Monday, March 28, 2011

The Disappearance of Patrimony

Nowadays I try to focus more on my local surroundings. After a career of jetting to global 'centres of biotechnology excellence', I loathe the sight of airports. Back then I didn't mind them so much and had little time for what was up right next door. My teacher wife, who had, tried to keep me posted but the details passed me by, except when a new campground was to be across the road or a row of pylons on the back field.   

Just a twenty minute drive away are the monthly meetings of the Heritage Caledon Committee, a worthy thirty-five year-old creation of our Town Council that I was recently invited to join.  I'm now a convert to the good fight against urban accretion and its tendency to destroy all in its path. Generally our enemy is developers large and small.  But as I roll up my sleeves to get down and dirty in this my new and as yet untested role, I am amazed to read about A Developer whose Focus was Heritage


I learn that the wonderful flatiron building, the Gooderham, in the entertainment district of Toronto was one of his contributions. I happen to love it. Paul Oberman, the hero of the story, was it seems a man who believed that the reckless destruction of old buildings was folly when they could be turned into profitable rental locations. That happens to be the Caledon view - resist destruction, resist moving the really worthy buildings to some out-of-context place like a heritage park, and persuade and assist owners to preserve our heritage in situ to profit from it.


A few nights ago I attended a slide show on the history of buildings in our original police village, Caledon. It had many century homes which were, as was usual in pioneer times, placed right by the cart road. I now know there is a second enemy of heritage conservation - road engineers. They knocked down these gems by the dozen as needed for 20th Century 'improvements' such as widening and straightening. The automobile and its needs remain paramount. Local craft businesses need urban customers willing to drive into the 'country'. Folk in general want a quicker drive to the cottage or the grand-kids.

Our built heritage continues to pay the price.  These days knocking down buildings put up by Anglo-Celtic settlers doesn't create the publicity that building over indigenous peoples' sites gets. Selling the idea of preserving the finest from the British Imperial era gets harder as our population gets more diverse. New Canadians today very largely come from areas where Northern European patrimony is greeted by indifference, or even hostility if there's a colonial memory. The descendants or our European pioneers aren't a noisy lot. Only those of United Empire Loyalist stock from the former American colonies have any real social traction.

Will the descendants of those who created the English-speaking regions of our country wake up in time as a collectivity to the fact that, in our rapidly expanding urban areas, visual evidence of their ancestors is rapidly disappearing? Oberman wrote: "a desirable future, I submit, is tied to our past". How much of that past will remain visible to speak to us?

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