Friday, May 27, 2011

Demolition Is Forever

Just as it is frequently difficult to give a hoot and not pollute, it can be hard to give a hoot about history. Humans are notoriously creatures of the immediate present, an attitude that's a psychological relic of our pretechnological, precivilized days - when the future meant nothing if there was no meat to be caught today. In that, too, the past could be reduced to secondary importance: a hunter who had observed animals yesterday could make some guesses about what they would do today, but if those observations were not borne out, what had already happened would be of little value.

Today, too often, the past seems to mean little to our leadership, outside from the fantasized neverneverland of bygone days so many of them seem to want to go back to. Historical preservation, unless the public is massively behind it, costs political capital; not all leaders are so secure in their positions that they can afford to spend it on what, really, amounts to a luxury in the eyes of many. It's a lot easier to just do nothing. If pieces of history have to get ground into the dirt so some developer can sink in the foundation for yet another condo to grow even richer... isn't that the price of progress?

Fort Point, a Civil War-era fortress in the Presidio of San Francisco, was saved from demolition when the Golden Gate Bridge incorporated a tall arched span above it. Toronto, of course, has nothing like this, because that would require a city that actually cared about the consequences of its actions.

It's what progress has traditionally cost in Toronto, at least. For a city that's more than two hundred years old there are precious few indications of its age; I've said in the past that Toronto has little choice but to be a city of the future, because it has already annihilated most of its past. Bits and pieces remain, of course, but that's all they are - scattered remnants of what the city once was. It's still important to preserve them, of course - dinosaurs have been extrapolated from only a few bones. But the more disconnected they become from the rest of the city, the less relevance they seem to have to the city as it stands, the easier it is to let them be ground down.

Now, even Casa Loma might be facing that. Toronto's own castle and site of an epic Scott Pilgrim beatdown, run by the Kiwanis Club since the 1930s, is now directly under the city's aegis after City Hall paid $1.45 million in what amounts to a bailout of the castle. It's supposed to be only temporary, a year or a year and a half until a new operator can be found, and I don't imagine Hizzoner Rob will balk at the opportunity to unload a city asset to a private operator.

What really got me, though, was Brett Popplewell's recent article in the Sunday Star: "Why are we trying to save Casa Loma when we could just tear it down?" I'd only just landed in San Francisco and my senses were still a bit dulled, and I read that article carefully for any indication that its tone was sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek. I didn't find any. More like angry resignation.

Let me answer his question. Why preserve Casa Loma? Because there's always a place that the line must be drawn, where we will say we go this far and no farther. Because demolition is a final thing. Sure, we could always build a replica of some lost historic site - but if we couldn't muster the gumption to preserve the original when we still had the chance, how likely is it that we'd want to build it again from the ground up?

A city shorn of its past is shorn of its context. Bit by bit, piece by piece, brick by brick. Without that, we can't really understand.

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