“Sydney is getting a boot in the arse tonight. It’s great.” I had to agree with my friend and neighbour as we stood at the back of an overflowing beer tent. I heard that Howie MacDonald and Gordie Sampson were playing inside the tent but all I could see was an impenetrable crowd of people and an incredible pyramid of beer cups. It was the first week of August. Fireworks and festivities had taken over Sydney’s waterfront as tens of thousands gathered to celebrate the end of an era – or the beginning of an era, depending on your outlook. Maybe this wasn’t quite what City Hall had in mind when the plan to develop the waterfront area with a boardwalk and other amenities was introduced, but residents of Metropolitan Cape Breton proved by their participation in this party that maybe City Hall doesn’t quite know what’s going on. OK, that may be too strong a criticism of our elected officials. They must have some idea what they’re doing, otherwise a majority if us wouldn’t have agreed to put them in such an important position. Right?
Anyway, as we know, after a week of increased activity in this area, spurred on by top-notch local entertainment, the complaints started coming in about the noise. A legitimate concern considering the Senior’s high-rise which shares a parking lot with the site. Perhaps that’s a detail that should have been given more attention in the planning of these events. But it is ultimately only a detail, “a part of a composition or construction considered in isolation” (where would we be without old Webster?). Put back into context, it was seven of the three hundred sixty-five days of 1995 and over by 1 a.m. Has our community become so disoriented that we can’t tell the difference between social interaction and civil disobedience? Have you ever heard about Sydney’s nightlife? Ever wonder why not?
Maybe the music and the arty was a bit much. After all, this is a working-class industrial city not a party-crazy college town. Or maybe we’re missing something here. Aren’t Cape Bretoners known the world over as party-animals? (Kenzie MacNeil himself wrote proudly, “I’m a Cape Breton Barbarian. Well we all are, or didn’chya know. Yes, I’m a hairy and scary one. That’s how the mainland sayings go.”) And isn’t Cape Breton’s music recognized across Canada, into the States and over the ocean? Now this may be a stretch but, if you were a tourist here, wouldn’t you expect some sort of activity downtown? And never mind the tourists, we live here. This is our home. Let’s celebrate that for a change instead of lamenting the fact by complaining about every little thing that doesn’t go just right.
The rural communities of our island put on a festival practically every week of the summer, using money raised from such events for community projects. Expatriates plan vacations around these events so they can get home to see family and friends. And the naturally occurring music of these gatherings is famous enough to attract locals and tourists alike, many of whom bring money with them to bestow upon the hosting community. I spent a weekend in Inverness for the broad Cove Concert (I think it was the 38th Annual or something like that) recently and saw first-hand what a boon such an event can be to the local economy. In this light, not only is John Coady’s “stodgy reaction to complaints about excessive entertainments on the Sydney boardwalk…just the sort of parental tut-tutting that will kill a good time” (Cape Breton Post 08/10/95, p.4), it also represents an attitude that has the potential to stall the economic development of this area – a dangerous prospect for all who live here.
The fact is that activity on the boardwalk is just what this area needs. The notion that the boardwalk should provide “a relatively quiet and serene environment which would capitalize on the scenery and access to the waterfront” is absurd. It is an insult and an embarrassment to pass off the grossly polluted Sydney Harbour as a place of beauty. If we need an oasis in the downtown area, let’s develop one that isn’t adjacent to a potential health hazard, if there is such a place left.
Unfortunately, the waterfront is no longer such a place. My grandmother (who didn’t complain about the noise eight floors below her bedroom window because she thought her grandson might be playing in that tent, and if that’s what they’re doing these days, that’s fine with her) told me that once the harbourfront was teeming with activity, swimming and boating and courting and dancing. I didn’t believe her at first, but after I thought about it, I remembered that I used to swim in Blackett’s Lake. And now I’m afraid that I’ll be telling my grandkids that I once swam in the Bras d’Or Lakes at Big Pond and Grove’s Point and Ben Eoin. It is sad to think that so much can be lost in such a short time. The boardwalk may breath new life into the downtown area, but it’ll never be like it was only two generations ago. Sure, the view is great, but look around, we are surrounded by beauty on this island.
Develop the waterfront as a place of activity, a place of business. Use the boardwalk as a pedestrian route from the new wharf to shops along the bottom of the Civic Centre and a restaurant in the round Council chambers. Bring life back to the downtown area by making a place that people want to go to. Invite people in to enjoy the place and to have fun and to come back for more. Let them up on the furniture (take the plastic covers off) and get used to it, “’cause the times, they are a-changin’”.