Remembering Life on ‘Tin Can Alley’

When Allie MacInnis (that would be the CBRM Town Crier) posted a picture of the Hoople Block on Facebook last week, I was surprised at all the memories that came flooding back.

It’s been years since I left that Ferry Street-Armstrong Court neighborhood where our paternal grandfather settled when he first came to Sydney from Iona, sharing a house on Walker Street with a family named MacKinnon who became good friends as well as neighbors. Next door were the Walkers, for whom the street was named, and next door to them were the Colemans, who occupied what was often called the “Klondike,” a former boarding house. (My lasting memory of it was the huge industrial stove in the ground floor kitchen and the double swing in the yard which many of us enjoyed on summer evenings with the permission of the owners — the lady of the house happened to be my godmother).

 

Growing up in the area, we never knew (or even cared) when or how or why the large tenement buildings — one on Ferry Street, three on Armstrong Court (aka the Alley aka Tin Can Alley) plus the Hoople — were built, but it seems the building that became known as the Hoople Block was constructed at the turn of the 20th century to provide accommodations — quite posh ones, at that — for executives at the new Sydney Steel Plant. (My source tells me the nickname came later, from the comic strip Our Boarding House with Major Hoople, by way of Sydney Mayor Sid Muggah, who owned the building and was nicknamed “Major Hoople.”) The tenements, less grand of course, provided living-quarters for many steel plant and CNR workers, some of whom had made the move to Sydney from as far away as Barbados, others from elsewhere on Cape Breton Island.

On Ferry Street, next to the Hoople, from which it was separated, in our day, by large billboards, was the Lavoisier Block (pronounced “LAV-a-sher”) which got its name from a Mrs. Lavoisier, who lived there and ran a small store.

That block provided housing for many families, as did the three on Armstrong Court, one of which — the Burt Block — also took its from a family who lived there and ran a small store. In fact, small stores were a common feature of the neighborhood — Cameron’s on Havelock Street, Risk’s on the corner of Ferry and Havelock, Mandelbaum’s (later Bonavisky’s) also on Ferry. John Walker’s larger emporium was located on upper Ferry Street, as was Doyle’s Barber Shop.

 

But back to the Hoople. By the time my generation was inhabiting flats in it and the other tenements, the buildings had lost much of their luster, to put it frankly, and not much was done to improve any of the exteriors. But the interiors of the apartments occupied by families with a bread-winner employed by the steel plant or the CNR were often upscale and well-kept by the tenants. Although residents frequently moved on to other areas of the city, buying or building their own homes, many of us called the tenements home for years. I remember vividly so many of the kids there — neighbors with whom we played games in the alley, skated on the Louisa Gardens or at the rink down behind Sacred Heart Church or coasted down Burt’s Hill, often on large pieces of cardboard.

Wally Forrester, the author and her sister, Catherine.

The author with her sister Catherine (in the swing) and neighbor Wally Forrester (left).

In the Hoople alone, the Rostons, Burkes, two MacDonald families, the MacNeils, the Monks, the Reynolds, the Sheppards, Maggie Gorman and Jim Cahill come immediately to mind.

In the Lavoisier block, when Mrs. Lavoisier left, the Bruces moved in. There were, at one time, three MacNeil families, the Gallups, the Doucet and MacDonald families who had come to Sydney from Louisdale, and Mrs. Currie, whose son, Angus, operated a gas station at Kings Road and Alexandra Street and also served as a city alderman.

In Armstrong Court there were ourselves, the Forresters, the Smiths, the MacInnises, the Skanes, the Youngs, the LaFittes and the Martins. In the next block, the MacLeods, the Gallants, the Steeles, the Rutherfords, the Kauffmans and the Rolfes, Finally, in the Burt block (besides the Burts) were the Bloises, the Burdges, the LeRoys, and the Leons.

The last were one of the many families in the neighborhood who had arrived from St. Pierre and Miquelon, adding a very interesting French-speaking contingent to the neighborhood and creating a multilingual atmosphere, given the large group who spoke Gaelic as their mother tongue. (Languages that were spoken only at home, as English alone was spoken in school.) I’m sure I’ve missed other families who lived in these buildings before, while and after we were there.

 

The tenement flats were heated, for the most part, by coal stoves, often more than one. The kitchen range was for cooking meals and boiling water for laundry as the flats had no hot, running water. As you might imagine, wash day was quite the undertaking, with laundry done either in an old-style wringer washer or a galvanized tub with a scrubbing board, then hung out to dry or, in foul weather, hung in to dry on clotheslines strung across the kitchen.

The author and her aunt and her grandmother.

Grandma’s House: The author visiting her grandmother and an aunt.

My grandmother’s house on Walker Street was a favorite drop-in place for us, especially on the way home from school at lunch time, when we knew there would be freshly baked molasses cookies or gingerbread or bannach. In summer, tea was a 2:00PM ritual that we often availed ourselves of, complete with the sugar we certainly weren’t served at home. Tea was also on the menu around 8:30PM, especially if there were a heavy game of cards being played by our grandfather and his friends and sons-in-law at the large table in the dining room, games that were accompanied by loud shouting and banging as players laid down their best cards. There was no money involved but lots of laughter and a good lunch.

For some, life was difficult, as life often is, but it was a neighborhood where good friendships were made and valued.

As the years passed, the area that was so large when we were children seemed to shrink. The Hoople was replaced by Mason’s Wholesale which itself disappeared. The tenements are long gone as is my grandparents’ home on Walker Street, which vanished just recently.

But for 22 years, those few city blocks were our world and while the buildings themselves may be gone, the memories live on. (And if you have some to share, please get in touch!)

 

 

 

Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.