Guest Curator: John Leroux

From the 1950s through the 1970s, cities throughout North America engaged in disruptive periods of massive “urban renewal” of older, poorer areas. These aged neighbourhoods were razed to make way for highways, housing projects, sports arenas, and acres of open, unoccupied space.

In Saint John, the 200-acre crescent of land running from Paradise Row above the rail yards, through to Main Street and Chesley Drive along the west side of the harbour, used to seamlessly connect the city’s Uptown, North End and Douglas Avenue. As every year passes, the memory of Main Street’s ribbons of dense blocks, lined with nineteenth-century buildings and thousands of people going about their daily lives, gets harder to fathom. Comparing maps of the area from 1957 and 1976 shows the automobile’s scorn for the established urban configuration that took 150 years to develop and less than ten years to purge. Wholehearted repair and social improvements were certainly justified, but, through one of the largest urban renewal projects in Canada, the neighbourhood was not simply transformed over time, it was obliterated.

Ian MacEachern worked for CHSJ-TV in Saint John from 1962 to 1966, and he witnessed the profound transformation of Canada's oldest city as it was buffeted by the forces of modernization. He recorded the life of its neighbourhoods, its residents, and social life in hundreds of photographs. Like the documentary works of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, MacEachern's photographs show an extraordinary power in their honest depictions of fleeting moments and a raw humanity. They are indeed among the finest social documentary photographs ever taken in Canada.

MacEachern's images represent a rich trove of human stories about community, family ties, the disappearing architectural landscape, and the face of powerful change during the mid-twentieth century. They portray the day-to-day adversity, but also the episodes of sympathy and joy that surrounded inner city urban life not so long ago. These photographs show us a Saint John that was tired but full of energy; decaying but full of life. This is the lost city.

Curated by John Leroux and organized by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

Image: Ian MacEachern, Urban Renewal with Sailors, 1968, gelatin silver print on paper, Image Courtesy the Artist and Beaverbrook Art Gallery