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Gene Miller

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  1. Do those of us who behave immodestly do so because we resent our mortality? WHEREVER YOU STORE OLD LOVE LETTERS, pics of your exes, slowly fading family photos, those Broadway “Cats” ticket stubs—a cigar box, a binder, under the spare linens—please write four words, “The Death of Modesty” (with or without a question mark at the end—your call), on a sheet of paper, date it, then tuck it into your collection of treasures. I’ll explain. Apart from certain religions whose imperatives attempt to constrain the appetites and consumption behaviour of adherents, modesty would seem not to be broadly social or community-based—in other words, not a public value or practice. Yes, we say, “Waste not, want not,” but while we advise humanity not to waste, we don’t tell it not to want. Instead, modesty comes off more as an individual practice, the result of a personal emotional and spiritual process, perhaps, a hard-won agreement between the mind and the heart about the management of appetite. Modesty is about the self-management of craving: will over hunger in all its forms, you might say. But the fossil record (right to present times) suggests that under certain natural conditions modesty has its price and is subject to a rule: consume (or be very good at hiding) or be someone’s lunch. In current times, a modest life, a turning away from the values and acts of acquisition and consumption, can seem heroic and almost saintly, which is to say, out of the ordinary if not a bit weird. Saying no to more may well involve a personal struggle—some conscious journey into values and choices—and others may find it hard to fathom the modestee’s reasons and motivations; it sets one apart and suggests “uncomfortable” moral intensity. Of course, modesty, like other conditions calling for judgement, may be a matter not of principle, but of degree. Acquisition, consumption and never-ceasing need for more may form the core of social ideology. Still, we reserve a word for insatiable hunger for things, the failure or unwillingness to say no to too much, the seemingly pathological failure even to recognize or acknowledge the idea of too much, even in our culture of too much: greed. Greed, also known as unchecked appetite, has a moral valence; it hints at bad mental wiring, moral deformity, obsession, a distortion of the self’s landscape and boundaries, a false and damaging view of the world. In our Grimm-Brothers-fairy-tales-imagination, we want people who are greedy to look greedy: grotesque gobblers, repulsive hoarders, people who appear to put their hungry arms around everything (or around themselves) in some fevered act of self-securitization, self-safety. We have plenty of cultural messaging around wants and needs, and sufficient social radar so that when caught red-handed wanting something, we are quick to recast and justify it as a need. We regard greed as want taken too far, a moral disease akin to the difference between people who like to pet small animals and those who like to squeeze the life out of small animals. But consider how, in an almost mystical act of cultural nuancing, we don’t call our business titans and zillionaires greedy. In fact, we lionize them. And in the corporate milieu we call greed “strategic acquisition and positioning.” You will have noticed, though, that we are entering a time when corporations, the über-wealthy and even the not-so-über are coming in for excoriation as wealth-gobblers, hoarders, have-ers of more than their share: if they have more, we have less. The era feels eruptive, existential, ready for a fight or a spasm. It wouldn’t be the first time that free-market social Darwinism had a comeuppance. The dictionary claims greed is “an insatiable longing for material gain, be it food, money, status or power.” The inclusion of status and power is revealing. Greed, Webster’s continues, is “an inordinate desire to acquire or possess more than one needs.” What’s the source or locus of that “insatiable longing?” What would an “ordinate desire” look like? How much does a person need? The etymology of greed emphasizes this idea of voracious, incorporative, assimilative hunger. The German word for greed, habsüchtig, translates roughly as “having sickness.” In other words, greed renders appetite pathological. Still, we say: “Why rent when you can own?” The Indian godhead Meher Baba believed that greed “is a state of restlessness of the heart, and it consists mainly of craving for power and possessions which are sought for the fulfillment of desires. Man is only partially satisfied in his attempt to fulfill his desires, and this partial satisfaction fans and increases the flame of craving instead of extinguishing it. Thus greed always finds an endless field of conquest and leaves the man endlessly dissatisfied.” Meher Baba raises provocative questions: what is the fulfillment of desire, what is the locus, the taproot, of this “endless dissatisfaction”—an impulse distributed to every cell of our being, the same thing that makes a tree “want” to grow a new branch? The dictionary defines, but he explains greed, giving it the larger frame it clearly requires. My friend Denton speculates that greed might in part be some recapitulation in the form of sensibility and behaviour of the physical architecture of the nervous system, some principle of consolidation: the gathering of nerves within the spinal column and their urgent, expanding highway to the brain. All explanations, though, even Meher Baba’s, overlook a natural fact: the sheer exhaustion of things. Everything tires, degenerates and re-arranges eventually, everything on Earth and, cosmic science explains, even the Earth itself. The MiceTimes of Asia (yes, a real thing) provocatively suggests that the greedy forget one simple fact: “that life on this Earth is not eternal.” This assertion opens a line of thought that may have crossed your mind: that the condition of mortality hovers at the edge of any explanation of greed. Which leads to the speculation that greed—that hunger for more—is a grab at eternity, the life impulse itself, the spark that fills us with a desire to live forever and makes us unable to imagine the world without us. This generates in the human imagination a profound resentment of Nature that has given life and will take it back. We say, “I don’t want to die!” and we really mean it. We don’t want to die because when the music stops playing, the dance is over. When consciousness ends, imagination collapses. Our “ownership” of everything we compass through our eyes and thoughts ends. We imagine we own and eventually, jarringly discover we were just borrowing. Tragic! In this formulation, greed is, or is about, power: the power to live forever, to surround ourselves with stuff, to absorb both its literal and symbolic energy, its cushion-value as protection against finality. Wanting to live forever (nothing stops you from wanting), is against the terms and principles of life, and we fight this impasse with the same anger and umbrage we feel toward the parental, non-negotiable “Why? Because I told you so.” Nature is, in this sense, the ultimate parent, and in a bizarre act of self-destructive, anti-ecological spite, we attempt to appropriate nature’s secrets and powers, and try to kill the world. Ego set against eco. In Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra, reviewing 250 years of European history, references the gigantic intellectual project led by European and Russian intelligentsia in the early 1800s that produced “the view of God as only an idealized projection of human beings rather than a Creator.” Think, in this macro-historical way, of current ecological collapse at our hands as a next and possibly last chapter in some weird, profound, evolutionary oedipal re-enactment. Greed isn’t rational; it starts in a deeper, darker place and generates nothing but mystery and answerless questions regarding accumulation as an expression of securing a future. “More life, fucker” says bioengineered, Frankensteinian Roy Batty, with his inbuilt four-year life span, to his human maker in the movie Bladerunner. What are all of us if not bioengineered? Roy’s four, our eighty…. More life, fucker. Returning through this set of speculations to our starting point, I’d like to propose a role for Victoria as consumption-driven global ecological damage intensifies and the danger-points quickly multiply beyond correction: “The Capital of Modesty.” That is, Victoria as social sanity and demonstration: living within means, a model of ecological truth, a place that practices and communicates a message to the hungry, greedy, crazy world about living modestly with and in nature; making a peace of it; greeting the newborn, burying the dead. Surviving. Continuing. Victoria, named for a queen, flirts with, then, losing nerve, retreats from this exalted, leaderly and crucial role that history offers it—the role (a complicated, somewhat selfless and thankless but necessary task, really) well expressed by lines in Tennyson’s lengthy story-poem, The Princess, A Medley: “She stretched her arms and called Across the tumult and the tumult fell.” Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.
  2. Will new Downtown buildings help our resiliency and community in the face of social upheaval? Leonard Bernstein announced his retirement from conducting on October 9, 1990, and five days later died of a heart attack at his Manhattan apartment in The Dakota. At his funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, construction workers removed their hats and waved, calling out “Goodbye, Lenny.” A city family big enough to have heroes and small enough to weep at their passing. A place, not an anywhere. Cities, communities of people, need identity and are bound by story; they need to be a who, and need as an urban culture to share that story, to feel like participants in its abstractions, its history and practices—things that can be seen and felt. I’m so glad I live in “a little bit of old England,” a city where everywhere you turn, you’re presented with remind—what, that’s gone, too?! The Jukebox under construction on View Street Victoria’s current Empire State Building frenzy of Downtown highrise development should abate in the early 2020s, the market (temporarily) exhausted, the last cement truck off to its Bay Street home. Then, we may witness our works. It is certain that Downtown’s visual identity, personality and place-mood—its qualities, to use that old-fashioned word—will have been transformed; and clear that the city missed (or forewent) the opportunity to try to understand the why, the secret sauce, of this (fadingly) singular place, to figure out how to re-fashion Downtown’s best qualities within some new urban and social design expression. Ever visited someone who lives on the upper floors of one of Victoria’s Downtown-area highrises or, for that matter, driven or walked to the top of Beacon Hill? It’s the breathtaking views, baby! The vista! At even a modest elevation, our surrounding land- and waterscape become legible. You part the living room curtains, you crest the park hill, your eye takes it in, your spirit lights up. The panorama offers perspective, permits context and clarity; you know where you are. Lucky you! As an upper-storey highrise resident, even if you have not yourself become a god, you mingle with the gods. View confers both social and spiritual status. View delivers something humanly important. You need only consult the imagery and symbolism of Medieval and Renaissance religious art to be fully exposed to the meaning and value of such elevation. Higher is liberating. Higher implies supervisory status. In a symbolic act whose meanings can hardly be missed, royalty sits on a throne: authority, author, self-maker, creator. Higher magnifies and places one closer to the energetic source—at a guess, the timeless, essential influence of the sun working on human consciousness, rituals, social protocols…and real estate pricing! The human roil is, by contrast, in the opposite direction, grounded. Hell is the hard game of the sidewalk. Consider that Christ was down with the people, a real mingler, before God bumped him upstairs. (Miracle explained! You’re welcome.) Enough exegesis; it’s my point that highrise and lowrise embody different webs of meaning, different human expressions—the one individuating, self-spotlighting, isolating; the other democratic, compromissory, socially binding, messy. It isn’t that Victoria skipped on the opportunity to stand athwart the Highway to The Future, stern arms held out straight to reject the furies of the highrises as they marched into town. Rather, it skipped on the opportunity to initiate strategies to neutralize and even convert their fortifying and privatizing tendencies and impacts. The defensive materiality of each new building, palpably projecting a guarded, gated, securitized response to unspecified forms of stranger danger, the impermeability—glass, metal, concrete, gating—of these buildings tells you much: not architectural welcome or community, but defense, privacy, protection, isolation. And the visual poverty, the shab and physical disrepair, the indifference and lack of aesthetic programming, of the adjacent public realm wordlessly articulates a perverse and unhealthy public/private partnership: public dangerous/private safe, the very opposite of a blueprint for human connection and successful city-making. In some small way, I cite the absence of social literacy amongst developers. This is not a crowd that sits up nights reading history and philosophy. They don’t teach Utopian Urbanism 101 at the School of Developology. The largest responsibility, though, falls to civic leadership, both elected and managerial, and equally with us so-called citizens who, increasingly bemused by public life and alienated from its meanings, find interaction much beyond the coffee shop patio unsanitary and risky. I understand: cultures lose sensibility or, to be generous, swap old aptitudes (and attitudes) for new, voluntarily discarding and forgetting the old, in the relentless push for currency. But novelty, which we reflexively celebrate, also disguises or embodies cultural dislocation—a turn too sharp to navigate, a gap too wide to comfortably jump. It takes time (if time’s even the cure) for a culture to make meaning of and to integrate various forms and expressions of novelty, to test them for truth and utility…and consequences—the “oracular and critical potencies of the commonplace,” as Mike Davis puts it in his book of essays, Dead Cities. Nothing will substitute for a community-wide dialogue, however faltering and argumentative at the start, about the idea of urbanity here, and the various possibilities of its physical expression in buildings and the public realm. If a community, through its municipal structure, can’t or won’t tell public realm designers and city budgeters about its values and priorities, and tell Downtown newcomer buildings how to behave, nothing else will. Developers are risk managers, not social rhapsodists. The gleam in their eye is profit and return on investment, not some vision of a better world. Actually, I correct myself: I can think of at least four industry philosophers and/or visual poets in Victoria. First, Max Tomaszewski and partner David Price, (Essencia Verde in Cook Street Village, and the former Medical Arts Building, Cook and Pandora, now re-branded The Wade). Next, mad artist Don Charity (Mosaic, Jukebox). Third, Chris LeFevre (Railyards, and numerous Downtown heritage renewals). Last, Bijan and Faramir Neyestani, responsible for the Aria, the Paul Merrick-designed masterpiece on Humboldt Street. Glimpse, imaginatively, a more empowering and citizen-esque Downtown Victoria furnished with useful or whimsical public realm features (including soapboxes), and buildings that meet the street generously in an aesthetic and social partnership; people (including yourself) acting more publicly connected, more owners of the public realm, their behaviour more extroverted, engaging, less wary, estranged and carapace-like. In his intermittently wise book Twelve Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson observes: “Before the Twin Towers fell—that was order. Chaos manifested itself afterward. Everyone felt it. The very air became uncertain. What exactly was it that fell? Wrong question. What exactly remained standing?” Peterson’s clever phrasing begs for local application: “There are compelling economic and land use arguments in support of all the new Downtown residential highrises. Are the buildings generating a new story about Victoria? Wrong question. What’s the message?” Please, don’t leave this column thinking I’m just being fussy about “frosting” or decorative trivialities Downtown. There are other, deeper reasons to foster powerful public community Downtown. Cities concentrate human potential in all its physical and cultural expressions. But remember: with grace comes gravity. Inherent in this, in any, urban concentration, however rich in promise, is an anarchic, explosive, counter-social impulse (people who don’t want to play) whose mildest expressions are inertia, social disaffection and petty crime, and most powerful, widespread anomie and serious damage to the urban fabric. (“Violence is a quest for identity. The less identity, the more violence,” noted Marshall McLuhan.) Believing these are normal times, we take normal steps to define and patrol social boundaries and identity, and in so doing we take as faith the durability of an invisible, shared public code that transmits and stabilizes the personality and the culture of the city. But social codes wane, lose their potency and relevance, and no amount of authority—or repressive propriety—will compensate for their decline. It’s hardly alarmist to describe these times as a corner-point, a civilizational moment. National politics is in many places shattered and, concurrently, life’s becoming a risky technological tomorrowland. Ever the crucible, the US is home to increasing social absenteeism. In American social critic James Kunstler’s words: “we can’t construct a coherent consensus about what is happening to us, and therefore we can’t make any coherent plans about what to do.” Can we in Victoria remain or re-become an identifiable and coherent urban community, not simply a crowd of people to whom the future happens? Healthy urban culture must be authored and constantly renewed. And land use, urban form and urban design—what goes where, and why, and with what consequences—is central to that process. Such concerns address social resilience and the almost painterly conditions required to sustain it. (A powerfully enhanced advisory design process couldn’t hurt.) History’s knocking hard everywhere, right now—a moment astutely decoded by architecture critic and writer Nathaniel Popkin: “Ours is an age of loss disguised as plenty.” Despite all urgency, in this vast fog-state of paradox we’re lost and immobilized, amorphous, not focused, stupid about history, stupid about the future. Time to be smart, fellow citizens...before the page turns. Jason McLennan, founder and chair of the board of the International Living Future Institute and Cascadia Green Bulding Council will be giving a talk about “The Livable City” on Wednesday, March 20 at 7pm, at the McPherson Theatre. Seats are free. Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.
  3. Downtown has 1000s of new units, yet it feels unwelcoming to many. MCDONALD'S, OPEN 24/7 at the corner of Douglas and View Streets, is an overnight hellhole and theatre of the absurd. If you can put the prefix dys in front of almost any hapless adjective, or un as in -hinged, -housed, -healthy, -happy, it describes the street-side atmosphere around the place. Really, you should visit some Friday or Saturday around 3am. It screams “major tourist attraction.” It struck me, south-bound on Douglas after a suburban mall run (the Devil never runs out of seductions), into the increasingly compressive maw of the City centre, that Downtown overall feels…well, hard, unsmiling. I had imagined that, as all of those newly sprouted high-rises filled up with new-minted citizens, the social tone on the streets would become happier, life more public and at least quietly, appropriately joyful. It hasn’t happened yet, to my senses, unless there’s a vast, conspiratorial joke being played on me: “Attention, 700-block Fort Street, Doomer Miller approaching. Everybody frown and look miserable, alienated and a bit psychotic.” What's not to like about all those new units of progress? Maybe I picked the wrong season. The storm clouds this December morning are looming about 40 feet off the ground, and even the peacocks in Beacon Hill Park (I’m now parked within sight of the petting zoo, nursing a large, two creams, two sugars) are clumsily attempting suicide by jumping out of trees. I initiated and organized the Downtown 2020 conference several years ago to study and attempt to plan for the rosy and singular future of this place. The confected vision, you won’t be surprised to learn, was of thousands of residential newcomers, walking arm-in-arm on gorgeous boulevards, admiring the clever and provocative public art and beautiful, generous landscaping; shopping, and leaving the friendly and appreciative merchants successful and happy; they’d be sitting at tables outside their favourite konditorei, the very picture and essence of gemütlichkeit, animatedly discussing (in, say, a Prague-inflected English—think Viktor Laszlo in Casablanca) the Victoria Art Gallery’s massive Klimt retrospective, the just-released new Don deLillo novel, trip-planning to Spain, and other choice pickings from that conversational buffet. The thesis was so simple, logical, commonsense: lots of new Downtown buildings filled with lots of new Downtowners conducting their lives in Downtown’s public realm, making everything safe, socially fizzy, successful—essentially, the theoretically sound (but never actually materializing) 2+2=4 of Downtown land use planning and social design (and swooning romantic idealism). Instead, we witness a work-in-progress of isolation, alienation, fortification; a streetscape of by-and-large desultory urban dormitories, hard and unwelcoming monuments to risk management, when what we need is buoyant, arms-open architectural expressions of the ever-perfecting human project. If we decorated our birthday cakes the way we decorate our buildings, all of us would blow our brains, not the candles, out. So, wha hoppen? Oh, a little thing known as the near-total shift of human values, social meanings and practices, consciousness, sensibilities, behaviours. The 21st century, that’s wha hoppen. Times have changed, to put it witlessly. “But, but, this is Vienn—I mean, Victoria,” you sputter, “the Land that Time Forgot!” Not a chance, sonny or honey. I mean, you must have some idea of what’s going on. Two little words: civilizational tectonics. Look, we steer, or try to steer, by icons, symbols, social signals, corner points (real or seeming) in our restless progress: home, family, opportunity, future, job, faith, politics, and a clutch of others. What made them valid doesn’t necessarily sustain their validity in this time of shortening forevers. Often as not, this produces cultural dislocation leading to hollow language, words that may still have some symbolic heft, but that no longer manage the emotional traffic, no longer truly tell us who we are, or how to behave, or how to order our values or shape and manage experience. In some circles, this is called cultural relativism; in others, the end of the effing world. If you add together all of the brand-new, recently or just-completed Downtown and shoulder-area residential projects, and those under various stages of construction, plus all of the development rumours, where property is being quietly offered for sale, or has been acquired, plans being drawn up, and where approvals will soon be given and ground broken—roughly, north to Capital Iron (whose entire property is currently for sale), south to the Empress (including that hollow yesteryear hulk of a Customs House building beside the Causeway, its memorable shell now held in place by a girder system), northeast a few blocks past Wellburn’s at Cook and Pandora (also sold, I believe), east of Cook a block or two up the Fort/Yates/ Johnson/Pandora shoulder—we are talking about at least 40 projects with a guesstimated average unit count of 100, and perhaps 1.5 residents average per dwelling. That’s a likely 6,000 newcomers calling Downtown home, now and soon…and Downtown physically, commercially, socially transformed. In three to four years—no time at all, in terms of Downtown’s evolution—you will barely recognize Downtown, barely be able to reconcile your earlier mental picture of Downtown’s quaint and pokey feel and ground-hugging scale with the quickly emerging physical reality. The memory-to-modernity balance will have shifted, making what remains of the old Downtown feel more I-remember-when, more museological, and less the defining qualitative centrepiece of the Victoria identity. Downtown will be vastly more populous, but how will the streets feel? Will Downtown present a more compelling case for frequent visits by all of us out-of-Downtowners, or will it seem unrecognizable to a lot of us, a candidate for the kind of dismissal directed at most North American Downtowns (including Vancouver’s): “I don’t go down there unless I have to”? Perhaps you recall a short letter, an omnibus complaint, from a Jim Gibson in the November 4, 2018 Times Colonist titled “Council leads the way into the abyss.” Here is a worried and slightly phrumphy excerpt from Gibson’s Scripture-toned note, which lacks only for a “yea” and an “unto”: “To those working in unison with Mayor Lisa Helps: Which one of you has the courage to allow the merchants on Fort Street to exhale by taking down the barriers to entry you have built? Who among you has the courage to fix the bike-lane fiasco? Who among you will allow Fort Street its rightful place as a three-lane artery? Who among you has the courage to stand up for a city you have already put on the precipice for decline by fast-tracking anti-business, anti-commuting and anti-tourist policies with the arrogant self-entitlement bias you continue to display? Will you let Victoria breathe again, or will you point fingers at those of us who want civilized progress?” I’m particularly taken with the florid, almost Shakespearean “Who among you will allow Fort Street its rightful place as a three-lane artery?” Alas, poor Fort Street, I knew it well. (I note Fort Street is still a three-lane artery, it’s just that one of the lanes is a bike lane.) Be patient, Mr Gibson. Downtown’s a work-in-progress. I fantasize some kind of social epiphany, thousands of Downtowners, arms linked—a glorious amalgam of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and Paul Goodman-esque post-war 1950s/60s egalitarian optimism, housing the homeless, uptrodding the downtrodden, restoring human dignity, advancing social possibility. Said Goodman (author of Growing Up Absurd and many more): “I might seem to have a number of divergent interests—community planning, psychotherapy, education, politics—but they are all one concern: how to make it possible to grow up as a human being into a culture without losing nature. I simply refuse to acknowledge that a sensible and honorable community does not exist.” Our City could do worse at this moment than to embrace Goodman’s dogged and hopeful vision (a vision that runs so counter to present social practice) and string conspicuous but tasteful banners across all of the City’s key entry points: “Victoria waives the rules. Welcome to Paradise.” (God forgive me.) How to get there from here? How to break the dismal pattern of reticence and strangerhood and turn the public realm into an outdoor living room, something socially and visually operatic, a beautiful, generous, richly furnished, hopeful arrival-point from dormitory isolation and privacy to the public warmth and comfort of the human family? It’s time for a series of urban design charrettes: critical, analytical study sessions structured (and strictured) to force coitus on “extra” and “ordinary.” Oh, and a vast amount of funding. I’m sorry City councillors didn’t impose a development cost charge of $5,000 per new Downtown door four years ago. They, we, would now have a Downtown public realm amenity kitty approaching $20,000,000. “Civilized progress,” letter-writer Gibson requested. I don’t share his anxieties about Fort Street, but civilized progress sounds just peachy. Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.
  4. We know what we have to do. The only thing holding us back is… THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A PROBLEM WITHOUT A SOLUTION. It’s the nature, the “job,” even, of problems to have solutions, a structural requirement; just like there’s no such thing as a one-sided door, or a here without a there. So it is with the homeless “problem.” It has a solution; possibly several. One would be for all of us to be homeless (goodbye problem, hello trend or new normal); but, of course, that’s foolish to imagine, given current social and political stability, coupled to rosy global prospects. The homeless problem…oh, you want me to start by defining the homeless problem? Well, the homeless are a problem for themselves: they don’t have homes. And we are the homeless’s problem because we won’t house them, or do so by miserly and unsuccessful increments. And, of course, what do our crossing-the-street avoidance and averted gaze mean, if not that the homeless are a problem, a problem for us, like some design flaw in the otherwise promising human project. Everybody knows it, nobody says it. Instead, we speak in a kind of code. With wan conviction, we say we want “housing to be provided in appropriate locations,” etc. Translated into English, that means we want them to disappear. And ask yourself how well all of that’s working. Ron Rice, executive director of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, claimed in early October: “There are over 2,000 homeless people in the city. Although the Goldstream tenters have become sort of the spotlight on the crisis we’re experiencing as a city, there’s a lot of homeless people in the city.” Over two thousand homeless? Jesus! That’s roughly one in two hundred over the entire regional population. Maybe it won’t be too long before the number is 3,000. You never know about the tricky and changeable future. I mean, if you do a casual inventory of your near-future expectations for society and hopes for security, isn’t economic risk and its consequences at or near the top? Well. I’d love to be wrong, but I sense that the pendulum is swinging toward risk, which may well yank the broomstick props from under a significant number of the just-hanging-on. (There are currently a surprising number of folks living in their cars in Victoria. Does that qualify as homeless? I don’t know.) So, now we all share a clear picture of the homeless problem? Good. Here is my coarse-grained solution to the homeless problem: we create places that can house 500 or more in clusters or “communities” of individual suites and present like a residential version of Uptown Shopping Centre (walk its internal “boulevard” to get what I mean). House and feed them, look after their physical and mental health needs. Provide calming wallpaper and nutrition breaks, counselling and life skills training and education. Lots of efficiently delivered services (society is spending a fortune now, anyway). Show movies every night. Deliver support cheques. Provide needed transportation. Consolidate all the usual homeless services, provide social and recreational spaces, make sure to include coffee joints. Give such places cozy monikers…is The Uplands taken? Resist the temptation to place these facilities out on the flatlands of the Saanich Peninsula, or out past Stewieville on the way to Sooke. There’s plenty of available land in both directions, but the isolation sends a horrible message. Victoria already knows what it needs to do: more structures like Rock Bay Landing (l) and Our Place More logically, identify available sites closer to the city centre. I just drove past a vacant square block—a whole block!—east side of Douglas, immediately north of Mayfair Mall, right at the Victoria/Saanich border. Or make deals with one or several of the car dealerships on Douglas, between Mayfair and Uptown. Their surface parking areas are enormous and, in some cases, contiguous. Purchase the air rights, leave the car dealership surface parking as-is, and build up and over. Toss in property tax breaks in perpetuity. My guess is that the owners would jump at the opportunity, considering that, courtesy of increasingly non-negotiable demands of the climate change agenda, the private automobile has 10 to 15 years left. After that, it’s all going to be non-private-car-owning Moto, share-car, car-on-demand and cleverly engineered new bicycles built for two or more. But, you exclaim, the costs of all that housing and services! The costs! Society is paying now—not just financially, but also through social wounds that are real if hard to price. And I say: a small price to pay for a job well done. The reason the homeless represent such a potent threat is that we know deep down those protective walls around the human project are not solid, but just images, membrane-thin, projected on shifting, filmy surfaces, like cloud. We understand exactly who and what we are, one layer below the surface, and what lurks in us, individually and together: darkness, danger, deconstruction, and all the violence that brings. Please, don’t scoff; this is just Nature 101. It’s a jungle in there! You would no sooner want “the homeless” living next to you than you would anything else that carries risk of infection—or the power to depress the resale value of your home. Border Crossings, the Winnipeg-based quarterly, in an interview piece about filmmaker David Lynch, quotes Lynch: the mind “is a big beautiful place, but it is also pitch-dark.” Pitch-dark. These are especially hard times. The drumbeat has been quickening, the skies greying, for a while, and at present you can feel social climax in the air; not in, or just in, Victoria, but everywhere. Civilization has an itch, and is beginning to scratch; not for the first time on the long voyage. If your sensitivities are appropriately tuned and your knowledge of history sufficiently well-informed, you must wake up gasping these days. It’s scary. Uncertainty, the sense of risk, is spreading over the entire landscape, challenging normalcy, the very structure of the everyday, on every front. You can put it all on Trump and the burgeoning extreme right if you want, but that still leaves the unanswered question: why did our, uh, cousins elect a demonstrably crazy narcissist psychopath criminal sonofabitch? In your heart, you know there were years of prelude in which social irritation was building...everywhere, not just America. Germany, for example, is gearing up for the return of heady “Sieg Heil!” days. The reason? Turkish and other immigrants polluting the ra—oh, sorry, taking German jobs. Operating under laws and corner-points of existence too mysterious for me to figure out, it seems that just when we’re lost in orgies of self-congratulation for our social, political, and economic accomplishments, that’s when the next valley, the next sorrow, forms and grows. You recall, in Voltaire’s Candide, the protagonists echo each other in bursts of lunatic Leibnizian optimism: “This is the best of all possible worlds!” Friends, history really does happen—not elsewhere, or elsewhen, but in front of us, right now. Did you imagine that “end of the liberal order” was just editorial page punditry? History is ever-poised to turn into…foreground. History loves headlines. Spend a candid moment with your own state of mind, not your the-city-should-undertake-longer-range-infrastructure-cost-planning upstanding citizen mind, but the in-the-bathroom-staring-at-your-spreading-middle/between jobs/trying-to-make-sense-of-life’s-changes one. Now, let your imagination drift. Be homeless. Work it. Follow your thoughts, minute by minute. Dinner? The discarded pizza crusts in somebody’s garbage can. Beer and soda can empties for income, wherever you can find them, maybe the same garbage can; or panhandling on the Causeway. Where are you going to sleep? After you lost the house, you slept in the car; then, you couldn’t pay car insurance; now, you crash in a doorway. How many days before you can pick up your next government cheque? Pills to straighten that roller coaster in your head. Somebody boosted your pack the other day? Aw! Need a new prescription? Tough shit. And now that you’re in the mood, reflect on those homeless activists screaming for housing, lifting the corner-flap so high you can see revolution and social anger and anarchy on a red boil. Meanwhile, back at the garden, “This place, Victoria, is so charming.” “Quite a tech hub you’re developing here.” “Omigod, you pay such a lifestyle premium shopping at Thrifty’s!” Folks are moving here by the planeload. Companies and businesses are locating or relocating here. “Welcome to Victoria. Net Worth Statement, Please.” So, why, given our social talents, expertise and worldliness, don’t we successfully house the homeless? Why do we remain poised—paralyzed, actually—between terror, resentment, anger, sympathy (at a proper remove) and understanding? Given the levels of human talent in this place, can’t we design a new solution to this old problem? By my roughest of estimates, we could eliminate regional homelessness for about $120 million in capital costs—roughly the cost of the new bridge. And much of the dough is already in place in the $90-million housing fund of the CRD, Province and Feds. I know, I know, you’re tired and you just want the world to work. Still, work’s never done, and we disregard those discordant notes beneath the community’s happy song at our peril. Finally, you ask: “And if we do this, actually succeed in providing reasonable housing and support services, do you promise that nothing else bad will happen and things will settle down? I promise, unconditionally. Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.
  5. Rome imploded because of a loss of purpose, identity and moral vigour. What are we doing to avoid that? BLUE HAIR! GREEN HAIR! And all those stupid goddamn tattoos, these days! Why, when I was young, we...we…well, we grew our hair down to our asses, but we didn’t dye it purple, for Chrissake. For us, it wasn’t some vacuous fashion statement, or herd thing; it was ideological: we were Protesting Against the Establishment and Fighting for Principles. I can’t remember which principles at the moment, but important ones, like freedom. And getting laid. Between last column and this, I turned 75—three-quarters of a century!—a meaningful and shocking age that propels one ever closer to the looming horrors of The Watch Out Years: “Did you turn off the stove?” “Let me help you with that carton.” “No, you got it backwards: your ophthalmologist’s on Fort, your knee guy’s on Hillside.” “You can’t make a coffee date with Ezra. Remember? He died last year.” “Do you need a new battery for your hearing aid?” "Sack of Rome by the Visigoths" by JN Sylvestre, 1890 Life’s arc: from ever-hopeful to Eveready. I’m a so-called “war baby,” born in ’43 in New York City—a year and place made ever more legendary when Horowitz, with Rodzinski conducting, performed a never-to-be-equalled Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto before an enthralled and rapturous Carnegie Hall audience of 3,000, including my grandfather, Mendel, who, backstage post-concert, shook Horowitz’s hand—the defining event of his (my grandfather’s) life. I’m sure my violinist mom would have been there too, even pregnant with me-to-be, but, with patented self-concern, I decided to pop out in August, well before the November concert, thus imposing home-stay on both of us. Unrelated to this story, my mother declared me “a handful” from the day I was born. A world war was raging, then: a time of near-global mayhem and clear moral demarcations. I gallop across history to remark that this urgent international moral partnership (our guys) lasted as long as it could post-war, then waned in increments, squandered in Cold War “red menace” paranoia, insensitive and ill-planned geo-political realignments, bumptious American cultural and economic hegemony. Faint hopes of post-Depression egalitarian social activism were overwhelmed by market ideology and culture, which, in turn, made a deep home for itself in the American soul. (Ahhhh, Pete Seeger, friend, where are you now? Looking down, I’m sure.) And today, we have a collapse of illusion about American national purpose, a Make America Great Again sociopath/narcissist in the White House (in every worrying sense, the right man for his times, scarily canny about the American mood), and tough-guy political autocracy spreading globally like some poisonous rash. Humans will soon be replaced by robots in almost all work (couples counselling the possible exception) and in two generations all human systems will be taken over by self-aware AI…if other social, economic, political and environmental catastrophes haven’t pre-empted complete technological annexation. And waiting impatiently in the wings is a novel and final form of human-orchestrated planetary suicide called global warming, concerning which, do not miss Gwynne Dyer’s mesmeric and terrifying disquisition “Geopolitics in a Hotter World” (available via Youtube). Such events and consequences will unfold within the span of our remaining years; yes, us—me writing and you reading these words. If a question hangs over our age, it asks, meekly: “Are things getting worse slow enough for us to survive?” Such a question invites an obscure calculus, but with no possible answer on the happy side of the ledger. Evan Osnos, in a New Yorker piece last year, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” profiles the uber-wealthy’s very real fears—not cocktail chatter, but palpable, act-upon worries—of imminent civilizational crackup. He catalogues their preposterous, sane/crazy survival strategies, their attraction to and investment in remote properties, islands, gigantic stashes of food and water, hardened bunkers, guns, hired security, rockets to some distant planet, cryogenic hibernation, brain preservation awaiting some future all-clear, etcetera—in other words, me, me, me in Tomorrowland, none of it social innovation and problem-solving now. Mind, it drinks at a rich pool of irony and sounds like the setup for a Twilight Zone episode: walls of canned food, but “I thought you packed the can opener,” or bird crap suddenly blinding the all-clear/we-can-come out-now periscope lens. Here’s the above in shorthand: a number of staggeringly wealthy, intelligent, thoughtful, analytical and resourceful first-raters are making immediate on- or off-planet plans to survive imminent civilizational cataclysm and complete collapse. Near the finish of the piece, Osnos offers the gossamer comment: “contemporary life rests on a fragile consensus.” Gosh, there’s a sleep-well turn of phrase. “Gene, you’re way doomy at 75. You know the red pill/blue pill thing? Well, you’re like the black pill.” Me? Come on! Predicting $15 for a tub of Haagen Dazs, that’s doomy. I have just finished social historian Morris Berman’s Dark Ages America, an informative and gnawingly pessimistic telling of the American story roughly from the post-World War years to now: from rabid, Cold War anti-communism to the current nation-destroying merger of corporate money, the right-wing political agenda, resurgent racism-tinged religion, and the ever-amplifying mutter of frustrated, futureless, fulminating Middle America. Likening the US now to the Roman Empire at the time of its collapse, Berman reminds us that Rome wasn’t defeated in battle by an enemy; it imploded because of a loss of purpose, identity and moral vigour, that strange pre-collapse combo in which a people can no longer answer the question: “What are we doing?” So, can we talk about Victoria or, possibly, Lifeboat Victoria? I believe the world needs more Victoria, but the state and fate of this place is so parlous, so up for grabs, these days, its unique qualities, values and ability to regenerate community so at risk, that I’m unsure about wishing more Victoria on the world. I have never felt like this before about my city. I worry that the conditions, skills and tools for sustaining existing communities and forging new ones are weakening, breaking, and that the city is on the verge of turning into just another goddamn place. If it’s not too much of a sideways jump (this column’s a string of them), let me explain why I have no warm-fuzzies for communitarian simulacra like LUVs, Large Urban Villages, or companion small ones—SUVs, that the City of Victoria has thought up. You can tell intuitively that it’s just lingo, a technocrat’s wet dream, the kind of mechanistic abstraction devised by people or organizations that favour script over story or authenticity. The real sin of LUVs and SUVs is hidden deep in social code: it reduces any and all other reasons for or possibilities of community to footnotes. How? By highlighting the self as a shopping unit instead of a citizen engaged in expressions of neighbourliness and the transactional potentials of community. There is an accelerating drama playing out within our Victoria communities, a cultural battle about how to live, with strong implications for land use. Look, urban design is really social design—prettified language, in other words, that asks the questions: “How shall we live?” and “How can we fashion our city and our communities to create and sustain coherent, cooperative, successful social connections and relationships?” and even “What’s important?” “What do our choices mean, and where do they lead?” “Story is more important than policy,” wisely notes the New York Times columnist David Brooks. Story comes first (Who are we? What do we want and need?) Policy (How do we achieve that?) flows out to try to make story come true. Victoria inspires an unusual emotion from visitors and residents alike: yearning. Why? At its best, it is one of a diminishing number of places that still projects the possibilities of social sanity, which is to say, rootedness, coherence and continuity in a time when everything seems tossed in the air. Visitors have little trouble picking up this rootedness in its hundred tiny coded expressions: public courtesy, merchant honesty, cars stopping for crossing pedestrians, lack of litter, unmolested parks, a sense of neighbourhood order, civil greeting between strangers, past and present connected, and so on. It isn’t, or isn’t just, that we have held on to a lot of our old buildings, but what this holding-on means: a respect for scale, proof of the great accomplishments of modesty, to word it paradoxically. However imperfect the results, at least we’re still trying here. In a world that has lost such things and has little idea where to find them, that counts for a lot. You don’t want to treat such qualities carelessly. To put this another way: Victoria still manages, if haltingly, to convey a message of safety and continuity in a world increasingly poised for conflict and eruption. For the city’s land use thinking or policies to fail to honour this essential fact about the place is, or would be, a tragedy. How, then, to put Victoria on alert about such matters, how to initiate community-wide conversation about our invaluable social assets and atmospherics, how to prepare to sustain community in the unfolding battle for the future? Such concerns pose a deep challenge not just for the city’s leadership, but all of us. We’re in the middle of transition times in Victoria, headed somewhere either by design or default, capable either of embodying a living story or obliged, with a shrug, to prepare for nostalgia. Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.
  6. Would amalgamation lead to the creation of a place we care less about? WHICH DO YOU PREFER: Saantoria or Vicnich? Me? I’m voting for Shitsville. On a Wednesday evening in April, in a nearly subterranean, acoustically reverberant gym at Vic High—chosen, I assume, to make an idiotic proposition sound braver—invitees Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell and two out-of-area panelists spoke before an audience of a hundred about Victoria/Saanich amalgamation and the mandated process required to approve such a consolidation. The presence of the two mayors at the event, organized and promoted by local initiative Amalgamation Yes, lent an ambiguous but undeniable propriety to the prospect of such a merger, even though Helps more than once was careful to blunt expectations with the quip, “Amalgamation Maybe.” While both mayors appeared, thankfully, to have their wits about them, there was a nutty tang in the air, the kind of true-believer, I-drank-the-Kool-Aid vibe that automatically sends oh-oh juice coursing through any sound mind, same as happens when you’re among folks who gather in stubble fields awaiting the arrival of wise aliens in flying saucers. Saantoria? Vicnich? So, why all the craziness here? Why is this place becoming InSaanitoria? Maybe it’s atmospheric, and all the local oxygen molecules have picked up another electron, turning air into ether and conking people’s reasoning function and common sense. Let me state yet again: I’ve read the studies, and they are there for you to read. Amalgamation, in spite of the reductive logic of “one mayor’s cheaper ‘n two,” generally doesn’t save taxpayers a dime and doesn’t produce operating efficiencies, even though these are the two pillars upon which the amalgamation idea rests. It’s as flawed as its cousin belief: “greater density will produce affordable housing.” People love to hear sober-sounding lingo purling from their tongues, like “efficiency of scale,” but if analytics counts for anything, they might as well crazily utter “fish and kale.” Amalgamation, instead of delivering real benefits, boils down to nothing more than feelings, as in “I feel Victoria would be a better place if it was amalgamated” or “I think it’s stupid keeping all these small, adjacent municipalities.” That is, the amalgamation argument is entirely non-evidentiary and offers a logical quantum roughly the equivalent of “I like pizza” or “blue’s a pretty colour.” The amalgamation idea seems to trigger some murky, bigger’s better impulse in mental adolescents who obsess about the heft of their package and wail how this place doesn’t have the testicularity to be a real city. You know, like Switzerland’s problem: it’s not Germany. And at the head of the small’s-a-disease/amalgamation’s-the-cure parade is the Chamber of Commerce leadership, drum-beating and banner-waving with absurdities like “We’re Better Together!” “A Remarkable Core City For Our Region!” and so on. And if you timidly ask “But, doesn’t the region already have a remarkable core city called Victoria? You know, the Inner Harbour, Empress, Legislature, tall buildings, lots of talent, energy and thousands of people moving in?” the answer you get is “We’re Better Together!” “A Magnificent New Metropolis!” Citizens: dare to keep your Chamber off drugs. In spite of the 501 words you have just read, this is not a column about amalgamation, but about the worldview—the philosophy of society, you might say—that allows people to believe that amalgamation is a good idea. The genius of this place, so apparent that it’s almost invisible, is the beautiful, precious localness fostered by the multifarity of municipalities in the region. It isn’t some idiosyncrasy, deficiency or flaw that needs correction. It’s not an embarrassment, our “shame,” some quirk or retrograde behaviour, but one of our great strengths. It reinforces the scale, values and protocols of human community at a time when community (not to mention humanity) is at risk everywhere; and it reminds our various mayors and councillors that the number one job we hire you for is not sound municipal management, which a skilled administrative executive can provide, but the care, protection and well-being of your publics; that is, the quality and reality of the “conversation” between citizens and elected. In too many places, social values have become grievance-driven, tribal (identitarian) and defensive, at great cost to the human family, the community. There is enormous stress in the world right now. Victoria is one of the remaining places where the formulation “if my community does well, I do well” operates functionally, if imperfectly. In my view, this is the powerful “something” that people pick up when they visit here—not simply our harbour vistas, rich historic architecture, cute streets, intact neighbourhoods, and verdant tree canopy, but their semiotic promise, what these things are code for: a place of human balance and comfort, the tantalizing promise of heaven on Earth. And what this asks—no, requires—of local political leaders is that they be social innovators, constantly searching for new opportunities for community expression, new ways to vitalize the individual/community connection. The think-big types can be remarkably dismissive of “dotty” locals—people, that is, with their all-too-human preferences, tugs and pulls, hopes and worries—as if the purpose of life was not human well-being, but some dehumanizing abstraction like “Progress!” or “Growth!” or “Making Victoria Great!” In my experience and my reading of history, such abstracting has ritually come with a cost…and produced a sorrowful (and repeatedly unheeded) postscript. Fascism, neo-Nazism, systemic racism, anti-Semitism, follow me-autocracy, flag-waving national tribalism, economic aristocratism, and other dark and disturbing social tectonics are on a sharp rise globally. Worldwide, the number of democratic states has diminished—a “democratic recession” in the words of Stanford sociologist Larry Diamond. “Never again” is yet again yielding by dangerous increments to “here we go again.” These emergent conditions are accompanied by a trending ecological violence—violence to one’s home. Under such conditions, the geography of human community—literally, the place and space for healthy social functioning—is changing, diminishing. This is a time less of place-creating than place-abandonment and destruction, forced cultural forgetting and the collapse of memory. Humanity is culturally molting, here, everywhere, preparing for some convulsive Big Next. Such generalized fungibility—where anywhere is anywhere else—has already slithered into town and turned Victoria (I don’t know about Saanich) into a devil’s playground for all the smoothocrats in local government, as if memory were a plaything with the value and durability of a Cracker-Jacks toy. Look for telling cultural shifts. Used to be “Five Points” at Moss and Fairfield? Now, it’s a “Small Urban Village” or SUV (big-sistered, of course, by LUV’s) to planning practitioners. Says the City, in essence: “No, no, we’re not proposing the removal or elimination of place, simply the substitution of authenticity with, well, er, jargon.” However unintended, this is civic organizational sociopathy cleverly packaged as professionalism. Back in the good old days, when something reeked it was greeted and treated with revulsion. Now, jaws agape, we citizens—increasingly re-cast as “stakeholders” in some “all-gain” “community engagement” process—just stupidly watch it happen, witnesses to the ruin of hope. It’s practically Orwellian. It’s our own fault: we give up, or give up on, memory, our past, the third dimension. What’s that classic stoner line? Oh, right: “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you can’t know where you’re going.” A key purpose of memory is to give direction, a true north, to our moral compass as we steer into the future. Now, as memory evaporates, we are adrift. Policy—vital and rich with social intention in its moment of creation, then quickly forgotten—takes on a life of its own, a target for unintended consequences, accumulating un-challenged ideas, un-tested assumptions, lingo, precedents nobody thought of, all of which favours an impenetrable professional culture and a social engineering bias. Flashing yellow lights, my friends. Zoning and related land use policies are, in fact, a kind of massive paraphrase of the life we intend for ourselves. But zoning is a tricky tool, and it requires us to be perpetually mindful of the risk of bad outcomes and of the need to course-correct. I’m reminded in this moment of social critic James Kunstler who spoke at a Victoria conference long ago and remarked how we North Americans are, as expressed in our social practices and in our urban design and land use policies, creating “places that are not worth caring about.” Very much in line with Kunstler’s concern is the contemporary idea of solastalgia, which describes ecological grief brought on by the experience or anticipation of ecological loss. This includes the loss of meaningful landscapes, familiar built forms, human communities and sustainable environments, and is reinforced by a sense of powerlessness to hold back the loss. Oh, and amalgamation? Think of it this way: 40 communities in one consolidated municipality are less important, meaningful, individual, attention-worthy than 20 each in two. Call it the first lesson in the solastalgia handbook. It is an imperative: we cannot allow technocrats or technocratic “solutions” to define the terms of response to what are ultimately existential and moral concerns…social concerns. We need our local political and civic leadership to read the horizon for risk, and to invoke all the means (land use not least, but not alone) by which Victoria can remain a place of communities, a place of places. Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with partner Rob Abbott, is writing the book Futuretense: Robotics, AI and Life in a Jobless World.
  7. Victoria may be stuck in time, but that could be what guarantees its survival. THE EMAIL SUBJECT LINE appeared to read: “Genius Way to Be a Mistress,” but when I squinted for another look, it read “Genius Way to Buy a Mattress.” It took only that heartbeat between glimpses to spin a dozen fantasies about the Degenerate-In-Chief in the White House. Look at that! I planned to write with a springtime flutter in my heart, but two sentences in and it’s cocktails on the lip of the volcano. Oh well, stick with what you know. 2018 isn’t 2017-just-rolls-on; it’s 2017-gets-worse. In case you hadn’t noticed, politically, existentially, we are staring out at stormy waters—no, not Stormy what’s-her-name, the First Hooker. My old man, a turn-of-the-20th century son of two eastern European émigrés, physically unscathed by the Great Depression and two world wars (he fought in the second), but hardly an emotional survivor, meekly and ritually muttered during his Florida retirement dotage, “It’s not all smooth sailing.” And he was referencing his era, a short, lifetime increment, and not, say, the Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction Event when, for nine million years, you couldn’t get fresh, lean pelycosaur for money or prayer. My dad meant: don’t make plans that assume or require constancy, because the laws of contingency, like an amusement park herky-jerk, are sure to whip you sideways. And it was never more true than right now. If you anticipate that the current and coming times will be same-old, same-old, you are in for a string of un-gentle shocks. Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Studies and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, penned a recent opinion piece claiming that the era of liberal democracy, with legislated regular leadership elections and term limits, is over. It’s his view that an “emperor’s moment” is the new and spreading political fashion. I’m halfway through How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s ominous and cautionary dissection of the political and social forces that in the past have produced, and now appear set to re-produce, a global rise in autocratic leaders, presidents-for-life and military-supported dictatorships. Their book is one of a flurry of current titles exploring this theme. Of course, it could never happen in our country, notwithstanding Trudeau’s declining popularity or risks to the small-L liberal agenda, because we’re…well…we’re Canada, and we don’t roll that way. No, sir. Never. Couldn’t happen here. If there were ever a moment to liberate our sensibilities from manic and unrealistic faith in the never-ending improvability of everything, this is it. We need to install mental jitter software appropriate to very uneasy times, which might at least allow our feet to touch the ground and provoke a realistic public consensus about the state of things. In the movies, trouble comes with uh-oh music. The skies darken, putting the world in shadow. However, off-screen, also known as “reality,” trouble materializes with few cues and no music, or few cues that people are able to spot and willing to heed. I remind you, just to strike a rare sombre note, that civilizations and cultures before our own have finished and vanished—likely just after their poets celebrated in song their achievements, longevity and indestructibility. Germany (Ribbentrop) and Russia (Molotov) signed a non-aggression pact on August 23, 1939. Three days later, the Second World War began. In his biography of pianist Vladimir Horowitz, author Harold Schonberg comments: “The ‘experts’ told Horowitz there would never be a war. Inconceivable! But Horowitz, recognizing the threat from Germany, knew war was coming and, he recounts, ‘so did Rachmaninoff when I had dinner with him in Paris.’” Remember, there are “experts” and there are folks who sense which way the wind is blowing. In 2018, American social critic James Kunstler writes: “There are certainly waves and cycles in history, and one of them involves a society’s capacity for self-understanding. Sometimes, a culture is too flimsy or exhausted or sick to achieve even low levels of self-awareness. We are at a low point in the cycle, sunk in grievance fantasies and narcissism. The end result is we don’t know what we’re doing or why we’re doing it.” Succinctly, Charles Blow in the New York Times puts the current moment this way: “I see a man growing increasingly irascible as his sense of desperation surges. The world is closing in on Trump and he is in an existential fight for his own survival. This is precisely what makes him so dangerous: Trump will harness [presidential power] and deploy it all as guard and guarantee against his own demise.” There are times to coast and times to pedal. Right now? I’d suggest we pedal like mad. I can’t help it; I just ooze all this worry. I’m an apocalyptarian to the core. No, Gramps, not an apocryphal librarian. Change your battery. You ask: why now, why are times so suddenly clangorous, so fraught and worrying? Well, one theory of events is the un-nuanced but deceptively profound “Shit happens.” This points to the arbitrary and random aspects, the why/ because, of existence: things that will fail to achieve their intended outcomes, or will have unintended consequences. We have a word to cover these situations or, at least, their aftermath: “Oops.” A second un-credentialed idea is that we are governed by an evolutionary script and, increasingly liberated from the obligations of mutuality (which itself has become abstracted beyond clarity or recognition) and made nearly godlike by our worldly competence, we are becoming culturally over-individuated—solitudes supported by technology— which puts us utterly at odds with our biological nature. Such distortions are vastly de-stabilizing and dislocating, put all of us in a state of collective anxiety and anger, force danger on the entire human project and, unsurprisingly, release boundless growth opportunities for autocrats, demagogues and assorted strongmen. Third in this quartet of explanations: Carlos Perez, in a long essay on the Intuition Machine website, cites Scott Alexander’s “Meditations on Moloch,” which discusses the inevitable failure of collective coordination. Alexander argues, “groups that survive will be the kinds that are most selfish (that is, ruthless, opportunistic and self-advancing). Groups that have a strategy aligned with the common good are likely to go extinct.” He writes that the optimal solution is simple enough to understand intellectually, yet impossible to implement. Civilization cannot escape this problem and it is the root cause of repeated, cyclical social tension. Last is this idea: we systemically underprice social risk. As world conditions deteriorate and become more parlous, I’m increasingly inclined to think of Victoria as a “lifeboat”—a community that somehow maintains its cultural coherence during rough and threatening times, not because the place is too small to matter, but because it practices the dual skills (and they are skills) of continuity and mutuality. We joke about “a little bit of Olde England,” but, to give credit, how binding and stabilizing a civic narrative that has been! In spite of the one-liners about The Present arriving in Victoria ten years late, this place, as I’ve suggested in previous writing, has a “genius for inertia.” If I had to define Victoria’s purpose in these increasingly jumpy times, I would say our task is to maintain an identity based on cultural and social continuity and a practiced and functioning mutuality, even if the Olde England thing has waned. We should remind ourselves that communities aren’t communities merely because they have place names or share a postal code or some other accidental adjacency, but because they actively practice a range of community functions and maintain commonwealth—that is, do things together. Yes, I know: easy to propose, but a challenge to undertake. Still, the social stakes are enormous, as David Brooks lays out in a mid-February New York Times column: “There’s been an utter transformation in the mind-set within which people hold their beliefs. Back in the 1990s, there was an unconscious abundance mind-set. Democratic capitalism provides the bounty. Prejudice gradually fades away. Growth and dynamism are our friends. The abundance mind-set is confident in the future, welcoming toward others. It sees win-win situations everywhere. “Today, after the financial crisis, the shrinking of the middle class, the partisan warfare, a scarcity mind-set is dominant: Resources are limited. The world is dangerous. Group conflict is inevitable. It’s us versus them. The ends justify the means. “All of this would be survivable if the mentality was going away in a few years. But it is not going away. The underlying conditions of scarcity are only going to get worse. Moreover, the warrior mentality builds on itself. This is a generational challenge. Some other warrior will succeed Trump.” Imagine you and me, reader and writer, sitting, like Horowitz and Rachmaninoff, in a Victoria café, sipping our shade-grown, ethically sourced lattes and discussing prospects in 2018. What modest local initiatives, what social strategies and policies might we propose to ensure (short of a guarantee) that our boat floats through this nervous chapter and into a better beyond? Think: community. Now, where did I put that springtime flutter? Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine.
  8. Is the call for political amalgamation of CRD municipalities, at its core, motivated by toxic social impulses? NATURE, THE SAYING GOES, ABHORS A VACUUM, as true in the social environment as in the physical world. If a society or a community retreats from one set of priorities or practices—that is, diminishes its moral, regulatory, or energetic investment—some other expression will expand and intensify its influence. You can witness this truth at play, along with immediate disruptive consequences and worse to come, south of our border. A devastating and depressing early-February piece by New York Times columnist Charles Blow makes the point that American institutions, democratic process, and public culture will never be the same, even after Trump is gone. Happily, hopefully, American political culture and many of its social resonances stop at the border; but more to the point, the times they are a-churning and ideological slugfests are sprouting everywhere. Ideology, as you know, is an idea of how the future should happen. Gosh, does “everywhere” include little old “here?” The regional amalgamation drum has been beating louder recently, which may indicate that local government and/or community itself is, in word and deed, creating a vacuum, vacating the strong case for localism, allowing it to languish and lose ground. To be clear: when I write “amalgamation,” I am not discussing whether sewer pipes line up at municipal borders. My sole concern (and worry) is political amalgamation: one big Victoria. In my view, this is amalgamation’s central and not-so-subtle social threat: it leads by seemingly logical and harmless increments toward a political inevitability in which citizens willingly, or at least un-protestingly, exchange the more transparent and easily understood triumphs and bloopers of local political process, the accessibility and chances of engagement, for the moonless bureaucratic night and monolithic impenetrability of regional governance. Why add more geographic abstraction to the political process? Why sacrifice precious social identity and political self-expression? Maybe we’re sliding into undifferentiated times (I blame the Internet), and the idea of community-scale selfhood is waning. I’m posing the idea that an entire glossary of social practice, and the ideas and values behind it, is at risk of fading: community, neighbour, access, participation, engagement, locality, citizenship, mutuality and so on. We’re all becoming…the future. In other words, regional amalgamation, putting aside its ambiguous claims of service efficiency or its glib economic promises, is loaded with hidden social semiotics, and grounded in values, not value. Along with other forced political consolidations, amalgamation has its roots sunk in beliefs and power rituals in which a human group, invoking some higher authority (everything from Amalgamation to National Destiny to God) “solves” itself by “solving” the world (and sometimes rooting out the last nonbeliever). People look lazily to, or for, a “higher” power for justification, or solution. It seems built into our genes. Consider our hypnotic attraction to permission and to the authoritarian potency of “Yes” and “No,” how the entitlement to invoke these words and make them law is the key to the imperial capture of the world. We say “mayor,” “premier” or “prime minister;” we mean “Your Majesty” or “Daddy” or “Mommy.” Secretly, we long to be led and completed by a stronger force; yes, it might dominate us, but it also satisfies something in us—makes ambiguity tolerable, maybe—and performs some perverse and murky release. Pankaj Mishra, in Age of Anger, quotes Hugo von Hofmannsthal who, more than a century ago, noted: “Politics is magic. He who knows how to summon the forces from the deep, him they will follow.” All of which speaks to this caution: the border between a democracy and an autocracy (or worse) is skin thin. Just cast your eyes south. In the same way that many physical pathologies flourish when the body system is weak, amalgamation blooms in the body politic when simple community—commonwealth—falters or fails. Like many such -ations and -isms with hard-to-spot implications and unforeseen consequences, amalgamation can be reasonably argued; but you can’t miss the strong flashes of ideology shining through the seams. By ideology I mean weltanschauung—worldview and attitude—an idea of what people are, and of human nature and purpose. How else to explain the repudiation of Lilliputian local government? Please, tune your ear to the critical notes embedded in words like “local,” “municipal,” “civic,” just as “rustic” suggests not “pastoral” alone, but also “clodhopper” and “yokel.” But, now consider how in our everyday lives we occupy an almost exclusively local world whose canvas is painted with life’s minute victories, draws and defeats framed by daily routine. Are locals too…local? Is community-scale too idiomatic, too subjective, too weak? Have the times and trends gutted local scale, made it quaint, so that now we accede without resistance to larger, more authoritative and powerful structures? Come downstairs with me to meet the Devil. Beneath the vegetative repetition and triviality of the everyday is the fortissimo: the allure and the appeal of a life vitalized by appetite, ambition, a limitless hunger for reach, self-inflation, fantasies of sexual triumph and hero-hood, a belief in shortcuts and personal exception, hallucinatory images of everything delivered (plenty without a price tag), situational morality (one’s own rules and justifications), the debasement—the dehumanization, really—of other people’s identities and needs. In that state of crescendo and self-seduction we become aristocrats crowned by our murky choices, lit by spotlights in our own hall of fame. Power, dizzying power! But never without a risk or a price tag: the catastrophic collapse of social bonds. Does political amalgamation, then, unwittingly embody a dangerous pathology, and should its prospects be aggressively countered? No; but be mindful of messaging that promotes the consolidation of healthy, local political publics—you—into one homogenous regional administrative populace. If you take everything you’ve read so far to be hysterical amplification, you may have missed that there’s a dangerous, narcissistic, emotionally unstable autocrat next door in the White House, and that the Nazi swastika is back in fashion globally, courtesy of quickly rematerializing neo-nationalist/neo-fascist movements now blooming like early crocuses in various places. Poland’s new government has just produced a law prohibiting accusations of Polish participation in the Holocaust and other war crimes that took place during the German occupation of Poland. If you’re planning to change the future, the first thing you do is write out a contradictory or annoying past. The worst mistake any of us can make right now is to see historical discontinuity growing all around and, thinking it won’t touch us, develop no mental poise and no plan. So, here’s a cautionary thought for our postmodern era, as an ominous and angry near-future assembles the next triple-whammy: a task of local government, expressed through all of its practices and policies, is the renewal and re-expression of commonwealth—that is, the political culture of community and social connection, of shared effort and common goals. “Common” has to be constantly recalibrated, re-communicated, re-learned and re-actualized in our socially abstracted and bemused times. The slide into authoritarianism, Atlantic Monthly commentator David Frum warned recently, “is unstoppable if people retreat into private life.” In The Authoritarian Dynamic, Karen Stenner states: “democracy does not produce community, it requires community.” In our fluid age, it takes both a geographic and a social border to sustain city or community identity: a sense of shared purpose reinforced by familiar community structures and protocols, carefully managed physical change and limits on discontinuity, and a rich diet of innovative social projects—an “us,” really, not to make people tribal and defensive, but to give identity and energy to these things and help citizens resist the sickness of un-belonging. Municipalities appear challenged to understand that there’s an absolute requirement for amenity-rich communities—locales filled with appealing physical features and social activities and opportunities that people can love and care about—if folks are going to feel engaged and connected, and behave like stakeholders, citizens. Cities open the door to toxic social impulses and turn into characterless geographies when they lose the skills of, or forget to practice, identity—their culture and history. They unlearn or “busy away” their meaning and run out of story and moral purpose (or mistake a buoyant real estate market for meaning, purpose and validation—a guaranteed sign of cultural degeneration). They run out of Why, and they are not aided if their civic and social leadership is blind to signs, unable to read social and historical metaphor and, consequently, poorly equipped to secure the future. In modern circumstances, any small city exists under the threat of “historical contingency that sooner or later loses its relevance,” to borrow economic geographer Paul Krugman’s phrase. Victoria, barely “a little bit of Olde England” or any other defining identity beyond the visitor’s “nice” or “cute” anymore, is presently a drifting place, a human geography in search of a new or updated story. Political amalgamation, I assure you, is not a new narrative and will deliver not a renewed, heartfelt social landscape, but a chartless, implosive cultural ruin. Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with partner Rob Abbott, is writing the book Futuretense: Robotics, AI and Life in a Jobless World.
  9. Could Victoria be a civilizational lifeboat in these crazy, conflict-prone times? THE START OF A NEW YEAR, and time for this column’s annual post-Christmas bummer. “But, Gene, all your columns are—” Okay, let’s move on. Dropping all niceties, 2018, possibly less than a month old as you read, is damned if not doomed. In a world now operating on tightrope conditions, and in the absence of any snappier handles, I offer this mouthful: “The Year Converging Urgencies Become Emergencies.” Explanations are still congealing in the effort to explain a politically profane and socially toxic 2017 next door. Folks in my circle are clinging to the prayerful fantasy that Trump and the cohort who elected him are some kind of pothole in history’s highway, some “time out for crazy,” and not the new toll road. I wouldn’t underestimate Trump’s canny ability to embody or exploit the raw edge of mood in America. Remember, he didn’t come out of nowhere. He’s the political expression of a years-building discontent based on real, not imaginary, conditions of growing social disunion and economic (and US hegemonic) decline. Trump’s the smart version of something mob-angry and very dangerous right now: namely, America has a hole in its soul. The values, sensibilities and practices of the progressive agenda (Canada in America, if I can put it that way) are undergoing both policy setback and the ruin of hope. In a likely foretaste of worse-to-come, Trump’s gift of projecting his own bad values as political semiotics—winks, nudges, tweets, aggressive off-the-cuff vulgarities—has liberated and emboldened something tidal, dark, racial and xenophobic, re-expressing itself as the drumbeat of the so-called American alt-Right. Now, every under-the-rock hater and neo-conservative I-told-you-so has a float in the parade. It’s practically biblical, Old Testament redux: The Flood in the Book of Genesis—relevant, with the slightest of spins, as an ecological metaphor in our time of rising sea level. Mind, I heard the delicious story that the planet is warming because Hell is getting larger. In the era of Trump and the widening sins of the corporate oligarchy, that fits well with my ontology. While we might wish that our neighbour’s mounting chaos stopped at the border, today’s connected world doesn’t work like that. Besides, the progressive agenda in many countries is retreating before “identitarian” politics grounded in culture and race, and yielding to murky, ever-shifting realignments based on “situational principles” as we enter a contractive, anti-globalist, neo-isolationist and altogether more positional era. What’s that word…horripilation? Trust your skin; it’s a cognitive organ. We are in “all bets are off” times, and the Canadian challenge is to determine any possible means of culturally, economically, geo-politically surviving an unfolding and probably messy US meltdown able to take large swaths of the world with it. Given physical adjacency, economic entanglement and cultural porosity, we’re hardly bystanders. Build the hedge, Justin. Of course, it could be too late for that, given national identity pretty much limited to universal health care and $2 coins. Trump just declared opioid abuse a “national emergency.” The US is the per capita world leader in prescription opioid consumption. Number Two? Canada. I’m mystified by the mutability and the apparent rejection—the why and the why now—of a value system whose corner-points seemed well-anchored and in good health just a US president ago. It feels as if mutuality has been abruptly, utterly, replaced by self-interest—“us” by “me”—and, in certain circles, the Good Book tossed in favour of Mein Kampf. I digress to assure you that despite the churchy title, you don’t have to wear your Sunday best to this column. Panis Angelicus (Bread of Angels) is a brief spoken portion of a longer church service, the Sacris Solemnis, written by St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275): The bread of angels Becomes bread for mankind The bread of heaven Ends all worried thought Oh, miraculous thing! etc. These serious and sacred lines may invite vigourous theological parsing (white, whole wheat or multigrain? for example), but seem to me simply to ask us to sustain our better natures if we wish to thrive as a human community. Elsewhere, in his Summa Theologica, St Thomas boldly argues that the answer to “Why?” is “God.” Blind to the mad circularity of that argument, he would, I imagine, reject an assessment of his ideas as proof of crazy assertiveness—a defining feature of our own times as well as his. Crazy and correct—the surreal outcome that results when reality is asked to contain perverted, up-is-down logic. Israeli psychoanalyst Yolanda Gampel describes an “interminable uncanniness” that lurks within people experiencing residual Holocaust effects, having witnessed (and survived) the “unreal reality” of mass murder. “Such an assault on the boundary between fantasy and reality becomes traumatic in itself and leads to great fear of one’s thoughts.” Gampel means, I believe, that for such people reality never again quite meets at the corners, never “lands,” and they remain wedded to anxiety for a lifetime. The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg adds Trump-era currency: “there’s no way, with a leader who lays siege to the fabric of reality, to fully hold on to a sense of what’s normal.” You think your life embodies conventions and broadly agreed-to rules for conduct and, suddenly, those rules don’t function, or they function badly. You push the button, nothing whirrs, nothing drops into the slot. Worriedly, problematically, this unreality reaches into the everyday, and whole societies are caught in unreal reality, in a strangely synthetic and fraught normalcy that doesn’t quite meet at the corners and that leaves all of us with a faint but nagging sense that we’re operating in some fictional condition. This raises a disturbing and provocative question: If some human community—oh, let’s pick Victoria, out of thin air—was staring straight at the calamitous denouement of this onrushing near-future (to be called the Second Dark Age in its aftermath), could it stand sufficiently offside to re-cast itself as a preserver of social capital and sanity, activate strategic forms of preparedness, behave counter-chaotically; in essence, be a civilizational lifeboat? Or, with the world drowning in threat, would this place, lacking courage, character and means, collapse in survivalist mayhem? The Guardian’s Paul Mason reported recently on a leaked German government worst-case scenario for the year 2040: “EU expansion has been largely abandoned, and more states have left the community. The increasingly disorderly, sometimes chaotic and conflict-prone world has dramatically changed the security environment.” “Conflict-prone world has dramatically changed the security environment.” Quick, a synonym, please. World War III? My assessment is this: An extraordinary 3-generation, 70-year run of relative wellbeing is climaxing, and its conclusion is not likely to be “gracefully managed” or “transitional” or “incremental.” How will it climax? Not sure. When? Soon. How soon? Just...soon. Why? Street view: shit happens. Or slightly more thoughtfully: a collision of converging urgencies results in human systems and institutions hitting the limits of structure and elasticity, leading to spasm. At the conclusion of Alexander Sokurov’s stunning movie Russian Ark, the year is 1914 and the aristocracy, at the end of a gorgeous evening of hobnobbing and dancing, slowly descends the grand stairs of the Winter Palace, diffusing and vanishing into the St Petersburg night as if to greet the Russian future: that is, the soon-arriving 1917 Revolution with its 9 million “unnatural” deaths, including the execution of the entire royal family. You may be feeling a growing irritation with this column’s elaborate millenarian vision, but before pique gets the best of you, spend some time reading New York Times columnist David Brooks’ melancholy October 31, 2017 piece in which he reflects on “politics used as a cure for spiritual and social loneliness [by] people desperately trying to connect in the disrupted landscape of an America where bonds are attenuated—without stable families, tight communities, durable careers, ethnic roots or an enveloping moral culture.” All of which lays the ground for the social mission I am proposing for Victoria—possibly, our shining chapter in the human story. If anything defines or describes the place, sets it apart, it is what I have elsewhere called its “genius for inertia,” really, its remarkable talent for social agreement, alignment with limits, love of continuity, and consanguinity with nature. I call this mission commonwealth; that is, to preserve memory, culture and values of collaboration; to sustain a social grammar and legibility…the idea that all is shared. Commonwealth: intangible assets held in common. What a simple, logical, immediately understandable idea! Not an abstraction but the city you live in, your friends, neighbours and adjacent strangers. You may recall from a previous column Jennifer Senior’s remark about social belonging, that we have so little regard for what’s collectively ours. Were I looking for conceptual grounds for commonwealth, I would land right there. Our civic identity strongly embodies this kind of thinking. The past is our compass, we champion community, nurture social belonging wherever we see it germinating, and ambitiously innovate new structures of belonging that will enrich commonwealth. I close wishing you a good year, and with the suggestion that we adopt this chaste slogan as the city’s motto: “Victoria, Where You Belong.” 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.
  10. Can Victoria survive its own bungling and folly? JAMES KUNSTLER, social critic and author, writes that “Narratives are not truths.” It’s his point that manufactured good news and progress “selfies” from government, often amplified by ideological advocates or benefitting private interests, merge with lazy social agreement and public habits of passivity or indifference to produce fictions that stand in for reality. Once in place, these fictions require energy to dispel or refute; exhaust critical assets and blunt activism; and frustrate common-sense understanding and response. After all, if fiction and fact—somebody’s story about reality, and reality—are simply “competing perspectives” deserving equal consideration, then reality’s compelling claim is diminished, and decisions and plans are likely to be made on shaky credentials. Current conditions can be read (and, worryingly, the future projected) in just this way. Yes, it’s tempting to make Trump “Exhibit A,” but let me localize Kunstler’s thinking. I live beside Beacon Hill Park and spend a lot of time tramping the park’s contoured landscape. I can attest to the more or less “tent city” numbers of homeless dispersed throughout the park, particularly in more clement seasons, and the “rush hour” of campers and floppers leaving the lawns, meadows and groves in the morning, heading, presumably, for breakfast with Reverend Al, or at Our Place, or to begin a day of…whatever. Some denizens, un-tempted by the breakfast commute, and inventive enough to end-run the formal terms of the City’s no-daytime-camping rule, have made more or less permanent homes in various copses, forested side-paths and corners of the park. City parks staff, understandably uncomfortable with the potential for direct encounter, have told me that they don’t feel completely safe in certain parts of the park, especially when working solo. I understand why they might feel that way, and I’m also sympathetic that current budgets or deployments appear not to allow for the thorough pickup of a widely scattered dumpster’s-worth of daily leave-behinds. The coded violence, if I can put it that way, of discarded needles and other drug gear (staggering amounts), human excrement, tossed food packaging and camping crud, clothing, cardboard ground cover, bloody bandages, shopping carts, remnant objects, and the embedded humans themselves can be found throughout. The conditions of living rough diminish the park’s painterly, paradisiacal landscapes. They change the park experience, compromise its confected arcadian design, and force guardedness in any park user with eyeballs and a brain. But in spite of the fact that parts of the park sometimes look and vibe like the opening scene of a zombie movie, the public, fed some mumbo-jumbo by the City about assiduous bylaw enforcement and police oversight (both, though well-intentioned, are spotty and largely ineffective), is advised it needn’t fear. And if you step in a napkin-festooned “crap sandwich” while rambling, well, that’s just part of the park experience, isn’t it? Whistle along with me: Everybody’s beautiful In their own way…. The wonder in all of this is surprise from any quarter that such conditions have materialized. What did the City—what did anyone—think would happen when large numbers of people at the margins, with limited material, emotional or transactional wherewithal (along with bad habits and bad attitudes, in some cases) were charged by society with their own shelter, well-being and survival, and were treated like outsiders, symbolically and literally? Don’t they write textbooks about stuff like this? The park tents, sleeping bags, shopping carts, tarps and piles of camper crap, plus the homeless crashed all over Downtown’s streets do not exactly shout “civic triumph” for Victoria, city or region. But there it is, so we have to ask how did this current state of things—to be clear, I’m referring to homelessness itself, not the “cosmetic” impacts—work its way inside the porous and elastic definition of “socially acceptable” here in Victoria? This is not how to operate a city, especially in these times. We are at, if I can use an un-patented phrase, one of history’s corner-points: a time when both conventional social practice, and the sensibilities undergirding it, are facing assault (political, cultural, economic); and no, the new Downtown bike lanes are not a for-instance. As someone with a talent for brevity has noted: the future doesn’t come with a guarantee. I believe the changes coming our way—not in some tomorrowland, but soon—call for recognition and preparation, and I believe the word “survivability” nicely defines the stakes. I invite you to meditate on the state of things in 2040, when half the current jobs have been transferred to AI and robotics, the economy has been turned upside down, and a lot of people have too much free time. Yes, I’m a hysteric; and no, I don’t want to debate this future with you. It’s my immediate point that even leaving aside the familiar litany of legitimate hand-wringer concerns about the homeless, continued homelessness is a social failure time-bomb whose impacts are guaranteed to diminish the city’s character and identity, and these can materialize with unexpected speed. There is an exhaustive literature about cities that squander and never regain character and composure as a consequence of under-responding to some critical social problem or need and, through the very act of procrastination, unwittingly help to author its messy, hyperbolic climax. Remember the recent tent city on Burdett and Quadra? Such conditions and outcomes are corrosive; social animus is corrosive: cities lose their souls. VICTORIA'S APPEALING IMAGE in a jumpy world and its high marks with visitors (the money, honey) are based on its ability to convey an authentic, lovely, gentle yesteryear-tinged social health and stability, a coherent sense of urban community and continuity, a place where memory and an entire set of social principles and conventions still guide human actions. The key word above is “authentic.” Jennifer Senior, in a May, 2016 review of Sebastian Junger’s Tribe, a book concerned with the conditions that foster social belonging, writes: “It’s not just that our personal loyalties have shrunk to a universe the size of a teacup (family, a handful of friends). It’s that we have so little regard for what’s collectively ours.” Senior’s concern is highly relevant to local identity as we nervously balance, these days, in the narrow psychic space between a large Victoria and a small Vancouver, and especially as Chamber types are braying for a one-city regionalism guaranteed to intensify placelessness, reduce and abstract cultural memory, and further hobble the skills, responsibilities and arts of localism, of community. Our current municipal and regional entities demonstrate a brilliant competence (I stretch a point to make a point) in future-planning when it comes to urban systems, but the local m.o. with homelessness is to wait until there’s a near-crisis, then stitch together the minimum resources necessary, altogether ensuring that we do the worst job, take the longest possible time, achieve minimum outcome, and provide maximum pain and continued social risk for everyone. All in favour? Maybe spending authorities believe that “current economic conditions” and “spending priorities” (phrases that should always land with a here-comes-horseshit warning flag) don’t allow for a commitment adequate to ensure the shelter of all. But we’re spending, through emergency services and other ad hoc social management responses, dollars equivalent to or greater than the costs of permanent housing; not to mention real social and reputational costs. But don’t let that cloud your judgment. (I pause here to express appreciation for the extraordinary efforts of the region’s many values-driven housing and social services organizations and individuals. This saintly crowd does what it can with what it’s given, and we owe them our gratitude...and a much larger budget.) Maybe we assume that the ubiquitous “they”—the Department of This, or the Office of That—are looking after housing and social management of the homeless: a classic example of “everywhere, elsewhere.” Maybe, in spite of fatuous Canadian chest-thumping, we are—courtesy of darkening geopolitics, worrying economy and growing social insecurity—turning, or returning, to a Dickensian playbook. Maybe, nuanced apologetics aside, we just don’t give a shit. I mean, Victoria, in spite of all efforts at camouflage, is part of a hardening world. You can feel it in the air: a strong tang of devil-take-the-hindmost. Ironically, we might best achieve homeless housing outcomes if there were a Department of This, adequately funded and charged with the provision and maintenance of homeless housing and services; that is, remove it from the moral landscape and just put it on the to-do list, like pothole repair. Identity, municipal “story,” if I can use such a term for community, is a fragile thing. We need always to be careful that what pushes us into the future doesn’t push us out of the past—which is to say, social memory. Historian Barbara Tuchman suggests: “Social systems can survive a good deal of folly when circumstances are historically favorable or when bungling is cushioned by large resources or absorbed by sheer size. Today, when there are no more cushions, folly is less affordable.” Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller and has launched, with partner Rob Abbott, the website FUTURETENSE: Robotics, AI, and the Future of Work.
  11. With David Butterfield’s passing, Victoria has lost one of its major investors in social capital. BECAUSE A LIFE TAKES PLACE IN, and is significantly defined by, a social and historical context, a here and a now, let’s reflect on the times. We have a back foot still resting in the vestiges of something recognizable as history—that is, agreed-upon terms for living and a legible arrangement of hopes—and a forward foot poised above states of discontinuity that a catastrophist (not me, of course) could easily interpret as oblivion’s hot button. Someone presumably as rational as Elon Musk of Tesla and soon Neuralink (linking human brains and computers) fame, calls A.I. a “fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.” (Musk’s blind eye to Neuralink noted.) This threat didn’t emerge yesterday. Humanity has been building toward this sci-fi third act for a while, and you would have to lack all emotional radar not to pick up on the atmosphere of growing agitation surrounding our lives, or the increasingly tormented and nihilistic output in every branch of contemporary culture and social practice. Some academics would say frenzy and hints of destruction are characteristics of and precursors to all transformational moments in social evolution. I think that’s an academic view. Our southern neighbours just chose for president the personification, the apotheosis, of their own current suicidal despair: an unrestrained, crazy, angry child—the kind of human who tailgates you, high beams on, punishing you for driving the posted speed limit or having the gall to occupy his private passing lane. He’s a conscienceless, divisive, self-aggrandizing, always-right-never-wrong monster who, pledging to make America great again (crap, but also a world-risking formulation), has pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord, even though credible climate predictions are, in a word, apocalyptic. He’s a living guarantee that four years of everything wrong with and within the US will get wronger, and of Code Red danger levels for all of us. Like evil foretold, he embodies some unknowable break with our imperfect but operable social contract; or maybe, representing only its imperfections and deficiencies, he’s its culmination. The “base”—whoever that is, whatever that means—no longer recognizes risk or its signs, because things have gone past any chance of national recuperation or repair, intensifying an anxious and pessimistic mood which, in case you hadn’t noticed, doesn’t respect national borders. Everyone feels it; no one knows what to do about it. In such times of duress, “small L” liberal expressions, practices and values are just social conceits and cocktail chatter nice-to’s, almost laughable irrelevancies; and as political or social practice they are collapsing before this Shakespearean tragedy of red meat politics and looming social tumult. If there was ever a moment for the call, “All wise hands on deck,” this is it. Why David Butterfield left the world, just when his aptitudes and his attitudes are most required, is beyond my comprehension. David expired at his Shoal Point home around 7pm on Saturday, June 17, ravaged by cancer and little more than skin, bones and defeated innards. He was just sub-70 when he died, and left behind lifelong wife, partner and soul-mate Norma, talented and successful son Stewart (Flickr, Slack), older brothers Alf and Lyman, and hundreds upon hundreds of friends, colleagues and admirers (and a few critics possibly judgmental about his accomplishments, not, God knows, disappointed by his lack of them). David Butterfield (l) and Gene Miller. Photo by Denton Pendergast. As you could easily learn from the testimonials and remembrances delivered at a mid-July celebration of his life, held in the orchard of St Ann’s Academy, David was impulsive and uncommonly openhearted, philanthropically generous, eager to make a difference and to believe that doing so mattered, making all of us beneficiaries of his remarkable capacity for conceiving and executing aspirational, community-creating, aesthetically meaningful and ecologically-attuned development. His Trust for Sustainable Development carried the vision (though not with universal success) to Bamberton, Civano in Tucson, Mexico’s Loreto Bay, Shoal Point, Spirit Bay...a prodigious and prestigious roster of would-be utopias from a man who, in my experience, chose to integrate, not separate, the values of business, lofty aesthetics and the social/environmental agenda. More personally, I’ll remember him as a Master of the Long Pause, as he made room within his mental apparatus for novel considerations or formulations. There was a rare quality to his thought process: You could practically hear him thinking his responses, judging, weighing, long before he spoke. By the way, his last words were: “On the other hand…” Okay, I made that up. You could pose to him: “David, you know those small seeds with the hairy hooks that attach themselves to your pants when you’re walking through the park meadow? Science says it’s a propagation strategy, that the seeds are hairy and hooky so they can attach themselves to passing furry animals. But that implies plant consciousness and intention, an anticipation that there would, in future, be furry animals walking by; and that’s impossible, because plants don’t think or forward plan.” Instead of an eye-roll suggesting your concerns were, uh, subjective, you would get serious consideration from David and, eventually, a contributive or an amused but novel response. Of his various gifts, I most appreciate that he had an instinct and aptitude for community. I sense that he attempted, much of the time with most of his projects, to create the conditions within which social capital could expand and the human family could flourish. “Community” requires explication because the word has become somewhat rote in usage, one of those uh-huh words like “democracy” or “freedom” or “progress” or “private sector” in an expanding list where common meaning is assumed but ideological spin prevails, and also because the prospects for community—the palpable, the lived sense of shared endeavour, of mutuality—are rapidly disintegrating. In a historical eye-blink, it seems, the conditions nourishing community have diminished, lost their potency, and in this new, atomizing, technological world with its shape-shifting, post-truth politics, community has become as antique and quaint as square dancing. I need to take a slightly roundabout path to explain this to a finer point. Rolling Stone political writer Matt Taibbi has written a new book, Insane Clown President. The book is not just a postmortem on the collapse and failure of American democracy. It offers the riveting, surreal, unique, and essential experience of seeing the future in hindsight. A reviewer notes: “Years before the clown car of candidates was fully loaded, Taibbi grasped the essential themes of the story: the power of spectacle over substance, or even truth; the absence of a shared reality; the nihilistic rebellion of the working class; the death of the political establishment. The stunning rise of a ‘bloviating and farting’ Trump marks the apotheosis of the new post-factual movement.” Ask yourself: Where, in such a state of things, do you find room even to frame the requirement for personal obligation to the civic group—that is, effort in behalf of a civic entity larger than oneself, such effort also known as social utility? It’s also reasonable to ask what, in such a self-aggrandizing, self-absorbed, humility-deficient culture does social utility even mean? Promote or practice such values in the US, and you’re like a bunny amongst the carnivores, a sucker, a dope, a mushy throwback, an irrelevance. In The Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: Reclaiming the Mindful Commons, Peter Doran acerbically describes the American new normal: “Minds and culture are being colonized by markets, and the hidden political and economic struggle of our times is focused on shaping our inner lives.” He continues, “This is a large, complicated story based on neoliberal capitalism’s impact on everyday life: frantic work schedules, declining wages, wealth inequality, and austerity politics, all of which have led to a degradation of public services, social amenities and neighbourliness. It turns out that consumerism and market growth, diligently supported by the state, are not in fact ‘maximizing utility,’ as economists would have it. They are breeding personal despair, precarity, alienation and social dysfunction.” The challenge, then, is somehow to remain an accomplished optimist on a bloody and dangerous battleground. David was that and more. He was, in the best sense of the word, a social romantic. A romantic, as I mean it, isn’t someone who gilds reality, but someone who’s mindful of and navigates by humanity’s dream for itself: hopes for equity, personal fulfillment, the righting of wrongs, common meaning and purpose to life, authentic social connection, creative expression, surprise, delight, fair-dealing, and so on. While it’s difficult to know what lies at the root of someone’s thoughts and acts, I think I would apply an uncommon term to David: publicly hopeful. This made his intentions lofty, to use that out-of-fashion word. Or, as the carved inscription on the beautiful Skidmore Fountain in the oldest part of Portland, Oregon states, “Good Citizens Are the Riches of a City.” That’s our boy: a good citizen. My take? The world needs much more David Butterfield. 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.
  12. Providing homes to those in need can be viewed as revolution insurance. ON AN OVERCAST SPRING MORNING, around six, driving down Pandora to make a left on Quadra, headed to Beacon Hill Park, I hear screaming and see a contorted figure in the parking lot in front of Cumberbirch Insurance on the northwest corner of Quadra and Pandora. Pants down around his knees, he’s shouting incomprehensibly, ritually crazy-bobbing like a drunken boxer, and punching his naked thighs in a mad tattoo. Bad drugs? Bad brains? Bad luck? Who knows? Still-closed store entrances all over Downtown are sheltering the homeless under plastic tarps, sleeping bags or layers of clothing. Beacon Hill Park is dotted with an ever-growing number of semi-permanent tents and improv cardboard mattresses under park structures and trees. Tent City beside Victoria Courthouse, 2015-2016 This is a condition that affects Victoria’s entire social ecology. It sickens the spirit and consciousness, and no one, however geographically or experientially removed, is untouched. The semi-official, my-eyes-are-closed-I-can’t-see-you default strategy of locational containment on “misery street” around Our Place on Pandora is merely notional, a limited “success” as demonstrated by Downtown-and-shoulder-area-wide visibility and impacts. It’s a flawed reading of priorities that the City of Victoria is presently effervescing about a $70-million Crystal Pool replacement, instead of a homeless response (i.e. housing), especially while almost all the other municipalities are doing their famous imitation of someone whistling past the graveyard. But, you say, isn’t homeless housing and services a provincial or federal, not local, responsibility? Right. Memo to the homeless: “Housing and services are provincial concerns, so please be homeless in, uh, Sandspit, Fort St John, Williams Lake and other, uh, provincial places. Buses are standing by.” Every time you drive by a tent in the park, or pass a shopping-cart-pusher or a street-corner panhandler, or spot a clutch of homeless in some alley or vacant lot, let it trigger this thought: providing homeless housing isn’t some lefty handwringer conceit, it’s revolution insurance. I mean, can’t you feel the features and qualities of the near-future under construction now? Even leaving aside climate suicide, sure to trigger social collapse and vast, desperate human migrations, simply consider some likely economic judder that will loosen the grip of a sizable multitude that is just hanging on—or the accelerating theft of human work and purpose by technology, which is likely to significantly shred the tissue-thin membrane between the gainfully employed/socially purposeful and those who wake up with nothing to do, nothing to lose. In a January 2017 Smithsonian Magazine piece about AI, robotics and human work, Clive Thompson writes that “…fully 47 percent of all US jobs will be automated in a decade or two…That’s because artificial intelligence and robotics are becoming so good that nearly any routine task could soon be automated. Robots and AI are already whisking products around Amazon’s huge shipping centers, diagnosing lung cancer more accurately than humans and writing sports stories for newspapers. They’re even replacing cabdrivers, and Uber’s ‘Otto’ program is installing AI in 16-wheeler trucks—a trend that could eventually replace most or all 1.7 million truck drivers, an enormous employment category. Those jobless truckers will be joined by millions more telemarketers, insurance underwriters, tax preparers and library technicians…” Sobering information, given the generally unchallenged conceit that whole new employment categories will open up. You know, llama-grooming and such. Pankaj Mishra, in an incendiary new book, Age of Anger, discusses “cosmopolitan liberalism” and the West’s undeliverable promises of universal and never-ending social improvability—a delusional social ideology, really, that we still live by. He goes on to name its counter-gesture: “the revolutionist who has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose—to destroy it.” The conditions of poverty and homelessness in Victoria are, if unwittingly, that revolutionist, however quiescent and manageable things seem at the moment. “History” and “progress” are not synonymous, though it’s easy to conflate the two, raised, as we all are, on an unquestioned belief in personal and social improvability. Mishra writes, “Societies organized for the interplay of individual self-interest can collapse into manic tribalism, if not nihilistic violence.” That is, history’s arc can bend back upon itself in a second. None of this is meant to ascribe violent intention to the homeless, but to highlight the inherent violence of opposites and the natural tension between them. You’re housed, and the homeless are your enemy, as poverty is the enemy of wealth, the helpless the enemy of the powerful, the incompetent the enemy of the skilled and successful. New York Times columnist David Brooks writes: “For every one American man aged 25 to 55 looking for work, there are three who have dropped out of the labor force. 21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work. That means there’s an army of Americans semi-attached to their communities, who struggle to contribute, to realize their capacities and find their dignity.” Let’s acknowledge that security—the sweet pleasures of normalcy, the lovely ordinariness we currently enjoy—is illusory, never more than temporary and always vulnerable to change in a heartbeat. The reflex desire we all share to distance ourselves and our community from risk, to preserve social calm, should, in my view, be reason enough to house the homeless. It’s called precaution, and it offsets a ton of risk. The noise of life makes it hard to sense the raw tide of feeling roiling beneath the everyday, but those currents are ever-present. We’re good at managing such contradictions. We yak about housing with friends, not as shelter but as real estate: rising property values, what the place up the street sold for, the pros and cons of putting in a basement revenue suite. Instead, you have to locate and give a voice to the more elemental human creature in you, to release to yourself the story about how you shelter, your roots and role in a community, your prospects for survival, tenure and well-being in a very risky and threatening world. That’s the “place” from which you respond to the homeless problem. Mishra writes about North America’s hallucinatory “short post-World War II history of unrepeatable success” which “spreads unlimited optimism, denigrates the past, and encourages the triumphalist belief that history has resolved its contradictions and ended its struggles in the regime of free-market individualism.” Resolved its contradictions? Ended its struggles? Who could miss the terror and anger and desperation underlying the outcome of the recent US presidential election? Do you think Trump was elected by happy people? In fact, things, systems, are degrading globally. The world, I predict with regret, appears ready to re-enter a more conflicted and violent phase, and Canada, in spite of its skills at camouflage and irrelevance, will not come out of it un-impacted. Hopes and plans based on common purpose and cooperation have clearly hit their limit. We are in a time when community solidarities have broken down, leaving enormous masses of atomized individuals. Invoking the abstracting influences of today’s placeless electronic culture, Martin Segger, art historian, UVic academic and former Victoria city councillor, provocatively claims: “Physical citizenship is defunct, dead, finished.” Nonetheless, Victoria endures, very much as a place of physical citizenship. Words like “charming,” or “cute,” or “a bit of England” simply disguise the real genius and deep tug of this place: Victoria is socially legible. You can read the visible code of its social intentions, its human dreams, in the love of landscape, the coherent built form, the localism of its neighbourhoods, the well-ordered, well-mannered public realm. This legibility is rare and precious, worth preserving at all costs. Providing shelter for the homeless should, perhaps, be considered as one of the “burdens of solidarity,” to borrow Bruno Latour’s phrase. Last year’s tent city, on the lawn behind the courthouse, was just a local warning shot, a threatening and worrying taste of how social ruin looks. It put a dent in our psyche, and the Province grudgingly coughed up just enough go-away housing money to disperse the crowd. Is Victoria to do nothing to prepare for any of this, its next wave or expression? Mightn’t it be good practice (leave aside good values) for us to stop pretending we can externalize our problems, and instead put our social capacities to the test by housing the homeless? Let’s say there are an estimated 1500 homeless regionally. Other nose-counters may claim a different number, but if we’re not at or over fifteen hundred, we will be soon—guaranteed by spreading drug addiction, the rapid rise in the local costs of land and market housing, the accelerating loss of low-wage and other jobs to robotics and AI, and other novel, emergent forms of social threat. The cost of housing such a number? A capital cost of around $150 million for land and construction plus, at a guess, health care, nutrition, social management, training, property management, and other services at $10,000 per person per year, or $15 million annually. Assuming various “gets” from the feds and the province, on both the capital and operating sides, the whole thing could be successfully managed within the financial means of the region and its member municipalities. Yes, the homeless are often filthy, unlucky, skill-less and failed, physically and mentally ill, prone to violence, drug- or booze-addicted, uneducable, lacking in social utility. On it goes. So, let’s leave them on the streets. Let’s be close-fisted with shelter, services, care and social management. Just to teach ’em. As history has repeatedly demonstrated, that always works out well. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Thanks, Victoria Adams, for an entertaining and energetic response to my column, but if your intellectual excursion is intended as a counter-argument, if it takes issue with what I’ve written, instead of just being a riff of its own, I’m at a loss to understand your points. In a lengthy, almost-Darwinian (and hopefully ironic) narrative, you go on about the rich and powerful setting the rules for urban development and appear, at one or more points, to paint a picture of our mayor, Lisa Helps, as the tool of such interests, eager to sanitize Victoria’s streets, or at least complicit with that objective. Your words: “What’s the Mayor’s 21st century vision of Victoria? An exclusive enclave for wealthy home-owners and tourists flush with cash.” Helps, of course, is nothing of the sort. She deservedly celebrates the triumph of a new, emergent, thousands-strong downtown residential population (just count the development sites!) which will invigorate (read: save) downtown’s shops and services, but also communicates (and practices) nothing but concern and care for the street population and its challenges and hardships. She’s a tireless advocate. Ditto this column, which advocates for a greater and more successful response to the basic needs of the homeless and rootless. It’s my read of social history that such problems, if left to grow, do so at broader society’s peril—a point that I thought I made explicit when I wrote: “Look, leaving moral resonances or questions of social obligation aside, the sheer economic costs of homelessness and empty-pocketed poverty...are mountainous;” and “There is also another potent and very real, if un-priceable, cost: the social poisoning of our civic community...a pernicious eating away at Victoria’s identity, social coherence and sense of mission;” and “Yes, homelessness and soul-crushing poverty are our community’s shame.” I’m not trying to suggest that Victoria, in your words “should be immune to problems of poverty, pain and social turmoil.” We’re a city, this is life. I’m simply proposing that we can do a better, more effective job of alleviating poverty, pain and social turmoil—not to sanitize the city, but to humanize it. Please, re-read my column (less reactively and judgmentally), take in its values and sensibilities, and give me a call. Coffee’s on me. Gene Miller, 250-514-2525
  15. Response to Victoria Adams Thanks, Victoria Adams, for an entertaining and energetic response to my column, but if your intellectual excursion is intended as a counter-argument, if it takes issue with what I’ve written, instead of just being a riff of its own, I’m at a loss to understand your points. In a lengthy, almost-Darwinian (and hopefully ironic) narrative, you go on about the rich and powerful setting the rules for urban development and appear, at one or more points, to paint a picture of our mayor, Lisa Helps, as the tool of such interests, eager to sanitize Victoria’s streets, or at least complicit with that objective. Your words: “What’s the Mayor’s 21st century vision of Victoria? An exclusive enclave for wealthy home-owners and tourists flush with cash.” Helps, of course, is nothing of the sort. She deservedly celebrates the triumph of a new, emergent, thousands-strong downtown residential population (just count the development sites!) which will invigorate (read: save) downtown’s shops and services, but also communicates (and practices) nothing but concern and care for the street population and its challenges and hardships. She’s a tireless advocate. Ditto this column, which advocates for a greater and more successful response to the basic needs of the homeless and rootless. It’s my read of social history that such problems, if left to grow, do so at broader society’s peril—a point that I thought I made explicit when I wrote: “Look, leaving moral resonances or questions of social obligation aside, the sheer economic costs of homelessness and empty-pocketed poverty...are mountainous;” and “There is also another potent and very real, if un-priceable, cost: the social poisoning of our civic community...a pernicious eating away at Victoria’s identity, social coherence and sense of mission;” and “Yes, homelessness and soul-crushing poverty are our community’s shame.” I’m not trying to suggest that Victoria, in your words “should be immune to problems of poverty, pain and social turmoil.” We’re a city, this is life. I’m simply proposing that we can do a better, more effective job of alleviating poverty, pain and social turmoil—not to sanitize the city, but to humanize it. Please, re-read my column (less reactively and judgmentally), take in its values and sensibilities, and give me a call. Coffee’s on me. Gene Miller, 250-514-2525
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