Authenticity, sweet confection

September 29, 2010 at 11:23 pm | In authenticity, heritage, land_use, politics, victoria | 1 Comment

Another passage from Erve Chambers’s Native Tours (which I mentioned in Monday’s post) struck me today. I agree with Chambers’s thinking, and want to relate it to the City of Victoria’s maneuverings around heritage and tourism. But first, Chambers (I’ve added several emphases in bold):

We need to ask at this point whether there are any criteria by which we can usefully differentiate the authentic from the inauthentic. From my perspective, any such criteria would have to support the idea that authenticity is possible under the conditions of modernity. I remain unconvinced that the real is a thing of the past, or that the past was at any time more real than the present. Accordingly, my sense of the authentic is that it occurs under conditions in which people have significant control over their affairs, to the extent that they are able to play an active role in determining how changes occur in their actual settings. In this view, all cultures are dynamic by their very nature. Resistance to change is as much an act of deliberateness as is the will to adopt new customs and practices. Authentic cultures might not be able to predict their futures or to act in a wholly independent manner, but they have the wherewithal to play a significant role in participating in these processes that will shape their lives. In this respect, a community that has the ability to decide to tear down all its historic buildings in order to construct a golf course for tourists is more authentic than is another community that has been prohibited by higher authorities from doing the same thing in order to preserve the integrity of its past. This might seem like an extreme example, and its outcomes might not be to our liking. All the same, it reflects upon my suggestion that without significant degrees of autonomy, any notion of authenticity is meaningless. (pp.98-99)

There is always discussion in Victoria about whether or not our tourist image is “authentic.” One way for the city’s politicians and heritage advocates to make the case for authenticity in general (although it’s linked to tourism-authenticity specifically as well) is by promoting the city’s architectural heritage. Since a lot was ripped out in the heady days of “urban renewal” (which lasted well into the 1970s here) we don’t have that much of it left, but we have a few blocks in Old Town and Chinatown where some fine, small old buildings managed to survive. (The fine, large old buildings got the chop and stand no more: they were replaced by not-so-fine, small new buildings. Weird, but true.)

Part of our tourist image is that we’re quaint and 19th century – read: white 19th century, which is further refined to mean British. After all, the city is named for Queen Victoria, who in turn represents an era and a place and an empire. So that’s our tourist image.

Is it authentic? Hardly. The Olde England mythos was fabricated out of whole cloth during the city’s various economic slumps, when some people realized that tourism could save the city, now that sealing and whaling and various other get-yer-hands-dirty industries had dried up.

But our built heritage is supposed to be authentic.

What happens, though, when politicians and planners repress the citizens’ autonomy? As Chambers put it so convincingly: no autonomy, no authenticity

Case in point: the City of Victoria prevented Rogers’ Chocolates from altering its store interior. The Rogers family, owners and generations-long stewards of the heritage building on Government Street, were losing business (mostly from tourists) because their store interior is tiny. They wanted to push one wall back by 6 feet or so, annexing a storage space that lay behind the wall. The interior would have been fully preserved, the moved wall would simply have been moved and the space slightly enlarged.

The heritage advocate politicians went crazy, as did the heritage planners, and the city undertook the unprecedented step of slapping some kind of heritage designation on the building’s interior (this was a first), effectively preventing the owner from making the planned change. The owners in turn took the city to court and won their suit – if I recall correctly, something on the order of $650,000 in damages.

I suppose one could argue that taking the city (us, the taxpayers) to court and getting damages is evidence of lingering autonomy on the part of the heritage business owner. But I’d argue that the city (“higher authority”) effectively denied autonomy (“ability to decide”) to Rogers’ Chocolates, and thereby in one fell swoop ensured that “any notion of authenticity is meaningless” when it comes to the heritage of this building. Because the people who are the stakeholders and who should be able to decide were denied autonomy, the city has made that heritage inauthentic.

Some “higher authorities” seem to like it like that, even though it yields inauthenticity. Personally, I think it’s too high a price to pay.

1 Comment

  1. […] another section in Erve Chambers’s Native Tours jumped out at me today (see previous entries for other examples). Chambers references (pp.106-7) the work of Graham Dann, who in 1996 […]

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