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  • Sensing loss—in Beacon Hill Park and Downtown


    Gene Miller
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    The fight for ecological limits is really the fight for cultural maturity; and that fight is never won for long.

     

    IT’S A CLOUDY THURSDAY, JUNE 3rd, and gusty in Beacon Hill Park. The onshore winds are having their way with the place; paper litter takes off on eccentric sailing voyages, and empty beverage cups invite you to chase them along the paved park drive. The peacocks are already in full strut at dawn, squirrels busy doing squirrel work, noisy crows making life miserable for the prehistorically large herons that nest in high branches near the bandshell.

    The number of tents is down to a dozen or so, one’s and two’s still boldly pegged on various lawns, a few cleverly hidden in the park’s forested sections. All of these will soon be gone if the City sticks to its intention to rid the park of daytime and overnight residents.

    The stated objective is to give the park two years to regenerate and free itself of the physical “scars” of intensive camping. What remains unknown is whether two years is enough to wipe the memory of the social occupation of the park from the public’s mind. The park, after all, is not just landscape, but mood, as well.

    The camping has altered the public’s perception of Beacon Hill Park. It’s not the same place it was; and now, if no longer a landscape filled with threat, still not safe, either; a psychologically contested ground, maybe; and whether the previous image and character of the park regenerates in park users’ minds, or long-term grooves are left upon the public memory, making users just a bit tentative—walk here, don’t go there—is hard to know at the moment.

     

    1532083763_TentsinBeaconhillPark2020.thumb.jpg.3641977884650ee59b417c96885298b4.jpg

    Tents on Beacon Hill Park playing field in 2020

     

    There is extensive professional and popular literature about loss and (sometimes impossible) recovery from loss. Still, loss in this, rather than the profit-and-loss sense of the word, is an under-considered subject. There’s diminution, but also disruption and vacuum, something taken away, a hole where one didn’t exist. “Sorry about your loss,” we say from our hearts, if parents lose a child, or a spouse a partner, or a family home taken by fire. The discovery of the skeletal remains of 215 First Nations children in Kamloops defines loss. The 80-year-ago extirpation by the Nazis of European gypsies, Jews and others defines loss. Such loss represents something diminished and not restored, taken away and not returned.

    When a person’s loss is neither fatuous nor self-absorbed, we don’t say, “Oh, get over it.” We resonate and understand they may not get over it and we place them under no moral or emotional obligation to do so.

    In the case of the park, what was damaged was a social assumption about behavioural boundaries, freedom of use, safety; an assumption that not one square inch of the park required you to think twice about, or bring the skills of caution to, your footsteps.

    How did you receive those messages of safety? Atmospherically. Through your skin: itself a cognitive organ. Writes Lydia Millet in her extraordinary story, Thylacine: “Skin, he thought, was the organ that met the world. Everywhere on you, soft and porous and bristling with nerves. Easy to set afire.”

    By casual visual inspection, the park has returned nearly to its previous state. The tents are gone, more or less. The extraordinary quantity and spread of litter is gone. The sense of loss, though, has diminished, not vanished. 

    He stands on a mowed area shouldering Heywood/Park Boulevard and screams: “FUCK YOU!” And a moment later: “FUCK!” And a moment later: “FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKIN’ CUNT!” No filter, nothing that says: “You don’t behave like that here.” He kneels, picks up a stone at the curb and heaves it at some cars parked beside the cricket field. Do I intervene, say something? What if he has bad brains? What if he has a knife?

    Look on the bright side: if all his circuitry melts, this isn’t the US and he’s not packing. As you’ve likely noted, the US these days is a powder-keg—and a reminder that social conditions everywhere are tectonic and that people can be moody, crazy, driven and dangerous.

    Yes, some of this is COVID-induced, or -intensified. Some of everything is, right now. Most of us have never had this experience, an almost wartime loss of normalcy, the disconcerting loss of facial reading and recognition. We’re all masked men and women, banditos, now, in this unusual state of proscription, prohibition and lockdown accompanied, contradictorily, by a comfortless holiday from routine. It’s weird, spooky, a dry run for End Times. No wonder alien sightings are up.

     

    VICTORIA, RECENTLY EAGER TO ACHIEVE, to accomplish something, to declare itself a fully-invested stakeholder in the 21st century, has severed its narrative, parted with its memory, abandoned its story, and is now busy transforming Downtown. Talk about alien sightings: a bad crop of 15-25-storey towers springing from holes in the ground. Character and singularity gone, the place feels more like every other city and ever-more-divorced from the civic identity that gave resident and visitor alike some redemption from the world’s despair. Sorry to deliver such a cold thesis but, as someone writes in a letter to the Times-Colonist, Victoria is being transformed into a “mini Toronto,” adding: “Victoria is getting uglier by the day.”

    How modern of us.

    This new class of towers Downtown is stealing something from us and reinforcing a deep set of worries. I borrow an idea from Greg Jackson’s Prayer for a Just War, that we are suffering an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation in North America, and that our urban design guidelines, zoning code and architectural requirements need more than anything to address despair. What else did you imagine Langford and Colwood as existential human acts were clumsily (and unsuccessfully) attempting to address? Why else do you imagine your heart breaks here in Victoria when you travel along a street of beautiful traditional homes or filigreed commercial frontages? Did you think it was to shop with the Government Street crap merchants that a zillion admiring visitors walked our streets?

    This city breaks hearts because it still, if diminishingly, holds promise in a world falling apart. It offers the gift of memory, connection, social compass.

    And what does the City do? It permits, if not outright encourages, developers and architects to create ice-cold buildings that steal the remaining warmth and emotional messaging, the embrace and maternal protection from the city and reinforce the same grounds for urban isolation perfected in a hundred other places.

    A worldwide mobilization will (presumably) eliminate the global pandemic health threat in another year, three years overall. But how difficult it seems to be to confront and counter the somewhat more ambiguous social health threats, matters more susceptible to opinion than verdict or vaccine. It is a tragedy that such threats present in the abstract, and not as specific acts or conditions with measurable consequences. But some trends and social threats—loss, pain and harm—won’t quantify, lack quantifiable features. I’d love, in Victoria’s behalf, to make something clever of the fact that “harm” is made invisible by “charm,” but I lack the wit.

    We seem to be caught in a time that feels heavy with metaphor. We, all of us, have been busy making our doom, manufacturing an ecological crisis; and to borrow a remark I’ve made before, catastrophe is ecological. It seeps into everything. That is, catastrophe is not just consequences, but purpose, too, not just what happens, but also what’s intended.

     

    1600px-Verschuier-fire.thumb.jpg.b307a59e8211265c349dec8930e06488.jpg

    The Great Fire of London, Lieve Verschuier (1627–1686)

     

    Victoria stood—residually, stands—athwart catastrophe. Catastrophe, at least in its gathering stages, as with global warming, is a caution designed to signal some pending greater damage or intolerable imbalance, and to stimulate conditions that make further damage more difficult or impossible. That is, catastrophe, within limits, buys time…until it can’t. 

    Victoria said, and still in places says to all who would listen: “No, no, no, don’t go that way! Don’t do that, do this!” (Rachel Carson, remember, wrote Silent Spring in 1962.) 

    Why Victoria’s fit of civic amnesia, when Europe’s best cities with their ancient roots show that it’s possible to achieve greater density without jettisoning history or losing identity? A fair question.

    It’s in the setting of history that you can begin to divine if not purpose or plan, at least pattern. And from its ability and willingness to embrace history, to be history, Victoria made and still, fadingly, makes one dizzy with excitement and hope for social possibility. This is a place where you are surrounded by dream, both human-made and natural, and where you can exhale, let the poison go…if right now through a mask.

    After all, don’t you carry a feeling, flickering just at the edge of intuition, that some epochal page is turning? Our changing relationship to nature; all the environmental damage; socially, culturally, the sense that we have hit the limits of freedom, despite the nagging hunger for more freedom—that is, altogether, some new and possibly concluding human chapter. The fight for ecological limits is really the fight for cultural maturity; and that fight is never won for long.

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

    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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    Thank you for this wonderful and very poignant article. I thought you articulated the feeling of loss very well. Any argument against the use of the park for homeless campers, usually ends up with the person who doesn't want the campers in the park, being labelled an unfeeling sociopath who doesn't care about the plight of the homeless. I appreciated that you spoke on behalf of the park itself as an entity that is ingrained in so many people's memories. As Victoria gets more and more densified with towers of luxury condos, there is even more need for spaces where we can be near nature. I am very much in favour of housing for the homeless but a park is not meant to be that place.

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    I fully agree with the content and sentiments of this article - it's just too bad people like the author (known Victorians, with some sense of Victoria's past and true potential) don't run for Mayor and council and oust the current gang of destructive, ideologues before there is nothing left of the old and charming Victoria that attracted people to come here for over a century...

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    As the pandemic lifts I overwhelming do not feel excitement to get back to socializing in Victoria. A well planned city should provide a space where people can go to enjoy there evening and have fun.

    I hope the next few years we provide more focus and energy on the arts and nature and what makes life wonderful.

    Construction is a big cause of climate change too. Maybe we should slow down

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    What is the agenda here? Why so negative? Is it a Boomer thing? One man's loss can be another man's gain.

    Victoria must evolve out of its classist, rigid, oppressive past. Even the name is a constant reminder of loss. Don't you think the original inhabitants might have suffered loss when Beacon Hill park was created? After all, it was their garden of camas fields and seaside habitation before colonists stole it, imposing their inappropriate UK version of an ideal landscape.

    Evolution, if done right, doesn't imply a loss of "old and charming". Development doesn't have to mean loss of scale. It takes input and direct action from the community to ensure the city evolves for the better. If one must, look at the UK for guidance. London has evolved for millennia, and no one seems to be mourning the loss of Roman walls or Medieval firetraps. London, though as urban as a city can get, is full of character yet, the old and charming retained in many places. One can see how regulation and organizations like The National Trust guide development, allowing evolution while retaining the best of the past. Of course, it's not without fault. In comparison, North America is still mostly the wild west in terms of lack of regulation or oversight. Most buildings don't last even a century here.

    I enjoyed some things when living in Victoria, yet was happy to leave. Victoria is a creepy place. Outside of the core, there's a sprawl of single family homes but little activity. It's rare to see people around their own homes or to hear the sound of children. When the streets roll up at 5 p.m. or so downtown, one can walk for miles without seeing any lights in houses or anyone on the sidewalks, a perfect setting for The Walking Dead. Does it really matter if someone's cursing loudly and madly near the park if no one is around to hear?

    People move to Victoria to retire, many to give up on life, and it shows. The city is in one of the most ideal climates in Canada, and should be alive with activity. A sprawl of single family homes has harmed local nature irreparably already, and re-development could help revitalize that loss, densifying here, removing there. Beacon Hill park can be expanded with the removal of outdated, squat, firetrap apartment buildings. The downtown core can be an intriguing mix of traditional and cutting-edge modern, with people and vibrant street-life and gardens prioritized over traffic. The city can be reimagined if people participate instead of letting profiteers have their way. Homelessness and mental illness are just symptoms of a city in decay, where self-interest trumps community goals.

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    Guest RemembertheGardenCity

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    Dear "Guest EmpressMe",

    Your perspective of Victoria as a "creepy place" and "walking dead" and "rare to see people around their own homes or near the sound of children" is an interesting one.

    I lived in a townhome complex for 7 years (the density experience people are shouting for) and while everyone mostly kept to themselves the sidewalks were used by residents, neighbors in the community, and tourists.  The density and strata combo wore out their welcome so we went to market.

    We housed up to single family home with a large garden footprint and are outside "around our own home" daily and hear the sound of the children next door daily.  The birds, owls, squirrels, raccoons, deer and pollinators don't seem to have an issue with the green surroundings of my neighborhood. The street is busy with neighbors in the community, tourists, and residents from other areas of Victoria because there are parks and other public spaces for all to enjoy.

    I'm not sure what neighborhood you are speaking about but people do not come here "to give up".  The climate allows us to explore a variety of outside spaces year round within the CRD and beyond.  For those that are less physically able to get around, the beautiful spots to drive to and enjoy the views offer great comfort.

    My opinion is that homelessness and mental health conditions are not "signs of a city in decay", but rather symptoms of a painful past, such as unprocessed trauma.

    Referring to the author as a "boomer" was predictable.  If the author was a female the retort would have been "Karen".   Perhaps one day different viewpoints will be expressed without disparaging others.

    As a GenX I support the contents of this article.

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    What a preposterous article. How dare you compare the "scars" of the homeless camps in beacon hill to the 215 child victims of Kamloops' residential school, and then, as if that wasn't ridiculous enough, to the nazi genocide?! No retort of mine is worthy enough to encompass this ignorant attitude.

    Your attitude is archetypal of Victoria - a deeply colonial installment that pretends it cares. And this article fits right in there with all the self-entitled mellifluous prose, full of obviously privileged sentiment. You need to do better.

    Yes, a lot of us do have a feeling of the changing era occurring right now. So we're out working hard to ensure this transition will be into a better world -- fighting for social/cultural equity, standing up against injustice, and promoting environmental preservation. How does this article contribute to the "catastrophy" you see emerging? It only highlights the darkness, further promoting division and isolation amongst society. In an arrogant tone, even. Without offering any solution. Brutal.

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    On 2021-06-23 at 11:48 PM, Guest Uddhi said:

    How dare you compare the "scars" of the homeless camps in beacon hill to the 215 child victims of Kamloops' residential school, and then, as if that wasn't ridiculous enough, to the nazi genocide?!

    I don't read Miller as "comparing" his sense of loss about what happened to his park to what happened in Indian residential schools or in mid-20th century Europe.

    He is saying that people may experience a collective sense of loss when some kind of big change happens. He rightly puts the loss of First Nations children taken from their homes, family and culture and then deprived of their lives through abuse, starvation or neglect at the upper end of the scale of the kind of event that creates a collective sense of loss. The same with the loss of millions during the Holocaust; these events "define" what loss means, as Miller points out.

    I would add this thought about why he is experiencing a sense of loss over the park, profound enough that he's willing to spill his intellectual guts in public: He, like you and I and all of us, have just gone through a global pandemic. We have all lost something; especially some of our confidence and sense of security about our lives and the future. Miller might be intertwining that sense of loss with what happened in Beacon Hill Park, which was directly a consequence of the pandemic.

    No, I am not comparing what we may have lost as a result of the pandemic to the horrors of the Holocaust or to the violent colonization of North America. I agree with Miller that we are experiencing a collective sense of loss right now. Maybe you could let us grieve without the over-the-top sensitivity?

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    On 2021-06-23 at 11:48 PM, Guest Uddhi said:

    What a preposterous article. How dare you compare the "scars" of the homeless camps in beacon hill to the 215 child victims of Kamloops' residential school, and then, as if that wasn't ridiculous enough, to the nazi genocide?! No retort of mine is worthy enough to encompass this ignorant attitude.

    Hi Uddhi,

    I agree with so much of what you write. The prose is mellifluous and privileged; the comparison between the homeless impact on Beacon Hill Park and the First Nations child deaths or Nazi genocide is, on its surface, preposterous; the column reeks of ‘colonial’ sensibility.

    But you over-credit and mis-read the purpose, or purposes, of the column. I’m not trying to solve the world’s problems here. I’m not calling people to the fight. I’m simply projecting melancholy over a slight but noticeable increase in the quality of social risk here. It’s a scary world; social safety is not such a trivial condition, but one to be treasured.

    My father, born in America, changed his name from Pfau to Miller. When I was young and asked why all of our wider family socializing was on my mom’s side (she had four sisters, and everyone lived in New York), he explained to me that the majority of his family, all Jews (like me), had remained in Germany and been caught. I cite the First Nations deaths and the Holocaust not to compare them to a park mess, but simply to illustrate my belief that loss is ruinous, loss diminishes.

    Victoria’s physical beauty and safety aren’t only colonial. They are also social facts. Also, they exist alongside a tremendous amount of social activism in this city and I ask: doesn’t social activism exist, in part, to more widely spread the gifts of social safety and beauty?

    I’d like to know what you’re up to and would be pleased to have good conversation with you; if you wish, get in touch (gene@newlandmarks.com) …so we can hook for coffee, or a walk in the park.

    Gene Miller

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    Gene,

    Do we visit the same Beacon Hill Park??

    You say it could be  possibly two years to recover? From the day the last tent left it took about TWO weeks until the park looked better than it did before the campers. Its amazing how quickly it was remediated.

    No yellow tape, no garbage, no droplets of dope.

    I am glad we didn't waste money on digging down two feet as was done after the courthouse tent city.

    There has never been a meth lab in a Victoria Tent City. Some unknown people spread this silly rumour.

    Any Victorians or tourists who feel BHP is damaged ( physically, spiritually or energetically), should turn off the TV news and stop reading articles like this one and go for a walk, or a picnic in the Park.

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    Mr. Miller’s reference to the Nazi genocides and Canadian residential school travesties has relevance. Both of those disasters began when citizens allowed the thin edge of chaos’ wedge to be driven deep into the heart of those societies. Corrective action, as Miller suggests, taken early in any crisis or malfeasance remains our best defence against the growth of such travesties. 

    Regarding colonization: the majority of us residing in Victoria are, for better or worse, descendants of a colonial culture. Our current perspective on past failings makes it even more pressing for each of us find ways to “do better”, particularly in light of recent revelations.

    Hats off to our cultural gathering places, Focus Magazine among them, for providing forums where each of us can identify and strengthen new ways we can do better. 

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    I certainly love the way Mr Miller stirs the pot of our collective sensitivities. Such is the stuff of good journalism. Bravo Focus magazine.

    Like Gene, I have been in Victoria more than 40 years after seeking respite from the social and industrial 'ugliness' of a different city. I feel the squeeze of the shrinking middle class and the misfortunes of those who have completely fallen through the social safety net (whatever that is). Everything changes and while I have no right to a private garden city oasis, it did feel very much like that here for a very long time... so there is loss of course. What can be done to accommodate the wealthy and not-so-wealthy Canadians and Internationals who (naturally) want to be here with us? In short, leadership with integrity and the highest level of city planning . I agree with Gene that we fell down harshly on the planning account. The citizenry that voted for and represented leadership groups over the years are all complicit. So here we are.

    There is loss and damage and social inequity. What to do? Well it's never too late for quality leadership on many fronts. What could that deliver to a city and its culture? I like to reference Rome where the best thing about the Vatican is that it was deemed early on that no building could be taller that St. Peters Cathedral. The result is 3 million people living together without those cold square towers full of micro apartments. Rome remains one of the most visited and charming cities on Earth. In Victoria we still have a chance. The park, the harbor, the green spaces and plazas provide the great bones. The skeleton no longer in the closet however and staring us in the face is the social inequity debacle. Unfortunately or not, wealthy Victorians hold the keys to the kingdom that could be. It has to be private money held and managed in a sustainable trust to provide the disadvantaged what they need, period. No easy task, but the money is there if there is the leadership and willingness. Tax dollars alone are severely restricted by infrastructure needs. As Gene has mentioned before, developers must be taxed to supply the necessary sustenance of beauty mixed with at least a modicum of affordability. It could happen. What would allow leaders to step up?

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    On 2021-06-23 at 8:40 AM, Guest EmpressMe said:

    What is the agenda here? Why so negative? Is it a Boomer thing? One man's loss can be another man's gain.

    Victoria must evolve out of its classist, rigid, oppressive past. Even the name is a constant reminder of loss. Don't you think the original inhabitants might have suffered loss when Beacon Hill park was created? After all, it was their garden of camas fields and seaside habitation before colonists stole it, imposing their inappropriate UK version of an ideal landscape.

    Evolution, if done right, doesn't imply a loss of "old and charming". Development doesn't have to mean loss of scale. It takes input and direct action from the community to ensure the city evolves for the better. If one must, look at the UK for guidance. London has evolved for millennia, and no one seems to be mourning the loss of Roman walls or Medieval firetraps. London, though as urban as a city can get, is full of character yet, the old and charming retained in many places. One can see how regulation and organizations like The National Trust guide development, allowing evolution while retaining the best of the past. Of course, it's not without fault. In comparison, North America is still mostly the wild west in terms of lack of regulation or oversight. Most buildings don't last even a century here.

    I enjoyed some things when living in Victoria, yet was happy to leave. Victoria is a creepy place. Outside of the core, there's a sprawl of single family homes but little activity. It's rare to see people around their own homes or to hear the sound of children. When the streets roll up at 5 p.m. or so downtown, one can walk for miles without seeing any lights in houses or anyone on the sidewalks, a perfect setting for The Walking Dead. Does it really matter if someone's cursing loudly and madly near the park if no one is around to hear?

    People move to Victoria to retire, many to give up on life, and it shows. The city is in one of the most ideal climates in Canada, and should be alive with activity. A sprawl of single family homes has harmed local nature irreparably already, and re-development could help revitalize that loss, densifying here, removing there. Beacon Hill park can be expanded with the removal of outdated, squat, firetrap apartment buildings. The downtown core can be an intriguing mix of traditional and cutting-edge modern, with people and vibrant street-life and gardens prioritized over traffic. The city can be reimagined if people participate instead of letting profiteers have their way. Homelessness and mental illness are just symptoms of a city in decay, where self-interest trumps community goals.

    The last two sentences in this comment should be taken to heart!

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