Victoria Park-Sacred Space?

 

I am sure many of you noticed the new East facing traffic lights along 12th Avenue.  This change is preparation for the WOW project and the transformation of Victoria Park into the City Square Project.  In the last few days the expected costs of the summer’s work have risen tremendously (see Leader Post).  Last night, Council decided to grant the requested funding (CR 10-41) with Coun. Fougere strongly stating how vital this project was, for the city. 

Since the Centre Square plan was released last summer, I’ve been thinking about the park, where its been and what this transformation will bring in the future.  

In the 90s, the unintended consequences of landscape architectural planning lead to public conflict over proper use of the park.  The focal point of this conflict was the revitalized plaza around the cenotaph in Victoria Park and Scarth Street.  

This post concerns the past and future of Victoria Park, focusing on the war memorial cenotaph, the possible meaning it gives the park, and how parks and their use change over time.  So for more follow me after the break.  

 

The Cenotaph, designed by R.W.G. Heughan with help from F.H. Portnall, dates from Armistice day 1926 (Regina: The First 100 Years, William Argan et al, Leader Post Carrier Foundation Inc, 2002. p 63 ).   

What is a cenotaph: Merriam-Webster Online (link) defines it as: “a tomb or a monument erected in honour of a person or group of persons whose remains are elsewhere.” 

The definition above clearly suggests that the this memorial is a scared place and was not the place for young Reginans to grind and ollie on what is essentially a grave. 

The current park comes from 1988 when the City brought forward a plan to re-develop Victoria Park (Leader Post “City Unveils New Victoria Park Plan” Gord Brock. May12, 1988. RPL Prairie History Room Clippings: “Victoria Park”).  There is an aerial photo of Vic Park included in Brock’s LP piece which shows the layout of the cenotaph hadn’t changed since it was built (Ibid).  

In an image of Victoria Park sometime after 1926, the cenotaph is encircled by grass and a series of  low bollards connected with an ornimental chain.  Coming into the centre were six side walks, two along the Cornwall St. axis and the other four from the park corners.   A circular side-walk surrounding the cenotaph collected the six radiating walks at the centre (Regina before yesterday: a visual history 1882-1945 Ed. William Brennan et al, The City of Regina. 1978. p 170). 

Here is the park layout, looking South, South-West, with the original fountain in 1920 (From Wikipedia, click picture for link)

It was the summer of 1995, nearly 70 years after the cenotaph’s commemoration, when the new plaza was to be constructed.  Then director of community services Ann McLeod described the need for the refurbishment: “Because the cenotaph is the focal point of the park, it needs to have the prominence it deserves…But it also needs to accommodate a fair number of people who attend events at the cenotaph. It currently is deficient in its ability to do that” (Uptown 11“Sprucing Up Victoria Park” Regina Market Square, May 1995. RPL Prairie History Room Clippings: ‘Victoria Park’). 

The above piece continues explaining the addition of park benches and paving stones are to eliminate standing in grass and snow.  McLeod concludes, “‘We are also ensuring that the cenotaph is accessable from all sides so that there’s no problems in November with the laying of the wreaths'” (Ibid). 

In a similar situation to today’s city square project, the 1995 summer refurbishment became expensive ($600 000) and controversial, in part, because the park was closed most of the summer. The greatest criticism came from Coun. Jim Harding who felt the expense was too great for one park especially considering neighbourhood parks were in such poor shape  (Leader Post “Park repair draws fire” Neil Scott. June 27, 1995, A8.).   The project went forward, and resulted in, for the most part, what you see today. 

My point of reference for the cenotaph came from stories about the conflict people had when skateboarders ruled the area.  As I recall, people were upset that skateboarders were willingly damaging this war memorial space.  

A few years ago I read something that brought the park conflict back into my mind; Lewis Mumford’s The Culture of Cities  (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc. 1970 [original 1938]). In this passage, he attacks building for the dead in spite of the living (p 434-435):  

Ordinary men and women must be content to fix their image in their children.  But the eminent and the powerful do not have sufficient faith in these powers of renewal:  in their vanity, they seek a petrified immortality: they write their boasts upon tombstones; they incorporate their deeds in obelisks; they place their hopes of remembrance in solid stones joined to other solid stones, dedicated to their subjects or their heirs forever, forgetful of the fact that stones that are deserted by the living are even more helpless than life that remains unprotected and unpreserved by stones.    

More or less, the ancient examples of these priestly and kingly cults have been taken over by civic communities: they, too, tended to sacrifice life to the monument.  In general, one may say that the classic civilizations of the world, up to our own, have been oriented toward death and fixity: the immobilization of life… 

Thanks to this cult, permanence comes in the structures of the city: but death comes with it: the burial ground encroaches on the city and the city, with its mass of dead buildings, duly armoured in stone, becomes a burial ground.  The temple prepares for death, the monument consecrates it, the sacrificial altar sanctifies it, the learning of the schools rehearses it, the burial vault or the cemetery completes it.  These beliefs and habits become pervasive: they eat into urban routine. 

For Mumford, the origins of the public park are also linked to memorial spaces: discussing the opening of baroque parks to the masses in the nineteenth century (Ibid, p 218-219): 

In what form do these new pastoral spaces first appear? To achieve peace and quiet, to insulate oneself from the noisy lanes of traffic, one must-do not laugh!- visit the dead.  Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston was one of the first of the new landscaped areas, spread out in ample acres, which was designed to resuscitate the living as well as solemnly to enfold the deceased… Life came back to the town by way of the graveyard; just as in more than one city the removal of tombstones served to turn the churchyard into a necessary breathing space for congested quarters.  This is not the first time in recorded history, from the days of the Egyptian tomb-builders onward, when the dead were abundantly supplied with the necessaries of life that were denied to the quick. 

 When I first read these passages, for some reason Victoria Park came to mind right away.  The recreational-civic space created for the centre of the city,  had a tomb implanted at its heart.  It’s quite a juxtaposition.  

Now, thinking about Mumford, the history of the park, the cenotaph and the plans for the city square project I feel we should be prepared for conflicts over this space once again.  Until the 1995 renovations I think the juxtaposition of recreation and reverence was fairly successful.  The two spaces were largely separate.  I was looking through old articles hoping to find some discussion or consideration of what this plaza might unexpectedly promote.  The City’s Ann McLeod seemed to be focused on providing a memorial space for November 11th ceremonies that would be more accommodating for aging veterans (Uptown 11“Sprucing Up Victoria Park” Regina Market Square, May 1995. RPL Prairie History Room Clippings: ‘Victoria Park’).  Nothing I’ve read suggests the designers were aware their plaza was the perfect skate park.  

It was already against the traffic bylaw in 1990 to skateboard downtown (Leader Post, “Skateboarding petition started,” Federico Barahona. May 24, 2000, A3).  As Traffic Bylaw 9900 (page 18 [26/86PDF]) reads today:  

23. (2) No person shall engage in any pedestrian-assisted activity on any: 

(a) sidewalk in the downtown; or 

(b) pedestrian mall 

 In the late 90s a youth skateboard culture was rising in Regina and the  infrastructure at the core of the central hub of the city, Victoria Park changed to create a perfect synergy.  There were no social contracts around this new space, no history of what could or couldn’t be done on the steps or benches of the new plaza. More importantly, there were no facilities to support skating in the city.  Skateboarders eventually came and used this new plaza as they would any other space as part of their activity.   

In time the City reacted to provide space, from Barahona’s article,  skateboarder Sven Haug laments the poor quality of the City run indoor pay facility at exhibition park, opened in 1998.  The City facility which, according to Barahona, was “hoping to get skateboarders off the streets” would only record 7% of its annual attendance during the summer(summer of 1999 probably).   

By the end of the century conflict came with Veterans who were rightfully disturbed that their sacred space was being, in their eyes, disrespected by young people. The definition of cenotaph clearly suggests that the this memorial was a scared place and was not the place for young Reginans to grind and ollie on. 

Further concerns came from Scarth St. merchants who felt skateboarders were scaring customers away.  There were also concerns about property damage (Joe Fafard’s new Bison public art installation in particular) and personal injury/lawsuits along the Scarth Mall-Vic Park area (Leader Post, “Skateboarding petition started,” Federico Barahona. May 24, 2000, A3).  

In 1999, police started to enforce the bylaw with $30 tickets in an attempt to stop the skating (Leader Post “Crackdown on downtown skateboarders” Mike O’Brien. April 10, 1999, A7).  

Eventually, as you can see today, the flower beds, so perfect in height for grinding along, had brackets placed on top.  Two, free use, outdoor skateboard specific facilities have opened and become the loci of Regina’s skateboarders and bikers.  

 

Is it an example of the tyranny of the dead on the living?  You take a subculture based around physical expression of individuality, athleticism and socializing and, for a time, provide it the conditions for vitality in a new-old sacred space.  It’s the unintended synergies that I see as a stumbling block for the new Victoria Park.  

Looking at the Victoria Park PDF on the City website, I’m still struck by how much change and programing is coming.  The image of the new park looks as if it were attacked by a scalpel, with once grassy areas gouged by brick, trees removed and the cenotaph, yet again, getting a new styling.  There will be a sport-play open space, a ceremonial sacred gateway, and event areas.  My worry is that park spaces will be so dedicated, their hours so often programmed that casual use of the park will be more difficult.  There are also bound to be conflicts with designated users:  will the yoga class that has the South West section 3-5pm Sundays be upset by the soccer ball or frisbee flying their way every few minutes?  

In general, since last year’s consultation picnic my head’s been full of questions like:  Who does the city want in its park?  Is it everyone or specific, groups, classes, market segments? And, is this just a big gentrification project? 

I’m sure many would welcome scheduling problems, and over use as proof of a successful project. With greater use of new facilities, some of which could be without social contracts or understanding , there could be increasing conflicts over space for a time.  In the recent past, we’ve seen how redesigning the park hasn’t correlated to the public redefining their use of that space as the planners intended.  With such sweeping changes getting underway this summer, expect some surprises down the road with people who don’t have the expected concept of the park.  Certainly, the plan will promote the park as anything but a dead space, even with a tomb at its centre.

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Victoria Park-Sacred Space?

4 thoughts on “Victoria Park-Sacred Space?

  1. Barb Saylor says:

    Cenotaphs in Canada generally occupy sites in/ near the city/town centre, where the public passes regularly and can congregate when the occasion arises. It is not at all unusual, or a “tyranny of the dead” to have a palpable reminder of history and mortality in a public space. Life flows on around the cenotaphs, as it should, but even in public spaces, there are boundaries. In a park, public urination, littering, vandalism, graffiti, and unleashed dogs all demonstrate disregard for other park users and are abuses of public space; skateboarding in and on the cenotaph is another abuse. All public places imply courteous sharing, and respect for boundaries makes those spaces thrive. I suspect that the only folks who will have problems with the new configuration of Victoria Park and 12th Avenue will be folks who have problems with sharing and with respecting. They will adjust, or move to a more appropriate locale.
    Just an aside: Jane Jacobs loved cities; Lewis Mumford hated them. That colours everything these scholars wrote.

    1. wourliem says:

      Thanks for the reply,

      I agree that public spaces aren’t a free-for-all of activity, and you point to many acts that are not considered proper. I used ‘social contract’ to represent these boundaries in the post. That may not be the right term for what I’m trying to describe, but it’s the one that came to mind.

      It still seems to me that there is a gray area with the plaza since it, in my mind, could be separated from the memorial for some, but not for others. Generally new spaces must be defined by the people who inhabit them.

      I appreciate your idea of courteous sharing and respect for boundaries as the key to make public spaces work. I think it’s this process of defining boundaries that may cause some initial friction between groups. You are quite correct that people will move along eventually if they can’t enjoy the park.

      I disagree with your aside somewhat. Mumford around the time of the book I referenced was not a fan of certain aspects of cities. He felt strongly about the prospects of new construction materials, technology and integrating architecture within the local environment.

      I wouldn’t say he hated cities, he certainly hated some things about cities. Jacobs also hated things about cities in her time, the destruction of close-knit communities with transportation projects for example.

      I think Mumford was hopeful that cities could be improved, rather than purely critical.

      1. Barb Saylor says:

        Thanks, both, for your replies. Wourliem: I think that if you compare Jacobs’s work with Mumford’s, you’ll see that generally she was an optimist and drew much of her inspiration from the communities in which she lived, while Mumford was more stereotypically academic and a pessimist. I can see Jacobs sitting down to her typewriter after a long neighbourhood walk and a stop at the fruit and vegetable stand, where she chatted with the proprietor. Mumford I can see writing down his thoughts after opening the morning’s mail, with letters from the architects and planners he admired and befriended. Not to paint Jacobs as unintellectual and Mumford as ivory-tower, but they came at the idea of the city and its culture(s) from different directions, and perhaps there’s gender at work here too. As an old archaeologist, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention classical archaeology’s long-time fascination with and emphasis on the rise and fall of empires, as opposed to the ordinary everyday life of the anonymous. Given the era in which Mumford wrote, it isn’t surprising that he would pick up on that research bias and apply it to the idea of the city, with predictable results.
        It’s always fun to visit this blog.

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