Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Gottingen STreet 250

This is an unpublished version of the article that ran in Business Voice. 

By Jon Tattrie

Gottingen Street conjures up images of rural living in pastoral woods, the sound of horse hooves clip-clopping on dirt roads, and the smells of pine and ocean. Well, it does if you’re Paul Erickson, professor of anthropology at Saint Mary’s University and the author of Historic North End Halifax.

Erickson lives in the north end and has spent much of his life digging deep into its roots. “That area from Gottingen to the harbour is referred to as the old north suburbs. It developed before the south suburbs,” he says with a glint of pride.

Gottingen Street is turning 250 this year and it’s flourishing.

The revitalization even earned it a spot in Air Canada’s spring 2014 En Route magazine, which directed travellers to have breakfast at the Nook, visit the Parentheses Gallery, grab a drink in the Company House, dine in Edna and take in a live show at the Marquee Ballroom.

Local Tasting Tours recently started offering HFX North, a foodie’s journey through the north end. The 2.5 hour tour stops at places including Gio on Market Street, Dee Dee’s Ice Cream on Cornwallis Street, enVie vegan kitchen on Charles Street and Fred café and hair salon on Agricola and North.


Halifax was founded in 1749 to give the British a powerful hold on what they called Nova Scotia and to push the Acadians and Mi’kmaq off the disputed territory. Fortress Halifax was born in war and huddled behind the palisades for its first few years.

But shiploads of the so-called Foreign Protestants arrived year after year, seeking more land than Halifax proper could provide. Most of the 3,000 new settlers arriving in 1750-1751 were German, with a few Swiss and French mixed in, nearly equaling the original English population.

The Germans soon over-spilled the city walls and settled to the north of the palisades. The economic immigrants and religious refugees cut through the forest to create paths littered with tree stumps. People built and lived in “Dutch cottages,” modest one- or two-bedroom homes nestled in the woods.

“The main motivation for development in that direction was the creation of the naval dockyards at the foot of what’s now Artz Street,” Erickson explains. “The dockyard was essentially completed by 1760. There’s a lot of early activity there.”

The area was known as Dutchtown, which was an English corruption of Deutschtown, as in Germany. Some called it Germantown.

Erickson describes many of the colonists as indentured servants who paid for their passage by building public works in Halifax. He and his wife Dawn excavated a Dutch cottage on Cornwallis and Barrington streets as part of a SMU project in the 1980s.

In 1753, many Germans were moved to settle Lunenburg (which explains why the UNESCO World Heritage Site looks so much like early Halifax). But some remained north of Halifax.

In 1756, the Dutchtown settlers dragged a log home to the corner of Brunswick and Gerrish. There they paused before a common grave holding the mortal remains of some 300 of their brothers and sisters who died of typhus on the crossing from Europe to Nova Scotia. The building became their grave marker. It was called St. George’s Church and kept that name until St. George’s Round Church opened in 1812, when it became known as the Little Dutch Church. 

In 1764, the German settlers successfully petitioned the Nova Scotia government to change the name from Germantown to Gottingen to honour King George II, the German-born British ruler who founded Göttingen University and who had died in 1760.

Upper Water Street dead-ended at the dockyards and Barrington Street was just a stub, so Gottingen became the street that grew and grew all the way to Lady Hammond Road (that last stretch was recently renamed Novalea Drive) to get people off the peninsula. “It became a transportation artery to the downtown,” Erickson says.

By the late 1800s, Gottingen was a commercial district. A look through the digital version of Hopkins’ City Atlas of Halifax (1878) shows a tobacco factory off Brunswick Lane, a carriage factory near St. George’s Church, and the North End Market. It also housed institutions such as the Military Hospital, the Deaf & Dumb Institute and the “Colored Baptist Church.”

In the 1900s, Brunswick Street was Young Avenue of its day. “It was the residential address of distinction,” Erickson says. In the post-war period, it became more of a working class neighbourhood. The destruction of Africville in the 1960s drove many of the dislocated African Nova Scotians to join the black Nova Scotians already living in the residential north end.

Today, the North End Business Association is celebrating that 1764 name change as Gottingen 250. Particular focus is on the area’s German, Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotia identities.

Michelle Strum, chairwoman of the North End Business Association, says the main celebrations run September 11 to 14. A music and heritage festival (staring Jrdn) will offer a free, daylong concert at 2183 Gottingen Street, an open-air street market on Maitland Street, and family festivities in the field next to St. Patrick’s Alexandra. 

On Sunday, there’s a free community barbeque and multi-denomination religious service. It’ll be a return to roots, as one of the original Little Dutch Church pastors spoke four languages and preached to people from different Christian traditions.

The area’s history will be explored throughout the year at iMOVE, the Bus Stop Theatre and the Co*Lab, with photo collections, archival displays, and community stories on Gottingen Street and online. Organizers also plan to develop a history app that will use location tags to pull out stories from the first 250 years for a walking history tour.

“We’re going to project onto buildings how they looked through the years,” Strum adds. “It’s a celebration of Gottingen past, present, and where we’re going.”

Part of the reason for Gottingen 250 is that there is Canadian Heritage funding available for neighbourhoods celebrating their 250th anniversary.

Strum also owns Halifax Backpackers Hostel and Alteregos Café & Catering on Gottingen Street. It’s one of the signs of growth in the area, along with Q Lofts and other condo projects, the Global News headquarters (in the former Palooka’s site), Home Grown Organics and more.

Strum says the area economy is “excellent,” although businesspeople here (and elsewhere in the downtown) want to see business taxes reformed. Strum also wants action on HRM’s Centre Plans so development moves quicker.

Strum has owned her businesses for 13 years, and that makes her hostel one of the longest-standing enterprises on the street. “Gottingen Street is different than downtown in that people tend to run these life-long businesses,” she explains. Owners retire, sell the spot, and a new business take its place.

“It has that rural business community feel,” she says. “Walk up and down Gottingen Street and you’ll find the owner behind the counter at almost every business. It’s something really special we have here.”

One of those owners is Jenna Mooers. She grew up on Gottingen and North, then Creighton and North, in the 1990s. Gottingen sprouted plenty of empty buildings and vacant lots at that time. She left for Montreal after high school and had no reason to return.

But then her mother, Jane Wright, closed Jane’s on the Common, and bought 2053 Gottingen Street to operate Jane’s Catering and Events. Mooers opened Edna in the building in 2013. It’s a restaurant named for the American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay.

“I feel like I’m falling in love with Halifax all over again,” Mooers says. “Part of my vision was to be a neighbourhood restaurant and bar where people could walk and get a locally sourced, home-cooked meal and a glass of wine, and not have to take their cars.”

She put benches on the sidewalk add to the community spirit. “Public seating is really neat. It took all of 30 seconds for somebody to come by and sit on them,” she says. “They’re pretty much occupied all day long.”

Business is good, she says, but she worries about development becoming gentrification. “As long as small business owners are invested in the community, live and work and feel it, then I think it’s a really positive thing,” says Mooers, who does indeed live in the neighbourhood.

Gottingen Street still has the community vibe it had in the early days, but the pastoral woods and rural atmosphere are long gone. So are the clip-clopping horse hooves and tree-stumped dirt roads. Some of it made it to World War Two, but almost all of the old world was bulldozed in the mania for urban renewal that gripped Halifax post-war. 

But hints of history remain. The Little Dutch Church still marks the old mass grave. Stand at the corner of Cornwallis and Barrington to take in the billboard sitting on a green space. That’s where Paul Erickson and his SMU team excavated (and then reburied) an old Dutch cottage. Across the street is the new Spice Condominiums. They’re named for William Schwartz, the son of German immigrants. He founded Schwartz Spices in 1889 and operated a spice factory on the site.

Walk up to the south-east corner of Cornwallis and Brunswick (kitty-corner to the Round Church), turn left and stroll past the beautifully ancient brown home. It’s Akins Cottage, built in the 1790s and later home to Dr. Thomas B. Akins, author of 1895’s History of Halifax City. The original Dutch cottages looked something like it.

Close your ears to modern traffic, shut your eyes to the condos, and listen to the echoes of horses trotting on dirt roads. Smell the peaceful woods.

“That’s about as evocative as you can get of 18th century north end,” says Paul Erickson. “The rest you have to use your imagination for.”

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Learn more at Gottingen.ca.


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