If our city becomes one more placeless place on the planet, well, that's how democracies die.
ON A RECENT SATURDAY AFTERNOON, I was driving north on Douglas near the Burnside turnoff. A red light gave me time to sip my senior’s two-and-two and take in the physical setting and recognize…absolutely nothing! The shapes, the business names and signage, the purposes…abruptly, none of it made sense beyond geometry and abstraction...visual noise. Nothing offered context, even a hint of connection. I wasn’t in Victoria, where I’ve lived for a half-century; I was anywhere or, more accurately, no ‘where’—a story-less, history-less collection of unfamiliar boxes, roads, street junk.
Later, as I drove through Downtown on the way home, I had only a slightly reduced version of the same sensation: proliferating characterless residential high-rises and towers-in-progress; fast food, street-front convenience stores and dollarama’s; restless, roiling clusters of the street population, shopping cart and sleeping bag-festooned entry alcoves, bicycle-cruising trouble-oids; plenty of vacant storefronts for lease, and conventional service/retail in visual and, I assume, actual economic retreat. Also, lots of gating.
If there was purpose, promise, social aspiration, continuity, identity, community, a living story Downtown, it was lost to me. Take story away from Victoria, fracture its narrative, and big surprise, you have one more placeless place on the planet.
Sorry, what? Victoria’s transitioning, and this is just a new chapter? Horseshit. Victoria’s going, going, gone.
Okay, I acknowledge (hopefully temporary) change overkill is taking place now: a building boom physically transforming (and uglifying, and dehumanizing) Downtown, plus pandemic-imposed protocols that make everything surreal; but still, a powerful demonstration that place identity—“This is my home”—is fragile and frangible.
Think of spy movies and tv shows: when you want information or a confession, you disorient your opponent. You beat the crap out of him, you use psychotropic logic-looseners, you yell and threaten, you intensify risk, you isolate and disconnect, you reduce him to a state of frightened dislocation in which he doesn’t know up from down and, unmoored, will offer anything to repair normalcy, convention, proportion, connection…context.
This explains (but doesn’t excuse) the so-called NIMBY response, makes change-anxiety understandable, and it reminds us that place-constancy is an essential feature of social definition.
I had, earlier, been looking at online pictures of Barcelona, Spain. Here is an aerial perspective image that reveals an extraordinary urban geometry of tightly woven blocks, the buildings fairly uniform in height, like urban dough yeasted to five, six or a few more storeys. Barcelona, remember, is a centuries-old stewpot of European, Mediterranean and North African cultures and influences.
And here are images that suggest how the above looks and operates at street level:
“Most children are architects,” notes Darran Anderson in his extraordinary Imaginary Cities. “And destroyers,” he might have added. As children with blocks and play objects that come to hand, we make (and, minutes later, ruin) whole cities on the carpet.
As societies, we recapitulate such tendencies. We attempt to regulate social behaviour to some standard; but there are times—inarguably, this is one of them—when the conditions required for social management break down or wear out, and habits of creativity and constructiveness are overwhelmed by reactive counter-values and behaviour.
For example, the impacts and effects of climate change and the degradation of nature are not merely ‘natural’ and physical—happening ‘out there’—but also emotional, personal, internalized and felt by all of us as looming existential threat. Predictably, this triggers an ecological response, but also widespread counter-response: angry, destructive non-believer denial from contrarians and ideological repudiators. Yes, that’s a social reflex throughout history, but the stakes are terminally higher now. The media packages and objectifies it as politics, or policy, or practice, but it feels more essential, more subjective, more tectonic and cultural. Old terms and rules, accommodations and understandings are giving way to…we’ll find out, maybe.
In a related instance, it’s crucial to understand that right now, compromise is a diminishing part of the political vocabulary, particularly for the right wing. Compromise has vanished beneath enmity. Such circumstances are not stopped by or at our southern border. They assail the Canadian social premise, too (and are more embedded in our culture that we care to acknowledge). You can catch a reflection of Canadian social danger in Colin Clarke’s commentary about the growth and risks of the far right wing in America (Clarke held positions in three Republican administrations): “The turbulence of the next several years should not be underestimated. Record-setting firearms sales, looming economic calamity and the continued fraying of America’s social fabric—exacerbated by declining mental health, rising domestic violence and worsening substance abuse during the pandemic—make for a worrying combination.”
Underscoring Clarke’s concern is a May, 2021 New York Times piece about conspiracy theory-based belief and QAnon. A recent poll found that 15 percent of Americans say they think that the levers of power are controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles, a core belief of QAnon supporters. The same share said that “American patriots may have to resort to violence” to depose the pedophiles and restore the country’s rightful order.
Victoria offered certainty and stability, social agreement. It does not at present. Such qualities were the meaning, in a sense the purpose, of the place. Who could miss the architectural messaging? Rock-solid Legislative Buildings, the Empress Hotel, and the imposing office/commercial blocks at the north end of the Causeway, all tethered to the landscaped “Welcome To Victoria” in the city’s symbolic entry, the Inner Harbour. A very pretty picture, not just on a postcard.
Safety. Stability. Continuity. Is that social claim passé, no longer feasible? We appear to lack the social tools to produce and sustain such practices. Now, it’s “Churn. Confusion. Memory loss. Risk.”
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American social critic James Kunstler, in a piece for The American Conservative examined how communities could return to the “rich set of social and economic relationships” that existed in small town America a hundred years ago. “How do we get back to anything that resembles that kind of high-functioning society?”
He answers himself: “Trauma: a set of circumstances that will disrupt all the easy and dishonest work-arounds which have determined the low state of our current arrangements. You can be sure this is coming.”
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in How Democracies Die, study the erosion of democratic norms coming from “extreme partisan polarization” that extends beyond policy differences into “an existential conflict over race and culture.”
In the expanding library of such literature there is a spreading sense of worry projected both by thoughtful hysterics like Kunstler (and me) and by academics and intellectuals; a sense that national and municipal polities have ceded authority while promoting simplistic, patently false narratives to steer the public away from the uncertainty and ambivalence of our times.
In Postmodern Politics and the Absence of Myth, social critic Sheldon Wolin unveils the phrase “fugitive democracy” to remind us that democracy is not a fixed state, but a political experience, and “fugitive” specifically because contemporary forms of power have made this aspiration such a fleeting political experience.
We tend to think of our democracy as permanent, a given, not constantly challenged and requiring ceaseless regeneration at the citizen and community levels. After all, the social architecture of democracy was in place when we got here; and besides, don’t we have people looking after all of that? Isn’t that what elections are for? We’re busy, and we don’t stop to ask if our current political arrangements are still delivering, still able to deliver, the outcomes we prefer.
In the setting of Wolin’s concerns, I would love to see some next Victoria mayoral aspirant force the conversation and, waving the banner of return and renewal, base his/her/their candidacy on a promise of utter physical beautification of Downtown (both the public realm and private architecture) and the restoration of near-perfect social safety throughout the central area (guess what, people prefer to be in pretty, safe places), and on new social architecture, too: the elevation of citizen to stakeholder, new opportunities (or requirements) for constructive engagement and collaboration, the tackling of local needs via proven strategies of mutuality and reciprocity which, as a package, are known as community (Kunstler’s “high functioning society”).
It’s the point of this column to emphasize the connection between physical and social architecture. Truly, we live in the house of our dreams. Our challenge, to borrow columnist Thomas Edsall’s phrase, is to “regain control of cultural narratives and the mechanisms of government.”
The “Welcome To Victoria” earthwork may still have room for “Back.”
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.