Monthly Archives: August 2009

Built Heritage and the City of Kingston (Ont.): the struggle continues

None of those with any interest in built heritage were in the least surprized when the final Bray Heritage report recommended the creation of an Heritage District out of Old Sydenham Ward.  In fact, I think that most of us would have tumbled off our chairs had it not done so.

It is a fine report, well-researched, with quality content.

However, after thirty years watching and participating in heritage in this neck of the woods, perhaps I may be forgiven a deep sigh.  All of our efforts, beginning with the redoubtable Margaret Angus, and continuing with efforts of well-connected locals like Jim Bennett have resulted in so few victories.

Ontario Street is a case in point.  With the old industrial structures no more,  the City had the opportunity to protect the interface between Old Sydenham Ward and the Lake for the people and instead we have a wall of mundane towers and acres of concrete.  In my opinion, this was totally unnecessary as the old city is still relatively small with lots of  land north and west which could have been used for high density development.  Some of those parcels have spectacular views.  That land is also close to the 401 corridor and there was the opportunity to plan properly for the automobile traffic which high density always generates (no matter what the developers tell you). 

The planning objection to moving the high density north seemed to be the cost of extending utilities.   I wonder how much the recent sewage spills and  flooding of lower Princess street properties had to do with the huge impact of all those new, downtown towers on aging urban infrastructure?  But I digress.

My point is that, despite great public input and energy in the past, we have just not been able to stop the inexorable intrusion of very commonplace late twentieth century forms into the unique limestone part of the city.  I don’t care what the architect’s name is, most of the newer stuff is  functional vernacular.  I would not drive to Kingston to look at, nor in my opinion would anyone else.

We can successfully persuade home-owners to select sympathetic surface elements and restore, rather than replace, Victorian fenestration, but what good is that going to do when an unrelieved red brick wall or a monolith looms at you from the foot of the road?

I need persuading that the City would not once again fold within days of an application from a developer to push back the boundaries of protection… “just a little”, “just a block or so”.  The usual wheeze is to quietly acquire a number of buildings on the edge of the district, allow them to run down and then argue that they aren’t worth saving and never should have been included in the district.  Will the City stand up to this?  Oh, I would so like to think so, but based on my experience, I think not.  All a developer has to do is claim that the City is unfairly standing in the way of someone making a whacking return on investment, and the heritage folk are trampled in the rush to compromise.

Thus, our irreplacable heritage assets are continually eroded away.

The Bray Report acknowledges this in Recommendation 8:

“It is recommended that the City initiate a parallel process to that of the current study to address issues of cultural heritage resource management. The proposed process should have a mandate to establish robust cultural heritage programs with sufficient capacity to address the current Provincial heritage policies and the resultant increased workload.”

Note the word, “robust”.  I wonder how that survived to make it into the final report?

The Bray Report is worth reading and contains some splendid photographs.  The City has posted it so you can read it  at http://www.cityofkingston.ca/pdf/culture/heritage/SydenhamHeritageArea_FinalReport.pdf

Being my cheeky self, though, I will comment that we could have saved the Heritage Committee a good deal of time and money.  Should Sydenham Ward be an heritage district?  Yep.  Now someone please get busy and figure out how we can finally protect our limestone identity, before it becomes more appropriate to call ourselves ‘the concrete jungle’.

 

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Has Genealogy Peaked as a Hobby?

When I worked at the Public Archives of Canada during the 1970’s, the research world was very different.  Most of our clients were “repeat offenders”.  Typically, they were initiated into the seductive world of primary sources as graduate students and continued as our clients and friends into old age.   We did see genealogists, but like their bretheren in history, they were mostly pro’s — old campaigners doing work for clients.

Then, along came “Roots”, the t.v. docu-drama which captured the North American imagination.  (In my opinion, we would have discovered genealogy anyway, and if “Roots” hadn’t been there, something else would have been the trigger.  -But that’s a discussion for another day.)

Now, before someone conjures up the old nastiness about elitist archives being democratized by genealogy I should say that, at the archives where I worked, we wanted and welcomed the general public.  What we weren’t prepared for were the numbers.  Archive budgets were no better in the 1970’s then they are today.  Space and staff were barely adequate.  Moreover, we did not have personal computers back then.  Access was  achieved via paper finding aides or the ubiquitous filing cards.

The numbers of visitors “doing” genealogy grew throughout the 1980’s.  In the early 1990’s, I was working in a small, local archive.   We had previously been open two days a week, usually for two or three clients.  By the early 1990’s, we were open four days a week, and it was not unusual during the summer to find twelve or even fifteen people crowded into the reading room.

There were big changes in the research traffic besides raw numbers, but I think that an important indicator was that over two-thirds of visitors said that it was their first or second visit to our site.  Over half said it was their first visit to us and over twenty percent said that it was their first visit to an archive of any kind.  The result was that staff spent an incredible amount of time with researchers, not only introducing them to our particular collection and institutional finding aides, but also teaching them how primary source research is done.  After a long day or two and the usual comprehension struggle, the clients left smiling and happy, never to be seen by us again.  They moved on to the next archive needed, on their once-in-a-lifetime quest.  Few old pro’s.  Few “repeat offenders”.

Now, twenty years later, I see that the traffic at my local archives has changed yet again.  Although the reading room is busy, most of the clients appear to be a local band of  savants.  Engaged on long-term projects, they return day after day, for weeks on end.   They out-number the few wide-eyed first-timers.  In fact, the archives feels much more like it did in the 1970’s.  I see that staff spends much less time teaching visitors the fundamentals as most clients are experienced and know just what they need.

Are there just as many genealogists as in the late 1980’s, but now using the internet instead of visiting archives?  I wonder.   Website data to which I am privy suggests that web traffic consists of a large proportion of skilled “regulars”, coming in and out for different topics.  The one-time-only personal quest folk are still there, but the number of hits (research visits) is equalled or excelled by the repeat traffic.

To me this suggests that genealogy as a general grass-roots passion indulged by nearly everybody is gradually shifting back to belonging to a specific interest group.   This happy cohort of  family history detectives may be larger than it was before ‘Roots’ but a cohort it is, nevertheless.   The needs of these 21st century genealogists will be different from those of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  This means that we can expect usage of archives to change, yet again.

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