Letter to the Coast: Downtown Dartmouth

Photo CBC

This didn’t get picked up for publication in the Coast so I’m sharing it here instead. It’s in response to this review of Picnic on Portland Street in Downtown Dartmouth.

I was delighted to read the positive review of Picnic by Melissa Boute published on March 9th. The Dart Gallery/Picnic is just one of many businesses that have brought new life to Downtown Dartmouth. With affordable rents, walkable streets and a welcoming business community, Downtown Dartmouth is a great place for entrepreneurs to put their ideas to the test. Unfortunately, Picnic’s positive review was marred by Buote’s first three paragraphs comparing Downtown Dartmouth to The Haunting’s “Hill House” where no one would want to be “in the night, in the dark.” An attempt at a clever analogy taken too far. Boute’s piece makes too much of dated stereotypes that don’t match the kind of place Downtown Dartmouth has become. After dark, there are a many places to go Downtown that no one would describe as “sketchy” including the Celtic Corner, 73 Fusion, Ill Trullo, Battery Park, The Wooden Monkey, The Canteen and of course Picnic. In the summer, our Downtown has been packed for events like the Portland Street Party, the Downtown Food Crawl, the Food Truck Rally and Switch. Crime stats from Halifax Regional Police confirm that Downtown Dartmouth is not a dangerous place and that crime has decreased three years running. Buote should get out more – in the night, in the dark, on the Darkside.

Sam Austin
Councillor Dartmouth Centre


  1. I wonder, if you were a woman, would you feel the same about downtown Dartmouth at night?
    That’s where “dated stereotype” becomes ” I can’t believe this is still a problem”.
    Because if I try and see it in that context, it is a series of long dark danger zones that connect a few welcoming spots.
    Not that Halifax, or any other city for that matter, doesn’t have these same problems in lots of areas, but it’s a little naive and tone deaf to claim that Dartmouth’s core doesn’t feel dangerous to some people. Especially the woman who wrote the review.

    • Looking at my letter again, I should have concluded with “There is lots to do in Dartmouth, in the night, in the dark” rather than personalizing it to Boute specifically. After all, we all have our own perspectives. No where in my letter though do I argue that we don’t have problems. My issue is that Boute’s piece presents just one Downtown Dartmouth: a place that’s dead at night even though that’s clearly not the case. Her description comfortably fits into the sterotype that many people have of Dartmouth, but it doesn’t fit the more complicated reality. It’s easy to write though. Would those first three paragraphs have been included if she was writing about elsewhere in HRM? In writing my letter I checked with Halifax Police and there is no crime wave in Downtown Dartmouth. Statistically, it’s not more dangerous. Most of the crime is people breaking into cars. A bit more reflection of the positive change that has occurred Downtown would have made for a more balanced description of what the community actually is.

    • As a woman who moved from very close to the core of Halifax for almost two years to Dartmouth for five(originally from a major US city, so used to much, much worse neighborhoods ~^_^~)I feel significantly safer over here than I ever did over there. There were, easily, more assaults, gun issues and sexual assaults that I was directly aware of or had happen very close or even to my visitors in Halifax. If I had to be stuck in one downtown or the other after dark, in the summer, walking, I’d take Darkside over Halifax, no question.

  2. Thanks Sam! As a woman who is out at night quite often on Portland St, I couldn’t agree less with the review of the neighborhood at night. It’s nice to see some statistics that support the safer environment.

  3. I live right downtown on Portland St. You DO NOT want to be here at night.It is dangerous.I have to call 911 or warn people fighting drunkenly that I have called the police.There was a stabbing murder outside my door 20 months ago.I hate Dartmouth-always have,and can’t wait to move away from here.

    • i live on ochterloney st.after living in both halifax and herring cove lol there is no difference of here or there.the people of the neighborhood are exactly the same.i feel if you feel unsafe i suggest find a place in 2017 that makes you feel safer.you know its an illusion bad folks are everywhere.good luck and stay safe

  4. I wanted to respond to you one more time, Sam, as I really don’t feel like you understood the piece I wrote at all. I get the feeling you read a few paragraphs, didn’t like it and stopped. In the review I talk about how a lot of business in downtown Dartmouth comes to a stop after 6pm: Most of the businesses that remain open are bars. I say that “a lot of people would define them as sketchy” immediately following it up with a statement that makes it pretty clear that I do not think Staggers is sketchy. So it’s too bad that you don’t see the multitude of views I have presented. You have also conflated “sketchy” with real crime in a way that I think is pretty disingenuous. I am sure that you know as well as anybody else that a lot of crime goes unreported, that arrests are not always made, and that not all “sketchy” behaviour is technically criminal. You likely also know that there is a relatively heavy police presence in downtown Dartmouth—there are beat cops in they daytime and cruisers around at night. You are the only person bringing up crime statistics. The last neighbourhood I lived in absolutely did not have the type of police presence that downtown Dartmouth does. But, as I said, I did not write about crime or statistics. I wrote about how people can perceive Dartmouth. Especially at night when it is dark. It can be scary.

    I also noted in the review that The Canteen seemed like it might change perceptions on one specific block of Portland. And then went on to note that the Dart Gallery had been a “bright spot” since opening. A great spot a little further up the road. The intent here was to show that even though that part of the city is dark—and it is dark, Sam—there are things worth exploring. Sure, I didn’t say that Picnic was perfect, but I hope that most readers understood that I was happy to see such a great expression of creativity in what can feel, to some, like an intimidating area.

    It is really concerning to me that you only want to hear good things about the downtown Dartmouth neighbourhood. This is not a perfect neighbourhood. There are a lot of great things happening, but it does not diminish the fact that there is a lot of work to do in making downtown Dartmouth feel like a safe destination for a lot of people. I happen to like this neighbourhood a lot and feel a real sense of community with business owners, people who work in stores and restaurants, and my residential neighbours. But I also encounter a lot of street harassment, see a lot of homelessness, regularly walk by a biker gang, and often have the lights of police cars reflecting on my walls when there is a loud display of public drunkenness or a fight spilling out of a bar. Nice restaurants opening doesn’t suddenly erase the socio-economic problems found in this area. A cool sandwich doesn’t make a street feel safe at 11pm. I’m sorry if the every day parts of your constituents lives in downtown Dartmouth don’t mesh well with whatever platitudes you’ve created for your press releases about the area’s flourishing businesses, but I’m even sorrier that you would rather nobody said anything about it so the facts of what it is like to live in downtown Dartmouth don’t get in the way of the narrative you want to write about your district.

    • I read your piece. All of it. Maybe I missed your intent. Maybe you missed mine.

      You did reference Staggers and the Canteen, but Staggers was in brackets and the Canteen was immediately followed by a “but.” The overall tone of your piece, to me, was negative and not reflective of the complicated mix that is Downtown Dartmouth. It was a caricature of the place and for those who don’t know Downtown or the changes that have happened over the last decade, you served exactly what they were expecting. I never wrote in my letter that Downtown was perfect or that we don’t have issues or that I only want to hear good things. I also have been Downtown at night many times, don’t live in a house on Lake Banook, and haven’t sent a press release out since August. You have put an awful lot of words in my mouth over the course of the day.

      You’re a constituent, but you’re also a journalist and a public figure in your own right. You wrote a piece for a publicly circulated paper. I criticized it because I didn’t think it was fair to my district. Admittedly, between politicians and journalists, it usually goes the other way, but isn’t that really part of the gig? Part of living life in public?

      I shouldn’t have ended my letter by calling you out personally. I could have had the same snappy ending without “Boute should get out more.” I stand by the overall content, however, as you clearly do your review.

      After it was pointed out to me today, I also read your review of Ill Trullo:

      “It’s barely 5pm and Rachelle and I are watching the sun set on the shitty view of downtown Dartmouth that we have from our table in Il Trullo. We have been seated on the drab side of the almost-empty restaurant, with a view of the ass-side of residential downtown Dartmouth with its industrial buildings, train tracks and lazy, meandering ducks. The Halifax skyline sits in inky relief on the other side of the building. I can practically hear the diners over there sighing as the sun sinks behind Citadel Hill”

      The two times I have been to Ill Trullo we had a lovely view of the Cove and were lucky to get in because the place was packed. Two of four people who commented on your Ill Trullo review took exception to your characterizing of Downtown in that piece as well.

      • I still think you are missing a central point: saying the area can seem sketchy has nothing to do with the businesses here. The changes that have happened here have primarily been new businesses and some condo developments. But if you really knew what it is to live in downtown Dartmouth you’d know that King’s Wharf, Portland, and Ochterloney all feel very independent of one another. There is not much foot traffic between the three areas and there are a lot of dark areas. Literally dark. And often empty.

        Residential life—24-hour existence—is very different than the 9-5 business day. I live AND work on Portland Street, so I can safely say that I’m very familiar with the area and how it changes as the day goes on. To write that it can seem sketchy is absolutely not a caricature. It speaks to the actual character of the area. It is not as if sketchiness alone defines downtown Dartmouth, though—I never said anything of the sort—but it is a part of the area’s character that is still in play whether you like it or not. I am not alone in this opinion. And I know a lot of women, especially, who feel the same. And if even a handful of people feel uncomfortable walking around Dartmouth at night, don’t you want to fix that? To find a way to allay those fears? As a constituent, I hope you do. So I think it would be valuable for you to listen.

        You are saying that I am using “dated stereotypes that don’t match the kind of place Downtown Dartmouth has become” and that “there are a many places to go Downtown that no one would describe as ‘sketchy'” and I am telling you in my experience as a resident it is ~not~ outdated and that my comments have nothing to do with businesses and everything to do with socioeconomic and community issues and even infrastructure issues (lights!) that perhaps you could address. I think that businesses can be forces of good in a neighbourhood, but they aren’t the entire foundation the character of an area is built on. I may be a writer and have some public profile there, but that does not put us on equal footing. You are my city councillor. You are the person charged to listen to my concerns about the district I live in. That power dynamic only goes one way. I am telling you (again and again!) outside of a restaurant review that there are things about my neighbourhood that aren’t great and you are constantly shutting me down with platitudes directed towards local businesses and what feels like a shrug and an “everything’s fine!” You may have just wanted to make a snappy comment, but you’ve started a conversation. Talk about being a part of the gig, huh?

        I’m happy for everybody who has never had a negative experience in downtown Dartmouth. I do like this neighbourhood a lot and the positives outweigh the negatives. But I’m not going to pretend the negatives don’t exist or that they are lost to time because there is an idea of Dartmouth that some people like so much they are willing to ignore the reality of it. Just like I’m not going to stop having an opinion about the views from bad tables at restaurants.

  5. ..i will say in my experience, ive lived and worked downtown for years….i have walked home at night many times- NEVER BOTHERED. most places feel “sketchy” walking alone in the dark, not just portland street. at the most, you may be asked for some spare change, or a smoke…like most places….and you kindly decline and keep going to your destination. There are a lot of great people downtown, in the day time, as well as the night time.

  6. That’s some great balancing commentary Sam! My councillor is new as well and I’m sure he’ll be a fine one, but every time you speak up about a community matter I think how lucky I would be to have you as my elected municipal official!

    • Yes. For commercial retail space, Downtown Dartmouth has good value. Much more affordable than streets like Agricola, Spring Garden or Barrington. The challenge is that as the place becomes more attractive, the rents will rise and potentially force out the businesses that helped make it more appealing in the first place since rising assessments aren’t necessarily correlated to more customers. It’s a problem that’s shown up on Quinpool and Agricola over the last number of years.

  7. Thank you, Sam. I could not agree with you more. I am a woman. I lived in Halifax for ten years before moving to downtown Dartmouth for the last five years, and I cannot get over how much safer I feel in Dartmouth. And I was initially reluctant to move here! Also, The Coast used to be my go-to, but it has devolved into whining and criticism about everything. This is just one small piece of a bigger trend with that publication.

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