Vicky got lucky

By Gene Miller, February 2015

This City has been managed by stewards, not visionaries…until now.

The CD liner notes state that only once in his career, a century ago, the German symphonic composer Engelbert Humperdinck transcended his own talents and reached a higher musical plane. Königskinder (The King’s Children) has “genuine qualities,” sniffs the writer, but it is in Humperdinck’s opera Hansel und Gretel alone that the “mysterious phenomenon occurs when talent becomes genius.”

What a succinct and tantalizing formulation: that “mysterious phenomenon…when talent becomes genius.”

Taking nothing away from the musical locus of this idea, I want to shift its thesis from artistic creativity to local civic leadership. In offering this narrative, I don’t have an especially credentialed viewpoint, only a 45-year resident’s perspective.

I’m not sure when Victoria went smaller-than-life, raising neurasthenia to a civic art form, while co-expectant Collapse and Death played aces-high beside the exit door, waiting for the call.

Victoria has for so many years gone to its tiny place that it’s hard now not to think of it as the new normal. This happened by degrees, of course, but it has become reflex, and so much our signature, that any reasonable person (I’m borderline) might wonder if the burg even retains the skills and life force to do anything different. 

When all that phrumphy “little bit of England” bunting peeled off the walls in the ’70s and ’80s, along with many of the city’s other conceits about its political and cultural importance, Victoria found itself flat-footed and identity-less, with no second act prepared. Resembling nothing so much as a rustbelt factory town, Victoria had little practice in the art of self-renewal. Our one industry was government—the meat in our sandwich; and while government remains, its presence is less ceremonial and “heroic,” less defining of city character, and ever more administrative. It could be anywhere. 

And what else did we have? We were loaded with commercial, social and cultural infrastructure addressing the needs and tastes of the sunset crowd—the change-averse retired and pensioned.

With the exception of now-long-ago fearless iconoclast Mayor Peter Pollen and the imperfect but well-intentioned Dean Fortin, the City, as in some Tolkien fantasy, has been managed by stewards, not change leaders or visionaries. Victoria’s collapse of aspiration was further intensified by Vancouver’s economic ascendancy and gravitational pull, the diminishing gravitas of Victoria on the provincial political stage, and a local stampede to the suburbs, further vitiating the City’s economic heft and cultural centrality.  

Victoria: “Downtown, the Centre of it All!”

Uptown and Costco: “Uh, sure, whatever you say, Vicky.” 

The rest of the world might go “better mousetrap” and “big box,” but Victoria would say “shoppe,” thank you. Incapable of reinventing itself, Victoria, like some pigeon-breasted matriarch, just doubled down on decorum and control; but, as practiced by nations, cities or individuals, control requires an enormous commitment of energy and capacity diverted from other purposes. 

Denial of change never works for long, and propriety is almost always a losing bet with the Future (watch Downton Abbey). The energy (and heart and mind) mis-invested over the years in producing and defending Victoria’s regulation culture, rather than creating a new story of creative enterprise and initiative, has been a predictable and tragic waste. 

Trapped in this Dickensian nightmare, perfectly competent and creative City personnel have been inducted as actors in the theatre of small gestures, featuring a front-counter clerk-y peevishness and an atmosphere of caution and guardedness in which Every. Little. Thing. Has. To. Be. Negotiated. For countless years, the invisible inscription over the City Hall entry has proclaimed: Relinquere Omnes Spes, very loosely translated as “If you have to ask—and you do—the answer is No.”

The fire alarm message anywhere else says: “Break Glass in Emergency.” In Victoria, we filter urgency and imperative through some grotesque local pathology and turn it into process: “Submit Emergency Response Application Before Breaking Glass.” 

Enter Lisa Helps, Victoria’s new mayor. Or to re-arrange those words, are we ready for a new civic adventure? Are we ready for the Future? 

Helps, given good political luck, some brilliant hires in the near-term (planning director, notably) and Council’s untested but hoped-for ability to wholeheartedly embrace occasion, is capable of authoring a climate of possibility and civic expression unlike anything we’ve seen in the City’s history. It’s in her DNA; she’s a “new person” tuned to economic and social potential presenting itself in a fresh cultural language. Ah, I know what else she is…she’s young! At the same time (and this makes her rare), she offers an energetic vision of community and connection. This is the package we elected, and this is her mandate. It would be a shame to waste her potential, her four-year term, and our hopes. 

In the wake of the municipal election results, I’ve heard people remark that Helps’ razor-thin 89-vote win is hardly a mandate for change. This is wrong on all counts. Had Ida Chong (personifying a near-exhausted ideological battle) and Stephen Andrew (campaigning for “leadership,” but with no cred to back it up) not run, Helps would have scooped up the majority of their collective 5655 votes. Her dynamic election campaign and remarkable victory embodies an unmistakable message from the electorate: “Rescue us! Re-invent us! Re-imagine this city!”

Victoria got lucky. It chose a mayor who gets Victoria’s uniqueness—its soft side, its love of nature, its respect for the past, its commitment to mutuality, neighbourliness, community, cooperation, its passionate embrace of green values and practices—and one who also intuitively understands that enterprise needs permission and entirely new forms of civic partnership.

There’s another thing that Helps gets: that the key to change on the scale Victoria requires has less to do with microscopic administrative adjustments coming out of City Hall (they are never enough), and much more to do with animating the entire civic enterprise; that is, us.

Thousands—that number again, thousands—of additional people have to call Downtown their primary residential and workplace home as soon as possible. Downtown still hollows out at 6 pm; and too many downtown condos, purchased as investment units, are dark at night. 

Streets around Downtown need beautification—Douglas Street, from the Hudson to the Conference Centre, first and foremost, but not to the exclusion of other sad blocks. Currently, Douglas feels like a mid-west main street, a highway tamed only by a handful of traffic lights. Downtown’s streets and public spaces need to feel much more populous, energized, friendly and prosperous. 

And don’t get me started on Rock Bay, Downtown’s invisible and forlorn shoulder north of the Hudson out to Bay Street. 

I have conversations daily with people in our city who are desperate to make positive change—in community well-being, physical appearance, incubation of entrepreneurial skills, ideas for investment-worthy startups, tech plays, development dreams, and more. All they need (I stretch a point to make a point) is a City that thinks of itself as a partner, not a regulator. And let’s be clear: Switching to partner does not mean all the rules get thrown out the window.

Ponder these questions: how much longer will the spurt of central area residential development continue? Thinking demographically, who are the buyers and renters moving into new Downtown residential units? Where do they come from? Why are they making the choice to live Downtown? What do they do for a living? How much does every building-ful of them contribute to the Downtown economy? How much new employment and how much additional residential population would it take to make every viable Downtown business successful?

Worryingly, nobody here has the answers, but wouldn’t it be nice to move from prayer to plan? Wouldn’t it be useful to be operating strategically?

As you read, you may be mentally crafting a rebuttal, arguing that Victoria isn’t Vancouver and doesn’t want to be; that Victoria, thank God, is a slower and gentler place; that Victoria has quality-of-life virtues un-catalogued in this column which, taken together, more than offset any lack of local dynamism. The Victoria argument goes: If you want a faster pace and a more competitive environment, and all that traffic, and high-rise lifestyle, move to Vancouver. 

I understand Victoria’s real virtues and value them enormously. Wouldn’t give them up for anything. But, honestly, where is the charm in vacant storefronts with big “For Lease” signs on the windows? Where is the appeal of a rubble-strewn vacant Downtown lot, or a surface parking lot? Where is the charm in an un-patronized shop? What is the virtue inherent in jobs and opportunities being exported to other places? What charm do you experience in Downtown’s under-amenitized and, in some places, even dodgy-feeling public realm?

Is Victoria’s charm so tenuous and fragile that enterprise culture and new Downtown vitality would shatter it? If so, it’s not charm, it’s a stage set. Tissue. In considering these matters, it’s crucial not to romanticize shortcomings, or somehow mis-perceive deficiencies as assets. Would you drive through some failed and shattered agricultural area—its farms and facilities quiescent—exclaiming “Oh, how rustic! How bucolic! How arcadian!”

Pretense is exhausting, and it’s such a pleasure to abandon it. The promising thing here is that transformation can come quickly, massively and magically. Liberation is infectious, powerful stuff for individuals and organizations. Mere months into such a climate of change, the very same people—we citizens and City personnel—can shake off the mental clamp of regulation and can become innovators.

If Victoria ever had a mayor whose genius lay in her ability to release the genius in all of us, it is right now, with the talented Lisa Helps.

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently co-writing 50 by 20 with Rob Abbott. The two are also about to launch—a companion website dedicated to championing exceptional North American sustainability initiatives and accomplishments.