Softism

By Gene Miller, May 2016

Maintaining Victoria’s soft edges may be worth a hard fight.

Queen Victoria, 1882OUR CITY IS NAMED AFTER a woman and, trusting historical images, a well-cushioned and matriarchal one (eight kids and an empire). Sure, “Vic” is a bit mannish, “Vicky” is all saddle shoes, but “toria” has a nice purling sound, soft as smoke. Shame, now that I think about it, that our city isn’t more legendarily ess-y—Storia: City of Stories, maybe (oh, but not storeys, sign of the cross!). 

Wikipedia states that Queen Victoria was “physically unprepossessing—stout, dowdy and no more than five feet tall—but she succeeded in projecting a grand image.” And as with the Crown, so with her namesake town. 

In a second parallel, portraits of this regal shorty suggest she was born with a scowl, an expression of nonspecific disapproval, as our city sported when I first arrived by ferry in 1970: “Welcome to Victoria. Behave yourself,” said the forbidding city-bound sign on the Pat Bay highway. The Victoria that made grudging room for me then is captured by a line in Jeffrey Toobin’s New Yorker piece about recently deceased conservative US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia: “Like Nick Carraway [in The Great Gatsby], Scalia ‘wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.’”

Civic frown notwithstanding, soft is deep-baked into the DNA—is the DNA—of this city. Hard’s wrong here. Hard accomplishes nothing, diminishes the place, rubs its fur the wrong way. Visitors may reach for or be fed “little bit of Olde England” banalities to define the character of this place, but soft—not Olde or England—is really what they’re experiencing. It’s not just our coastal roads that have rounded corners; it’s the entire civic proposition.

The things we citizens love and protect here include the womblike harbour and curving oceanfront contours; 20 miles of fixed link-free water that distances us from an adjacent land mass known to many as “North America,” but to us only as “Ikea”; ornamented and decorous architecture reminding us that while we may be going somewhere, we also came from somewhere; our legible neighbourhoods, treed streets and boulevards; the Creation-like landscape of Beacon Hill Park and the coastal bulwarks of the Dallas Road greenway scissored to a crew-cut by the wind; a feeling of safety, civility and public courtesy; the propriety of political power; the powerful, weather-dominated mood of this place; the sheer placeness of this place—a special kind of geographic definition and particularity.

Along with our virtues come failings. We can be—as Focus Publisher David Broadland has illuminated repeatedly in his lethal pieces about the Johnson Street Bridge project and other infrastructure missteps—ditzy, fiasco-prone, amateurish, squishy, ship-of-fools-blind to risky outcomes, ditherers and procrastinators oblivious to urgency, horrible squanderers of public funds, mediocre in the delivery of civic process, and the deserving butt of “How many project managers does it take to” jokes.

Soft’s getting rare. The world, already more combustible than at any time in recent decades, is hardening, poised for great trouble and about to become a much more dangerous place—you can feel it on your skin. A kind of ideological pyromania, a lust for doom, is in the air right now, and candidate trends capable of triggering an apocalypse are multiplying.

Correspondingly, in spite of a local reputation for change-aversion, soft’s steadily fading here in Victoria. I’m at a loss to explain this, but, as a casual reader of history, I get that urban identity—the character, nature and meaning of a place and a people—is supported by a recondite social calculus, and that identity and stability are always at risk, never guaranteed. Stability-erosion, coalescence-dispersal: counter-forces always at war, along with a restless, jagged “nextness” intervening just when things seem to be settling down.

We—all of us, not just Victoria—are heading into a fraught new chapter in which values and practices that seemed, a while ago, to be normative and to express shared social purpose, are now under assault by perverse counter-sensibilities manufactured in some Dark Zone of civilizational life. 

Exhibit A, from our neighbour to the south: a recent magazine essay about US school shootings observes, “School-shooter protocol called for him to kill his parents. He likes his parents, but he has to take their life, according to his manifesto, to prove that he’s up to the task, to prove he has no human feelings anymore, that he’s scrubbed out.”

Next exhibit: “This is a world that has become incredibly dangerous,” writes New York Times columnist Charles Blow in a rangy piece that studies both the prospects for a vast scale of global climate refugee migration and social consequences as the quantity and availability of human work (jobs) diminishes.

Blow cites the 2011 book The Coming Jobs War in which author Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, points out: “The primary will of the world is no longer about peace or freedom or even democracy; it is not about having a family, and it is neither about God nor about owning a home or land. The will of the world is first and foremost to have a good job. Everything else comes after that.”

If you’ll indulge a complete non sequitur, Russian composer Nikolai Medtner wrote his 1926 “Drei Hymnen an die Arbeit” (Three Hymns in Praise of Toil), intending the music to be a tribute to work as an expression of God’s plan. As Clifton concludes, a world in which readily available work as a source of income, emotional well-being, and constructive social or spiritual connection is vanishing, replaced by—well, God knows what.

It’s hard to tie a tidy bow around all of these ideas, but for me they lead to open questions: Under the threat of such strange new normals, can Victoria still “do Victoria” well, has it retained the instincts to be itself, or has it squandered its skills and character, lost sight of its identity? Could the city at this point produce the curriculum for Victoria 101 and then help everyone to pass with a B+ or better?

Friend and colleague Rob Abbott takes these matters in an interesting direction: “As expressed by our land use and urban design policies, what physical conditions are we trying to create to evoke an emotional experience of this place, a signature feeling? That’s a conversation Victoria is not having.”

Considering softism itself as Job Number One, Victoria has neither intention nor plan to recast or tell its own story to newcomers. It’s left to chance. There’s no civic rite of welcome, no initiation, and these days not even a frowning sign on the Pat Bay.

Maybe we don’t have a story anymore, or that kind of city-story culture doesn’t exist anymore, and we have just become another modern place with some charm lipstick. Alternatively, maybe the gifts of paradox are catching up with us: Victoria’s long-cultivated conservatism, its “genius for inertia,” is, as ruminative architectural thinker Chris Gower notes, “the enemy of the bad, but also the enemy of the good.”

Hard has endless current proxy identities locally—characterless four-storey file-box apartment buildings and the pathological braying for amalgamation come immediately to mind. Fortunately, soft’s far from gone: The Fernwood NRG (Neighbourhood Resources Group), for example, followed by a hundred other well-intentioned citizens groups invested in the binding force of community.

I attend the memorial service for Dorothea Powell, my friend Heather’s mom: a hundred of us, a “family” of friends, sitting on uncomfortable church pews, celebrating a life, passing the care of its future over to God. I read in the service booklet: “Essentially, the Christian faith assures us that the brokenness and pain we experience in this world do not define us.” Heaven, our soft reward.

Nathan Gardels, editor-in-chief of both Huffington’s WorldPost and the New Perspectives Quarterly, writes: 

“The fearful and fearsome reaction against growing inequality, social dislocation and loss of [cultural] identity…unprecedented mobility and ubiquitous connectivity is a mutiny, really, against globalization so audacious and technological change so rapid that it can barely be absorbed by our incremental nature. In this accelerated era, future shock can feel like repeated blows in the living present to individuals, families and communities alike.”

Gardels continues: “Above all, the emergent world appears to us as wholly unfamiliar, a rupture with any lineage from the past that could frame a reassuring narrative going forward. Rather, philosophers describe this new territory of the future as ‘plastic’ or ‘liquid,’ shapelessly shifting as each disruptive innovation or abandoned certitude outstrips whatever fleeting sense of meaning was only recently embraced. A kind of foreboding of the times that have not yet arrived, or wariness about what’s next, settles in.”

If, in the rush of such trends, we don’t know what our city is, or beyond the fizz of lofting real estate values and technological novelty we don’t have a larger frame for our urban community—the city’s purpose, possibilities, temperament, reach and arc—then how can we model, plan or sustain Victoria’s identity? 

Contradiction notwithstanding, isn’t soft worth a hard fight?

A founder of Open Space and Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept, and, with others, has initiated the New Economy Network.