Why don’t we still make communities and cities that give us a feeling of identity and heart’s ease?
“BALANCE IN ALL THINGS” we say, wisely. The embrace of such wisdom makes us hopeful, and even near-certain, like well-behaved children, that God, always conning for signs of decency and right thought, is taking note, keeping score.
And while we’re here, compare the expressive calm of the Latin equilibrium with buh-heavy balance—buh, as in but, bother, bellow, the double-b bomb and, in spite of beauty and bliss, sounding less like balance itself and more like forces grimly tethered and long sick of each other.
An early witness to equilibrium, I remember my dad would poise a yellow pencil on the edge of a sheet of shirt cardboard to amuse and impress me when I was a kid. It was a wondrous, jaw-dropping accomplishment, magic, and I must have understood, as we all understand, instinctively, the taming of great forces embodied in such a performance (especially by dads).
We call something a high point because surrounding places have agreed, however self-sacrificingly and resignedly, to cooperate, to be, well, lower. Ask yourself: ever heard any trumpeted acknowledgment of Douglas Valley or Tolmie Valley? Me neither.
We invest hope in high points; it’s one of humanity’s reflexes. Some human counting or scoring instinct is connected to apex positions, ideas, accomplishments, status. Life’s chess: protect the king. Greater clarity of vision “up there.” Better meal- or threat-spotting. Power. Proximity to heaven. Accomplishment and self-delivery. “Take me to the top,” we say, because even if it’s lonely at the top, it’s still worth it.
There is a Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, based in Chicago, whose cleverly stated mission is: “Advancing Sustainable Vertical Urbanism.” To the best of my knowledge, there is no Council on Short Buildings: “Advancing, Uh, Like, You Know, Urban Lowness.”
Of course, the pandemic, a friend of all heights, has made something of a mockery of cities altogether and, specifically, their at least temporarily shrunken work, business or culture-centric downtowns. Many commercial streets are gap (and even Gap)-toothed with noticeable and apparently irreversible retail/service business closures.
Meanwhile, online culture—shopping, business, personal and professional communication, learning, training—is the new order of the day. And all of that triggering a range of new human/AI relationships like something out of science fiction. Writing about James Bridle’s New Dark Age—Technology and the End of the Future, Will Self comments in a 2018 Guardian piece: “At the core of our thinking about new technology there lies, Bridle suggests, a dangerous fallacy: we both model our own minds on our understanding of computers, and believe they can solve all of our problems—our simple-minded acceptance of technology as a value-neutral tool, one to be freely employed for our own betterment. He argues that in failing to adequately understand these emergent technologies, we are in fact opening ourselves to a new dark age.”
Oh, well. Tomorrow’s problem.
As we take these dangerous, headlong steps deeper into the void, it’s no surprise that habit and custom—memory, really, exerting a tug not backwards, but centrewards—show strong social influence; not foolish cultural nostalgia, but a means, however tenuous, to let us stand again on the shores of comfort.
And who can consider such ideas without wondering if this isn’t exactly why The Creator made this remarkable city, Victoria.
So there it sits, an apex in spirit if not altitude, at the corner of Fullerton and Raynor, in Vic West: the Salvation Army’s High Point Church—the opposite of overreach, an unpretentious, more than century-old house of worship originally named Wesley Methodist Church (long surplus, presumably, to a waning population of Methodical Wesleys), with a nice neighbourhood vibe and a lovely coffee-and-cream skin. Its structurally problematic steeple, I learn, was removed 50 years ago, and now it presents itself as a masterpiece of rooted modesty, and shares the appealing, down-to-earth humanity of the surrounding traditional Vic West neighbourhood.
High Point Community Church in Victoria West
This Vic West locale is an eye-opener, and if you’ve never visited or only zipped through, or ventured no deeper than the Fry’s Bakery salted pretzel emporium on Craigflower, please treat yourself to a more studied tour. Around the church is a maze of beckoning residential streets and alley-like dead ends—Walker, Evans, McCaskill, Griffiths, Pine, Powderly—streets still fronted with a generous number of dignified homes—less the is than the was of Victoria: a-trudging-or-trolleying-home-to-dinner-after-a-day’s-work-downtown kind of neighbourhood. It ain’t Fairfield (mind, Fairfield ain’t Fairfield any more), but it has a settled, honest, ecologically scaled beauty all its own.
And such honest beauty comes off the High Point Community Church in waves. Online, you can find this from the Salvation Army about the High Point Church:
Ever wonder what the little red box in front of our Church is for? This is our “Blessing Box” & we hope that this little box can be used to bless many in our community. Here’s how it works:
1) Leave what you can: Do you have extra food items? Do you have a little spare change that you can use to buy some canned goods or hygiene items? Bring these items and place them in the box. (Non-Perishable food & hygiene items only please.)
2) Take what you need: Do you see something in the box that you could use? It’s yours! Take it home and be blessed. Simple as that.”
High Point Church’s Blessing Box
Some locales are imbued with history, rich in suggestion and memory. They feel generational, evocative, story-esque, allowing you to think: “right, I/we came from this,” or “this was us.” And suddenly, briefly, the compass stops spinning madly and relaxes and points. Comfort is restored and you’re anchored, aligned, not adrift or lost. You wonder, “Why don’t we still make communities and cities like this—places that give me this feeling of…legibility and heart’s ease?”
What an excellent question! We would, if we could, I suppose.
It’s the intention of this monthly column (I’m a one-theme plodder) to capture and reveal the social messaging in our buildings and our built physical settings. After all, every one of them communicates as to materiality, land use and architecture—purpose, really—via a highly expressive emotional language. The central question within this rangy subject is: why do so many of the choices associated with contemporary city-building leave us feeling so trapped in abstraction and lost as to identity and purpose—the who we are and what we’re here for stuff. And also this hopeful speculation: is it possible to conceive a set of land use ideas and an architectural design vocabulary that, without slavish and dishonest theft from the past, can convey in new ways the social comforts we all wish for?
When I was a kid, I imagined that church steeples were rockets aimed at paradise and that when God yelled “Now,” steeples and the churches below them, pews filled with the strapped-in faithful, would take off to some heavenly Club Med beyond the clouds. Now, I speculate that steeples are aspirational, pointy to communicate the limits of human dominion, and to remind us that nothing lasts forever.
A last observation about high points and matters of hierarchy: for long years, Victoria understood and accepted—well, had little grounds to fight—its own subordination to Vancouver, that universally envied Oz across the water. Vancouver got the live Pavarotti concert; Victoria got the CD. Vancouver got the cool, urban highrises filled with young, gallery-hopping sophisticates who knew how to order in Japanese restaurants; Victoria got four-storey shit-boxes filled with sunsetting retirees in cardigans, twitchily counting their pension cash and gumming their bran flakes right out of the box. Vancouver was visibly crafting the future; pokey Victoria sat slumped on the side-rail watching life pass by. Victoria’s only function was to house bureaucrats and project some changeless Dickensian simulacrum in the aftermath of Empire.
And now, as the city embraces sustainable vertical urbanism, as we create numerous new downtown high points, is Victoria intending to me-too Vancouver, 30 years late? “Derivative,” let’s remember, is never a cultural compliment.
How’s about let’s meet soon for more discussion at the little red box in front of the High Point Church. Bring some canned tuna and we’ll arm-wrestle this subject to a resolution.
I promise: I’ll leave the pencil and shirt cardboard at home.
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.