Thursday, April 30, 2009

Party like it's 1955

The school was built in 1954--I know this because the slide show, "A history of [Chichi District], our neighbourhood", showed a photo of the building we were sitting in, from 1955. The inside of the gym didn't betray any concessions to the changing fashions or realities of the past 50 years. The walls were painted cinderblock, the doors, dented steel with glass panels gridded with wire. The members of the neighbourhood assocation who came out on such a wet night were, absolutely without exception, white. Mostly middle-aged or older. If younger, expensively shod and smelling of righteousness. Of money.

The history slide show indicated that this, the neighbourhood immediately adjacent to my own, was Canada's first master planned, fully zoned and bylawed, subdivision. Right from 1933, there were hurdles to clear before new buildings or amenities could be added: setback from the street, architectural integrity, maximum height and minimum lot size, 'proper tone.' It was meant to be controlled, to be classy, to be exclusive. It was, and, actually, it still is. The association has its own historian to ascertain the area's pedigree, to etch its story into the hearts of its ratepayers.

Someone asked if the PowerPoint slide show would be available for downloading, and if so, from which web site? General assent and applause followed. Following this 30 minute interlude of self-congratulation and self-mythologizing, the business of the meeting began.

The Green Committee spokesperson reported on a worrying trend to felled and dying trees in the neighbourhood: all planted at the same time, and all of one breed, they had proven not very well-suited to the actual climate and in any case were reaching maturity and senescence all together just as their canopy really began to increase resale values in the homes they shaded.

The trees, she explained, were an unhealthy monoculture: the city's tree expert proposed that controlled culling occur and a more catholic replanting effort, encouraging a wider variety of trees, be undertaken.

An unhealthy monoculture.

I sorta zoned out when a particularly glossy and well-fed neighbourhood potentate--charter member of the neighbourhood golf club, and head of the Traffic Committee--expounded on the siren song of four-way stops and the evils of commuters taking shortcuts from one arterial road to another, breaching the master planned sanctity of the neighbourhood of overgrown and dying trees. Tradition must be maintained, the integrity of the original vision brought once again to the forefront of municipal bylaw enforcement. Studies and votes would need to be taken. White faces nodded, their cane-style umbrellas uniformly leaned against uniform stacking chairs. Their leather handbags on cotton laps, their sportcoats open over buttoned bellies.

An unhealthy monoculture.

As the 'other business' portion of the meeting opened, I said my piece on behalf of my own street's association, and it was with a glad heart that I hightailed it back to my Japanese subcompact in that parking lot full of German luxury sedans. I was glad to drive the seven or eight blocks back to my own, older, resolutely unplanned neighbourhood, its tall houses packed a little more closely together, its funny gap-toothed smile of mis-shapen, idiosyncratically renovated houses and gardens and student rentals and prams on porches and beer bottles on front steps.

Monocultures succumb wholly to stresses to which they are vulnerable. A more chaotic or diverse culture is difficult to fatally wound, hydra-headed and many-strengthed as it is.

Maybe master plans, offering us these false hopes of perfect uniformity, perfect control, actually make us weaker. Maybe it's better to live cheek by jowl with the student house, the lawn-pesticide user, the PC voter, the sidewalk organic gardener, the families, and the investors. At the very least, I know our trees will live longer. I suspect our neighbourhood, too, might better weather the storms of the new century not in spite of, but because of its jumble of people, of land uses, of mindsets.

Hm. Sometimes, not planning might be the best plan of all. That's tough for an ENTJ to wrap her head around, but I'm trying.

13 comments:

Omaha Mama said...

Hmmmmm.
Have you read The Giver? It's youth fiction, I'm guessing maybe not. Your post here made me think of it again tonight. I just read it on spring break (in 3 hrs.).

Great post.

SecondSight said...

Couldn't agree more! Reminds me of botany lessons- the more diverse the flora, the more resistant the ecological niche becomes to infection/ invasion.

Erin said...

You are speaking of the community where I grew up and highschool gym I spent many hours playing in as a teenager. I do think that however white and uniform the community, there has to be credit given to the fact that it has remained almost entirely as planned. Someone did something right because the design actually worked.

I know it is pretty much a monoculture but growing up we got plenty of multiculture from living surrounded by the city. I guess the community always felt like an oasis to me. A calm within the storm so to speak.

I think the best part about our city is that so many different communities can coexist and everyone can find what they are looking for.

Mimi said...

Erin! We might actually be from the same town. Huh! But I wasn't in a high school--it was an elementary school actually.

So if I was dissing your 'hood, you've been remarkably polite about it. I didn't think I had any locals on board and that can make me shoot my mouth off.

I have a tendency myself to master-plan urges, but as I get older, it seems to me that, like the perfect lawn, it requires an awful lot of worry and trouble to keep something exactly the same for 70 years.

Thanks for your comment!

alejna said...

I'd like to think that there could be planning that can actually supports healthy diversity. I think the trouble with most planned communities is that they are planned around a single economic niche. If communities could be planned instead with a range of housing options and prices, as well as with access to transportation and services, I think the culture that could develop would be much more diverse.

I really like your tree metaphor. It reminds me also of the unhealthiness of big agriculture (with large, uniform crops) vs. small sustainable farming. What we need is community planning that is more like the sustainable farms.

Erin said...

Now you have me really interested in which school you were in. Was it in the northwest quadrant? If so, it was my elementary school! I started there in SK after the school in the northeast quadrant closed. I am 32 and can't do the math right now to figure out what year I was there.

Mimi said...

Erin, I don't want to out myself too much on the public space of the blog but if you email me at the address listed in the sidebar, I'll totally spill the beans to you ...

Kyla said...

Yeah. We live in a very open, rule-free subdivision and we like it that way.

Cloud said...

Where I live, master planned communities are more the norm than the exception. We bought in an old one (from the 50s- and that is considered old. That should give you perspective on why its all planned subdvisions) that at least doesn't have a home owner's association. We miss the funkier beach neighborhood we moved from, but we couldn't afford a house there, and the really old neighborhoods in my city are too far south to fit our rule about length of commute.

Anyway, we didn't want a homeowner's association telling us what color to paint and how to do our lawn, etc. The trade off is that there is no one to tell our neighbor three doors down that he can't park his RV on the street as its permanent storage spot or the guy a block down the other way that his boat is too big for where he's parking it....

Its a trade off we like, but we did also rule out some areas because the RVs and boats were just too numerous.

(If you're thinking I must live in a super rich neighborhood to have so many RVs and boats, I don't. That's a quirk of San Diego. The proximity to the desert makes people get RVs and the proximity to the water makes them get boats. The rich neighborhoods DON'T have them on the street, because those people can afford less annoying storage.)

Beck said...

I live in a seriously unplanned neighborhood, and lemme just say that its joys can be overrated. But I also hear what you're saying: I used to know these people who were privledged, had always known priviledge and other priviledged people, and they were odd. With odd opinions.

Although I'd still like to be rich, whatever I think of my fellow rich people.

kittenpie said...

It's funny, the neighbourhood where I live used to be more diverse, more uneven in appearance and all those socio-economic indicators nad in ethnicity, but as it has been gentrified, it has become more like the scene you describe, which I find a little odd, as I grew up here when it was still pretty working class. And yes, our trees are dying, too...

Mandy said...

Having grown up next door to that chichi area, a few streets from where you now currently live, that made me laugh. Not a little. Glad to know they've managed to keep it as white (in more ways than one) as ever. ;)

Mad said...

You timed this all so nicely with the Jane Jacobs walks going on and such. I believe in urban design but urban design must resist stasis at all costs.