Monday, August 3, 2009

A City of Villages

While riding home on Wilson Avenue last Saturday afternoon, trying desperately to stay ahead of the dark clouds scudding in from the northwest as a concrete retaining wall rose to separate me from the industrial district and highway to the south, I encountered something so utterly out-of-place that I had to stop and take a photo.

I've been trying to expand my familiarity with Toronto in recent months, but even then, potted plants hanging from a streetlight with no commercial properties in sight aren't precisely common. As it happens, this plant and the others like it along that stretch of Wilson Avenue were placed by Emery Village, a Business Improvement Area anchored around the intersection of Finch Avenue West and Weston Road and, as point of fact, appears to be the sole BIA in the entirety of North York. Founded in 2003, it appears to be one of the newer ones.

What I don't understand is why so many BIAs now have to identify themselves as a village. Beyond Emery Village, we've got Davisville Village and Liberty Village and Mirvish Village and practically anything else you care to name and stick "village" at the end of. Of the sixty-seven BIAs presently listed on the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas website, twenty-three are "villages." While a few of them, such as Forest Hill Village and Parkdale Village, are legitimate in that Forest Hill and Parkdale actually were independent villages before becoming part of Toronto, we've also got names like, say, Yonge-Lawrence Village that have no basis in history.

Is it just because "village" is good for marketing? If that's the case, what does this preoccupation with the village life say about us?

I can see what the average person might get out of a village - something charming, maybe, something quaint, something nice to show off to everyone back home. Maybe it's the idea of a stronger, more interconnected city, the prospect of reconnecting with the people next door, or simply the security of uncomplicated peace that you'd find in a country village where everyone stands up for each other. Villages have practically been fetishized since the beginning of the Industrial Age as reminders of a less complicated, more pure lifestyle, and the rural impulse that villages represent keeps cropping up again and again, most recently in the "decivilization" meme I wrote about back in April.

To me, it's something different. Villages don't suggest security and bucolic happiness to me. They suggest isolation, provincialism and parochialism. The traditional concept of a village hardly even exists anymore - even in the back of the back woods, you can at least get dial-up internet to supplement your satellite television.

In the end, it's an appeal to mythologized history. What's never asked, though, is this: should we be lionizing this meme? Is the idea of the village something that should be supported and evangelized? Shouldn't we be looking not to the past, but to the future?

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