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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.

Gene Miller

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View Towers

 

ACROSS THE WORLD, politics and political structure as a system of social management, as a way of expressing and apportioning individual and social power, and as a vocabulary, a framework or methodology for describing social behaviour and aspirations, is either waning or failing. It lacks the tools to respond to the complexities of a global civilization managed electronically—something that never existed before in human history—a civilization rendered geographically global by economic interactivity and the abstractions of finance and digital technology. We are, if I can resort to cliché, being ruled by money, by financial flows. Rulership, leadership, governance is passing from the various historical arrangements of political power to the power of capital and those who run its systems. People everywhere, in every nation and culture, are feeling a growing bewilderment and powerlessness, losing social meaning; and this may conceivably presage the dissolution of the nation-state, the national ‘tribe’—the current retreat from globalism, assertive nervous boundary conditions and national drum-beating attitudes notwithstanding. 

Today’s terrifying lurch to the right and the rise of the autocratic, authoritarian personality—the US under Trump, Brazil with Bolsanaro, Hungary with Orban and so on—itself implies a near-future bereft of citizenship as we currently understand it. Politicians no longer dream of changing (improving) the world, daunted by the sheer chaos of its contemporary design. All political leaders can do is cosmetically manage the thinly veiled control that financial services, tech, and energy companies exert over all of us, while offering narratives of good and evil, or of limitless possibility, that seem increasingly vapid and hollow. All of these forces and trends are producing a mounting, spreading state of unreality in social life and significantly weakening the foundations beneath a number of social institutions. Privacy, for example, has practically evaporated and given way to surveillance and commodifiable transparency; and with that, a certain kind of selfhood or autonomy is vanishing. (You can tell privacy is going when you receive so many assurances that your privacy is being respected.)

We are facing the central question of how to (and who or what intellectual regime should) manage a post-political future, and what is the shape, what are the goals, of human culture in such a future. (Structuralists might add that the arrival speed of such a future will determine if humanity can even endure such change.)

This is human and social evolution—not betterment or greater maturity, necessarily, but change. Our minds, our customs and culture, our social protocols, structures and institutions are still based in political sensibility, in ideology, but all of this, argue contemporary thinkers including sociologist and social theorist Ulrich Beck, is a remnant condition simply caught in a final moment of poise, and steadily hollowing out in favour of economic management—management by finance—and the information flows such management requires.

Ideological ideas about social management decreasingly define this emergent human condition. It’s all being washed aside, like the Age of Royalty before it. My language makes it seem as if these trends are absolutes and, of course, they’re not. They are evolutionary, messy, incomplete, approximate, and their human consequences are unknown.

But here’s the point, if I may circle back to built form, by which I really mean the scope and degree of consciousness that a community brings to built-form decisions: there really is a connection between physical form and social empowerment, that feeling of being a stakeholder in a community, of being a citizen. This stuff is abstract and resists measurement, but it isn’t imaginary. (This, by the way, is something Victoria’s regional amalgamation, bigger-is-cheaper advocates seem not to get. Bigger is just bigger.)

NIMBY, for its part, gets half, but only half—the “I want to protect and preserve what I have”—of the social equation right. What it gets wrong is that you can’t simply say “No!” Active citizenship requires that you conceive and implement affirmative (and inevitably compromissory) ways to say, “Yes!” You have to build and reinforce and re-strengthen democratic civic practice every day. You have to solve problems, through your own direct engagement, and not with a taxpayer’s “we have people” delegation sensibility. You have, in other words, to re-engage and re-earn your rights every day. The current culture trap makes active citizenship of this kind seems antiquated and almost silly, a waste of mental and physical time in the face of other social priorities. But I will tell you with certainty that social passivity is spreading, and that it is increasingly reinforced by electronic infrastructure and online culture that between them mediate ever more reality for us; and that our doom lies in that direction: a likely combination of ecological ruin and AI domination.

Let me use this vast amount of good news to provide a symbolic explanation of Victoria’s appeal. Our setting and traditional architecture—the planning and land use principles they express—convey the social message that Victoria is a place in which traditional, comprehensible human arrangements are still alive and well, where community and its social transactions and political opportunities are still valid. Visitors ooh! and ahh! when they come here, and use words like “charming” and “cute,” but they are actually conveying their own deep yearning and projecting their deep loss, or fear of loss, and with every ooh! they mean “your city is an island in a drowning world.”

Imagine yourself a visitor to Victoria: say, a walk along Dallas Road; a walk through Beacon Hill Park; then funky, relaxed, still sort-of heritage-y Downtown and intriguing, history-rich Fisgard/Chinatown; a driving meander through Rockland and then into residential Oak Bay and the Uplands. The fecundity (we live in a park), the human order, the success and human safety of it all!

Visitors may never articulate this to their hosts or even themselves, but don’t imagine for a second that they aren’t aware of it, taking it in through their skin and senses.

The world is not a relaxed place. It is terrifying; and order, safety, are—well, not illusions, exactly, so much as a set of islanded conditions floating in space and time and always subject to the roiling atmospherics of history and human nature which surround these bubbles, looking for a way in. Do such places, these bubbles, enjoy endless credit? Do they come with a forever, a guarantee? 

You know the answer. Everyone knows the answer. And while they may appear to be the gifts that keep on giving, their perpetuity should never be taken for granted. There, quite bluntly, is the case for engaged citizenship.

Owing to some combination of good luck and the accidents of history, Victoria has been given a gift never to be taken for granted, but to be renewed through vigilant attention and hard work: the promise and possibility of plenty, safety, order, culture, civility, and more.

However understandable and excusable, our failure to eradicate homelessness and associated social risk and outsider-ness; our failue to conceive innovative built forms and the appropriate policies to deliver urban density without social damage; or to achieve high (or higher) levels of urban and architectural design in public and private settings; or to deliver thorough and relaxed public safety protocols for which a police force should never be the surrogate; or to serve as a model and a beacon of ecological urban design; and to invent new public ritual around all such achievements (“Ritual,” states social critic Richard Sennett, “is an emotional unity achieved through drama.”)—in summary, to engage—are the challenges that confront our civic community. They never go away. 

View Towers still stands to remind us of the costs of inattention; and high above it is this message written against the blue sky: Do not abandon the hard work of citizenship.

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

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.

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