On September 24, Justice David MacAdam confirmed what three non-profit groups believed all along: HRM’s sale of the St. Pat’s-Alexandra …
The curse of AfricvilleBy Hilary Beaumont | Jun 1, 2012
Tags: Africville, Rev. Rhonda Britton
Why does the debate over the St. Pat’s-Alexandra property mean so much to its community?
“Very early our children get messages that they can’t do this, they can’t do that, but we have to reassure them they don’t have to be bound by their circumstances.”
The strength of Rev. Rhonda Britton’s voice pierces the back pew of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church where a young mother bottle-feeds her tiny son.
“You can break generational curses. You can break out.”
Cecil Jackson Jr. sits in the same pew with his back to the modest stained-glass windows. Three-quarters of the congre-gation live in the area, he whispers, and all of the elders are from Africville. His 92-year-old grandmother is the oldest member of the congregation. She grew up in Africville, and now like so many former residents and their descendants, she lives in the north-end neighbourhood surrounding the former St. Patrick’s-Alexandra school.
“The church people are trying to break it.” Jackson speaks quietly to avoid interrupting the sermon. “It’s a bad curse and the city’s not going to help, so the church has to break that for the youth in the neighbourhood.”
Today the community is impoverished and afflicted by drugs and crime. The streetscape of Gottingen is undergoing rapid, unfocused gentrification. The area is a “food desert”—no grocery store since Sobey’s joined the mass business exodus from Gottingen following urban renewal in the 1960s. The services here are socially-focused; a needle exchange, a methadone clinic, the Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre, the North End Community Health Centre and some 30 other organizations squeeze into every spare space, catering to the users, dealers, sex workers, teens, kids and single mothers who live here.
And despite the odds, the people are united. Residents greet each other by name. They call it Halifax’s last real neighbourhood.
The St. Pat’s neighbourhood
Britton rests her arms on the back of a peach-coloured pew after the service. She moved to the area four years ago. She says it feels like a wall cuts the neighbourhood off from the rest of the city.
Uniacke Square and other public housing projects experience “spatially-concentrated racialized poverty,” writes Jim Silver in Good Places to Live. Two blocks from the church, the Square and its sibling, Mulgrave Park, are stereotyped as bad and violent areas. Britton says these “ghettoized boxes” cut residents off from fully contributing to society, which perpetuates a history of marginalization and social dependency: “Our aim is to break that cycle.”
Britton is in the midst of a court battle that will be decided this month. The judge recently granted the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, the Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre and the North End Community Health Centre a judicial review after the organizations accused HRM of ignoring its own written policy in the disposal of surplus schools.
Her congregation and the two other organizations submitted separate proposals for the former St. Pat’s Alexandra building and school site, hoping to share the space and expand their community services. But city council and staff failed to use a written policy to sell the school site, and when they realized their mistake, briefly reconsidered their decision before pressing forward with the $3-million sale to a private developer from outside the community.
The intent of the policy was to involve the surrounding community in the sale of surplus school buildings. Instead, staff pitted non-profit organizations against for-profit developers in a contest that placed heavy emphasis on proponents’ financial worth.
While mulling their decision, several councillors voiced the opinion that the developer knew what was best for the residents. A petition in favour of the developer said he would provide “the best win-win opportunity for the local community.” Council voted to condone the school sale.
Residents refer to the school and the land it sits on as the heart of the community. Since the larger building was erected in the ’70s, Africville descendents from the surrounding community have attended the school from daycare to Grade 9. There they learned black Nova Scotian history 12 months out of the year, not just in February. The definitive history of Africville played a major part in the curriculum until the school closed in 2009.
The Africville suburb
The school sits across the street from Uniacke Square and Mulgrave Park, where many residents were forced to move when the city demolished their homes in Africville.
The suburb on the Bedford Basin was stereotyped by newspapers of the day as a “slum,” a “blight” and a “black ghetto.” The community was isolated from the rest of the city, seldom frequented by richer, whiter Haligonians. Though Africville residents paid taxes, the City of Halifax neglected to extend them basic services, including safe drinking water, police protection and firefighters. Over the years the city surrounded the community with repulsive industrial structures—an infectious disease hospital, a prison, an open city dump and slaughterhouse among others—after these were rejected by Halifax residents.
Still, the people of Africville took pride in their community. The close-knit group of up to 80 families tended their gardens and modest homes, knew each other by name and attended service at the Seaview Baptist Church on Sundays.
When six homes in the community were destroyed in a December 1947 fire and the lack of city water was found to be the culprit, council briefly considered extending services to Africville. But the city manager recommended the population of about 370 people be moved instead. Based on reports by academics with outsider perspectives, mixed with popular ideas of “social integration” and “urban renewal,” and prior to consulting the community, the city voted in 1962 to expropriate the Africville land. This was done, council and staff said, in the best interests of the residents.
But they didn’t want to leave. Instead community members retained a human-rights lawyer and organized a united front against the forced relocation. The city pressed forward, and over the next seven years, Africville residents were uprooted and scattered, their homes, businesses and 130-year-old church demolished.
In 2010, Mayor Peter Kelly apologized “for the deep wounds [Africville residents and their descendants] have inherited.”
“The repercussions of what happened in Africville linger to this day,” he said. “They haunt us in the form of lost opportunities for young people who were never nurtured in the rich traditions, culture and heritage of Africville. They play out in lingering feelings of hurt and distrust, emotions that this municipality continues to work hard with the African Nova Scotian community to overcome.”
“All these things you say you learned, you repeat,” Britton says.
The former St. Patrick’s-Alexandra school site was an opportunity to show and build trust: “That’s why I said, ‘this is Africville again,’” she says.