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Gene Miller

VIEW TOWERS. It sat there, like a spaceship in a cow pasture, between Quadra and Vancouver, Fort and View Streets, a 19-storey heartbreaker silently announcing to everyone who walked or drove by: “Beauty is tricksome and fleeting, and Death awaits thee.”

A description in the Islandist states: “The building, completed in 1968, has been locally notorious for much of its 50 year existence, having been the site of several murders, suicides, fatal overdoses, destructive fires, countless violent assaults and several hundred 9-11 calls besides. Its unflattering nickname of ‘Crack Towers’ has persisted since the 1990s.”

(Crack’s so passé, don’t you think?)

 

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The building radiates that history out through its mercy-free concrete skin. If buildings convey messages and operate as narratives about human worth and destiny, View Towers is our Statue of Misery.

The property owner/developer, George Mulek, had intentions, as I understand it, to put up a second, presumably twin or similar building, along the Fort Street frontage of his property, but was prohibited by a shocked and rueful city that curtailed his property development entitlements after the first building went up. Mulek, anecdote has it, left Victoria angry and frustrated and built nothing more here. Mulek is dead (I wish I could report that, in an attempt to restore moral equilibrium, he jumped; but no) and Edmonton-based family members now own View Towers, Orchard House (in James Bay) and numerous residential towers in Vancouver.

I don’t know how the property acquired its original development entitlements; that is, why anyone thought twin 19-storey buildings in that location would enhance or benefit Victoria. Clearly, there are few enlightening lessons to be taken from the hard mind of the developer, but many from the effort to understand why people in the City of Victoria’s political and administrative circles thought such land use entitlements were a good idea in the first place.

Progress? Need? Someone’s careless idea? Stupid season?

Remember: Everything bearing on land use expression is someone’s idea, conceived to respond to an apparent need or exploit some opportunity or produce some beneficial social outcome. Of course, what often happens in the process is best described by a single word: “Oops.”

Each individual land use outcome can be labelled a microscopic event in the city’s overall life, and we all want to believe the city is large and elastic enough to forgive and endure its mis-calls, but it doesn’t take too many ill-considered choices before a place becomes this instead of remaining or becoming that. All of which has special relevance now as Victoria slowly but surely, building by building, at Victoria scale, turns, either by design or accident, into this (both images Vancouver):

 

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And this:

 

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So, what’s so bad about that, you ask? After all, you go to Vancouver and it’s people just like us, not zombies or faceless automatons, right? And Vancouver’s dynamic, exciting, important!

And this is the point at which you and I need to take a two-directional excursion into the recent past and near future, developing some ideas about current social evolution and how Victoria fits with all of that.

In my next post, we’ll take that trip.

Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.

Gene Miller

THREE SHORT MONTHS AGO (I write in early May) we were wishing for spring, starting to form Easter long weekend and, maybe, summer holiday plans, privately sniping, as we read the newspaper, over some local political misstep or gaffe, writing a shopping list for the next Costco run, mulling dinner options, and mentally organizing tomorrow’s office or workplace tasks.

All of that now has been scrubbed. Habits erased, purpose and convention stolen, we barely know who we are. Still, we do what we can. We play by the rules, wear masks, stand six feet apart, ring bells and bang pot-lids at 7pm in a ritual designed to show support for front-line workers and to convey social connection and optimism. And now, with the onset of warming weather and a lot of free time, we recreationally swamp places like Beacon Hill Park. That’s all we have.

British settlement created a colony here in 1843 (by sheer coincidence, exactly a century before my birth). Just under 200 acres surrounding and including Beacon Hill was set aside for park by then-Governor Sir James Douglas in 1858, a mere 15 years after colony founding. (God, what instincts for the future!)

My wife and I live beside the park in Victoria’s 1936 art deco masterpiece, Tweedsmuir Mansions. In an act of caretaking and grateful stewardship, we walk through and clean rubbish from the park once or twice a day, doing our small part to sustain the park’s undeniable “Behold!” qualities, like this:

 

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Intensified (but not created) by the pandemic, the park has become a place of semi-permanent repose for upwards of 50 campers and tenters—some quite visible, others shrouded by the park’s various copses and woods or given privacy under the broad, falling skirts of its evergreens. Some are tidy and respectful, some have bad and nasty habits. As we “garbage walk,” my wife and I come across discarded parts from stolen bicycles, items boosted from neighbourhood homes and yards (once, a looted wall safe), campfire pits, soiled, discarded clothing and plastic sheeting, bushes everywhere used as toilets, ominous warning roars and screams emanating from certain tented enclaves, and terrifying messes like these:

 

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Oh well, it’s a big park.

Funny, we rarely consider the idea of a park—what a park is, exactly. Wild, confected, or both, a park is common ground, a reminder and instance of community; free to all users, and expropriated by none. A park keeps the monsters of commerce at bay; a park, however faintly these days, is return and renewal, a reminder of Eden, the Garden of God, home of the deep-rooted Tree of Life. We recapitulate all of this, even with the most prosaic of visits.

In “The End of the World—From Revelation to Eco-Disaster,” Simon Pearson comments:

“Like the traveller in Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, we are haunted by ruins because they expose the fragility and illusoriness of human power and pomp. Lost jungle cities, ancient temples and monuments to the ‘King of Kings’—all these bear witness to the fact that all civilizations have a beginning and an end.”

Now, again, ruins haunt us: our own. Place yourself in a drifting frame of mind that allows you to feel these earlier ages and empires: the Ottoman, Han, Byzantine, Mongol, Holy Roman, British, and our own Modern Empire. Can you feel all that aspiration and hubris, through so many ages and places—each the “forever” of its time?

And here we are, you and I, living in this nearly perfected place, Victoria. So close (but no cigar)! Now, we take scraps of pleasure from the social near-ruins of Downtown and from our increasingly perforated and dis-patterned neighbourhoods.

There’s diminished social coherence now. It’s harder to argue purpose, harder to enlist. So, we disappoint the public realm. We fail urban design and the city’s social promise. We fail safety. We fail the homeless. We fail story and ceremony. Oh, well.

Now, where did I put that Costco list?

Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.

Gene Miller

I’M WRITING TO YOU FROM the middle of COVID-19—a new geography, Earth’s new moon. So, this is how it feels to have history—some event, some condition—press in and surround us as foreground, instead of “over” or “out” there; to have normalcy vanish, as fast as a channel change. Honestly, can you even remember normal? It was just a click ago.

We reach for metaphor, explanation—we can’t help it. What is this? Biblically foretold payback for our sins? Ecological retribution? Have we failed to use the world well? A message about our over-presence and a reminder about limits? Or just some event in a “shit happens” universe?

In a late-March New York Times column, Roger Cohen captured the mood:

This is the silent spring. The planet has gone quiet, so quiet you can almost hear it whirling around the sun, feel its smallness, picture for once the loneliness and fleetingness of being alive.
This is the spring of fears. A scratchy throat, a sniffle, and the mind races. I see a single rat ambling around at dusk on Front Street in Brooklyn, a garbage bag ripped open by a dog, and experience an apocalyptic vision of vermin and filth.
Scattered masked pedestrians on empty streets look like the survivors of a neutron bomb. Something has shifted. The earth has struck back. Exacting breathlessness, it has asserted its demand to breathe.
Do things differently at the other end of this scourge, some mystic voice murmurs, do them more equitably, more ecologically, with greater respect for the environment, or you will be smitten again.

The lurking, lethal virus imposes on each of us a long, meaning-of-life parenthesis filled with groping worries about humanity’s nature and qualities; and how fragile, how much a candidate for risk, “normal” actually is; how, seemingly, human appetites cannot be met without beating the crap out of everything on and in the planet (and, often enough, each other).

If a moment ever existed for a respected global leader—person, government or institution—to promote a compelling, irresistible, commonsense image or idea of a better way for humanity to continue its presence as a planetary tenant, this is that moment. (Thanks for your entreaty, and I would rise to the task, but I’ve committed all of my time to reorganizing the contents of my basement storage locker.)

The latest news does not paint a promising near-term picture. We may be tired of the virus, but it isn’t tired of us. Numbers of infected and dead still expanding quickly; global economy in shambles. Now, in May, the war of words between China and others, notably the US—about sources, causes and failed or delayed warnings, and obligations moral and financial—is intensifying and taking on some worryingly aggressive vocabulary.

And let me alert you to a concern which I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere. First, I need to table-set with this squib from Michelle Goldberg’s truly ominous April 25 New York Times column titled “Coronavirus and the Price of Trump’s Delusions”: “Chernobyl is now widely seen as a signal event on the road to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Coronavirus may someday be seen as a similar inflection point in the story of American decline. A country that could be brought to its knees this quickly was sick well before the virus arrived.”

Capturing light from Goldberg’s diagnosis, the concern is that Canada’s complicated, long-enduring, ‘sticky’ and impactful social, cultural, economic relationship with the US is about to change; is changing now. Canada increasingly finds itself living beside a country going through a terrifying social collapse, and is entering a fluid, risky, soon likely to be post-American or less-American world. That outcome next door is sure to be messy and eruptive and, based on current evidence, free of nuance, courtesy or respect for boundary.

However whispered, Canada needs to have a conversation with itself and to consider the ways in which Canadian social tissue and economic/political health and prospects might be less tightly and riskily bound to the US if some implosive near-term social plunge takes place there. Honestly, this needs a careful evaluation of Canadian resilience and lots of strategic planning. And if Biden is the next president and things blow over down south, well, no harm done, and what are we guilty of—an abundance of caution? Duh, Canada.

 

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B.T.A. Griffiths The Death of Captain McNeale, a depiction of the the War of 1812

 

If you take this as just a writer’s attraction to hyperbole and a flair for the dramatic, please spend some time reading about the increasing divide between what Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole portrays as a “concoction of conspiracy theories, hatred of science, paranoia about the ‘deep state’ and religious providentialism (God will protect the good folks) that is now deeply embedded in the mindset of the American right,” along with a strong pro-white racial bias, a predilection for gun-totin’ and a sense of biblical destiny (not to mention blind voter loyalty to that psychopath, boy-in-a-man-suit president) on one side, and moderate/liberal, progressive and multi-ethnic centre-left, government-trusting America—Canadian America, if you’ll permit—on the other. From the perspective of a map of values, beliefs and concerns, the US is even now these two distinct and intensifying social geographies, two utterly different and irreconcilable Americas. While reluctant to predict an outright civil war, I do anticipate continuing, intensifying social, economic and ideological fisticuffs in the US that might easily march or simply drift across our border.

Piffle, you say? You have no idea of such incendiary conditions in the US? For a truly eye-opening short course, google George Packer’s “We Are Living in a Failed State” in The Atlantic, June, 2020,

This might be a good time for us to let go of indefensible conceits about historical continuity or the durability of “forever;” to stop imagining that any human community can simply relax because history offers a guarantee of constancy. No assurances, no certainties. Isn’t that the (hardly) coded message of this pandemic?

Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.

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