Shoaling waters and dead queens

By Gene Miller, February 2012

Reflections on what makes Esquimalt the real deal.

Esquimalt’s the real deal. Everywhere else is exegesis. That’s a slap in the face of quite a bit of regional exegesis, and ovation for a place that receives far too little applause, so it may be useful if I tell you what is on my mind—especially timely, right now, as Esquimalt is going through a tiny spasm of funk, self-study, and media-fanned ignominy over its worry about a proliferation of payday loan shops along the main drag. (Funny, I would have targeted Tim Horton’s.) 

I remember as a kid living for a while in the almost exclusively Jewish Kingsbridge area of New York City, sure that if I ventured into neighbouring Tolentine (home of St Tolentine’s Church), I would be eaten alive by Irish Catholics. Older, wiser and better read (Irish Catholics don’t eat Jewish kids alive, they cook them first), I have come to understand that human geography in all places is tribal and made up of sub-territories each with its own narrative or story of place—social, economic, historical, physical, ethnic, mythical. Some of this is mutable, since places do change; some of it sticks for a long time like a hated nickname.

There are two Esquimalts: imaginary Esquimalt (“So, these three drunks stagger into a cheque-cashing store...”), and real Esquimalt. Esquimalt—the name is Central Coast Salish, Es-whoy-malth meaning place of gradually shoaling water (no, I don’t know what “gradually shoaling water” means)—has in regional mythology an “other side of the tracks” reputation—largely attributable historically to the presence of two groups: the armed services, and working-class people like the enormous workforce at Victoria Shipyards and Victoria Drydock who actually make and repair things (troglodytes, of course, from the perspective of the white cuffs/organic arugula crowd on the closer-to-God side of the Blue Bridge). 

Victoria, by the way, was named for an English queen who presided over—well, comedian Mort Sahl had the best line: “You call it colonialism; we say we brought roads and schools.”

I like Esquimalt a lot. It isn’t in any practical sense really the underdog, but I root for it. It’s as if the pixie who distributed municipal benisons gave Esquimalt too light a dusting. But with that said, online history suggests that Esquimalt had its heyday:

"Esquimalt’s quiet development was shattered by the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858 when its wharf became the main point of arrival for thousands of miners heading to Victoria. Esquimalt officially became the headquarters of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station in 1865. By the 1880s, rapid growth was occurring through the building of Royal Navy dry docks (1887), the construction of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway (1886), and the founding of a military base at Work Point (1887). Esquimalt’s attractive setting made it a desirable residential location for many of Victoria’s business and political leaders."

And then there is this exciting footnote in history, the year before my birth:

"The massive passenger liner Queen Elizabeth crept into Esquimalt Harbour in 1942. The Queen Elizabeth (then the world’s largest ocean liner) was at the Esquimalt Graving Dock to be secretly refitted from a passenger liner to a troopship capable of carrying a full army division of 15,000 men. This invaluable Allied asset was one of the most attractive targets in the world and almost no one knew with certainty where she was. To have sunk her would have been a massive victory for the enemy. In order to prevent being attacked by surprise at night, naval authorities urged the people of Victoria to adhere to the strictest possible security by partially covering the headlights of their cars, closing curtains in their homes and avoiding mentioning the ship’s name in public and private."

Somehow, between then and now, Esquimalt acquired a reputation for being a bit rowdy, especially in the glory days of the Tudor Pub, a legendary hops palace at the corner of Esquimalt and Admirals where bar melées involved thousands, lasted for months, and required the intervention of UN peacekeeping forces (I stretch a point to make a point). But in the interests of fairness and perspective, this was the same era (early ’70s) as the Churchill, a capacious basement beer mill on Government Street beside Bastion Square, and home to—without a word of exaggeration—some of the most malignant, unredeemed, subhuman wreckage you could find in these parts (many went on to distinguished careers in the arts, politics, the civil service, business, and magazine journalism).

DND holds ownership to probably a quarter of Esquimalt’s real estate—an enormous acreage just past West Bay Marina and, of course, all the land at Naden where the Pacific Fleet is docked and the shipyard and drydock are located. The West Bay piece includes extensive married quarters—street after street of modest, well-maintained housing; and Saturday in nice weather must be washing day, because clothes fly like flags in the breeze from dozens of clotheslines, less an intentional ecological statement, more a cultural tradition.

Most of the housing in Esquimalt, after you get off Esquimalt or Admirals Road and start to worm your way into its neighbourhoods, has a Saanich-y look, except for the more James Bay-like housing on the long finger streets that terminate at the water. That said, you could never mistake Esquimalt homes for those in other parts, and this might have to do with a higher ratio of smaller homes that, in my view, gives the area a distinctive modesty and frees it from pretence.

Yes, there are some heritage-era mansions with to-die-for views; and numerous waterfront or water-view properties, especially on those finger-streets between Lyall and the ocean. Friends of mine, Bill and Linda Ross, own a plum-coloured art deco house at the water’s edge on Constance Avenue that must be seen to be believed. Dave and Shirley Barrett own a big old place at the water’s edge not far from Saxe Point Park. There is a cluster of gorgeous art deco homes—like nothing else in Victoria—near the village at the foot of winding Old Esquimalt Road.

And while it may seem a digression, no cultural tour of Esquimalt is complete without mentioning the Superstore Warehouse Outlet on Wilson Street, where you can manoeuvre industrial-size shopping carts along aisles loaded with gallon jars of mayo, 50-pound bags of rice, job-lots of any candy with the word “Gummi” in its name, three-foot-long pepperoni sausages, and carboys of sweet green pickle relish large enough to garnish a thousand hot dogs. 

Leaving the esoteric charms of the Superstore behind, there is no missing...what is it, exactly...a current drabness, a lack of ego, principally in those buildings that line Esquimalt Road from the Vic West border almost to the town centre. If you bring a discerning eye as you drive, and look past the buildings rather than at them, you discover that Esquimalt Road is built along a ridge with a steep drop-off to the south, and that block after block of Esquimalt Road features million-dollar views of the ocean and the Olympics. I have no idea what the zoning allows, but there is extraordinary redevelopment potential, and this could be Esquimalt’s “Miracle Mile.”

Developers drop in from time to time with proposals for 10- or 15-storey buildings in or near the town centre. Esquimalt flirts with these economically tempting proposals, but remains uncertain that highrise is the right profile for a town centre not much longer than Oak Bay’s. If I may volunteer an opinion, I would suggest offering almost unlimited density to developers, but aggressively managing height. I have no problem with height but Esquimalt isn’t likely to get exceptional highrises so much as sore thumbs.

It’s in the course of writing this meditation about the place that I stumble on the reason why Esquimalt’s the real deal: the town is completely authentic, and even the recent boulevard program along Esquimalt road, begun by former mayor Ray Rice, is free of artifice. Next time you’re out for a recreational meander, take a couple of hours on Esquimalt’s main roads and side-streets, wearing your planner’s eye.

Authenticity is hard to come by and easy to destroy. There is nothing wrong with Esquimalt, and I would urge its leadership to make a 10-year commitment to execute the town centre plan, continue to beautify main streets, wake up to the development potential along both sides of Esquimalt Road, and keep the Gummi Bigfeet flowing. 

Gene Miller, Founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently writing "Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us" and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.