Jack Florek explores Dartmouth’s undeserved bad rep and finds a bit of Zen.
One of the first vibes I caught shortly after moving to the area a few years ago was that Halifax is a great place to live. It’s filled with an eclectic cultural scene, offers lots of pro-family fun, and has an exciting nightlife. Dartmouth, its former sister city (amalgamated into HRM in 1996,) on the opposite side of the harbour was, well, not so much.
“I do not like Dartmouth,” complained a cranky co-worker at my first job. “I’m never comfortable there. It represents everything that’s reprehensible in the world.” When I asked for more details she mumbled something about having a tough time making lane changes on the Macdonald Bridge.
I would have dismissed her comment as mere sour grapes if I hadn’t heard similar things said by a lot of very different people. It seems everyone from the guy selling beer at the Mooseheads game to my favourite bank teller to my accountant has something bad to say about Dartmouth. “It ain’t called ‘the Dark Side’ for nothing,” is the typical refrain.
But I’ve never found Dartmouth to be intrinsically “dark” in any sense other than seeing stars twinkle above the harbour in the night sky. There are a good number of people who line up along the Dartmouth side each workday to traverse one of the two bridges or ride the ferry across the harbour. They seem like fine, upstanding people. They tell me that they like Dartmouth because the rents are a little cheaper, there are a lot of high quality shopping areas available and there are many charming lakes.
I like Dartmouth. Going there is a little like taking a mini vacation to a kind of exotic land.
Tour buses or Harbour Hoppers inching up congested streets bellowing out historical nuggets to hordes of tourists does not mar Dartmouth. There are no queues stretching down the sidewalk waiting to get breakfast. There is no pressure to keep pace with the mass of out-of-town marchers anxious to “get there” and “see that.”
A walk around downtown Dartmouth can actually be an invigorating experience, a kind of miniature version of a mountain retreat or a stay in a Zen centre.
On the pier outside Alderney Landing, you can encounter smoking fishermen with baited poles quietly discussing the best place to get seafood chowder in the city. One might stroll past lovers on park benches gazing out onto the water as the ferry quietly puffs in.
The World Peace Pavilion in Ferry Terminal Park offers an array of stones and bricks from nations around the world, including a chunk from the Great Wall of China and a brass plaque from Slovakia made from ammunition fragments used in Second World War.
Wandering up the walkway past where the playground used to be (alas, it was torched by vandals last February), one encounters a huge bronze propeller, once a part of the CCGS John A. Macdonald, damaged during a journey through the Northwest Passage in the late 1960s.
A stroll through neighborhoods brings unexpected splashes of colour springing from homemade flowers gardens, brightly lit store windows, or a rose delicately placed in a glass vase on a café tabletop. One may encounter an impromptu baseball game breaking out in a back alley between businesses closed for the weekend. It’s even possible to buy an ice-cold glass of lemonade for 50 cents from a child on her front porch.
And, of course, there are many magnificent views of the harbour: from the park; the reading area of the downtown library; or along the upper reaches of Ochterloney Street. For those so inclined, there are also a bevy of art galleries, theatres, museums, and a selection of excellent restaurants.
But why, I still wondered, was Dartmouth called the “Dark Side.”
Is it because the city is somehow linked to the mythically menacing reign of Darth Vader? Is it a reference to a coven of witches and the so-called dark arts? Could it be a sly nod to the erotic amusements of establishments such as Ralph’s Place on Main Street? Or is there a racist epithet somehow mixed into its mere utterance?
Finally, a friend from Toronto, now a resident of Dartmouth, cleared it all up for me as we sat sipping wine on her deck one summer evening watching for falling stars. “It’s very simple,” she said. “If you were in a boat at night in the middle of the harbour you would see a lot of lights on the Halifax side and mostly darkness on the Dartmouth side. It’s just the visual difference between the two cities.”