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  • Dreamland: Who’s next? What’s next?

    Gene Miller

    In these disruptive times, the idea that a good political leader is one who champions and promises the return of “normalcy” is preposterous. That's why Lisa Helps has been a great mayor for Victoria.


    SO EASY TO FANTASIZE Victoria’s beginnings as an oil painting: the European discoverer’s noble stance on the rocky shore, powerful and hostile nature poised to retreat, toss in a cleric and some noble savages. Historical facts, though, seem to favour the image of Victoria as a filthy port, an entrepot from which miners outfitted themselves with supplies shipped here from England before crossing to their mainland treasure-metal claims near the Fraser River.

    History: cherished as romantic origin story and source of local custom, hated as constraint or prohibition in times of change.

    When I came here in 1970, the place was begging for release from Olde England, desperate for a new story and fresh mission. “A little bit of Olde England” had run out of juice (and legitimacy) and, as a story of this place, even in Oak Bay, had retreated to the defensive and protective pettiness of land use regulations.

    So what has happened in a half-century? What has this place become?

    I answer subjectively: in my five decades and some here, I have tried to make Victoria a perfect human place. I’ll explain below, but if such a line seems rich in hints of exit, no, this is not my last column and I’m not dying.

    I state, without a lick of self-applause, that I’ve been the city’s unelected mayor over those 50 years. In five decades I’ve created Open Space Arts/Cultural Centre; Monday Magazine and its affiliated media siblings; The First Urban Conference; The Gaining Ground Urban Sustainability Conferences; the Harris Green Charrette; have written endless monthly columns for FOCUS Magazine; produced ASH (Affordable Sustainable Homes), inspired by the very successful multi-suite conversion of large Rockland, Fairfield, Fernwood and other area homes into houseplexes; and have for years, with my wife, daily cleaned Beacon Hill Park of litter. Calling myself unelected mayor is not self-congratulation any more than calling an elephant “large” or a snake “sinuous” praises those creatures. 

    I have worked to give expression to and, overall, to quicken the opportunity, the potential, that sits at the heart of this singular, urbane and cultured—that is, profoundly privileged—place endowed, as it is, with the capacity to undertake—not as task or burden, but as joyous human project—an important social mission: specifically, to be the best human community in the world, and a laboratory from which social successes might be exported. 

    For what other purpose do you imagine communities, cities, clusters of people like this one (there aren’t many) are handed such gifts of natural and constructed beauty, location, setting, climate, cultural and economic advantage, gifts of rationality, social equilibrium and a rich, remembered past, if not to demonstrate to the rest of the desperate world that things are improvable? What other purpose did you believe such largesse serves?

    The way I see it, privilege just increases obligation expressed as citizenship: that is, full identification and engagement with one’s immediate social setting. Citizenship, not community. Giving, not getting. A touch of mission and self-sacrifice. Citizenship’s the investment; community’s the payoff.

    The urgencies associated with social mission seem to me to be even riper now, more looming, more clearly defined, locally and everywhere. Honestly, I worry that civilization has already passed the “undo” step on the way to its next blowup, not yet at World War III nuclear fisticuffs (though heading there), but a stage in which complexity and the reflex for conflict block any form of resolution beside catastrophe; while head-spinning cultural novelty and unimpeded technological change leave everyone feeling like they’re dancing on marbles and just visiting, responsible for nothing more than their own well-being. 

    Notes the New York Times’ Charles Blow in a recent column about President Biden and current geopolitics: “Biden often drifts back into idealism, seemingly longing for and lost in a long-gone politics in which bipartisanship was more common and an antidemocratic opposition unfathomable. But then reality reminds him that he is in a war, not just a disagreement. He is reminded—and must remind the country—that these are dire times.”

    And dire times now include a novel feature: vast environmental damage and the risk of ecological collapse, all of which delivers enormous functional, psychological and health stress and harm to society.

    In Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, historian-author Niall Ferguson writes, “Richard Evans’ meticulously detailed study of the Hamburg cholera epidemic of 1892 introduced me to the idea that the mortality caused by a deadly pathogen is partly a reflection of the social and political order it attacks.”

    However well disguised, this column’s intended destination from the outset has been outgoing Victoria mayor Lisa Helps. My cards: I believe Helps is the best mayor the city has had in this half-century.

    Best? Best at what? Best in what way? 

    I’ll answer immediately: best at designing and leading civic adventure; best at dragging the future’s looming truths into the present; best at removing the grounds for complacency; best at getting in the ring with uncertainty; best at steering with a moral compass; best at engineering wide-scale change; best at turning civic maundering into an action blueprint; best at reflexively rewarding any and everyone’s engagement in city ideas, issues and process.

    As you may imagine, Helps has lots of detractors, and had she chosen to run for a third term, might have proved un-re-electable. If so, the voting public could not pay her a greater compliment, or itself a greater insult.

    Look, social winds don’t bypass Victoria. Nobody bussed our homeless in from Vancouver or Chicago. Welcome to our One World: social problems don’t respect borders.

    Here’s my tally of global disruptions: that sociopath Trump’s transformation of US political reality and the world-changing threat he poses to working democracy, as right-wing values and policies surge, next door and globally. The inching advances of global warming, these days looking more like feet than inches. The revolutionary impact of online commerce on conventional retail (storefront) consumerism and service delivery (you can now receive psychotherapy online: “betterhelp.com—Talk to a therapist from the comfort of your own home”). The unknowable risk of ever-more-autonomous (and, loomingly, self-aware) AI. The imminent collapse of working class jobs as such work is captured by software and skilled machines. The increase of homelessness and the terrifying third world-ification of our downtowns. A growing realization that the entire liberal premise as the terms of social conduct may have run its course…These have not bypassed Victoria. We’re in the world.

    In such times, the idea that a good political leader is one who champions and promises the return of “normalcy” is preposterous. Apart from feeding delusion or momentarily reducing anxiety, there is no use or benefit in pretending that a roller coaster is an elevator. Under such circumstances, doesn’t it (grimly) comfort you to have had a mayor who gets all of this, who gets the world? Of course, none of this has impeded those luddites, the Trumpy Taxpayers of Greater Victoria, terrified by ambiguity and eager to leverage their terror as passage back to a lost world.

    My only disappointments associated with the Helps era? 

    First, that she was obliged by city council political math to abandon the so-called “missing middle” land use initiative (better described as “distributed density”). Its passage would have triggered a necessary social revolution and, in my view, would have been her greatest and most significant political accomplishment. I wish she had found a way to ram it through. (I gather there was significant public support for the initiative, but the City sowed doubt by doing a crappy job of explaining and selling this innovative urban development programme.)

    Second, that concerning all of the new downtown-area residential highrises, she seemed to have had a tin ear for architectural and public realm design. In my view, she let developers get away with murder, and I regret she didn’t, at the start of her first mayoral term, stand up at an Urban Development Industry luncheon and say to the crowd: “Okay, boys and girls, you want to do twenty, twenty-five, thirty storeys around downtown? Then you give the city beautiful, warm, welcoming buildings, architectural masterpieces, not soulless, standard-issue shit-boxes; and show up with detailed plans for heart-stopping beautification of the public realm outside your buildings. Have we got a deal?”

    Putting these two matters aside, Helps, I argue, has shown the political intelligence and fluidity, the values. the courage, and an appetite for the future that present conditions require. Now, it’s civic election time and the calendar pages are shrieking “Next!”

    Who’s next? What’s next? We’ll see. We’ll see.

    Beside the biographical notes in his column above, Gene is currently writing Futurecide˛ a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, presenting and editing the website Shit Sandwich: the Best of the Bad News, and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future, a Victoria-based host for new answers to old questions.


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    Mr. Miller delights in recounting a fairytale about his vital role, (as Victoria’s “unelected mayor” for the past five decades), transforming a colonial island outpost once populated by “noble savages” into a world-class “Dreamland”…with rainbows and unlimited sugar plums for those with deep pockets.

    Fascinated with ‘red, white and blue’ patriarchal symbols like refurbished castles with Union Jacks flying to lure gawking tourists, he also waves his ‘Father Knows Best’ stars and stripes banner while sharing his Manifest Destiny ethos—“I have tried to make Victoria a perfect human place.”

    Likely his delusions of grandeur are fueled by a belief in the magic of Disney and “trickle-down economics”, including how to make money building ‘gentle density’ homes in Fairfield,  and “missing middle” million-dollar townhouses throughout the city, (that won’t squeeze out any trees in the process.)

    His adulation of Lisa Helps, and his financial contribution to her mayoralty campaigns, together with help from the booming real estate and development industry, may account for his view that “Helps is the best mayor the city has had in this half-century.”

    In a world that worships growth and greed at any cost, it’s easy to ignore its victims. Destitute, defenseless individuals who live in tents—on streets or in parks. Displaced tenants: couch-surfing, living in vans, face soaring renovictions and demolition of their homes in gentrifying neighborhoods made more ‘vibrant’, ‘livable’ and ‘sustainable’—but not for those without means .

    Victoria has survived one “gilded” era in the early 20th century – based on a resource boom that also left the scars of the Great Depression with its grinding poverty and deprivation. Today’s corporate rentiers and land speculators descend again on the city to capitalize on the promised prosperity of a new gilded era.

    A tale of two cities, this gated paradise welcomes those with an annual household income of $200,000 needed to buy a single family home, townhouse, or condo. A tiny slice is left for those who want a one-bedroom rental, but you’ll need a minimum annual household income of $50,000.

    Building more unaffordable homes won’t solve our local or global housing crisis.

    Want to live in the “best of all possible worlds”? Love fairytales?

    Victoria’s new Mayor and Council invite you to be ‘Queen-for-a-Day’ (ride in a horse-drawn carriage).

    Or be Davey Crocket, ‘King of the Wild Frontier’, (ride a hobbyhorse into the sunset with Gene Miller.)

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    Chin up, Gene.  

    This lady came pushing past me in a big hurry as I stood on the escalator in the Bay downtown the other day.  Ducked right down to scoot under my arm (and hand) in a pretty acrobatic bolt for a middle aged overweight heifer on a moving escalator.  I am not small, and her path was not clear, but she neatly avoided contact.  

    I was moved by her determination.  But not impressed. 

    She stopped at the top to read the store directory, clearly meticulous in her research, as well. 

    I walked up beside her, and calmly said: "You know ... no one really gives a shit if you're late." 

    It was clearly the truth in her case. 

    As you and I both know, the truth does hurt from time to time. 

    So suck it up buttercup.  There is much to be done.  And if you're a little late, so what.

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    Wow, I just try to have some fun, and throw a small parade for myself (I’m normally very self-effacing), and look what I earn: a temper tantrum from Victoria Adams! Oh, by the way, Victoria, can I help you carry all your protest placards? They make quite a stack.  

    Let’s see….

    If I reference the US or quote from the New York Times (America’s last liberal journalistic hope), I’m Big Daddy or Davey Crocket.

    If I reference the so-called “missing middle” housing initiative, or suggest I’m a fan of distributed density I’m at best aligned with evil developers or at worst, am one. (If I can borrow just a corner of one of your protest placards, I’ll jot down the realities of housing math for you.)

    If I praise about-to-be-ex-Victoria mayor Lisa Helps and call her the best mayor I’ve seen in a half-century, that triggers your response that she’s failed to completely solve intractable social problems.

    Maybe you just prefer a less hyperbolic style of journalistic commentary—something more finger wag-y and politically correct, something that leaves no question in the reader’s mind that the writer is on the side of the scolds. That’s Victoria, isn’t it? Not you Victoria, of course, but the city Victoria.

    Helps, on the other hand, had political, ideological ends. Her entire methodology was directed at outcomes; that is, at making a difference. For God’s sake, just study the Grumpy Brontosaurs response to the sheer scale of her social vision: “Stick to your knitting.” “Fill the potholes.” That repudiation of social complexity: how marvelously conservative, how prudent, how yesteryear. The petty annoyance at having to accommodate bike lanes (which really means having to accommodate the future). The furore over the missing middle housing initiative which essentially rubbed Fairfield’s fur the wrong way. The social tragedy of the homeless camping on our streets and in our parks—why didn’t Helps solve that? How hard could it be? Even though Helps, returning from a BC mayors task force, reported that every city in BC (and Canada, and the US) is facing the same reality.

    Of course I tried, over fifty years, to make this a perfect human place (you overlook my accomplishments in your little rant). What else are we put on this Earth for? I failed, or succeeded in only the tiniest of ways. It turns out that Victoria, if no worse than any other place, is no better. But I saw glimmers of hope, of possibility, in Lisa Helps (and, by extension, in the city that would choose her as its mayor). Maybe that was genuine, maybe it was just civic pretense—the better-seeming culture of the place and Victoria’s art form; but, ultimately, just like every other place. As I’ve noted elsewhere, when the going gets tough, well-intentioned Victoria holds a workshop.

    Anyway, call me 250-514-2525 and we’ll go for coffee (my treat) and solve the world’s problems together. A coffee date should do it.

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    well written and enjoyable to read, despite the bizarro logic and getting everything almost exactly bass-ackwards. i've only been around twenty-five years or so, but in that time victoria has turned from paradise to purgatory, and the change coincided with the arrival of helps. her basic error — and yours — is mistaking what she wants to believe for reality. reality is out there, and it always wins in the end.

    michel murray

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