Tale of Two Cities

I moved to Halifax lured by its legendary bluenose charm. I expected to spend my evenings with Haligonians from every walk of life singing and dancing to live fiddle music at my local pub.

I visited Portland because everybody knows it’s a cool, livable city where sharing a crafted beer while talking about innovation is pretty much what everyone does.

Both views are sentimental and distorted, as two newly published books reveal. One the autobiography, Burnley “Rocky”Jones – Revolutionary, chronicles the work of one of Canada’s pre-eminent civil rights leaders from his base in Halifax. The other, What a City is For – Remaking the Politics of Displacement, is an exposé of the darker side of Portland by activist and writer Matt Hern. Both books reveal a common tale of two cities – the displacement and dispossession of people of African heritage.

I arrived in Halifax a few days after, what the papers described as, a ‘near riot’ led by the Black United Front (BUF). The catalyst behind BUF was Rocky Jones a.k.a. “the revolutionary.” Even though officials trembled at his name, he knew how to get the largely white media to pay attention to matters of importance to African-Nova Scotians. That included remediation for the bulldozing of the self-sufficient community of Africville. Its residents had been uprooted to make room for Halifax-style industrial development and urban renewal. I ended up working with many of the people affected by the displacement. And having a front row seat to the benefits of fierce creativity and peacemaking by Rocky Jones.

Sadly Rocky died in 2013 but not before a sizeable portion of his autobiography was written. It has been lovingly completed by James Walker with a beautiful afterword by George Elliott Clarke, Canada’s poet laureate.

Portland has walkable neighborhoods, bike lanes, low-density housing, public transportation and significant green space—not to mention craft-beer bars and a fleet of food trucks. But liberal Portland is also the whitest city in the U.S. This is intentional as Matt’s book reveals. The city has a long history of officially sanctioned, racialized displacement.

Over the last two and half decades, the residents of Albina—the one remaining Black neighborhood in Portland—have been systematically uprooted by rising housing costs, developers eager to get rid of low-income residents and overt city policies of gentrification. Matt’s book offers a thoughtful alternative to the primacy of marketplace development that seems to drive decision-making in our cities.

It is worth paying attention to activists who write because their analyses and insights are grounded in personal relationships. I think that’s why the words in both these books fly off the page. They cut through sentimentality. They serve as a reminder that a vision in which all lives matter must be pursued with as much intensity and intention as those who displace and dispossess.


If you are anywhere close to Vancouver the evening of Friday, October 21st Matt’s book will launch at SFU Woodward’s at 7:00. Register here. It’s being live streamed as well.


The prejudice and discrimination and the racism that I have faced over my lifetime could have made me a hater, but my beginnings growing up in a small Black community […] filled me with such love and compassion for others that hate was impossible for me to internalize. (Rocky Jones)

Musical accompaniment this post, Deep Down Inside from the Juno award winning albumn “Africville Suite” by Joe Sealy. Purchase here. So beautiful isn’t it? Here’s River of Dreams, another song from the albumn.


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