“The past is a foreign country” –L.P. Hartley

Christopher Hume Urban Issues, Architecture

Hume: The troubled future of history

Until we learn to save the past from the present, the future of heritage will remain threatened.

Recent examples include the mindless act of civic self-mutilation now unfolding in Brantford, a city whose vandalizing council voted to wreck three blocks of 19th century buildings on a main street. There can be no excuse for such wanton destruction, especially when self-inflicted.

In Toronto, the owners of a unique early 20th century Queen Anne cottage in the Beach are hell-bent on tearing it down, despite its obvious architectural merit. Again, there is no excuse for such flagrant disregard. Last week, the city issued a building permit, which means a demolition permit is only a matter of time.

In both cases, the structures should have been designated, though even that wouldn’t have provided the kind of protection many heritage properties need.

The fact is that privately held heritage buildings are dependent upon the kindness of owners who as often as not have no regard for architecture. These are people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. And given the reduced state of governments — municipal, provincial and federal — one can’t expect much from them.

“The city just doesn’t have the resources to designate all the buildings that should be designated,” laments councillor Sandra Bussin, whose ward includes the threatened cottage. “Everybody loves that house; it isn’t an ordinary house, and puff, it’s going to be gone. It’s awful.”

Then there’s the province, which administers the Ontario Heritage Act, or at least could if it so chose. But Culture Minister Michael Chan clearly doesn’t believe it should be applied. These decisions, he argues, are best made locally. There are times when that’s true, but in cases such as Brantford, clearly it isn’t.

Speaking at a meeting of Mississauga Heritage last week, Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion argued that it’s difficult if not impossible for cities in Ontario to run their own affairs, none more so than planning, which, predictably, also falls largely under provincial jurisdiction.

“Cities aren’t babies any more,” she insisted. “They have grown up.”

McCallion is right; in places such as Mississauga and Toronto there’s little need for Queen’s Park interference. But as the Brantford example shows, the heavy apparatus of provincial legislation, including the Ontario Municipal Board, has kept many municipalities in an infantilized state.

But ultimately, legislation and city councils on their own cannot save heritage. What’s needed is a change in attitude. The widely held notion that heritage is an obstacle to progress, a liability, something that blocks progress, must eventually give way to a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of heritage as a civic, cultural and economic resource.

Expediency may make sense today, but tomorrow it will be revealed as inadequate. There was a time when people, including city officials, wanted to tear down Old City Hall and Union Station. To some, it was an idea that made sense; now such an argument would be inconceivable. The loss of these landmarks would have diminished Toronto immeasurably.

One day, Brantford will wake up to the realization it has made a ghastly mistake. By then, it will be too late.

Expediency may be profitable, but only in the short term. In the long run, it’s heritage that makes a community rich. Examples abound, here and around the world.

But in a society that looks ahead mere months at a time, the short term is enough. Save a façade or two, put up a plaque, and hope for the best.

“The past is a foreign country,” wrote L.P. Hartley, but it’s one we’d all like to visit.

Christopher Hume can be reached at chume@thestar.ca

Brantford city council recently voted to demolish three blocks of heritage buildings in the city’s downtown. Guest columnist Nigel Terpstra, of Urban Toronto, sent us this post about the situation.

Recently, the city of Brantford, Ontario announced its plans to demolish and remove forty-one structures from the south side of Colborne Street, in the heart of its historic downtown.  The structures themselves date from 1850 to 1915 with the section stretching from 115 to 139 Colborne comprising one of the longest surviving collections of pre-confederation buildings in Canada.  They represent a wide variety of architectural styles from the Beaux Arts of The Right House (1870), to the Georgian of The Shannon Building (1867), to the Edwardian of the Dominion House Furnishings Company (1915).  Within that range are also included a number of Renaissance Revival, Second Empire and even Art Deco structures, all of which were created at different times, for different clients with different needs. They could very soon all be reduced to rubble.   Urbanites and heritage buffs recoil in horror at this prospect – surely in 2010 we don’t do these sorts of things – but the unfortunate reality is that we do and we are.  It does not take a great knowledge of history to understand that it was exactly this sort of ‘bulldoze and rebuild’ attitude which claimed the downtowns of countless North American cities in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.  Instead of the glassy, modern towers which were supposed to replace the heavy, masonry structures of the past, economies changed, money went elsewhere, and cities were left with gaping holes, both physical and psychological, from which many have yet to recover.

Brantford’s mayor, Mike Hancock, seems to see things differently, arguing that the buildings’ demolition would “…give our downtown new life.”  There is an argument to be made for regenerative structures — at times, tearing away a small number of older buildings and replacing them with something a community needs is an effective way to bring people in and reinvigorate ‘dead’ space.  To this end, Brantford City Councillor Mark Littell has promised that the land will be put to good use by the YMCA of Hamilton-Burlington-Brantford in partnership with Mohawk College, Wilfrid Laurier University and Nipissing University, all of whom want to build an athletics facility for community and postsecondary use on about a third of the site.  But what, then, of the other two-thirds?

Both the mayor and the town’s councillors seem to believe that developers will flock to the newly vacated space, but the chances of this happening are slim.  Furthermore, when the older structures are torn down, the individual parcels of land upon which they stood will be too small to be developed on their own and will therefore be bundled into bigger and more profitable tracts.   The buildings which will be built on these new lots will also be larger and will contain fewer opportunities for individual retailers to establish themselves, changing scale of the street completely.  It seems therefore, that what we are faced with is less the surgical removal of a specific set of structures in an effort to revive a larger precinct, than the clear cutting of three blocks at the whim of a pro-development city council.

Some may argue that the buildings are decaying, damaged or are of questionable structural integrity, but a 2005 fire department inspection revealed that the roofs were sound, the basements dry and the walls free of cracks.  Furthermore, a 1995 report by the South Side of Colborne Street Task Force confirmed that the buildings themselves were not to blame, stating: “The problems along Colborne Street have emerged over an extended period of time and are the result of a wide variety of factors.  There is not an instantaneous cure for these problems.  The improvement of the street will be the result of incremental improvements to existing buildings and to the surrounding area.”  Sage advice indeed, but why then, fifteen years on, are we considering the destruction of these buildings in the face of both the reports of heritage experts and more broadly, the lessons of history?

It is no secret that Brantford spent some years in decline after the bankruptcies of its two major employers, White Farm Equipment and Massey-Ferguson, forced thousands out of work.  Colborne Street suffered heavy losses during this period as retailers and services left when business dried up.  In the last ten years however, the city’s unemployment rate halved and new life has begun to take hold.  What better way to solidify this success than by regenerating the city’s core to its former glory?  Instead, Brantford has chosen to destroy, getting rid of the old structures as if they were bad memories.

Brantford must realize that the position it is in is not unique, but the decisions its councillors and mayor make could set the city apart from others who have traveled the same path.  It is exactly this sort of “dumb and ordinary,” “messy vitality,” to quote two urban visionaries of the twentieth century, Robert Venturi and Jane Jacobs, that we have come to appreciate and cherish in the wake of countless failed experiments akin to the one upon which Brantford seems determined to embark.  In this sense, the derelict heterogeneity of Colborne Street’s current condition is itself the best template for true revival and a catalyst around which the whole city should rally.

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