Feature

Portraits of a lost city: Saint John before urban renewal

Ian MacEachern wanted to be a TV studio cameraman. He ended up documenting some of the most vibrant Saint John street scenes of the 1960s and 70s.

Black-and-white photos by Ian MacEachern show little-seen side of Saint John in the 1960s and 70s

In 1962, when Ian MacEachern was 20, he moved to Saint John to work as a cameraman at CHSJ-TV.

But it was outside the television studio, documenting vibrant street scenes and the lives of working-class families, that his skill as a documentary photographer shone. 

"I just wandered the streets," said MacEachern, now 76. Originally from Glace Bay, N.S., he lived in Saint John from 1962 to 1966 and still returns for frequent visits.

"Saint John, to me, was just amazing. It's still one of my favourite cities."

But Saint John as MacEachern experienced it in the 1960s and '70s was rapidly disappearing. Homes and whole neighbourhoods were being demolished as part of "urban renewal" — the well-intentioned but disastrous planning initiative that started after the Second World War.

The photos are souvenirs of a bygone era. But the old Saint John is still alive today, according to MacEachern. 

"It still captures my imagination," he said.

"There are spots in the north end and south end where even the people, the kids — if there are no cars, it can look just the same."

Children playing as a man sweeps the street and deliveries are unloaded on St James Street. Saint John, to MacEachern, "was always a city of contrasts," he said.

"It's wealthy mixed with poor, stone mixed with wood. So I guess I was always drawn to that."

Sewell Street as it looked in 1968. Sometimes, "I was only working a couple of hours a day," MacEachern said. "I couldn't stay in the house all the time. I spent hours and hours reading photo books at the library and hanging out."

He took this photo from the hillside beside the library, now the Saint John Arts Centre. 

A lady sells home-grown cabbages and squash in the centre aisle of the Saint John City Market. An advertisement for the radio station CFBC is visible near the entrance. MacEachern remembers the market in the 1960s as "a fascinating place."

"It was an old market then — it's been tarted up now," he said. "It still has a lot of the same character. Except in those days it didn't get filled up with people when the cruise ships were in. It was a real market."

A second-hand store on Main Street in the north end. MacEachern would head out from his rented room on Main Street and wander the streets, snapping photos with his Nikon F. 

Many storefronts like this were demolished in the decades after the Second World War. Expecting industrial expansion and a population boom, the City of Saint John adopted a master plan intended to develop new neighbourhoods and get rid of so-called slums. Neighbourhoods in the north end, central peninsula and along Courtenay Bay were targeted for demolition that continued well into the 1960s. 

When this photo was taken in 1965, "things were starting to disappear," MacEachern said. 

Ultimately, urban renewal not only didn't work — it may have worsened the problems it was intended to fix. 

MacEachern didn't usually photograph breaking news. This photo, taken in the 1960s, was an exception. 

He heard that someone had died in the Rifle Range neighbourhood of the north end, and that police were involved. As the body was loaded into a waiting ambulance, a huge crowd of children quickly gathered around to watch. He snapped three photos.

"The vibe was 'Hey, there's a body, excitement!' Everyone came to see what was going on."

Saint John's majestic Union Station, built in 1933, with Fort Howe visible in the distance. The marble railway station was a holdover from Saint John's days as a major railway centre. Now, the site is home to Harbour Station, a sports and entertainment complex. 

Union Station was demolished in 1973, five years after this photo was taken. 

Women standing near the entrance to George's Tavern, a watering hole at Germain and Princess streets.

Some Saint Johners recall George's for its excellent french fries and live entertainment, and for being the first drinking establishment in the city that admitted women.

"I remember I was walking up the hill going to lunch with one of the guys from the [television] station," said MacEachern. "These two ladies were out front. It would have been 1964 or 1965."

A  woman walks on Harding Street, near Queen Square South, during a 1964 snowstorm.

"I don't know if she realized I was taking her photo, but she looked back — it was so blustery and windy," MacEachern said.

In recent years, a relative of the woman recognized her, he said, and purchased a print of the photo at Handworks Gallery, which represents MacEachern.

An exhibition of MacEachern's work will be held at the Saint John Arts Centre from Nov. 2 to Dec. 21 this year. These and other photos are also the subject of an upcoming book, The Lost City: Ian MacEachern's Photographs of Saint John by Fredericton architect John Leroux. 

This north end winter scene was shot from the area around Fort Howe.

"If that was a clear day, you would see where the bridge abutments are," MacEachern said. "The bridge went right through there. That little white building to the right-hand side was the police station. All those gaps are where there were fires, and places burned."

Catholic schoolchildren are led by a nun through a snowstorm in the north end. 

Saint Johner Dave Forestell attended the school. He displays a copy of this photo at Slocum and Ferris, the restaurant he owns in the City Market.

Growing up in the Rifle Range, he said, "every second Friday at 2:30 p.m. we had to go to confession. If we had Protestant guys we were going to play ball hockey with, we'd be jealous of them because they wouldn't have to go. 

"In the photo, we're going all the way from the school up Somerset to St. Pius X Church for confession."

A dog named Shep, an abandoned car, a horseshoe pitch, and laundry on the line capture the vibe of the city's south end in 1973. MacEachern described his approach to documentary photography as a question of "angles."

"You have to go through life at an angle," he said. "If you're going in the same direction as everyone else, you get the same thing all the time. If you can go through life against things, at an angle, you see a bigger slice of things."

A street preacher in King Square in 1964.

The two elderly women in the background are Susie and Carro Davis, twin sisters born in Georgia in 1922 who started the Pentecostal movement in Saint John.

Four young girls walk up a hill off Main Street north in 1965.

Jacobsen Furniture, pictured with the houses on Moore Street, which ran in front of Fort Howe.

"That was after Main Street was pretty much taken down," said MacEachern, noting the contrast between the remaining "slums" and the new Fort Howe apartment building "looming in the background."

"I never understood why the apartment building was built there. The slums, they had the best view in the city overlooking the harbour."

A fire on Simonds Street, beside the Lord Beaverbrook Arena, in 1966.

"At that point in the north end, there were fires all the time," MacEachern said. "There was one week where there was a fire a day, a bitterly cold January. There wouldn't be any central heating. They would just have stoves, and places burned down. [In this photo] they're saving the wooden chairs."

An old Chrysler Imperial abandoned on a south end street corner in 1973.

Sailors walk by the wreckage of a building, and a sign advertising relocation assistance for families displaced by urban renewal. The photo was taken in 1968, "when the destruction was pretty complete," MacEachern said. "Such a subtle statement, that photo is."