Going into the panel, I was the sole Etobicoke resident; I was the sole
person with anything resembling "roots" in Etobicoke; and I latently had an
impressive grasp and creative awareness of all of Etobicoke's physical
fabric; and my background was architectural history. So, why hadn't I a
personal history, even through something as basic as membership, with the
whole well-seasoned EHS/EHB/LACAC network? Especially given the fresh,
invigorating perspectives I could have brought with my relative youth and
Wild oats. And something deeper in the soil where the wild oats grow.
On a precocious dilettante basis, I was never entirely disengaged from
Etobicoke's historicity; genuine interested curiosity brought me to
pubescently browse, however gawkily or ill-digestedly, what passed for
Etobicoke's published historical texts in the school and public library.
However, for a too-glib young Etobian of the Rheostatics/Cowboy Junkies
generation, the Etobicoke Historical Society and its tentacles made no
overtures, and besides, it felt like an inert, uncongenial, entrenched,
stolid sort of tea-and-social, Montgomery's-Inn-costume-drama square
zone--as sleepy as the Cowboy Junkies' "Trinity Sessions" with none of the
hip voguishness. Our dovetails never came close to locking; I was never
willed over. The sort of nascent "heritage activism" or "community
activism" spirit my like was "into" was more cosmopolitan,
downtown-Torontoish; in effect, I leapt over Etobicoke in order to find my
heritage way, made my way to "the big city" as many a starry-eyed
wild-oat-sowing youth is prone to doing. And currently, one may say, I'm
bringing the lessons of those wild-oat years back to where I came from, and
now all under the hopefully broad cosmopolitan aura of the "Megacity".
It now seems--and likely not just in Etobicoke's case--that a fatal divide
took place, and unfortunately, it was in the nature of the heritage beast.
At least a generation of "fresh air" was lost as a result. A generation
that grew up with Etobicoke as a suburban entity, that grew up in an age of
auto travel and pop-cult influences that ranged far beyond Etobicoke, whose
latent positive, creative sense of Etobicoke place had less in common with
the familiar, entrenched, myopic historical-society "olden time" tableaus
than with, say, Reyner Banham's Los Angeles--or, perhaps, Douglas
Coupland's Vancouver. A place where the beating, fascinating,
story-telling "heritage" heart very much exists, but inextricable from,
even enhanced by, a very vital, dynamic, electric, ever-indeterminate and
polyglot ultra-contemporary tableau, the happy if sometimes sloppy and
wretched reality of the here and now. Think of an Etobicoke where
Montgomery's Inn and the Motel Strip, Applewood and Apache Burger, old
farmsteads and contemporary co-ops, Home Smith and Little Somalia, the
sidelights of history and the suburban recroom, the whole shebang and the
memory thereof is out there to be uncovered, discovered, celebrated under a
common apron--warts and all, and god bless this mess.
What this generation could have brought to "heritage" is a meta-heritage
approach, informed not just by the pat, simplistic ident-a-style parameters
of most heritage organizations, but also by broader, more current aspects
of built culture and vernacular studies, and spreading into other
disciplines--landscape, sociology, et al. On the surface, such
methodologies may seem too sprawling and "intellectual"; but as applied,
perhaps cautiously at first and in tempting increments, they can open eyes
and make us richer. And in LACAC activity, it could also work toward a
more active, positive, persuasive engagement with the planning and
political aspects. Hypothetically, all of Etobicoke, and not merely the
creaky "heritage landmarks", are there to be creatively celebrated. We
know; we grew up with it, and if we didn't, we're "honorary locals".
There are pitfalls, especially when the scope's so broad; most
particularly, there's a risk of LACAC meetings being bogged down in a
plethora of trivial issues. But "meta-heritage" remains not only a
reasonable ideal; in increments, it already exists, and it's been "in the
air" for some time--one thinks of architectural and urban theses and
studies, of literary works and journalistic articles, et al. Indeed, its
seeds come from that same young vanguard that helped set the Ontario
Heritage Act and LACAC fundamentals into place in the 70s. Many are still
there, now seasoned yet far from "superceded" veterans.
It's the meta-heritage spirit that's informed my dream of an Etobicoke
architectural guide, and other potential outreach/enlightenment
efforts--and I'll offer a tentative-early-step case in point.
In my slow quest to grasp (or perhaps reacquaint myself with) "the
Etobicokeness of Etobicoke", on a lovely Sunday midafternoon in early
August I ventured out to Centennial Park. A place that I long took for
granted or even practically ignored, mainly because its cold-war suburban
Olmstedian fantasy--embodied by its chief visual landmark, the requisite
"Mount Trashmore" garbage heap-turned-ski hill--seemed too banal for
reflection or description. I'd gone there for childhood winter festivals,
for swim lessons, for friends' hockey practice; but for a quarter century
it was, except as a drive-by, terra incognita, at least in part on account
of its being too cognita upon a glance (a big green space with a wart in
the middle; so what). It isn't that, to use Madonna's words, "this used to
be my playground"; it's that it was meant by municipal authorities to be my
playground, but never quite jelled. (Unlike High Park, which was close to
where I first lived and to my grandparents' house; I got to know and love
and use its lay of the land quite well.)
But now, I decided on a second look. Motivated by (1) my LACAC status and
guidebook dreams, (2) my already having practiced this kind of "suburban
perambulation" as a means of dealing with anything from Calgarian sprawl to
Polish tower-block dystopia, and (3) the fact that, 33 1/3 years later,
Trashmore wasn't looking like such a barren lump anymore. And it was a
splendid summery day to feel the park in whatever may pass for its current
"full use", in an unsystematic, semi-detached, almost Baudelairian way, a
lone wanderer and observer amidst the ordinary-folk summer-lifers. To see
how it--the park, as a human-made, human-used creation--all comes together.
It makes a difference.
I started out in the "quiet" part to the NE, in a mostly empty asphalt sea
hemmed in by the backside of the hockey arena, a woodlot, and the ski hill,
and set out to ascend the latter. The mature Trashmore, with its over
three decades of foliage complemented by currently fashionable
"naturalization" parks policy, now feels like a good place to run and hide
and frolic, as if its unseemly and rather motley roots didn't matter--even
the inevitable vent pipes for the trash heap now look as benign as
telephone poles in the Canadian Shield (or, for that matter, the adjacent
ski lift). From atop, I noticed that a big westward arc from the cricket
pitch to the north to the soccer field to the south was where the "action"
was, and it seemed a very diverse, polyglot action, as confirmed upon my
descent...the inevitable river/pondside wedding photography; Indo-Asian
families picnicking; a buzzy little leased-land go-cart track and bumper
cars nearby; a little Caribbean music festival which may have been related
to Caribana but was probably just as well an independent "community"
event...everything had a happily shaggy and spontaneous rainbow aura, less
of stuffy Etobicoke than of the egalitarian promised land of contemporary
Brampton or Mississauga that this sector inflects toward. Just ordinary
folk having fun, and they're just as fun to watch and waft amidst; and like
so much in today's GTA, it was a happy, sense-opening far cry from
yesterday's white bread. It really did take mature "multiculturalism" for
a Centennial Park to fulfil its Olmstedian dream...though not enough to
completely vanquish the core strainedness behind its crafting and
programming. In other words, in this suburban park under the brash sun I
still couldn't stop the Simpsons tableaus from rushing through my head,
even if said tableaus involved more Apus than Homers.
And it seemed a little odd that the west side of the park was so
"jumping", with cars being turned away from grassy overflow fields, while
the east side, the "Etobicoke" side, was a dead zone, with plenty of
sprawling asphalt-white line emptiness in the lot where I parked--surely,
it wasn't that much more of a walk to the Caribbean festival from here?
Perhaps it's because this was where the dull founding stench of 60s/70s
whitebread hoserdom--through the overwhelming presence of the ski slopes,
the hockey arena, the stadium, the Olympium, where the critical "activity"
is either internalized or seasonal--was toughest to wash out. Yet
something was happening here, too, on this bright and happy day, and
something which in a peculiar way hearkened back to the blanched culture of
Etobicoke circa 1967; some oddly familiar yet "off" noises wafting from the
stadium turned out to be--of all things--a Britney Spears "tribute" act!
Which was either performing, or rehearsing--in that vast, underpopulated
context, it all looked comically forlorn (and I'll bet that in nearly all
these cases, the "Britney" is probably closer generationally to, say, Faith
Centennial Park was a humanly created and conceived place (as all
designated "parks" are) that succeeded in appearing and in fact being "well
used", even in its sometime underuse--a lesson in how in our beholding of
the built/created environment, the real-time social and cultural element,
as well as the conjunctions with nature, is critical. It allows us to
contextualize--perhaps in a different way, and with different eyes, each
time. Such an experiential, multifaceted means of beholding is to the
traditional heritage/ident-a-style architectural-appreciation approach
what, perhaps, the Deweyan educational revolutions of the c20 were to the
traditionally rigid 3 R's grade-school routine--an apt comparison in the
turf of Canada's first "modern" public school, Sunnylea.
And as to Centennial Park's "architecture" proper, it may not be not of
"heritage" or "designation" quality, even by modern standards, but that's
not the point. (Though there's been offerings to move so-called heritage
buildings to the park, perhaps as a "heritage village" in utero.) The
dominant theme is of a clean, non-demonstrative 60s public modernism in red
brick, with an oh-so-slightly thickset quality reflective of the age when
Brutalism and Aaltoism were in fashion. The public frontispiece of the
Etobicoke Parks greenhouse actually hearkens back to 50s Contemporary,
while the slope-roofed ski "chalet" has, through additions, taken on a
Postmodern quality--and to top off the innocuous mix, there's a neat if
incongrously suspended Miesian pressbox at the stadium. The
neutral-to-a-fault theme later reached its apotheosis in the park's
supposed "star", the Etobicoke Olympium, which encased its dazzling,
talk-of-the-town Olympic-quality facilities in a packing carton whose chief
"ornament" consists of dark, horizontally-corrugated metal cladding--that's
it. While the cladding's brash wide-lapelled scale (enhanced by the
signage) can now be admired for its yet-unaltered 70s qualities, this
clearly represents, for a facility of such symbolic importance, a
pre-Postmodern architectural reductio ad absurdum--all the more "absurdum"
in light of the award-winning pool/public facility building program
(Memorial, Rotary Park, Sir Adam Beck) Etobicoke undertook in the 90s. Yet
there may be a deeper, and at heart more virtuously characteristic message
behind the Olympium's "non-style", especially if the powers that be liked
to point to the fiasco of Montreal's Olympic facilities as what happens
when style runs amok--maybe those proudly stingy Etobians had it right all
Centennial Park in and of itself, and not just in isolation; the
surrounding neighbourhoods, schools, churches, plazas have their "stories"
as well, as well as the farming pre-history of the site, and it's all only
a hint of what can be done in Etobicoke, comprehensively, sophisticatedly,
an endless means of understanding and self-realization--and in a manner
that'd do justice to the much-maligned Megacity apron. And as a logical
outgrowth, in part, of what a LACAC is.
But the fatal divide took place. For a fleeting moment in the 60s and 70s
when the Modernist hubris pot boiled over, preservationism, long regarded
as the realm of tennis shoe'd old ladies where "old buildings" became a
stuffy and dubiously loaded (some would say reactionary) metaphor for "old
values", took on a vanguard activist aura--yet this was a short-lived,
ultimately easily co-opted or corrupted, and mainly "urban" phenomenon.
For subsequent conscience-laden activist generations, environmentalism
proved by far a stronger draw than the more cerebral realm of architectural
preservation, which seemed in some cases to revert to the insulated,
fuzzy-wuzzyland pokiness from whence it came. In places like Etobicoke,
despite enthusiastic if isolated pockets here and there, the vanguard was
but a smokescreen--the historical/(supposed) preservationist community
never properly outgrew, or found the means to properly outgrow, narrowly
effete preoccupations with "pioneer settlement", "pre-Confederation roots",
et al. In fact, it became a little ingrown, its headspace stuck in an
eternal Etobicoke-Township rut; imprisoned by its own Family Compactness,
its stagnation condoned by the sleepy political establishment.
Perhaps I'm part culpable; by never having felt "up to" joining this
fuzzy-wuzzyness, I and others like me allowed it to sink to a state of
apparent slumlorded Mariposan hilarity, where--from some reports--those who
"want things done" in heritage in Etobicoke have had to practically work
around the designated responsible body in question. And that inertia which
never tempted me in the first place now appears, in an Etobicoke that's
been transformed--culturally, demographically--even from my own youth,
nothing short of grotesque--grotesque to the point of apartheid.
And a little pathetic, like the forlorn Centennial Park "Britney".
They failed me; yet, through non-involvement and non-engagement, I failed
them. And thus schemes like the Old Mill project could only waft in as
easily and lazily as an autumn leaf. It was "just Etobicoke", after all.
Big deal. Who cares?