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The Absolutely Literate blog is for people interested in writing, editing, design, history and family history.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wrecking Ball Approach to Heritage

It is a common story; heritage buildings being demolished for the promise of progress. Does it work?

Recent history shows us that this type of progress does not build communities; it only isolates people by destroying the physical things that emotionally bind them.

Ryan McGreal, editor of urban affairs blog Raise the Hammer, says: “Hamilton is still stuck in that mindset: ‘if we want renewal, we have to demolish all the stuff that’s there now and put something new and shiny in its place.’ We’ve been doing that since the 1960s and it hasn’t worked yet,”

In Hamilton Ontario four Victorian commercial buildings are currently at risk. Two of these storefronts were designed in the 1840s by William Thomas; the others were constructed in the 1870s. The developer claims the buildings were shot when he bought them more than 10 years ago. Perhaps they were but I am sure the 10 years has not helped their condition.

A January 5, 2013 Globe and Mail aticle  goes on "over the decades, swaths of the core have been torn down to make way for inward-facing malls and a fortress-like convention centre that do little to liven up the streets. Other buildings were razed to make way for parking lots, leaving vast, empty spaces in the cityscape."

Instead of learning from these mistakes, Chilliwack seems to aiming for those same vast empty parking lots full of empty promises and lost heritage with their decision to demolish the Paramount Theatre. The building has both historic and emotional value for me as a former Chilliwack resident. Opened in June 1949, this large movie theatre in the heart of downtown Chilliwack has traces of Art Deco influences in its signage and fluted fa├žade. It was listed on the Heritage Canada Foundations Top Ten Endangered List. Many Chilliwackians saw their first movie there or had a first date. The current plan is to make the downtown 'shovel ready' for new development and revitalization. There was a proposal by the Chilliwack Paramount Film Society to transform the Paramount into a single-screen, repertory-type theatre offering 600 seats for patrons to screen vintage, independent, alternative or non-mainstream films that was rejected in favour of empty lots and dreams of waiting developers.

It is the same story in Vancouver where they are losing two cultural gathering places with one swing of the wrecking ball — the Ridge theatre and Varsity Ridge Bowling lanes.

"It’s real-estate values, property taxes, industry economics, and competitive dynamics that are killing the neighbourhood theatre." according to a recent article in the Straight.

It all comes down to money. These decisions disregard the emotional element that creates a strong sense of community from which a revitalization could truly become a reality. It can be argued that condos bring people to an area but those people need places to meet their neighbours and empty lots do not create a community.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Emotional Heritage

I recently had a conversation with a friend about museums after seeing a news article about the Museum of Nature's plan to attract a hip, new crowd by hosting a nightclub party once a month. I thought it was a good idea in terms of a revenue stream but not necessarily in terms of creating museum patrons. She said “you only need to visit a museum once; once you have seen the exhibits, you have seen them so fresh ideas are great". I admit that I am a history geek but I was shocked. I went on to say that museums have new exhibits and acquire new objects but she was steadfast in her opinion that repeat visits to museums are only for "history people".

In keeping with that idea, in September, the Maple Ridge Historical Society had two world-class experts – Ian McLellan and Brent Cooke – come to work with them to discuss what they need to build a new museum in Maple Ridge. Three of the most thought provoking questions they asked were:
  1. If the museum/archives were to disappear, who (other than those in the room) would care?
  2. If museum/archives are not an essential service, how do museum/archives become one?
  3. How does the community perceive museum/archives?
If my friend is a representative of the general community then historical organizations and city planners need to assess what the non-history people portion of their community sees as having historical value.

The facebook group We Call it Haney provides an insight into just that concept. In conversation with Val Patenaude, the director of the Maple Ridge Museum, she said the themes that reappear are buildings and events from when people were children and teenagers. The buildings themselves may not hold historic value in the traditional sense but they have an emotional value: schools, theatres, sporting events, and the 45 year old red bells that decorate the streets every Christmas.

I believe that museums/archives can be community hubs; places that offer different generations the opportunity to interact and connect and newcomers a chance to find a sense of belonging. Social media is a great place to create a virtual community but museums/archives need space to store the objects and documents to fuel the digital community. History also extends beyond the walls of institutions and into the streets and collective memories of its citizens. The trick is how to capture and support that community feeling.

How about you? Do you visit your community museum or do you view it as a tourist destination? How do you think museums/archives could become community hubs? Do you think historic buildings should be preserved?

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