Discover Our Past, Explore Your Future….Really?

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Saint John’s future lies in its past. And that’s a good thing, if only local politicians would wake up to the treasures all around us.

By: Doug James

What is it about the need for “progress” that entices local politicians in Saint John to fear looking over their shoulders to the past where, for this city at least…the future could lie?

What is it about Saint John that allowed developers to tear down almost one entire side of historic King Street, including MRA’s, the once glorious department store that stopped the flames from the Great Fire of 1877 from spreading to the City Market and beyond? Did the great development rejuvenate uptown? The long-vacant Woolworth’s building and numerous other empty shells on Charlotte and Union Streets, provide a visible answer.

What was it about this city that allowed an office tower to be built literally on the back steps of Loyalist House, towering over the last surviving example of original early settler architecture? Most of the original tenants have long-since abandoned the building. Irving will likely be leaving too once its shiny, new HQ overshadows historic King Square.

What is it about this city that bulldozed Union Station, a prime 19th century transportation hub that, were it still standing today, would almost certainly be well-used as a conference centre and rail museum? It’s a parking lot today, for an arena that could have been built in a much better location elsewhere.

What is it about this city that allowed one of its earliest cinemas…the first in North America where live music was played to accompany an early silent film…to fade into anonymity until, a couple of years ago, it burned to the ground? Indeed, what is it about a city that missed the opportunity to turn the entire area around King Square into a cultural hub. Sure, the Imperial Theatre still stands. Unfortunately, in Canada’s poorest city, only the elite can afford a ticket for most performances. The Paramount is gone and the city let the too-tall IMAX slip through its fingers while salivating over a chance to approve the too-tall Irving HQ.

What is it about this city that refuses to allow the New Brunswick Museum to expand its footprint and protect its priceless collections, solely because a few people believe the Boar War was something for white empire builders to be proud of, cannon fodder for politicians forever honoured in a small monument a stone’s throw away?

What is it about this city that refused for generations to acknowledge the role played by early French fur traders by properly developing Fort Latour, a grassy knoll that still sits as a vivid reminder of the petty political bickering that once (and many would say still does) divides this province? It took 45 years to get this one on the table but then, what could we expect in a city that takes 14 years to “NO-GO-tiate” a simple water deal with the Irving Refinery?

What is it about a city that was once a world-leading seaport that now can’t even figure out a simple way to get people over to Partridge Island, to honour its early Irish settlers?

What is it about a city that has never dreamt big enough to develop a “Mystic Seaport” North, a theme park celebrating its 18th and 19th century sailing history, instead allowing all the tourist dollars to go into Kings Landing? Hell, this city can’t even find a home for a scale-model of the Marco Polo, let alone actual tall ships in the harbour! Its been sitting in mothballs for years. At this rate the entire city will soon join it.

Saint John, “Canada’s First Incorporated City”, yeah, yeah…how many times have we heard that one? A “city of firsts” but with very little physical evidence to prove it. The fire of 1877 cut a swath through the uptown core and successive generations of short-minded politicians with a flame for “progress” have destroyed much of what remained in the years since. Now in 2017, they are at it again, having allowed the so-called “jelly bean” buildings to fall into disrepair…they’ve targeted them for destruction. Three buildings that survived the Great Fire, one of them home to the city’s first lending library, iconic structures that in Boston or San Francisco, or any other progressive municipality would be treasured and protected. Not here. Here, city politicians line their own pockets like mini-Bombardier executives with a generous pay raise while the corporation continues to fade, just like its housing stock.

It is time this madness stopped!

The city recently voted for a “Road map for Smart Growth” that amounts to a dead-end on a map. It is such a weak plan that the politicians were afraid to even reveal its details before approving it at a recent city council meeting.

How about a road map to the future based on treasuring and protecting the past?

We may not be a Charleston, South Carolina…the combination of fire and political incompetence has guaranteed that for good. But by saving what we have and developing a real plan to celebrate our heritage and history, Saint John could one day rise from the ashes and become a major tourist destination. Alternatively, we can continue in our role as a quick piss stop on the long drive from Boston to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.

The choice lies with Mayor Don Darling and the rest of the happy gang with blinders on at Saint John City Hall…who do not discover our past to shape our future.

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