Cherished places worth fighting for By Christy Hempel
This week council decided that the old St. Mary’s school can be demolished. Those disappointed can point fingers at various culprits, the Catholic school board who have not maintained their building, a council who did not seek the advice of their own official heritage advisory committee, or the citizens who did not show enough interest to warrant stronger effort. Other folks who have less attachment to history and nostalgia might speak of progress, forgiving the forces of time and geology. Slopes shift, materials deteriorate, costs rise, interest waxes and wanes. As a community we may not agree, but the demolition will be in vain if we don’t learn from this experience.
Council identified a lack of public participation as the main reason for their decision. While not a bad measure of public interest, using a hullabaloo index alone is problematic in community design. Citizen participation for its own sake can simply lead to gridlock. Decisions should not come from shouting matches at town hall meetings; this can lead to years of back and forth where only those with plenty of free evenings, easy mobility and vocal friends have any say. Much more sinister are the cases where the mightiest and loudest win the day despite plans which run against social principles and economic goals.
Many of our cherished places face such financial stress they will need to close or be demolished, and we face tough choices about which ones are most valued. Museums and churches alike face dwindling membership and increasing maintenance costs, and we need to pick our battles. Some buildings should be sold and adapted for new modern uses, while others have committed congregations and with support will maintain their vitality. A few simply face demolition. Perhaps a lack of civic interest did indicate that the old St. Mary’s School did not make the cut and we need to move forward.
Mapping the sacred structure of our towns and recognizing those places that are essential to its identity is a first order priority for any community. Many citizens are very busy at this important work, and though they may miss the occasional council meeting, their voices should be heard. Nancy King’s beautifully written letter to the editor in the Sun Times last month reminds us that one landmark of our cultural history, St. George’s Church, requires more than heritage recognition but strong community financial support. “Our buildings are the touchstones of our cultural identity. I believe we are so busy tearing down those places which depict who we are that we have trouble knowing what matters in describing our Canadian character. By allowing those emblems of our history and culture to erode and disappear we are losing those very touchstones which define our national soul.” Her committee and the entire congregation has involved the wider community in fundraising in order to maintain a sacred place; the steeple has been repaired but there is still more to do. More donations would reinforce the resilience of this sacred place.
Although of a different purpose altogether than the lovely structures of Salvation Corners, Branningham Grove offers vivid testimony to an important fragment of the social history of our ‘Corkscrew City’ at the turn of the century. Local advocate Aly Boltman has researched the rich and perhaps nationally significant story of the building’s one time owner, the notorious Mag Matthews and her houses of ill repute. The heritage consultant who was engaged as part of a development application advised (to the developer’s chagrin) that the building should be designated, and preserved 'in situ', yet council has not acted. Citizens petitioned and filled a council chamber to the brim at one committee meeting last year when this issue was raised, hopefully this turnout has not been forgotten as councils change and time passes. This watercolour represents my hope for designation of an important (and structurally sound) building that is on the chopping block and requires respectful stewardship. Perhaps a sexy painting will create more of a stir than my architectural portrait of St. Mary’s School, if that is what the times call for.
We can chip in funds to repair roofs, to build ice pads, to plant trees in prized parks. We can shop at businesses which are important to our local identity and attend festivals and shows at theatres and galleries. Authors, poets and songwriters can identify meaningful current and historic events, visual artists can capture the essence of sacred landscapes and places. We can fight for our essential places. And if our council is looking for more hullabaloo, we should show up at council meetings.
(This article originally appeared in the Owen Sound Sun Times