As waves of newcomers arrive, opportunity and peril loom over our urban identity.
FROM New York Times movie critic Stephen Holden’s review of director Alexandr Sokurov’s 2002 film, Russian Ark: “This ultimate display of wealth and privilege in the movie is so heady it would be easy to infer that Mr. Sokurov…harbors a lingering nostalgia for the pre-revolutionary era of czars and serfs. But this extraordinary sequence—courtly social life set within the Hermitage Palace in St. Petersburg—even more powerfully evokes the historical blindness of an entitled elite blissfully oblivious to the fact that it is standing in quicksand that is about to give.”
It was 1971 and I was a newly-minted Victorian, having arrived here the year before from New York City via Prince Rupert (the story of that long rail journey some other time). I had just founded Open Space, the warehouse cultural centre on lower Fort Street that still bears my name (I swear, a letter showed up one day addressed: Open Space, 510 Fort Street, Victoria, BC and began: Dear Mr. Space…).
I could barely conjure the next month’s rent, let alone funds for programming and physical plant improvements to sustain the cavernous, cruddy warehouse. “Go see Pam Ellis. She’s a patron of the arts,” said knowing friends over beers at the Churchill. They filled my head with tales of fabulous wealth earned, via her husband, Geoffrey, from the One-Hour Martinizing chain and, if I remember correctly, an English beer fortune thrown in.
I made an appointment through Mrs. Ellis’ factotum, and on the day arrived a bit early at her 30-room bungalow on Runnymede Avenue. (Years before, God had thoughtfully created South Oak Bay around her home to provide a windbreak from the rude ocean breezes.)
Mrs. Ellis was closeted improbably with Princess Chirinsky-Chikhmatoff (formerly Jennie Ross of Ross/Butchart Gardens fame, and wife, for a while, of dashing but impoverished Russian aristocrat Prince André Chirinsky-Chikhmatoff—a name evoking fairy-tale royalty, onion-domed castles, Glinka mazurkas, satin window swags, and flattering candlelight). So I waited in an anteroom, sipping flavourless tea, almost within earshot of their animated repartee.
Eventually, the princess departed, and I was shown in. Awkward, bumptious, full of myself and my life-changing cultural vision, I launched, after introductions, into some unscripted and feverish explanation of Open Space and its cultural mission, hoping to convey the idea that, eclipsed only by the domestication of wild herds, the invention of the steam engine, and one or two other equally significant human milestones, Open Space was inarguably the most important cultural advance on the planet. All of this was larded with the worst eyewash and mangled promises of an ovation in this life and sainthood in the next for any benefactor whose dough might be leveraged to make this precious dream come true.
I had to stop mid-peroration to catch my breath, which gave Mrs. Ellis an opportunity to interject an incongruous, loopy soliloquy about dieting. On and on she melodiously maundered about her efforts to reduce, gesticulating and patting her plump arms and generous middle. I adopted the glazed look of the fascinated listener: a treacly, sickeningly interested grin that in a more just cosmos would have been removed by a lightning bolt. To look at my face, you would think she was rattling off long swatches of flawless Tennyson verbatim.
During this weird monologue about her weight-loss efforts, Mrs. Ellis spoke energetically to the middle distance above my head, as if to some balcony audience. Then, winding down, she turned straight toward me, her eyes penetrating deep within my shabby soul. The notes of caprice and gossipy self-absorption never left her voice as she said, “You know, Mr. Miller, its so hard being fat in a skinny world.”
THOSE WERE THE DAYS. The wealthy could express metaphor and refinement (however synthetic); the aspiring rest of us had the sufferings to which we were fairly accustomed (apologies to Auden). And if there were reason to grumble about the rich, at least it was a microscopic consolation that they followed socially-approved protocols for cultural largesse via carefully-managed endowments. (God, listen to me! Where’s Tevye, from Fiddler, singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” when you need him?) Also, there was a faint sense that such plutocrats, less outright crooks than clever and aggressive opportunists, had at least made their fortunes by tapping legitimate and tangible market veins like beer and dry cleaning, and not asset-backed securities, derivatives, credit default swaps, leveraging, money bundling, or other dark and suspect financial arts.
You may also accurately conclude that Victoria, while not immune to the winds of change, was “a little bit of Olde Inertia” those forty-five years ago, and still under the frosty and disorder-averse social influence of proper and vaguely British (roll your r, please) Oak Bay social aristocracy. Then, as now, provincial government was present, but a world apart from the city’s daily life.
The Hudson’s Bay stood stolidly, massively, at the north end of Douglas, forbiddingly vending yesteryear’s styles, while a slightly less un-welcoming and “with it” Eaton’s at View and Douglas jumped Broad Street with an elevated pedestrian bridge. I have a possibly imagination-inflamed memory of busty, heavyset sales matrons in both stores, disapproving lifers whose body English and angry punching of the cash register keys proclaimed that spending money on frivolities like clothing was near to biblical sin.
Murchie’s on Government Street, back then, likely sold more Earl Grey than coffee. You understand, these reminiscences send us back to the pre-Starbucks Pleistocene! Honestly, can you even imagine a time before lattes?
There was a Downtown residential population of sorts, but more of a single- room-occupancy crowd, as longstanding citizen and City councillor Pam Madoff notes. You “commuted” home to the James Bay, Fairfield, and Fernwood suburbs from a day at the office or shop, and journeyed to the double-wide-strewn hillbilly hinterland of Langford and Colwood only for banjo lessons or to blast at small, furry animals.
But all of these memories—truth and legend alike—are about to be swamped by something new. As I’ve noted in previous writing, Downtown is in the middle of a transformation: Residential growth which, if unabridged by any near-term economic hiccups, will, in under a decade, swell the population to between ten and fifteen thousand, contained within a tiny, forty-block area—roughly Broughton to Herald, Cook to Wharf, with some further help from expanding residential colonies in Songhees and Vic West.
Disorienting change: Former McCall Brothers Funeral Home has a new life as a sales office for the new condo across the street.
Those numbers may seem fantastic, but you have no idea what’s coming. Look past the visible hoardings, excavations and construction cranes to many other candidate properties or property assemblies—yes, including one whole city block—either acquired or in play for new development.
Why here, why now, what’s driving it? Who knows? Does the current boom have legs, or will some market plunge leave many Downtown sites as holes in the ground and half-completed works for a generation? We’ll see (I assume the inevitable).
Importantly, who are these newcomers steadily swelling the Downtown residential population? Can these newcomers be Victorianized, harmonized with the city’s culture, or will they redefine that culture? Will the physical structures housing this human flood result in some dismal, isolating West End of tombstone high-rises and irreparable damage to Downtown character, or in an economic, social, cultural and energetic renaissance? Pointedly, are you ready for six-hour breakfast lineups outside Jam on Herald?
But what most interests me is cultural transmission: the challenge to all of us, to the city, to successfully convey story. Not history, exactly, but the singularity and character of this place, so newcomers are welcomed by a context and continuity.
Discussing W.G. Sebald’s last novel, Austerlitz, Colin Dickey remarks that buildings and the entire urban fabric are human acts, projecting not just a functional message, but also a cultural one: ideas, values, preferences, importances. “No historical [condition or monument] arrives ex nihilo. Patterns are laid out decades in advance, in plain sight. They draw attention to themselves, even if we have no desire [and little skill] to recognize them.” (You need look no farther than the hundreds of now-a-generation-old cracker-box apartment buildings visually littering the Victoria landscape to appreciate Dickey’s potent thought.)
Of course, so as not to get too lost in rhapsody, it’s helpful to add social critic James Kunstler’s theory of history: “Things happen because they seem like a good idea at the time.”
In other words, opportunity and peril loom over urban identity. Newcomers will change, but also need to be changed by, the city’s identity, and by its public realm, cultural aspirations and accomplishments…in aid of which, we might even prevail upon Open Space to put up two plaques on its lower Fort Street exterior: one a bas-relief likeness of Pam Ellis with her thoughts about being fat in a skinny world, the other of Mr. Space.
Co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller has, with partner Rob Abbott, launched the website FutureTense: Robotics, AI and the Future of Work.