Jetté!

By Gene Miller, September 2013

Victoria just needs to turn itself inside-out to be ready for a great future.

I turn—likely turned, by the time you read this—70 on August 2nd. Let me assure you, in this era of wishful and delusional thinking about graceful aging, that 70 is the new 70. Everything hurts or misfires a bit. Whatever noble or sexualized fantasies of remaining good looks I concoct as I strike poses at the bathroom mirror evaporate on the street when everyone under 40 walks by me like I’m wallpaper. I survive off my pension, refunds from deposit containers, petty crime in the bulk food aisle at Thrifty’s, surreptitious and profitable fast-change capers when the Sunday church donation plate comes by. Whatever its outrages, aging offers one consolation: the conquest of shame. Look for me next at Denny’s publicly taking out my dentures so I can gum a full stack. 

An already porous memory is becoming more so. There are frequent moments in the day when “You know, the guy who also wrote that other book about, uh…” stands in for crystalline recall. I have an increasingly fictional relationship to my own past. Halfway through anecdotes, I think: Did this really happen, or am I making it up? I find I repeat myself more often. I find I repeat myself more often.

“Senior” meant some abstracted, white-haired, little old gent haltingly driving a 1950s Buick Roadmaster up Fort Street at 12 kph, braking at green lights. Not any more. And what’s the hurry?

When I got to Victoria in 1970 from New York via Prince Rupert (a manly summer at the Nelson Bros. salmon cannery), my head was buzzing with the rumour that Victoria was still “a little bit of Olde England.” I was not disappointed; this place was, in fact, thunderous with propriety. Queen Elizabeth would visit monthly, a gourd-like, liveried carriage sweeping her from the Royal Yacht in the harbour to Government House on Rockland Avenue. We would cheer and throw rose petals in her path, thrilled that our city was a jewel, if not the very centre-stone, in the Imperial crown. Back then, the help behaved themselves and didn’t court dreams of “doing their own thing.” We wore white gloves to dinner at the Empress Hotel. Salad was served after the Palm Court Orchestra played, and we sang, a rousing “Rule, Britannia!” 

 

When Britain first, at Heaven’s command

Arose from out the azure main;

This was the charter of the land,

And Guardian angels sang this strain:

“Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!”

 

Gone, all gone.

The Imperium is ruined, lying on history’s scrapheap, and this place now sits, chinless and stupid, listening to its own fading echoes. Glory’s over, the lights are flickering. All that’s left is residue: a fortressed, waspish propriety led by the house-proud, thumbing local reno-porn and fussing with their 1912-ers.

Now, Victoria is post-historical, post-contextual, contemporary…like everywhere else, but with coastline and aging street trees. The story it tells itself (I mean here an agreed-to narrative, a commonly held sense of identity and purpose) and its brand are—I could be nice and say tarnished, but I mean—broken. City of Gardens? Appropriately, Victoria’s current image references a vegetative condition.

Someone tours me past a restyled house in Fairfield sporting a clever and tasteful second-storey side-deck that projects from the sloping roofline. I’m informed that “Fairfield now has a rule against such decks” because they enable intrusive overlook into neighbours’ rear yards. Amazing that second-storey windows aren’t verboten. Decorum our most important product, intrusion our greatest sin. Front page news in the daily? “Dog recovering from chilly night in car trunk,” or somesuch. The place has gone hyper-local, thuddingly dull, ditzy, Swiss—one of the last stages in a (once-important) city’s life cycle. Victoria behaves like cartoonist Saul Steinberg’s two duelists on the tongue of a crocodile. 

The crocodile, by the way, is The Future, pulling in at Platform 3, any minute now.

Leaving macroeconomic, macropolitical, macrosocial trends and their local implications to the side for just a moment, it is so obvious that in the next few years, job-killing technology, work-at-home software, job-theft by the Westshore or capture by centrifugal Vancouver, outright provincial job-slashing in aid of a balanced budget—linked to a thinly veneered all-party hatred of this place (Victoria’s favourite wine? “We weren’t consulted!”)—will significantly chip away at the presence and sheer numbers of the civil service in Victoria’s central area, emptying out whole office buildings that will be a challenge to repurpose. Vertical mushroom farms, maybe. Or crash pads with elevator service for the shopping cart set.

A June conversation with Sage Baker, the city’s brand new economic development director, quickly (and understandably) turns from an enumeration of opportunity areas and initiatives (she had been on the job only about two weeks when we talked) to her views about the need to change the internal culture and to discover ways to make Victoria City Hall more responsive and helpful (read: less obdurate, obstructive and hostile) to enterprise interests, and less micromanagerial. You’re a quick study, Sage!

I wish Baker the best of luck (she is absolutely programmed for success, and if anyone can succeed, she will) but I’m not sure she appreciates, at the start of her two-year mandate, how long Victoria has been perfecting the Zen of dynamic inaction—something like a real-life version of the Vogons in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (described as “not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous”). I’m reminded, when I talk with Baker, of the droll cartoon of a ballet master addressing a large stone: “Jeté!”

In an effort to help Baker, let’s be open-eyed and analytical about the City of Victoria’s strong suit. Also, let’s be modern—futuristic, even—in our thinking about where economies are headed. Things are roiling, ecologically and economically, in case you hadn’t noticed. Maybe instead of moaning about the economic drift to Westshore, we should realize that soon-to-explode energy costs will paralyze Arcadian stalags like Westhills and Bear Mountain, and should be asking ourselves: What does the world need that plays to Victoria’s assets and capabilities? When I answer my own question, I think: If we must be Swiss, let’s at least be the green Geneva.

Greeneva!

We could be the world-leading green innovation capital—if only somebody with vision, entrepreneurial ambition and resources would see the remarkable business potential (David Black, say, with his compass reset from Kitimat oil refineries to something morally useful). Imagine Victoria’s future as an entrepot filled not with vapid visitor experiences but a green (in its broadest meanings) hub with consultants, world-class environmental expertise, research, workshops, discovery, invention, congresses, conferences, demonstration projects, global teaching and crucial green data services and information products.

The key, I think, is not to ask the stone to jump but to exploit creative, money-making expressions of what we so brilliantly are right now: our fuddle, our genius for inertia, our indecision and motion-tabling skills, our local-ness, our passion for and protective love of nature and environment, our hand-wringy-ness, our predilection for healing therapies, our yoga-ness, our alternative-ness, our squishiness and sensitivity, our insatiable intellectual appetite, our committee-ness, our love of talk, talk, talk over action, our idealism. Perversely, it’s all so ecological!

I have this revelation: it’s not that we have chosen removal from the wider streams of commerce but that we have failed to play to our own strengths. Maybe we just need to turn ourselves inside out. 

Old Town property dabbler Michael Williams, in what I assume was a misdirected quest for immortality (promised him, I don’t doubt, by the insidious Martin Segger, UVic secret agent posing, years back, as a Victoria City Councillor and heritage building buff), bequeathed his large clutch of downtown heritage buildings to the university upon his death. For starters, in a wider strategy of repatriation of regional assets, I say raze the entire existing university campus tomorrow. Bulldozers, forward! Reduce it to rubble. Relocate the entire university downtown to occupy not just its own ill-gotten properties, but every other vacant square foot of downtown space. Convert its current campus into a site for regional wastewater treatment, garbage sorting and recycling. Or move the airport there.

What’s the urgency, you think? Trust me, this is not a time for folks to steeple their fingers and maunder about the long game. Go see World War Z (do it for Brad if you won’t do it for me). I’m sorry to remind you so often that zombie movies are an ominous, ecological metaphor whose message is we’re headed toward major self-harm and catastrophe. You can feel it. Media is seething with it. Global civilization simply cannot take this high level of environmental, economic and social stress.

Victoria, you have an important destiny in these latter times. Seize it. “Jeté!” This is a feeble, old man’s request, and I’ll continue to voice it as long as my brains still work. As long as my brains still work.

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.