Neglecting our duty to honour Halifax Explosion victims

Fort Needham Memorial Park. Photo: Submitted.

Both the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower monument and Fort Needham Memorial Park in North End Halifax honour those who perished in the Halifax Explosion of 1917.

HRM is responsible for maintenance of the monument and the park. Unfortunately, maintenance at these sites has been lacking for decades and that neglect is evident again in the summer of 2020.

Fort Needham Memorial Park is adjacent to the popular Hydrostone district, bounded by Novalea Drive, Young Street, and Union Street. Originally Fort Needham was an earthen redoubt built in the late 1770s to defend Halifax during the American Revolutionary War.

An attack never occurred and in time, the fort was abandoned and fell into disrepair. By 1900 there was little evidence that a fort had existed there but it was a popular spot for children to play and for families to picnic in the highly populated, bustling Richmond community

Following the Halifax Explosion of 1917, Fort Needham and much of the devastated community of Richmond became the property of the Halifax Relief Commission through expropriation.

In the mid-1900s, the Halifax Relief Commission developed Fort Needham Memorial Park to honour those who perished in the Halifax Explosion. The park included a sports field, large rose garden, picnic area, and playground. In 1959, the Relief Commission handed the park over to the City of Halifax under mutual agreement that the park was forever a memorial public park and that the city was thereafter responsible to maintain it.

The sports field was well used for baseball and football, the rose garden offered the public a peaceful place to sit and reflect, and the playground with its wading pool was a wonderful place for neighbourhood children to play.

However, over the decades, the park fell into disrepair. A lack of maintenance resulted in invasive vegetation throughout the park. The rose garden disappeared, the playground equipment was worn out, and the wading pool became cracked and lay abandoned with weeds growing through the cracks.

Drainage issues went unchecked and swampy areas developed on the sports field and in other areas of the park. The Union Street and Novalea Drive entrances routinely eroded and the steps from Union Street to the park became treacherous and overgrown with vegetation. The memorial park was an eyesore and it remained that way until 2017.

The Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells Tower monument has been a key feature of this park since 1985. It was constructed on Fort Needham through the efforts of concerned citizens, many of them survivors of the Halifax Explosion who wanted a monument to honour their loved ones.

Local businesses and citizens donated funds. The City of Halifax did not contribute any funds to this endeavour and originally city council was even reluctant to grant a building permit to the Bells Committee.

The Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells Tower monument was constructed with a site view to ground zero of the Halifax Explosion. While Halifax had enacted building height restrictions in 1980 to protect the view of Halifax Explosion’s ground zero from Fort Needham, in 2014 HRM permitted Irving to build its massive shipbuilding structure directly upon the site. The view of ground zero disappeared. The public, in particular North End residents, were extremely upset. Was nothing sacred?

North End residents have become accustomed to the indifference shown to this part of the city by city officials over the decades. But then something good and completely unexpected happened in 2014.  

The 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion was also drawing near. HRM staff were aware that Fort Needham Memorial Park and the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells Tower urgently needed restoration. The eyes of the world would be on Halifax on Dec. 6, 2017 so HRM, along with the provincial and federal governments, undertook the Legacy Project to revitalize Fort Needham Memorial Park and the Memorial Bells Tower monument.

Work commenced in 2016 and was mostly complete by the centenary. Halifax Explosion interpretive elements were installed throughout the park, drainage issues were addressed, invasive vegetation was removed, new trees were planted in the park, and a rose garden was installed at the southern end of the park. The new sports field is named in honour of my father, J. Eric Davidson, who was blinded in the Explosion.

The memorial bells that had not chimed for years due to lack of maintenance were restored and now ring daily. A patio was built around the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells Tower and garden beds were installed at the base of the monument and planted with a variety of non-flowering, evergreen plants.

People were delighted that their park and monument had received a much-needed upgrade. The revitalization also helped to quell some of the public outcry over the Irving affair. Surely this meant that the decades of neglect had come to an end. Not so.

In the summer of 2018, a friend accompanied me to Fort Needham Memorial Park to see the park revitalization. We were shocked to find several dead trees lining the paths. In particular, the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells Tower garden beds were littered with dead and dying plants and massive weeds had completely overtaken the beds. Roughly half of the plants did not survive the winter. The gardens were in deplorable condition.

In the spring and summer of 2019 and again this year in 2020, the park and monument gardens were left in the same state. Some of the dead trees remained standing and lay rotting throughout 2018 and 2019. HRM staff mowed around one rotting tree for two years rather than remove it. In response to public complaints, HRM finally removed these dead trees in July 2020.

The monument gardens are left in a disgraceful mess until midsummer each year and tourists who visited the Memorial Bells Tower monument for these past three years have observed this unsightly scene. It is shameful and reflects poorly on HRM.

Fort Needham. Photo: Submitted

Why did HRM install garden beds at this monument if it won’t maintain them?

Since 2018, concerned members of the public (including me), have contacted 311 and Councillor Lindell Smith about the state of the park. I also wrote to Mayor Mike Savage and have received no response from either of them. Is this failure to respond acceptable from elected officials?

Calls to 311 did elicit a response from Alana Tapper, HRM Parks West superintendent, who says the pandemic caused this year’s delay in getting workers to maintain the memorial monument. It is interesting though that COVID-19 did not delay work at other sites throughout the municipality this spring. And there was no pandemic in 2018 and 2019.

Concerned citizens offered to dig out the weeds at the monument. I contacted HRM for permission to undertake weed removal at the monument, however HRM will not permit this volunteerism because of the collective agreement it has with unionized workers.

HRM workers subsequently commenced weeding in Fort Needham Park this year it late July. It took them approximately one week to remove the abundance of weeds at the monument site alone. The weeds are gone but the gardens have an abundance of empty spaces where plants should be.  

The vegetation planted at the monument is high maintenance, unattractive, and ideal for weeds to flourish in. To date HRM has not replaced all the plants that died in 2017 and 2018, leaving gaping bare spaces where weeds thrive. HRM did plant a few scraggly plants at the site in the fall of 2019 but several didn’t survive the winter and the appearance of the site is unimproved.

Fort Needham. Photo: Submitted

One does not have to be a landscape artist to know that flowering perennials such as hosta and hydrangea would be an excellent choice for HRM to plant as they discourage weeds, add beauty, and require little maintenance.

So in addition to attempts to have HRM maintain the gardens earlier and routinely each year, this year I questioned HRM about why low maintenance, flowering perennials are not planted to fill in the empty spaces. Tapper responded that flowering perennials do not conform to HRM’s design plan for the gardens.

Does the abundance of weeds and gaping empty spaces conform to HRM’s design plan? Anyone viewing the current state of the garden beds can see that either HRM is not following the design plan or the design plan is flawed.

Tapper said that the summer is not an ideal time to plant given the lack of moisture and high temperatures. This is true. Spring is an ideal time to plant in Nova Scotia but HRM routinely does not attend this site until midsummer, completely missing that opportunity to plant.

Tapper also said that HRM staff will review this matter in the fall. Fall planting at the monument gardens has not been successful in the past. Also, with COVID-19, will any planting happen this fall?

This memorial park and monument should be a priority for HRM but as in past decades, a pattern of neglect is emerging again. The appearance of the monument garden and other gardens throughout the park is disgraceful.

HRM and its provincial and federal partners invested considerable public funds to revitalize this park and monument. While HRM maintains other local sites on a routine basis, it routinely neglects this memorial monument garden marking Halifax’s tragic disaster.

HRM can and should strive to better maintain this site to respectfully honour those who perished in the Halifax Explosion and to honour the commitment the city made in 1959.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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