By Gene Miller, March 2014
Good design helps make good citizens.
Did you know that in the City of Victoria, six of every ten dwellings are rental units and a rumoured seven of every ten people—especially in and around the city core—are renters? Look over there, 10 o’clock. For God’s sake, don’t look right at them! Yes, yes, right there: renters!
Humanity’s wiring diagram may have its mysteries, but there is no missing that property ownership (“a piece of the rock,” we say) is a desired status and an elevated form of tenure. It confers gravitas, true citizenship that reduces renters to a ghost-class—folks “just passing through.”
Actually, my interest in this has nothing to do with class issues; and jokes aside, I want to be careful not to convey the false idea that renting means a diminished engagement in community life.
By Gene Miller, February 2014
By Gene Miller, January 2014
By Gene Miller, November 2013
Despite some foot-dragging, trends are pointing to a revitalized Downtown.
When I drove by on a mid-September Saturday morning, the crane truck was lifting the word “PUBLIC” into place above a steel-frame marquee at The Hudson, Townline Development’s residentially and commercially re-purposed Hudson’s Bay store. The next day, it had been flanked by the words “VICTORIA” and “MARKET.”
By Gene Miller, October 2013
If life is becoming an app, what’s next?
I just read that a matrix printer will be able soon to print living tissue. Stick around for a while and you’ll be able to get new kidneys at Staples. It’s just another skip along the way to a perfected life. Remember, nothing gleams like the future.
Actually, I have seen the future, and it’s soft. Not fluffy, three-ply tissue soft. Software soft. What’s quickly taking shape in our time—for emphasis, in our time...you, me, right now—is a technological transformation, the latest in a remarkably short list of evolutionary novelties (or inevitabilities), promising staggering consequences for the way nature is currently ordered.
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.
By Gene Miller, July/August 2013
Can Victorians afford—literally—to let the CRD build a sewage treatment facility that’s based on outmoded thinking?
Oh, do not wake the sleeping tempests; beneath them Chaos stirs!” wrote the Russian Romantic-era poet Fyodor Tyutchev in Silentium.
You nailed it, tovarich.
By Gene Miller, June 2013
Why do we penalize those who are trying to densify the city core?
I’m tempted to devote this entire column to the news that while the McDonald’s on Pandora Avenue and Vancouver Street charges four cents less for a large coffee, the McDonald’s on Esquimalt Road near Esquimalt’s Archie Browning Recreation Centre is a masterpiece of tasteful, intimate restaurant decor, especially the leather armchairs and the booth seating. Yes, leather armchairs, booth seating.
The Pandora McDonald’s is straight out of the prison cafeteria riot school of interior design (the “lockdown” look), and evokes Agent Smith’s disgust in The Matrix when he describes humans as a disease, a virus. The beautifully furnished and finished Esquimalt restaurant, however, communicates trust, love of people, belief in the goodness of the human community, faith that someday we will overcome our differences and all be as—
By Gene Miller, May 2013
White and curvaceous, Shutters flaunts Victoria’s unwritten cultural code.
Shutters, the improbably-white and unexpectedly-sinuous condominium building in Songhees, is not so much a building as a sculpture people live in. Proper buildings, after all, are squared up and have right angles. Everyone knows that. And they’re brick-y red, not wedding-cake white. So, let’s study this one-off that flaunts all of Victoria’s unwritten cultural code regarding colour and shape of buildings, and that seems not so much to have been built as to have landed.
I was led to consider Shutters after I sat in one of the city’s coffee shops frequented by the double latte crowd, and overheard an artist/philosopher-in-residence explaining to the tattooed bunny at his table that white was not a colour but a concept, an idea.
By Gene Miller, April 2013
The City of Victoria is robbing the future to pay for today.
I want to enlist your help in fleshing out an idea for the City of Victoria and in designing a strategy for its implementation. I’m proposing that together we generate some innovative thinking directed at our downtown and, by extension, the city’s problematic economy. In doing this we’ll not only open new ground in citizen innovation and city/citizen collaboration, but assist the city we love—a place that has clearly found itself overwhelmed and temporarily out of ideas. We can do this on the pages of Focus (send in your thoughts as letters or emails); or around a table in a coffee shop (call or write me); maybe it wants to be a small conference or workshop. Possibly all.
By Gene Miller, March 2013
Is there an app for zapping bad buildings?
Twenty or so years ago, I was for a while a development consultant or, as I called myself in private moments of searing candour, a “developer’s finger puppet.” I was paid on a performance basis (“employed by the outcome,” was my trippingly elegant phrase for it), and was of course highly motivated to succeed. As I made the rounds door-knocking in various neighbourhoods and attending countless public meetings, I would listen to a predictable and repetitious litany of neighbours’ concerns: too high, too big, too dense, too close, too much traffic, too much shadowing, loss of privacy, and my favourite change-up: “I support density, just not here.” I knew this repertoire was code for something else, something much more emotionally raw and elemental, like: “I don’t want that monstrosity, that death star, anywhere near me! If it goes up, I’m going to hate my life every day!”
By Gene Miller, February 2013
Why don’t more multi-family buildings in Victoria pass the sniff test?
In a recent weekend fever dream, I was trapped in a maze of walled rooms filled with a vast selection of coffee beans in sacks and hundreds of different grass outfits that hung in thin air; and the only way to advance toward an exit was to grind a pound of coffee and to wear a straw clothing outfit in just the right combination. If I got the coffee/straw suit combination right, walls would reluctantly part just enough for me to squeeze through to the next room, where I faced the same task again. Plus, every room featured its own distracting adventure or sub-dream.
By Gene Miller, January 2013
Close to 3000 new Downtown residences are under construction or in the development pipeline. Only 22,000 to go.
With the headline “Alligators Guard Pot in Stripper’s Home,” the Huffington Post recently created an informational dilemma: file under pets, home security, agriculture, careers, or real estate?
By Gene Miller, December 2012
City Hall seems tone-deaf to the urgency of looming fiscal concerns.
Remember when Langford and Colwood—now backbones of the recently re-branded “Westshore”—were known as Dogpatch?
Seems like that page turned.
Now there’s an embedded impression that you can have a house and small yard in Langford for the price of a condo in Victoria; and in spite of the occasional rumblings in the national media about a coming major correction in real estate prices, nobody who’s selling in pricey Fairfield, James Bay, or the other central area blue-chip neighbourhoods has received the memo.
By Gene Miller, November 2012
A gentle meditation on various collisions between natural law and community standards.
Stuck in the welter of uninvited emails about penis enlargement and how to hypnotize girls into having sex was one with the provocative and totemic subject line, “PMA.” Po-Mo Abstractionism? Prime Minister Abdicates? Pre-Menstrual Abandon? Post-Midi d’un Antilope? My neurons fired endless possibilities. Poor me again!
Turns out it was a pitch for Positive Mental Attitude. I was advised to create an “abundance mentality” by reading and watching personal development material and success stories; to leave behind—to forcibly reject, actually—everything that held me back; and to cultivate a win-win life strategy. The page also informed me that my shopping cart was empty—a problem I could remedy with just one click.
Cli.... No, maybe not.
By Gene Miller, October 2012
Influenced by the adolescent fantasies of Ayn Rand, the extreme right wing rejects any form of collectivism as evil socialism.
My friend Denton (remember his Blue Bridge “rocket launcher” on the back cover of Focus, months ago?) handled the Blessed Event so right-mindedly that I thought it would be worth memorializing.
Receiving his first post-65 government pension cheque, he took it upon himself to find some local social-serving non-profit organization with whom he could volunteer. He was explicit about this: a national culture able to do such a good job of looking after its citizens by providing a reasonable pension deserved his continuing services as a show of appreciation and as a way of keeping the account in balance. What a nice view of the human community! What an unerring expression of the relationship between the individual and the collective!
By Gene Miller, September 2012
SNC-Lavalin’s “zero tolerance” for unethical behaviour apparently doesn’t include a billion-dollar overstatement of the benefits of a proposed LRT for Victoria.
1. Lucky Sevens
The prospect of criminal prosecution is keeping the news alive that England’s Barclays Bank, with the likely cooperation of JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, UBS, Canada’s Royal Bank and others, has for years been manipulating the London interbank offer rate (Libor) so as to sweep a few additional hundred million crumbs into its lap.
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.
By Gene Miller, June 2012
Put all the politicians, bureaucrats and engaged citizens in a big pot and turn up the heat until everyone screams “Density!”
From my eastern windows dawn landed like the Apocalypse a couple of Fridays ago: a tortured sun fighting its way through volcanic black stormheads churning below a leaden sky that flattened the landscape from horizon to horizon, north to south.
“The end of Fairfield and pricey Gonzales?” I wondered. “Maybe there really is a wrathful Higher Power. But why Cook Street Village? Why? Why? Why?”
God works in mysterious ways.
I consulted my well-thumbed Bible For Dummies. And there it was, a portent, a message. The text in Renovations 4:17-3 read:
By Gene Miller, May 2012
Even with burger joints popping up on every corner, you still can’t find medium-rare in the nanny state.
I can hardly wait for the 2012 US presidential election in November, when millions of American voters throughout that great land will march to the polls to repudiate Obama’s socialist, regulation-crazy, freedom-hating, say-no-to-enterprise, big government vision and put Mitt Romney in the White House, so we can starve the Washington beast and have a second Morning in America.
By Gene Miller, April 2012
Even with storm clouds on the horizon, Victoria continues to avoid direct action.
AT A RECENT Urban Development Institute luncheon, guest speaker Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, invited to profile the City’s new economic development strategy, told this story:
“I was giving a speech in James Bay and mentioned Victoria as a world-class city...and someone in the audience said “What if we don’t want to be a world-class city?”
Now, this raises some interesting questions: What does it mean to be a world-class city? What does it mean if your city isn’t? And last, who cares what some shrubby, unemployed, dope-smoking loser in James Bay thinks? Or, why would the mayor throw that goad at a James Bay audience, any more than he would say: “Ya know, James Bay could really use a bunch of 30-storey condo towers, four active traffic lanes on Simcoe Street, and a nuclear reactor at Ogden Point?”
By Gene Miller, March 2012
Three local events, three different ways of looking at what the future might hold.
You wake from the dream dislocated, exhausted, a sweaty mess. It was a sci-fi doozy: a narrow wisp of silver-grey dust, manifest and purposeful, blows in between the bedroom window and the window-frame, floats toward your sleeping form, settles on your face; and within seconds, a tracery of grey veins begins to spread across your cheeks, moving toward your eyes, nostrils, lips....
Hoping to smooth the corduroy in your nervous system, you go to the darkened bathroom and root around in the medicine cabinet to find the Atarax. Your jumpy fingers grope for the pill bottle and you turn on the light. There it is, behind the lip cream. Waiting for the water to run cold, you glance in the mirror. Faint but visible, is a spreading web of grey lines marching across your cheeks, moving toward your eyes, nostrils, lips....
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.)
By Gene Miller, January 2012
It all starts with ooids. Next thing you know, there’s a parkade.
What’s underfoot? The question holds professional interest for geologists and mineral explorers and, I suppose, for folks who think hell is down instead of Calgary in winter; though Jon Stewart recently quipped on the Daily Show, “hell is watching eight straight hours of Fox News.”
Think about it: we do a lot of digging and a lot of extracting—everywhere we can find riches to pluck. Adam, you’ll remember, was himself made from dust—earth itself; and Lilith, Eve’s precursor, from filth and sediment, as told in that collection of extra-biblical myths, the Midrashim. And as the Book of Common Prayer has it: “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.”
We’re deeply connected to the material beneath our feet. Literally, it’s in our bones.
By Gene Miller, December 2011
Tis the season for reflection on the moral obligations imposed by climate change and ecological destruction.
Hectored by my friend Denton to add a more Canadian sensibility to this column, I asked “So, what do you think are the compelling Canadian narratives?” He suggested two: how Tim Horton’s manages to keep the glaze sticking to their French crullers, and Harper’s anticrime bill.
The first of these is one of life’s great mysteries, akin to getting the ketchup to start flowing from the bottle; the second is easier to decode. Most Canadians respond to the proposed anticrime bill by looking rearward and pointing out that crime stats have been falling. That’s their mistake.
By Gene Miller, November 2011
What will it take for mayor and council to realize it’s war and that job number one is to save Downtown?
After three short years it’s again time for us troglodytes to put down the remote, get our food dye-stained fingers out of the family size bag of Hawkins Cheezies, and go to the polls. Saturday the 19th—Municipal Election Day in Victoria!
As soon as the Labour Day weekend was over and summer-ized voluptuaries were magically turned back into citizens, the civic election will-be’s and wannabe’s started their chivvying and I began to hear the grumbles: some of you were threatening a killing spree if you had to go to all-candidates meetings or read campaign brochures filled with platitudes and pledges about public safety, strong and vibrant communities, heritage protection, affordable housing, prudent tax spending, more green space, protecting our seniors, and so on.
By Gene Miller, October 2011
What to do with a contaminated, once-industrial part of Victoria in a post-industrial era?
What do you want, Victoria? What do you want to be? Modern? I don’t think so. History hangs around you like a wrinkled matriarch wearing her fortune around her neck, trudging through the curtained gloom of a Rockland mansion. Socialistic? Well, yes, but just during the news cycle, please, and not in our neighbourhood. Administrative and imperial? Bold and high-powered? Pass.
How about lymphatic, aggrieved, isolationist?
By Gene Miller, September 2011
A new book lays out the irreversible and sobering consequences of our environmental trespasses.
Oops.com, .net and .org are all taken. So is oops! And, with or without an exclamation mark, so are whoops, ohoh, yikes, ohno, omg and holyshit. The fairly marble-mouthed wereallgonnadie.org is available (I guess the end of the world doesn’t seem exactly organizational) but the slightly more tintinnabulous wereallgonnadie.com and .net are gone.
I mean, if you’re the kind of person whose immediate response is to turn your latest cause or worry into a website, you’re going to have to reach past the obvious on this one.
By Gene Miller, July 2011
Is a billion-dollar LRT for the Langford-Downtown corridor the best way to solve a $25 million problem?
I have the pleasure of introducing you to the exquisite Italian fashion model, Bianca Balti. Can you imagine your life if you were involved with her romantically? Or if you were her best friend, with benefits? Your life would be perfected, a dream, right? You would feel youthful, alive. You would always be happy. Could she be stupid and nasty? Could her appetites put a big hole in your bank account? Don’t be silly! Your very existence would be perfumed and your entire life would be a dance in the air. Days would be tropically warm, evenings molten. You would sail on rails of silk past the traffic gridlock on the Island Highway between Millstream and downtown.
By Gene Miller, June 2011
The political mess to the south of us first seeped across the border into Alberta and now threatens to flood the entire country.
I bring you important and extraordinary news: Superman is renouncing his US citizenship.
I’m no storm crow and I’m not making this stuff up. Well, at least I’m not making this stuff up. It’s right there in Action Comics #900, in case you think I’m trying to trigger the whimpering demise of America the beacon of the free world. Says the Man of Steel—but wait, there he is speaking on his own behalf.
So, memo to the Manning Centre For Building Democracy which is planning some fringe events at the Conservative Party Convention in Ottawa, June 9-11, including one horrid, mossy clambake to review “cutting edge ideas and discussion on reforming Canada’s welfare state as well as removing barriers to environmental entrepreneurship”: It’s time to leave the Mesozoic behind.
By Gene Miller, May 2011
Notes on the illusion of administrative triumph over the random and unknowable future.
It was a brilliant, crystalline moment. At the end of Saanich Councillor Vic Derman’s hour-long presentation called “The Natural City,” recently delivered to about 75 of us in a Reynolds High School auditorium, the first audience question came from a woman who noted: “When you asked us earlier about the most important feature of a single family home, I wasn’t thinking ‘the back yard.’ I was going to say ‘privacy.’”
Vic had spent much of his hour logically building up the case for density. It was his point that carefully planned density represents victory over sprawl, that there are ecological and environmental imperatives for moving away from a car-based culture, and that nature and ecological design can be brought more fully into urban planning to produce an attractive arcadian urbanism.
By Gene Miller, April 2011
A road trip to California prompts a pondering of the faultlines of America’s current, overwrought version of freedom.
I had a US road-trip epiphany mid-March that I would like to share before it flickers and then winks out completely (how like an epiphany). It is that…Dammit, gone already! I remember it was triggered by a bumper sticker I thought up after seeing a real bumper sticker driving south on I-5 in Oregon’s rural southern reaches: “Oppose the liberal agenda. Stop socialism now!” Mine was: “Conservatives have the best lines…and the worst policies.” Aren’t I clever? That and $2.50, and I’m on the bus.
By Gene Miller, March 2011
Oak Bay doesn’t allow secondary suites, but there’s pressure to change that. Would anything be lost?
I recently woke up wondering: what passes for tectonics in Oak Bay these days? And there in the February 4th Times Colonist was the heaven-sent answer.
Reported under the headline “Secondary suite meetings plan sparks residents’ concerns,” were remarks from John Foxgord, lifetime Oak Bay resident and spokesman for the newly formed Friends of Oak Bay Neighbourhoods (FOBN). While he was not intentionally opening himself to parody from cheap-shot artists (fortunately, none such writes for this magazine), his remarks did carry just a whiff of Oak Bay “let them eat Tim Hortons.” Still, I understand this was not his intention.
By Gene Miller, February 2011
Self-interest should be the starting point for Victoria’s transportation planning.
Hop in the car. What? Oh, you don’t like the butt-warmer? Just turn that thumb-wheel to zero. Not that one, that’s for dashboard lighting level.
Where are we going? We’re just conducting a Wednesday afternoon experiment. What does your watch say? 3:41? Good. So, here we are turning onto Blanshard from Broughton, by the Royal Theatre. We’ll stay to the right because cars can still make left turns up until four o’clock. Hey, nice! It’s 3:43 and we’re just hitting our first red light at Fisgard at the arena corner. Less than a minute later and we’re cruising through Bay Street when the traffic light second-counter still says five…four; and it looks like we’re going to make it through the Hillside Avenue green also. Damn! The truck ahead of us had to pause for a pedestrian, and now the light’s turning yellow.
by Gene Miller, January 2011
The New Year Message: not for the faint of heart.
So, in your version of the movie, who’s streaming across the border? Soulful young upstanding families? People calmly reading the classics as they walk? Tomorrow-eyed pioneers eager for organic farming opportunities in a new, healthy land? University professors, healers, poets, Pan-pipe-playing hippies wearing daisy-chain crowns, a vast creative community? And as they cross under the Peace Arch, we take them by the arm and lead them to a bounteous harvest meal and their new homes in Canada?
Give your head a shake and steady yourself.
By Gene Miller, December 2010
Could you have imagined even a decade ago that you were going to get caught up in such biblical, apocalyptic times?
As I walked back from the Four Seasons Hotel (Howe and West Georgia; $265/night; strategically located near the business and shopping districts) to the Quality Inn (Howe and Drake; $79/night; strategically located near Money Mart and Tim Horton’s), snowflakes the size of threenies (use your imagination) fell like water balloons and dissolved on the wet street. The ten-block walk had the quality of a metaphor (if you divide the retail cost of a new mattress by its use-life and throw in a shower) in the aftermath of Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s hour-long fulminations. Kennedy was the keynote speaker at the First Land Awards Gala hosted by the Real Estate Foundation of BC.
His talk was a barn-burner, and I’ll turn to its themes in a moment. First, I have to talk about the dresses.
by Gene Miller, November 2010
Mike Littrell viewed history as the story of a culture’s effort to confront and heal its wounds.
Mike Littrell, cultural mythologist, died in hospice at the Royal Jubilee Hospital late in September, a month short of his 62nd birthday. He had a good death, though still a grief-filled loss to his friends and a loss to the world; but, then, time runs out for all of us and nature has a habit of being annoyingly vegetative and indifferent to sainthood.
by Gene Miller, October 2010
In the face of debt and crumbling infrastructure, a well-functioning city demands funds and engaged citizens.
So there you are still dressed in the hospital-issue green pyjamas, bathrobe and plastic ID wristband you were wearing when you bolted the Jubilee, having shown up there four days ago complaining about the demons invading your brain. You’ve been popping mood levellers like they were M&M’s, trying to duct-tape your rickety mental apparatus. With shaking hands you page-turn a discarded Times Colonist, hoping for normalcy; but you spot the following and you know, with something approaching liturgical certainty, that you are not the problem:
by Gene Miller, August 2010
Musings on the loss of faith in ever-lasting improvability.
On July 1, Canada Day morning, long before the dawn, I sat nursing a coffee outside a Fairfield convenience store. A highly spiced Chinese dinner the night before had given me vivid dreams and the small comforts of a short sleep; and I woke at 3:30 am to a diminished and horizon-less view of prospects—my own and everybody’s. Appropriately, the grey sky threatened rain.
Fred, the clerk who works the intermittently quiet graveyard shift, killed a few minutes with me outside the store. By appearance, he’s in his mid-late sixties, and the coffee was my first purchase under the new HST regime. When Fred quoted the new price, we exchanged looks. Sometimes, a look is all you need.
By Gene Miller, July 2010
This edited version of a speech given recently to Heritage BC points to the link between heritage preservation and ecology.
Hello, Friends of Yesterday. Your warm response to that line reminds me of a presentation I gave to a stony audience at a public transit association conference a number of years ago entitled—“Life’s a Bus and Then You Die.”