And then it was gone

By Gene Miller, July/August 2012

Once upon a time, Victoria offered the delicious opportunity to transgress at every turn.

Our bearded daily, The Coach and Flyswatter, contained an early May report that Oak Bay residents had just staged a rally to protest a contemporary house going up in the 1000-block of Monterey, architecturally scandalizing the staid manses up and down the block and, like a flailing mouse drowning in the punchbowl, nauseating the people living in them. You should never underestimate Oak Bay’s capacity for hysteria and self-parody.

From the headline alone, though, “Oak Bay home too modern for neighbours’ tastes,” I had brief but unrequited hopes that the object of all this protest would be a house that had dared to erect something truly outre and new-fangled like a wood picket fence along the front-yard property line instead of the traditional pike-topped stone wall festooned with the bloody heads of invading Normans.

All that angry buzzing on Monterey triggered a momentary meditation on our city’s passion for order and stability and its hypersensitivity to the disruptive threat of change; and this, in turn, put me in mind of the Victoria that used to be when I first arrived in September, 1970: a potty, eccentric, colonial Pleistocene saturated with still-virulent old-guard values—all of which blew away like fireworks smoke in my first, short half-decade here. Victoria literally stopped fighting the inevitable, gave in to modernity before my eyes, and became the standard-issue city it is today, captured by the dismal preoccupations of real estate and pricey kitchen renovations.

So, travel back in time with me—less with strict regard for history than for impression—to tour a Victoria before cell phones and computers: the early 70s, which I now remember simply as a time of youth and unrepentant sexual squander. Which reminds me of a story. The Burlington Free Press sends a reporter up to St Albans, Vermont on the advent of Walter Wheeler’s 100th birthday. The reporter asks Walter whether he thinks there’s more sex now than when he was a youngster. He says: “No, about the same,” then pauses for thought: “but it’s definitely a different crowd doing it.”  

I have mentioned that I came to Victoria in September, 1970, at the close of the salmon season, after a manly summer working at the Nelson Brothers Fisheries in Prince Rupert. Someone up there told me without a hint of guile or irony that I should visit Victoria because it was “a little bit of Olde England.” 

And so it was.

By the way, you have only to go to the eHow website to learn that even in 2012 “The ambitious spirit of Britain at the turn of the twentieth century, reflected in the architecture and the personality of The Empress Hotel, has affected the town that grew up around it and makes Victoria a little slice of Britain in North America.” And I thought it was the toffee on Government Street that gave it away.

One story from back then—truth or myth hardly matters—will suffice: Mrs Tod would summon the Oak Bay police by telephone to retrieve her senescent husband who, on the occasional weekend morning, would wander in his bathrobe down to Scott’s Diner on Yates Street near Douglas for breakfast. And fetch him they did. 

It was urban legend, too, that a few people still lived—in the Fred Astaire/get-your-mail-there sense of the word—on a residential floor high up in the Empress Hotel. I always imagined that this level could only be reached by private elevator and that it was populated with faded aristocracy caught in an era’s hardening twilight, warming their hands on memories of races at Ascot and uncle Albert’s time in the 1st Royal Dragoons at the Charge of the Light Brigade.

How different were things in Victoria back then in 1970? The sign on the Pat Bay Highway—itself a meandering, unpaved, one-track cart path—announced “If you cannot conjugate your Latin verbs, you are definitely not welcome in Victoria.” 

Wine stores were not two to a corner, as they are now. In fact, there was no such thing as wine. You drank beer or booze and you bought hard liquor in the Sovietized environment of “package stores,” aware, as you beetled beneath the fluorescents, that a disapproving God was making another black X in your dossier each and every time you bought a pint of lemon-flavoured gin. Bottles destined for the alcoholic’s curtained gloom left the store robed in plain brown paper bags, so as not to tarnish the proper light of day.

That’s it! I caught Victoria in its last years of propriety—an invisible airborne virus of manners, code, boundaries. The city was anachronous and square, but it held the line. It held the line. 

Victoria, distant in every way from the liberalizing influence and cultural roil of most cities, offered the delicious opportunity to transgress at every turn. You could sin here!

Like monks worrying their beads, there are fevered obsessives in this town who can recall the state and fate of every heritage building, going back to before Jesus could fly, and narrate tales of the heartbreaking loss of such treasures with a drama worthy of the sinking of the Titanic. Every nick and scrape in this city has been recorded with actuarial detail, either archived on paper somewhere or etched upon living memory. I have just a few more generalized recollections of my own (all that squander) that may help to paint an image of this place 40 years ago.

There was no Lower Causeway. You looked down from far above on starfish and discarded beer empties. Eaton’s department store sat where the Bay Centre now rests. The Bay maintained a huffy distance in its wedding cake of a store four blocks north on Douglas at Fisgard. Now, in a memorable consolidation, Eaton’s is in Valhalla (no, dear, that’s not a suburb), the new Bay sits astride the corpse of Eaton’s, and the old Bay is the new Hudson condos. Eaton’s had a grocery store in its basement, a tunnel under Broad Street connecting its two buildings, and a serpentine, counter-service luncheonette. I remember meeting the love of my week, Diana McCoy, there, over tuna salad on white. Oh, back then, finger sandwiches were made with real fingers, not the fake soy-based ones you get now.

A handful of eccentrics, alcoholics and floaters walked the streets downtown. They were “characters,” not “the homeless,” and were simply the smallest part of Downtown’s social ecology (this was pre-de-institutionalization). I remember a lumpen regular walking Downtown’s streets in the worst of weather, his green work shirt and pants visibly stuffed with insulating newspapers. And a grizzled, old scarecrow who would ask for odd jobs: “I work at your house for a dollar,” he would call as you walked by. And a harmless, screw-loose guy nicknamed Sashi who loped and pinballed all over town, talking non-stop to the lesser gods in his head, borrowing meal money from you one month, mutely placing accurate repayment in your hand six months later.

Victoria was Downtown-centric, small, communal in ways likely never to reoccur here. You went to a movie or a show Downtown. The tiny Carnegie Library (information and inspiration came from books, then) was on the corner of Yates and Blanshard, beside the Odeon. Your doctor, dentist, lawyer, accountant and psychologist had their offices Downtown. Clothing or furniture-shopping were Downtown events. You drank urinous beer Downtown, principally at the legendary Churchill, a basement cavern on Government Street and Bastion Square. Beer mills still had separate entrances signed: “Ladies and Escorts.” Downtown in those years was the proper home of commerce, culture and raucous social drinking. Oh-oh, memories are starting to flood back in.

Oak Bay was a fusty, patrician Oz, practically a rumour’s distance from Downtown. The university had a physical plant not much larger than a well-endowed private school. You could buy homes in the Uplands for a buck and two box-tops. In places, the rural intruded almost to the edges of streetcar neighbourhoods like Fernwood. Had I known then what I know now about real estate and pricey kitchen renos....

Even into the late ’80s, cricket in Beacon Hill Park featured gentlemen in regulation whites, bowling and scoring to polite claps and calls of “Well played!” Now it’s a bunch of whooping, shouting, cheering newcomers who might as well be playing fast-pitch in Prince George. 

Which leads me to ask: What’s the matter with all these people? What has happened to everything good and proper here? The city’s going straight to hell. Unless, of course, there’s just a different crowd doing Victoria.

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday 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.