When I hear people or the media describe the downtown of Sydney, it evokes images closer to dust bowl conditions than the actual street I commute to and work on every day. I have only lived here for little more than a year after being away for twenty years, and I'm the first to admit that I'm only starting to wrap my head around the very complex political landscape of Cape Breton, but I feel like the downtown is an area I know, and an area that many people don't get right. I work on Charlotte Street, I drink coffee on Bentinck, I eat on the Esplanade, and I walk everywhere in between, but when I read about Downtown in the papers, all I see is this:
In truth, that's sad. Yazer's and Jacobson were mainstays on Charlotte Street for 70 years. It's worth a news story to reminisce and say goodbye, but we shouldn't let these two stores dictate the narrative of Downtown Sydney. For one thing, are we sure these two stores failed because shoppers no longer visit downtown, or maybe the appetite for Italian three piece suits in Cape Breton has waned over the years? Maybe their price points were off for their target market, or they were dealing with increased competition? Maybe it was all of the above. Whatever the reason, Charlotte Street is not one Yazer's after the other. It's not a ghost town of boarded up windows from a zombie apocalypse. There are as many new stores as there are stores closing, but that's just not what people seem to want to talk about.
Here's a question: ever have the black bean chipotle burger from Downtown Nutrition? Well, if you haven't, let me tell ya, it's delicious. Don't let the overattractive staff and supplements in the back fool you. This place opened in 2011 and makes an amazing burger, whether you're a vegetarian or not. I'm not, which is also why I love going to our next stop.
And I'm not talking about The Black Diamond (even with their rocking iPod parties). Vailly's Dessert House is so new I had to go outside and take a picture of it myself. This bubble tea establishment is proof incarnate of the international student influence from CBU. I lived in Beijing for a year, and if you hit my head hard enough while eating Vailly's made to order wonton soup, I would forget I was in Canada. (Protip: squirt a little sriracha in that soup and thank me later.)
But what if I want to work off some of these delicious burgers and wontons? Maybe I could just go to the fanciest gym I've ever belonged to across the street.
(Disclaimer: I did not take this picture, and I'm pretty sure that sky is photoshopped.)
I used to swim at the YMCA pool when I was 6 years old. I renewed my membership at 30. This place is clean, fancy, and everybody is super nice. Maybe I'm used to bargain basement gyms with heavy stuff strewn about, but this place has given me new appreciation for modern rowing machines.
I could go on about how the BBQ sandwich at Embers should be more than $6, or how amazing Missy and Julie's expresso machine is at Doktor Luke's, or I could tell you about some of the best sandwiches ever coming out of No Quarter Deli on George Street. You can play boardgames at The Local NPC on Tuesday, buy a book at Ed's on Wednesday, see a show at The Highland Arts Theatre on Thursday, and take in some music at Governor's on Friday, and if you can keep your bar tab low it's cheaper than most any other city in Canada.
Three plays for $39? With real humans in them? But How?!
I've been living in Cape Breton for 15 months now, and it seems to me more shops have been opening in that time-span than closing. Not only that, but more shops and venues that I'm personally interested in have been opening. As someone who lived in Georgia for 20 years, finding quality BBQ in downtown Sydney was an unexpected treat, and bubble tea was the last thing I saw coming to Townsend Street.
Still, it seems the downtown is lacking a place to just "hang out" and businesses are struggling with new competition from Walmart and the mall. Those options have parking, which is another issue entirely. There are big holes in store frontage left from the closing of The Bargain Shop (which I would love to see become a co-working space) and others. There's also the issue of the entire place closing down at 5:00pm, and the fact that I wouldn't know where to begin if I wanted to live above any of those shops, which people should be.
So there are problems to solve, for sure, but this isn't a story about a downtown that's failing. It's not really a story about a downtown thriving either. Anyone who paints either of those two pictures has an agenda. It's a story about a downtown changing, and what direction it's going to go in. Right now, I'm optimistic.
So what do you think needs to be in Downtown? What changes would you like to see happen? I'm new here, so really, I'm asking.