saturday afternoon at front and main

If you look at old photos of Whitehorse, it's clear that most of the action was at Front and Main.

If you look at old photos of Whitehorse, it’s clear that most of the action was at Front and Main. For a town of just a few hundred, the old shots always have a surprising number of people milling around between the train, the sternwheeler docks, Taylor & Drury’s big store and the hotel now called the Edgewater.

A few visitors have recently remarked how much they liked Whitehorse’s downtown, so I decided to put the “investigative” back into journalism and venture over to Front and Main last Saturday afternoon.

After some very quiet decades, and a lame rebranding of Front Street as “First Avenue” at some point, it’s wonderful to see Front and Main back in action. Baked Cafe was full of happy, caffeinated people. Quite a few were sunning themselves in front of the south-facing wall like Yukon delphiniums.

The new pub in the old Capital Hotel was crowded. The new owners have done a very nice job wedging a pub into the rickety old building, and it adds buzz to Front and Main. The mummified cat of the old Capital may be missing in action, but the big wall opening onto Main Street is an excellent addition. I can attest that there is no better place on a Saturday afternoon for an economist to sit, drink a pint of Yukon Gold and discuss the finer points of the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. I also recommend the pub’s curry and chips.

For those looking for cuisine more familiar to our Sourdough ancestors, there are also great steakhouses. The Cellar is a tradition. I recall being taken there to celebrate winning an English prize in junior high (or maybe it was for just managing not to embarrass the family with my report card). My kids weren’t very impressed with the tale, but they enjoyed their steaks. Now there is also the Cork and Bull, which also does a very fine slab of beef. Its interior has also been fixed up with some character, with bars and tables made of wood from the old Whitehorse Copper building.

The MacBride Museum was also moving last Saturday afternoon, with a steady stream of people coming in and out. The MacBride has daily activities like “The Real Sam McGee” and revolving historical presentations, plus free concerts on Thursdays complete with burgers and beer.

Venturing further up Main Street to pick up the latest Economist and some more .22 ammo, the sidewalks were crowded. Arts Underground in Hougen’s also had some visitors who dropped in to look at the excellent exhibit of E.J. Hamacher’s photos of historic Whitehorse. There is a particularly interesting pair of photos of Front Street a couple of decades apart, showing the transition from Whitehorse’s horse-and-cart beginnings to its “horseless carriage” era.

The part of town that was still a bit depressed was the waterfront itself. I was the only person in the White Pass station building, other than the company’s ticket agent. The Old Fire Hall was closed and the coming events poster board had only one poster, and that was for a concert that had already happened. Checking the website on my iPhone, it appears the only event for the remainder of July is the Yarn Bomb Public Knitting Workshop. The little houses at Front and Elliott remain empty.

The big new viewing platform over the river, which the government calls a wharf even though you can’t tie your boat to it, had some people sunning themselves on it. Doubtless budget was an issue, but I have to admit I was disappointed to paddle by last year and realize that I would only be able to tie up if the dam broke and the river went up 10 feet.

There is a bit of a theme coming up here. The west side of Front Street is where the action is. It’s run by independent businesses or organizations. The east side, however, is run by various governments.

Whatever the cause, it is a shame that our public or heritage buildings along the waterfront aren’t getting more use. Those little houses at Front and Elliott would be take-out coffee shops if people from Seattle were in charge. If the folks from the Chicago waterfront ran things, there would be street food from hot dogs to Chinese dumplings on the land beside the train station. I wonder why the city’s street food vans are parked somewhere else.

I don’t know if the railway or the government operates the train station nowadays, but I suspect if Whitehorsians like the ones behind Baked or the Capital Hotel were able to lease it then it would already have a great pub and steak house in it.

There has been a debate for decades in Whitehorse about how much private sector involvement there should be on the waterfront. Some of our fellow citizens worry that profit-crazed businesses will take over and crowd out art galleries and public spaces.

After visiting various waterfront revitalization projects elsewhere, however, it’s clear the magic is in the middle somewhere. I think we don’t have enough private sector involvement on the water side of Front Street. The thing about street food vendors, restaurants and private retail is that they bring both traffic and money to the waterfront. This helps pay the rent, and also brings more customers to museums, art galleries and public facilities nearby.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.