Reviews / Comptes rendus - Debra McNabb, Old Sydney Town: Historic Buildings of the North End

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Debra McNabb, Old Sydney Town: Historic Buildings of the North End

Peter Ennals
Mount Allison University
Debra McNabb. Old Sydney Town: Historic Buildings of the North End. Sydney, N.S.: Old Sydney Society, 1986. 102 pp., ill. Paper $10.95, ISBN 0-9692642-1-6. Cloth, price not available, ISBN 0-9692642-0.

1 For most Maritimers, and indeed for most Canadians, the image of Sydney, Nova Scotia, is that of a down-at-the-heels, turn-of-the-century steel works casting a rusty pall over the skyline of a working-class city. This is the very heart of industrial Cape Breton—an often tormented outpost of Canada, beset by news-worthy environmental damage and chronic underemployment, periodic labour unrest, political cynicism and, what sociologists would call, "other social pathologies." Yet in historical terms the city has a longer, more varied and, perhaps one might say, distinguished lineage, extending over two centuries to when it was founded by Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres in 1785 as the capital of the Loyalist colony of Cape Breton.

2 For thirty-five years it served this important colonial function while also taking its place as a busy port and centre of trade within the Gulf of St. Lawrence rim, a subset of the larger North Atlantic trading orbit. The annexation of Cape Breton by Nova Scotia scotched Sydney's aspirations and colonial pretensions during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, but the movement after 1860 toward an industrial phase based on coal extraction, and later iron and steel, sustained its importance as one of the few larger urban places in Nova Scotia. Rightly or wrongly, present-day Sydney seems to be a prisoner to the dirty failing steeltown stereotype.

3 The purpose of this book is to challenge that image, to create for not only the citizens of Sydney but also anyone else who cares to learn a sense of that more varied history by focusing on the surviving built heritage of the city's colonial quarter, the north end. This is then a work of celebration and consciousness raising — the effort of a local heritage society. Composed principally of elegantly rendered pen and ink illustrations of individual buildings drawn by Lewis Parker, and brief contextual biographies of each building prepared by Debra McNabb, the book falls into what is becoming a widely used formula for a genre of historical architectural work in this country. The focus of attention is on the building, its sequence of owners and uses, and the "lore" that is associated with it. In this case there is no apparent attempt to create a systematic order in the arrangement of entries; nor is this a guidebook for a walking tour as sometimes happens in books of this type.

4 It is important to respect the "sense-of-place" intentions of this book and this genre. Everyone interested in heritage preservation recognizes that there is a critical relationship between public recognition of the past in our midst and the opportunity for salvage, preservation and scholarly study of the material history. If the public are oblivious to their surroundings and the context of their creation, the pace of destruction will continue. Books like Old Sydney Town have an important part to play in the process of public education. In this regard, McNabb has struck an appropriate balance between a deeper, more analytically penetrating historical investigation of the social and settlement history and landscape of Sydney, and the more anecdotal thumbnail sketch of familiar but little understood buildings that fill a neighbourhood. One senses that McNabb knows her readers well and aims the account directly at the layperson.

5 For those with a professional or scholarly interest in architecture, the book has little to offer except in an indirect way. Individual buildings are not subjected to architectural analysis. Sensibly McNabb even steers away from the application of "period" labels, which in other studies of this genre are too often inappropriately or incorrectly used. Nor is there any attempt to edit out ordinary, lower-class buildings that might not fit the classificatory schemes of conventional architectural history. Happily the author has adopted a very honest and democratic view, allowing the north end to be seen as a living neighbourhood filled with the accretions of every decade, of buildings great and small, public and private. No one "classic" period is favoured. It is, in short, a record of how several generations of an unpretentious people created, lived in and responded to their neighbourhood. That said, one cannot help but think that there is room for another type of study of Sydney, one that probes into the nature of the transition from colonial capital to industrial city. What of the other neighbourhoods? How was the industrial worker housed, and what housing ideals and images were implemented in this location? Were there connections between industrial housing in Cape Breton and that being built elsewhere is North America, or in Britain? The questions are tantalizing.