to make the walk interesting. You don't want me noticing empty spaces; you want me stopping to look in full windows.  
There is a parkade across from MEC that we used to use because it was central to the places we like to visit in downtown Halifax but the walk from the parkade for a whole block along Granville street was scary. Even in the middle of the day, the empty lot, the back of a club, the chain link fence, the garbage made the block feel desolate. Not safe. Not welcoming. We now park at Scotia Square, near the hair salon, and a long way from the rest of downtown. Parking there discourages us from going for a walk to explore, to go to favourite places. 
So I said that in 140 characters! The other tweeter replied, "Have you never been to Agricola? Spring Garden Road? SoMo? Quinpool?"
That's when I realized my whole thinking about "downtown Halifax" may be skewed.
Having lived in Toronto and Vancouver, I don't consider an area like Quinpool, Spring Garden and Hydrostone to be downtown but to be neighbourhood shopping areas. In both Toronto and Vancouver, there is a downtown but there are flourishing neighbourhoods like Bloor West Village where my friend Jennifer lives or Main and Broadway where I once lived. West 4th and South Granville in Vancouver also were favourite areas. 
Perhaps this is Halifax's problem with its downtown: It's thinking of the entire city as its downtown. Neighbourhood shopping areas emerge to fill the needs of the residents in the area; they are diverse and interesting and well-travelled. They are wonderful places with a mix of franchise and totally one-of-a-kind stores. What sets these areas apart from "downtown" is that they are not surrounded by or anchored by or dwarfed by high-rise business towers and government buildings. What sets them apart is that they are in residential areas serving the residents of the area. There is a sense of community in these areas. 
Maybe Halifax needs to think like a big city and realize its downtown isn't the entire city (I'm not sure what "the peninsula" refers to). It needs to come up with a radically different plan for its downtown: Leave it to the corporations and the convention centres, to the hockey games and concerts, to the bars and restaurants. Leave it to Barrington and environs. Any revitalization means a major rethinking. There's no other way. If nothing is changing, you have to change the way you're doing something.
I'm not a business owner, I'm not a city planner. I'm just a visitor. All I know is that my Twitter conversation today reminded me that I, too, need to get out of the downtown and get back into the neighbourhood shopping areas. That's where the wandering, eating and shopping happens. 

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