The project of civic renewal needs us to bring our many gifts to the table—and set an example for the world.
SWOONING. Do people still swoon?
Informative and very entertaining liner notes with a CD of Charles-Valentin Alkan’s piano music comment that “by the mid-1830’s, Alkan had taken up residence in Paris’s fashionable Square d’Orleans, with the younger Dumas, the ballerina Taglioni, and later, Chopin and George Sand as neighbours,” and friend of the admiring Liszt “whose pianistic style in concerts was capped with such histrionic gestures as swooning at the piano.”
“The pianistic rivalry of Liszt and Thalberg,” the writer adds, “could pack the largest halls and polarize Parisian society.”
Lest you imagine that such romantic excitability left the tent two centuries ago and is beyond contemporary expression, here are listeners’ quite recent online comments posted below a YouTube live recording of pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s 1976 Toronto recital: Horowitz, seismically dangerous...don’t touch him...the most brutal and incredibly beautiful piano recital I’ve ever heard... very rare moments of a man facing his own demons...Horowitz swallows the Chopin Ballade whole, like a hungry tiger devouring a porcupine…if I had one millionth of his ability to be fearless in spite of fear, I would count myself blessed.
I know, you can’t get “like a hungry tiger devouring a porcupine” out of your mind.
Isn’t it obvious? Victoria needs to be, to become, the cultural crucible in which such emotional excess becomes everyday, a habit. Victoria, a 21st Century Paris in which we average citizens spend all our free time parsing musical performances, judging brush-strokes, sniffily critiquing some emergent downtown architectural monsterpiece and, over lattes, picking out the most overwrought paragraphs in Gene Miller’s latest FOCUS column.
I’m really asking: isn’t this place, the singular character of this place, worth fighting for?
If there was ever a time to add romance, over-gesture, a generous dose of Paris or Italy to the local social formula, this is it. We need to start relating to each other and to this place operatically. Victoria needs a heartbeat, blood circulating, some passion and pride. Why? Because the city has become its problems. (Memo to Tourism Victoria: “Welcome to Victoria—The World’s Unsolved Problem Capital!”)
Apart from existential urgencies like Trump (a metaphor for America’s risky and terrifying courtship of social oblivion), the COVID-19 pandemic, the emergence of the total surveillance state, and looming eco-apocalypse, what turned my mind toward such elaborate redemption strategies is that, like it or not, Victoria has achieved “currency” and the place now has an urban identity that, to be generous, outstrips Burnaby’s on a good day. Everything that made the city special has faded or diminished; everything that makes the place like anywhere else is rampant. The times caught up to us and found us, to be generous, un-poised.
History, tradition and cultural identity (legacy and reputation) no longer define or protect this place, no longer lend it gravitas or singularity. The city, in fact, seems beyond protection. “Seat of provincial government” now carries little weight. Even the Tweed Curtain seems like a torn curtain, the doddering wave-away of a palsied hand, not a social bulwark. Whatever made this city a singular place no longer does, and social agreement—some widely shared and understood statement that we’re going this way or that way, and for what reason—has disappeared. The city, defeated by the challenges (and threats) of currency, based on physical and social evidence, seems to be shuffling toward some late-arriving ditto of Vancouver’s West End, surrounded by a mile-wide crap meringue.
This seems to be how civic renewal works: the Old Way is no longer supportable; the New Way bristles with ambiguity, threats and challenges; the Response reveals the limits of creativity, attention, passion and energy that can be brought to the project of civic reinvention. The outcomes never deliver opera. Everybody shrugs, something like life goes on.
In spite of the communications-saturated environment that we live in, community-wide conversation in Victoria is a challenge. There is no tool or protocol—barring local elections which are more verdict than conversation—that allows civic leadership to convene everyone for a meaningful review of the city’s state and fate. But however difficult, there’s great need right now to discuss things at that scale and to foster entirely new means by which Victoria’s remarkably talented public can be a driver, rather than a victim, of circumstance, before we wake up irreparably mediocre, our civic promise misplaced and unfulfilled.
I wake up to just such fatal concerns, and if you don’t mind a long reach, I invoke the Lady Galadriel’s words to Gimli the Dwarf, in Tolkien’s great work: “...for the world has grown full of peril and in all lands love is mingled with grief.” Like the one great organism it is, the world is building toward its next spasm.
I’m calling for opera and celebration, but I’m aware that Victoria’s great dispositional gift to the world has been its reason and calm, and the conspicuous expression of human hope in the city’s physical appeal. Victoria over the years has sent a signal not to trigger theatrical passions, but to answer quieter, deeper hungers.
Can those qualities and strengths be resurrected, recast?
Harder now, but I don’t care if our motivations are self-serving and superficial or selfless and sacrificial; Victoria needs again to be a place with a purpose, “fixt like a beacon tower above the waves of Tempest,” as Tennyson beautifully put it. The world needs this desperately: some place (or places) willing and able to undertake the effort of outsize social messaging: “Order and informed hope look like this in the 2020’s and beyond.”
The ingredients for such messaging, while scattered, are closer to hand than you might realize, and all that’s needed is the alchemy of strong intention linked to effective, inspired leadership and lots of enormously good luck. Consider...
Victoria has an astonishingly low level of COVID infection and mortality. We’re well-behaved, mask-wearing. Don’t you think the rest of the infected world is poised, eagerly awaiting the video in which, without making a mockery of tragedy, we display our vast creativity in mask decoration, turning the entire grim life-preserving experience into a ritual of public courtesy, collaboration and reciprocity?
Don’t you think that cities everywhere, as beset by homelessness as we are, would love to “buy the book” in which we explain that we dumped handwringing and useless, do-nothing, grumpy rhetoric and sophomoric ideology in favour of actually marshalling resources and building widely distributed small-suite house-plexes, each with a manager’s apartment; and then got on with the challenging work of liberating the addicted, giving avenue to the under-engaged and the purposeless, firmly managing the predatory, bringing all the outsiders in? In other words, solving the fucking problem?
Don’t you think the world would love to find in Victoria a successful model of urban sustainability and living within ecological limits? Do you know how busy it would keep us generating all the policy, protocols and practices, strategies for successful urban reinvention (mobility, energy use, lifestyle choices, reduced consumption, and so on) required to generate that result?
Don’t you think places everywhere would love to learn about our strategies for successful civic re-engagement—the conversion of sleepwalking residents into active citizens—and the resurrection of communities of participation, responsibility and opportunity?
Look, Trump is an emotionless narcissist, a pathological, reflex liar and a murderous sociopath, but the more penetrating question asks why so many Americans think he’s the ticket and vote for him and, even more importantly, why everything he stands for is not being utterly repudiated by the American public. Failures of consensus there endanger the entire human family. America is a people desperate for example, new direction, demonstration. Even tiny Victoria might have something to offer.
Many sour places in the world are desperate to witness and extract lessons from a polity that is a model of productive collaboration, a successful community and a happy place. (In a complete aside, treat yourself to Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite’s “The Statement” a short, highly expressive reflection of crazy code, language ever-more-filled with words we don’t understand, instructions or guidance we cannot follow.)
All of this—manufacturing the joys of creative public expression, summoning the power and responsibility of example—presents itself to Victoria as opportunity, a citywide “job.” Taking on such a task requires open-hearted insight, the realization that we sit at a table of gifts: profoundly low COVID rates, a remarkable social tone, tremendous community intelligence and creativity, the most appealing physical setting in Canada, a broad-based capacity for ecological leadership, and a currently dormant but ready-to-spring appetite for destiny.
There’s a clicker, a “start” button somewhere. Look around. Pat your pockets.
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.