Our civic centre the Block forgot


Death of cultureDuring the January 15 council meeting, there was a lengthy presentation of a strategic planning exercise (a real one, not the bogus one The Block call our “community-based strategic plan,” which was neither community-driven nor strategic) for the Parks, Recreation and Culture department (read more about it here). The presenter asked council to answer three questions. The third of which (starting at around 1:17:30) was about what Collingwood is missing or needed in its PRC facilities or services.

Skip past the self-aggrandizing yatter of Councillor Madigan, past the insulting comments and architectural ignorance of Councillor Jeffrey, the vapid blather of Councillor Edwards and stop at 1:23:30. That’s when Deputy Mayor Saunderson says one of the “huge gaps is the lack of a community centre.” He then meanders into a blather about operating costs. Of course, this is meant to drive home his one-size-fits-all $35 million Taj Mahal dream (well, a nightmare for taxpayers…)  he proposed last term.*

We already have a community centre: our public library. It runs programs for all ages, hosts talks, events, concerts, activities, clubs, chess matches, it’s an art gallery, a computer lab, and more. I know, I know: you’re going to remind me The Block don’t like to read so it’s unlikely that most of them have been in the building aside from the committee meetings on the third floor. Like you, I have a hard time imagining them using a library or even opening a book – much less actually reading one.

And, ironically, we have a council rep on the library board: Councillor Ecclestone. Alright, stop laughing now. Maybe he didn’t come to the library’s defence because it was his nap time.

The library is and has always been the community’s cultural centre. If The Block paid attention to their role as elected officials, they’d know this. Yes, there are private cultural facilities too, especially on Simcoe Street. These complement, rather than compete with, the library.

The library was, at least a few years ago, the town’s most-frequented municipal facility. I suspect it still is. But not by The Block. All those books, those words closing in on them, the seep of knowledge from between the pages – it’s a scary place for our council non-readers: they stay away.

Back in 2003, a multi-use facility was proposed that included the town’s library in the same structure that housed a pool and ice rink. That was also a monumental challenge for the design and engineering because the humidity and temperature controls alone were very complex: the sections needed to be isolated from one another. And the space requirements for each service meant there was no room left for expansion or growth. The incoming council killed the plan as unrealistic and overly expensive.

That design – and most that followed – pursued the outdated fad of centralizing everything in the grab-bag we call parks-recreation-culture where you stuffed all possible activities into a massive Wal-Mart-superstore-sized building and culture always gets short shrift.  Brian still wants to keep that quaint fad alive, sort of like aging boomers who want to keep disco alive because they think everyone still wants to get up and dance to “Stayin’ Alive.”

Putting a theatre in the same facility as a gym (as he proposes now – it wasn’t in his Taj Mahal structure plan – only a vaguely-worded “Common space for ‘community centre’ type uses”) is neither realistic nor practical. Just as a start, the user base for each is not the same. Does he think residents will go to the building and decide to pump iron after watching a presentation of Julius Caesar? Or parents will take their kids for a swim then trundle them over to watch the last half of La Boheme? Not likely.**

This is more Saunderson hypocrisy; trying to garner some support from the arts-and-culture community for his next election campaign. Back in 2012 when his committee’s report was presented to council, it listed not one single cultural or arts group as a stakeholder, or even mentioned consultation with them. It was all about sports, sports, sports. That glaring oversight was just one reason council rejected his $35 million proposal.

That “common space” was so artificial it was ignored in the report: it wasn’t even described, nor its uses or management defined. And now he’s all shirty about the lack of community cultural space? Not on your Nellie. It’s just a vote-grabbing, grandstanding ploy.

A theatre is a large use of space, and it has to accommodate a fair number of people to be reasonably useful (we already have two small theatres here – Simcoe Street and the Gayety – plus the Galaxy-Cineplex building, which regularly shows opera, plays and ballet). If you have, say, a 350-seat theatre, you need to have parking for that many people. And you need parking for the attached ice rink and pool and gym… a vast expanse of treeless asphalt to handle the cars, buses and traffic. Hundreds and hundreds of cars, idling, spewing fumes, making noise at all hours (theatre shows often run late, hockey tournaments often start before dawn). Hundreds of cars pouring out onto Hume Street, onto the sidestreets. Not what everyone in the neighbourhood wants.

It makes much more sense to separate what are very different uses and needs in specific and separate facilities, and thus create more manageable traffic and reduce environmental challenges.

But what is most depressing about this entire segment of the meeting is that NONE of The Block talk about the need for more cultural activities or offer any solutions. Stuffing a vague “common space” beside an ice pad is not a solution: it’s an embarrassment.

There was some lip service paid to funding for the undefined “arts” during this discussion, but only in the most nebulous terms with no specifics or even why this is a good idea. Do they mean adding sculpture to public parks? A Baroque music festival? A book-writing contest? TED talks? A night at the opera? Painting classes? None of the Block had any ideas aside from throwing some undefined amount of taxpayers’ money at the department.

There was nothing concrete said about improving the intellectual, cultural, literary and musical lives of our citizens. Yes, I know, I know: asking The Block to discuss intellectual activities is like asking a panda to discuss Hegel.  There’s more culture in a cup of yogurt than in our Blockheads.

The needs and uses of theatre-goers, of musicians, of art lovers, of sculptors, of book clubs, of jazz aficionados, of chess players, of ukulele clubs are very, very different from what swimmers, skaters and runners need or use. I don’t discount what the latter need or want, but this whole discussion was far too one-sided about sports and physical activities (and overtly ideologically-motivated as you can hear from the comments). ( I didn’t hear even one of The Block mention creating age-specific recreational facilities that some communities offer…)

(Here’s one suggestion: move the planning department out of the third floor of the library building and into the currently unused town building on the 10th line. Convert the top floor of the library into a community space for events, a larger art gallery, and renovate the larger meeting rooms into a theatre and proper performance space).

Our municipal department has culture in its name and that should be taken seriously. But that won’t happen with our anti-intellectual Block on council. Maybe next term we can get someone at the table who treats the arts, treats culture and music as more than a passing annoyance. Maybe we can get councillors who actually use the library and understand its services and programs, and who actually read.

Collingwood deserves better.

* For another laugh, stop at 1:29:00 when Councillor “Sleepy” Ecclestone answers this question by rambling at great length about what park facilities an American community, and yatters abouthis grandkids. Well, at least he was awake during that segment. And at 1:44:55 he says, “We really have to, it’s probably imperative that we, uh, that we go after private, uh, public, you know, gigs, or uh, buildings or whatever you want to call it.” Well, said… I think…

** Demographics differ, too. We recently attended a live satellite feed of the Metropolitan Opera’s Tosca at the Galaxy theatre. Among the ocean of grey hairs (ours included), we saw fewer than a handful of viewers under 60, and most were older even than ourselves. Theatrical events of this sort tend to attract an older audience. The Block seem oblivious to this.

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Ian Chadwick
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