Douglas Street, once fully invested with life and social purpose, now seems diminished.
QUICK, THINK OF A WORD that rhymes with “colostomy.”
Good for you!
That profane stew of surveying and shoveling, blueprints, backhoes, migraine-coloured diversion tape, and hellfire-tinted traffic cones. Surfaces shattered, guts and filth exposed, society’s shitty undies pulled down, all niceties abandoned. Invasive urban surgery: mud, crud and blood. Eeeuuwww!
Watched a two-month-long project near my home recently: realignment of an innocent, unoffending T-intersection minding its own business and doing pretty much the job you want a T-intersection to do. Suddenly, barricades, signage, lights, flaggers, equipment, trucks, detours, trenches, Everests of excavated wet earth and gravel, new drainage pipes, new curbs, light poles and paving; tax dollars and resources enlisted to improve the good enough. Now, finally, post-surgical results: a new skin of raked, seeded topsoil and curing cement. The patient survived. So did I, thank you.
If infrastructure suggests all of this, the linguistic doorway to the apocalypse is crumbling infrastructure: a Doomer movie of decay, social collapse and the return of an ever-nesting, never-resting Dark Age (consider the Trump-era recrudescence of the American neo-Nazi White Right)—against which extraordinary public resources are directed to sustain the hope (some would say illusion) that the civic enterprise is still on the rails…that the human project continues.
By the way, Crumbling Infrastructure, if not quite as good as Dying Fetus or Deicide (both already taken), would be a terrific name for a death-metal band.
Writing about urban evolution reminds me that in many cases human settlements emerged as cities (the oldest a recent 5000 years ago) on a thought: “Oh, this hill has a good view.” “This slope is sunny.” “We can tie up our boat here.” “Lots of game and fresh water.” “We can defend this place.” The entire kit of contemporary urban parts is just decorative icing over elemental states like appetite, convenience, visions of triumph, plans for rest and safety, dreams of opportunity, or the point at which exhausted pack animals or slave porters gave up the ghost.
Admittedly, cities are also hopes for order. Listening, a moment ago, to violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Samuel Sanders perform Edward Elgar’s “La Capricieuse,” I was taken by how the structure of musical thought springs from an innate architecture in our heads, a sense of system and form, which we apply to music, storytelling, and city-building, too.
Local writer Janis Ringuette cites historian Richard Mackie and other sources to uncover the intentions upon which Victoria was founded:
“James Douglas was instructed [by the English] to organize the new Colony of Vancouver Island: ‘The object...should be...to transfer to the new country whatever is most valuable and most approved in the institutions of the old, so that Society may, as far as possible, consist of the same classes, united together by the same ties…Conditions for the...disposal of lands...will have the effect...of preventing the ingress of squatters, paupers and land Speculators.’”
That land Speculator ingress prevention thing worked out well, don’t you think?
Like entire cities, neighbourhoods, too, are ideas. Look at city property maps and note the proliferation of orderly double-rows of rectangles serviced by die-straight streets on all sides, as if the straight line and right angle themselves might be tools of successful governance. The impulse for social management started long before and endured long past the days of Douglas’ colonial governance, simply re-expressing itself in ever-smaller property increments. The dreaming, imperial finger of the explorer withered; the founder class subdivided its holdings; planning bureaucrats and bylaw-enforcers—the property cops—took over.
Almost every city, big or small, has a square reserved for ceremony and patriotic re-enactments, designed to mark the city’s connection to its founding or some other historical event. Such places, hyperbolically constructed to convey significance, elicit awed respect and reinforce the importance of memory. All feature statuary, plinths, obelisks, fountains, noble words and antediluvian dates in stone, cannons, and too much lawn; and they endure—serious and un-visited, grass ritually cut and edged—long after ceremony has hollowed out as a form of social expression and the energy of their founding story has waned. It’s hard to proclaim “We, The People!” when everybody’s off shopping the sales or glued to the next episode of “Game of Thrones.”
Hierarchy, nature’s system for arranging the meek and the mighty, is also built into urban ordering. Almost every city has a main street (often imaginatively called “Main Street”) traditionally dedicated to shopping, mercantile pursuits, and financial or professional services, and established in the pre-suburban heyday of business centrality, but now, in an era of social and economic dispersal and online shopping and services, threatened by disinvestment and in need of “re-purposing.” Such streets resemble museum dioramas portraying a life when social functions were more delineated, the public realm was more polite and convivial, banks were filled with actual cash, and majestic retailers, cornerstones of national identity, slugged it out across the street from each other.
Nostalgia really is ghostly.
Study the archival image of Douglas Street in the late 1940s below. Note the relaxed co-existence of pre-war cars, trolleys, well-dressed pedestrians. You can feel the street’s energy and social health, the coherence and common purpose. (And catch the red car making a right turn around the money temple up a two-way Yates Street.)
Like, what happened? Well, bookshelves of explanation abound, but in short and simple terms modernity took hold, a kind of atomization in which ‘we’ gave way to ‘me.’ I’ve heard it explained as diffusion and de-authorization—that is, an institutional, cultural, social and geographic deconstruction or reordering (take your pick)—allowing a more subjective, voluntary and perhaps authentic allegiance to social rules and norms. (Remember, it has also been a human rights revolution.) In no more than a two-generational eye blink, the idea that father knows best became preposterous, and the Heavenly Father, like the divine right of kings, was permanently re-assigned to the make-believe section. Vrooom!
Douglas Street, Chatham to Belleville, our ten-block stretch of yesterday, is unloved, energy-deficient, crappy-looking, edgy and slightly threatening. It is preparing now for the next stage in its economic and social devolution: from Main Street to Mean Street. A recent KPMG technology report claims that street-front banks will be gone in 20 years. Which means five. Douglas, home to the big, central branches of most of our financial institutions, has drawn another short straw in the game of urban change.
As the image makes clear, Douglas was once fully invested with life and social purpose. Now, civility seems diminished. Folks’ offshore limits feel wider, more defensive, and the public air has a more guarded tang. Douglas, a street of gradually evanescing purpose, is turning down-market.
Ironically, Douglas Street was the most expensive property in the 1982 version of Canadian Monopoly.
Let’s briefly journey from Douglas Street to the cosmos: According to the big bang theory—our best explanation for why space is expanding—everything exploded from nothing about 13.8 billion years ago. Cosmologists have been able to wind things back to within a tiny fraction of a second of this moment, but now they’re stuck. Acknowledging that science cannot explain the fact of everything from nothing, leave alone conjure a pre-nothing, Carlos Contaldi at Imperial College London suggests: “The rules we have simply don’t work in that regime.”
Mystery permeates every corner, and is the heart, of existence. I’m not being glib and I mean this quite seriously. To the cliché, “lost in space,” I would add “lost in time,” “lost in story,” “lost in purpose,” and, I suppose, “lost in Victoria.” Rule-making and rule-following reflect our understandable hunger for continuity, structure and order. But order is challenged at its essence because mystery—the chaotic and tumbling-dice unpredictability of flow—is baked into existence. Nothing comes with a guarantee, or a warranty. Where’d the Douglas Street of recent memory go? Really, where did it go? What happened?
Accepting the inevitability, inescapability and speed of flow, how do you re-purpose a main street? What plan or intention—and I don’t mean the synthetic promise of an architect’s gauzy, four-colour depiction—will pay off? Who leads? Commercial interests and the property-owning market? Shoppers and the public? The city government? A team of futurologists?
How and when does the city go about determining if some new civic narrative on Douglas Street is plausible to a significant majority of its citizens, and worth a major civic and private investment? What signs are required? Collapsing commercial rental rates, proliferating tents in darkened doorways, or when Burger King pulls up stakes ‘cause it can’t make a buck?
In the taut TV drama “Berlin Station” the CIA station chief, referencing some imminent ISIS-type terrorist threat, says to the head of German security: “Do you want to get ahead of it, or find out after it happens?”
In Douglas Street terms, do we take initiative in response to a clearly darkening tracery of worry lines (growing signs of “locational obsolescence,” in planner-ese), or wait for full implosion? Don’t give me an immediate answer. Take your time.
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with partner Rob Abbott, has launched the website FUTURETENSE: Robotics, AI, and the Future of Work.