Upon This Rock I Will Build My Condominium

March 28, 2010

It’s been a very wordy, theory-laden week with all of this talk of progress and history, so I thought I’d end the week with something light: a post about religion. Kidding! Not actually religion, per se, but the visual effects of religion in our cities: churches.

Churches are such a common part of the cityscape that I doubt many of us even notice them. And yet it’s hard not to notice that as more and more condos go up (especially here in Toronto where it seems every spot of vacant or ‘underutilized’ land has been co-opted for another residential building) they are the last bastions of low-level architecture. They strike a stark, and beautiful, contrast to the glass and concrete boxes around them. They are often stunning buildings with the appropriate amount of age-grime to make me really interested. And they are a common visual reminder of the place that religion used to hold in this city, and country generally. There is a church on almost every corner (indeed, there are almost as many as there are Tim Hortons), but they do not reflect the city as it is today. Most are Anglican, but with only about 7% of the city population followers of that church (and more arriving every day with a different religion entirely, or none at all), many sit empty most of the time.

Bloor Street in Toronto. I know there's a church in there somewhere...

Quite frankly, it seems miraculous to me that more churches aren’t torn down. Why aren’t they? Is it that there is a great public attachment to historic places of worship, even if they are barely frequented anymore? Toronto is not so hesitant to tear down other older buildings to make way for the new. Or are churches still relevant in some way? And will they continue to be? I’ve certainly never seen a new one being built, so they must be accommodating the changing needs of the city as is.

Ah, yes. There it is!

Churches have actually adapted fairly well, if one considers that they are not only there to shepherd the flock toward redemption/holiness, but also to serve as the space in which communities come together. Some have continued to have services during the week for the few who still attend them, though many only host them now on Sundays. One Lutheran church near me offers services in German, Latvian and Korean in an attempt to bolster its numbers, but the majority of activities attempt to build communities in other ways. Many now offer ESL training, yoga classes, day care, or basketball during the week, which certainly serves the second purpose well. And why not have your next corporate meeting in the chapel? Others now rent out the space to corporations that aren’t squeamish about the religious overtones and not concerned about strict objectivity or the separation of work and religion. (And who, after all, wouldn’t want to look at a crucifix during their next meeting about vendor selection? Would really liven things up.)

A break-out room at St. Paul’s on Bloor, the largest Anglican church in the diocese. Personally I require fancy windows at all my corporate meetings.

Many churches have also turned to innovative architecture and development partnerships to preserve their land. Consider the Church of the Redeemer, which has been all but eaten by a Four Seasons Hotel. Why not just build your building around a church? Redeemer has also adapted in other ways: it now hosts rock concerts as part of nuit blanche, as well as opening its doors to everyone the church would normally exclude. Very open-minded.

The Church of the Redeemer has managed to cling on to its space at one of Toronto's busiest corners...for now.

The spire of the Cathedral of St. James, Toronto’s oldest congregation, was once the dominant feature on the skyline, but now shares air space (and has sold some of its land to) the new and appropriately-titled Sp!re condominiums next door.

The Cathedral of St. James in the 1930s.

And today, with the Sp!re condos sharing the skyline.

Other churches have been converted directly into condos themselves, like the Victoria Lofts in the west end of the city, on what was once the West Toronto Presbyterian Church.

Site of the Victoria Lofts

It makes me wonder how much of a building’s purpose is tied up in its structure. Will churches always be churches in the popular imagination, even after many have been divided up into apartments, or rented out as generic corporate meeting rooms? What effect will this divvying up of public, communal space into private compartments have on city dwellers?

And how will churches adapt in future? Will they remain religious strongholds, or will their presence largely fade to one of historical significance? I suspect many of these questions will  be answered as Toronto, and Canada more broadly, decides what kind of identity it wants to have – as a nominally and historically Christian city/country, or a new “multicultural” one. In the meantime, consider a steeple for your next condo purchase – I hear they get great nighttime city views.

Who Will Fight For Thee? An Ode to Sewer Grates

March 12, 2010

This country is falling apart – really. At least, that’s what Margaret Wente claimed last month in an article about Canada’s ancient infrastructure, the physical underlay that allows us to live in a modern city, such as water mains, and bridges, and roads.

The trouble is, nobody wants to stand up and fight for the sewer systems and corroded pipes by shelling out the estimated $33-billion needed to upgrade them in the next two decades. Why not? Wente claims that it is a symptom of our country’s progressive “demosclerosis,” that is, a government’s propensity to, in a democracy, hand out cash to those special interest groups that agitate for money the loudest instead of the more silent but necessary projects like infrastructure that represent no gains in political capital.

Perhaps. But I suspect that it has more to do with our overall lack of emphasis today on the physical aspects of nation-building, in favour of the intangible ones. When Canadians are asked about what makes their country great, and modern, and progressive, most talk about health care, or civil liberties, or multiculturalism. Few comment on our excellent bridges or highways, or public buildings.

Improving the solidity of the built environment used to be a key element of national and imperial pride, two hundred years ago. Improvements in infrastructure are one of the few positive things that are generally associated with imperialism (though, of course, there are ways that one could quibble with the claim that they were beneficial in the long run). Good planning and solid civil engineering were considered the hallmarks of modernity and progress – and were appropriately celebrated.

Consider the London Sewage System. When it was built in the 1860s and 1870s, under the far-sighted direction of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, it was (rightly) lauded as a triumph of engineering and public health. It was an extensive project, constructed for the then-largest metropolitan area in the world, and it led to a reduction in cholera and typhoid fever outbreaks that had plagued the city for years. Bazalgette himself was knighted and there stands to this day a memorial to his genius on the Victoria Embankment.

There are Canadian examples also: the Prince Edward Viaduct was a celebrated work of art when it opened in 1918, and of course, one needs look no further than the stunning architecture of the Ontario Provincial Legislature, opened in 1860, or Union Station, built 1914-1920, to see the kind of pride that was placed in public buildings in this country as well.

I can’t think of any sewer engineers who’ve been knighted recently. (If you can, by all means, send them over.) And most public buildings constructed today lack the opulence and grandeur of their predecessors. Today, functional utilitarianism and beauty don’t seem to be compatible, and the emphasis rests on the former. Consider the Victorian Abbey Mills pumping (sewer) station near London:

Abbey Mills Pumping Station

And its modern equivalent:

New sewer station

Also consider another celebrated imperial building, the Chhatrapati Shivaji (formerly Victoria) Terminus in Mumbai. It was built during the British Raj, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and still stands as a glorious example of functional beauty:

Victoria Terminus

Now consider Shanghai’s main railway station, built in 1987:

Shanghi Railway Station

It is all evidence that physical infrastructure today is little more than that – it does not represent national prowess so much as an uninteresting feature of daily life. In fact, as Wente points out, things like water mains or electrical grids are really only ever noticed when they cease to function as they should. And no wonder: they are ugly, or uninteresting, and certainly not celebrated. Quite the opposite: I’ll admit that I too find the endless reconstruction of Bloor Street a pain – and I don’t even have to drive through it.

The root cause, I believe, is a change in how we speak of ourselves as a nation, and what we consider to be important. These days nation-building in the developed world is associated with ideals: democracy, equality of opportunity, or winning many Olympic gold medals, for example. It isn’t really building at all.

Is it that these things are no longer new and shiny (literally) and revolutionary enough to be worth our notice? Are we “beyond” physical infrastructure and public buildings as markers of progress? Is there some national hierarchy of needs (similar to Maslow’s personal one) that puts basic infrastructure at the bottom and higher-level ideas at the top of the pyramid? Or is it that we consider freedom and democracy and health care so basic, so integral to our idea of ourselves as a nation, that these examples are what populate our speeches?

I wonder. For now I’m going to be thankful that my internet connection is fast enough that I can upload this post before heading out onto our barely functional, disastrously ugly subway to go for dinner. And along the way I’m going to make a point of noticing the sewer grates, and feel proud to be Canadian.

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Social Classes, Storied Lives, and History Writing

February 28, 2010

I’m going to stray a bit from strict history into the personal today, and ask about the inevitability of storied lives that originate in storied beginnings.

This week, I have the pleasure of interviewing several candidates for full scholarships to the University of Toronto. It is the most inspiring activity I participate in all year. The criteria for the award are originality, creativity, leadership in various activities in school and the community, breadth of interest and intellectual curiosity. The students – all in their final year of high school – are delightful: bright, motivated, and full of ideas and energy. One can’t help but be excited by their futures, whether they win the scholarship and come to Toronto or not. Just interviewing them is humbling.

Reading over their applications, I am struck by another similarity that binds them: the majority are from private or specialized high schools that excel at producing legions of talented young people just like these. Of course, this is not to take anything away from the clearly exceptional students I meet every year – but I can’t help but wonder at the opportunities presented to every student in these schools: newspapers and art reviews in four languages, classics clubs, near-professional yearbook facilities, annual plays, musicals, and shows, Reach for the Top teams, Model United Nations, biodiversity labs, expensive and exclusive sports, IB programs, AP courses – and any number of others you’ve probably never even heard of. And they all have the benefit of funding, teacher support, and a legacy of (in some cases) decades of school tradition behind them. It’s no wonder students succeed.

I won’t go into questions of whether it is “fair” that some students are given these opportunities and some are not, because of course it isn’t fair. I also won’t speculate about whether it is possible to be greatly successful from humble upbringings, because that too is an obvious answer, as many before have proved.  But I do often wonder the effect schools like these have on the futures of the students who attend them.

Now, I adored my high school – the teachers were admirably talented and dedicated, and the classes and activity selection was above-average for a public school – but we didn’t have windows in a lot of our classrooms. Our auditorium doubled as a cafeteria, fondly dubbed the “cafetorium” (try producing a Shakespearean production with meatball smells and spirited games of Euchre going on in the background). And I’d never heard of Model UN until I got to university. It isn’t a school that will ever be famous in its own right for having educated some of Canada’s greatest scholars or politicians; it’s just an average suburban high school.

I wonder, how much more likely is sustained success in life amongst those who attend these exclusive schools? How much less likely is it for one of my peers? Here is where I define “sustained success” as achievement, and notability, and expertise. Prime Ministers, writers, public intellectuals, leaders of organizations. Let’s talk for a minute about one of my favourite Canadian historical figures, George R. Parkin, tireless promoter of imperial unity and designer of my favourite map ever . He went to Oxford, was the first administrator of the Rhodes Scholarships, and served as headmaster of Upper Canada College (one of those storied schools I’m talking about). Parkin’s daughter married Vincent Massey, who would become the first Canadian-born Governor General, and who was himself from the storied Massey Ferguson family (of tractor fame). Another of Parkin’s daughters married George Grant, renowned Canadian historian of the 1950s (and also a UCC grad). Parkin’s great-grandson is Michael Ignatieff, who is current and controversial enough to need no explanation.

Aside from showing how delightfully incestuous early nineteenth-century, upper-class Canadian society was, it also shows the near-inevitability of some of these individuals becoming notable. (And here is where I veer off into Whig history, never to be seen again outside of grand, teleological narratives with bad sourcing.) With parents, networks, and educational experiences like they had, how could they not be? Even today, though it is subtle and often disguised, the class divide in Canada is alive and well. And in Canada, it is propagated and advanced by educational institutions.

I truly believe Canada is more of a “land of opportunity” than other countries: these schools, for example, encourage diversity of background and even offer scholarships to those whose parents can’t afford the steep tuition.  Some other storied institutions (I’m looking at you, UofT) are inclusive by virtue of size alone. But how can we even think of parity among students in first year university when some arrive in first-year history knowing only the vague contours of major wars and great figures, and others have in-depth knowledge of realpolitik that would rival that of a Master’s student? How does one address that as an educator?

Arriving in Toronto was an experience for me, as I was pushed into networks that included all classes and backgrounds.  I feel as though I have the benefit of a relatively objective view of them, coming from such an average educational upbringing. I wonder if historians who grew up within history – the storied walls of UCC, or Cambridge, or a home in Rosedale that has appeared in several books on Toronto history – look at things differently. Does it make them more empathetic, or less? Do they have biases that I don’t? Do I have biases they don’t? How does it affect how we each see and explain the world?

Ongoing questions all. For now I’ll focus on my delightful students – perhaps I’ll ask them what they think.

How about you? How do you think your background shapes the way you see things? What impact did your education have on your current success? Do you think the class system in Canada is as restrictive as in other countries? Post your thoughts below!