After a massive harbour explosion nearly flattened the north end of Halifax in 1917, the neighbourhood struggled to get back on its feet. For most of the 20th Century, the area battled high rates of drug use, crime and prostitution, but in recent years the tides have turned for the better.
The north end, dotted with colourful wooden "saltbox" houses, is now home to a mix of hard-working families, hipsters and immigrants. A vibrant shopping district attracts a well-groomed, well-heeled clientele. Small boutiques scatter the narrow streets, featuring the work of local jewellery and clothing designers, high-end furniture stores showcase Canadian-made products, and small cafés and coffee shops hold their own against the Starbucks behemoth that opened last summer.
A centrepiece of the neighbourhood's renewal is Fred., a cosy café, salon and gallery that has become a de facto community centre. When a hurricane destroyed his downtown Halifax hair salon eight years ago, Fred Connors, a pioneer of the north end's transformation, realized he had to find a more affordable area to rebuild. He relocated his business to a former bank building in the very neighbourhood where he had been living for nearly 25 years.
The new business offers residents a place to eat and drink, browse local artists' work and get a stylish and affordable haircut. "Everyone deserves to experience luxury," Connors said.
When Connors first made the move to Agricola Street, he followed in the footsteps of Ray Frizzell, whose furniture showroom opened there about seven years ago. Statement Design, a source of distinctive, high-end furnishings, was one of the first contemporary businesses to take a chance on the north end. Frizzell said the low overhead costs made the neighbourhood a natural fit for a business like his, which did not have to rely on walk-in traffic.
The store, which now specializes in Canadian-made custom furniture, changed owners and moved down the street about four years ago, taking over a bright space full of glass, wood and brick. Statement's new owner, Roger Bouthillier, said the changing nature of the neighbourhood has been a boon for his business. "We get a lot of people who come in on a Sunday to browse after having brunch in one of the local cafés," he said.
One of those brunch destinations happens to be right across the street. Chez Tess Creperie is a cosy restaurant that opened last year. Owner Liz Cunningham spent decades in television production before turning her talents to the restaurant business several years ago. Brunch options include sweet and savoury crepes, French toast and quiche. The restaurant also serves lunch and dinner during the week.
A short distance along Agricola Street is the Hydrostone Market, a quaint strip of shops that makes the north end feel like a European village. At Julien's Patisserie, Bakery and Café, Didier Julien's fresh breads, pastries and cakes use local ingredients and are made according to recipes he learned in his native France. The Vitality bread, a moist and healthy whole-grain loaf, is a sensible favourite. But if you are looking to splurge, Julien's offers a range of choices, from pain au chocolat to almond horns to any number of sumptuous cakes and cookies.
Even before the north end was popular, residents met at Gus's Pub & Grill (2605 Agricola Street; 902-423-7786) for live music. The casual, gritty appeal of Gus's remains, reminding patrons of what the north end used to be. Cheap pitchers of beer, greasy spoon cuisine and an ever-changing roster of indie bands, comedy nights and ironic retro dance parties appeal to a diverse cross-section of Haligonians.
Many long-time residents are still amazed by the fact that happy couples now brunch in an area where 10 years ago, they would not have dared to walk. But Connors believes there is still a lot of opportunity for the area to grow. "The problems have not all gone away," Connors said. "But now we are finding solutions."