New Brunswick·Feature

This is Main Street: Rise and fall of a once thriving commercial district

When Saint John was nothing more than a smoky, seaside colony, Main Street was a trade road, bringing goods from the First Nations settlement at Indiantown up to Fort Howe.

Saint John's old north end may look rough, but a major property buyer and tenacious neighbours look to rebuild

North end residents have maintained community pride, despite challenges that have cropped up in the neighbourhood over the years. (Julia Wright/CBC)
When Saint John was a smoky 18th century seaside colony, Main Street was a trade road, used to cart goods from the First Nations settlement at Indiantown up to Fort Howe.

From the 1700s until the mid-1960s, it evolved into a thriving commercial district in Saint John rivalled only by Prince William Street.

Former Saint John Mayor and retired teacher Ivan Court grew up on Main Street.

"There were probably about 2,000 people working from one end to the other," said Court, who got one of his first jobs delivering papers in the neighbourhood.

Main Street in Saint John, circa 1900, was home to a variety of shops, grocers, and hundreds of young families. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

"You had three or four bakeries, clothing stores, shoe stores, sports stores and grocery stores on every corner of Main, Metcalf, and Victoria," he said.

Back then, the community was made up mainly of young families.

"Every block had hundreds of children on it. It was the heart and soul of Saint John," said Court.

Faded glory

Many of the homes, once considered "basically mansions," according to Court, are now boarded up and abandoned.

The north end has changed dramatically in the last century. A view of Main Street looking from Harvey Street in 2016. (Julia Wright/CBC)

An aging demographic, the demolition of homes to make way for the Harbour Bridge in 1968 and an increasingly low percentage of owner-occupied homes also played a role in the decline.

Traces of the past are still visible in the spacious, once-solid wooden houses.

Some, like 120 Main St., still possess their trim gingerbread scrollwork and other 19th-century details.

Like so many other houses on Main Street, the building at 120 Main St., which is notable for Carpenter Gothic scrollwork on the eaves, has been abandoned for several years. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Neglected by landlords

But many of what Court said were once considered "basically mansions" have fallen gradually into serious disrepair.

Most of the abandoned buildings on Main Street — and a total of 33 in the north end — are currently registered with Phillip Huggard Properties Ltd., which went bankrupt last fall.

A rambling, multi-unit building on the corner of Main and Elgin streets has remained vacant since at least the early 2000s.

Several homes on nearby Victoria Street have been targeted by arsonists and vandals.

Many of homes that line Saint John's gritty north end are now abandoned. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Big change coming

But the neighbourhood, while bruised, isn't down yet.

Hundreds of neglected properties are poised to change hands in a move that will, it's hoped, transform Main Street — and the rest of the north end.

Kit Hickey is executive director of Rehabitat, which manages affordable housing units in the city.

They're working on a project that could see 50 units — including walk-ups and townhouses — renovated and brought back to being a place of pride.

Next door to long-abandoned apartments on Main and Elgin streets, painters spruce up some aluminum siding (Julia Wright/CBC)

"We could see a neighbourhood that's been restored to its former beauty," said Hickey.

"I think that we could see a beautiful mixed income community thriving again."

Dovetailing with Rehabitat's work is the recent acquisition of up to 180 units by a Fredericton-based company called PMV Canada.

The mass acquisition will likely mean the demolition of up to a dozen houses but also the possibility of building new, affordable units.

Some of the work is already beginning. This spring, Andrew Grady recently purchased 92 Victoria St. and 53-55 Albert St., two century-old homes just a few blocks off Main Street.

"We just took everything off and started from scratch," said Grady, who is working with a team of contractors and Mathieu Laquerre of real estate developer Mada Partners to remodel the buildings.

The team gutted 92 Victoria St., where Grady now lives with his young family, down to the studs and installed new wiring, plumbing and windows in the two-unit building. They plan to do the same with the Albert Street property.

"People seem to be appreciating what we're doing here," he said.

"A lot of the people in this area are lifelong residents who just want to mind their own business. Walking by, they say it's really nice to see what we've done."

Daniel Gable, 36, a musician and former tree planter, left British Columbia and purchased a house on Victoria Street for $8,000. (Julia Wright/CBC)

North's star ascending

Thanks to the tenacity of long-term residents, and newcomers willing to take a chance on the community, it looks as if the old north end might soon rise again.

Catherine Sidney has lived for the past 26 years with her partner, Bridget McGale, in Tapley Manor, a stately, immaculately restored heritage home on Holly Street built by tugboat magnate Archibald Tapley in 1870.

She and McGale say they "always" have hope for the community.

"This," said Sidney, "is Main Street. This is Saint John. This is Indiantown. This is the best kept secret in the whole town. Some of those old houses are spectacular."

It's not just old-school Johners who are invested in the north end.

Daniel Gable, 36, a musician and former tree planter, drove coast-to-coast from Squamish, B.C., all the way to Saint John in August 2016 to move into a house he bought on Victoria Street, sight unseen, for $8,000, $2,000 less than the already-paltry asking price of $10,000.

"It was crazy to think you could buy a place that has two suites for $10,000," said Gable, adding he "wasn't so much concerned about the house itself. I knew I was going to be interested in anything for $10,000 as long as it was usable and safe for people to live in."

He said Saint John is "cooler than [he] thought it would be."

"There's amazing architecture here that's unique in Canada," he said, "and everyone seems really friendly around here."

Drawn by some of the most affordable real estate in Canada, new families and individuals are moving into the north end.

Cheap real estate is one draw - but so is the scrappy spirit pioneered first by initiatives like the Marigold Project (formerly Marigolds on Main Street) and redoubled in recent years by O.N.E. Change, the Nick Nicolle Community Centre, the North End Wellness Centre and the owners and proprietors of long-running businesses.

It's been an unsteady trajectory, at times — but it's possible those efforts have laid the groundwork for a comeback for the north end.

Some abandoned buildings that now dot Saint John's north end are now home to feral cats that are making themselves at home. (Julia Wright/CBC)
While it’s been bruised, the north end’s scrappy spirit is far from down yet and groups are trying to rehabilitate the neighbourhood. (Julia Wright/CBC)

The rich texture of the neighbourhood's glory days, while tarnished, has never completely faded.

"The heart and soul of Saint John was the north end," said Ivan Court.

"Hopefully now, the right developers will be smart enough to realize what a great place it is, and we can bring it back."