civic identity 2

Went to a discussion on Calgary and Identity last night: the panel was a fellow from Heritage Calgary – an oxymoron surely, a sustainable cities Newfoundlander who walks everywhere and hasn't got a car, and the local leader of Jane's Walks.  Not typical Calgary, but typical of a particular sector of the city.  The discussion never really got much beyond 'Calgary does lots of things right, early LRT, great inner city neighbourhoods, an active association of 140 communities, downtown a bit forbidding, Jan Gehl's Copenhagen not going to happen here'.  

Well fine.  It is one thing to know the history, another to actually rub up against it in this city, a rare thing.  It is one thing to live and work downtown, but it is a soulless downtown.  It is one thing to live in one of the chic inner city neighbourhoods, another to have lived there for thirty years and suffered through the bikers, the prostitution and the drug deals.  But to mention that is to be unacceptably negative – a glass half empty sort of attitude.  

Okay, let's think about New York instead.  How does a city get to the size where its identity is complex, powerful, unassailable and seemingly independent of branding slogans, earnest discussions of reinvigorating the downtown core, getting more people on public transit?  How does a city get to the point of an Empire State of Mind – for that is what identity is, a state of mind.  

Of course everyone has an individual identity and lives in a fragment of their city: one does carve out a life that suits, but at some point one must feel that one's individual identity contributes to the civic identity in some way.  When the gap between the personal and the civic is unbridgeable, then I think we have a problem.  There are several articles in On Site 25: identity about landing in a new city and starting to make one's way.  Migrants bring with them a set of urban values that must be cobbled to fit the new circumstances, however, the cities that legitimate and even valourise that process are the ones in which newcomers have the greatest stake.  

Look at the appropriation of New York in Empire State of Mind: Jay-Z and Alicia Keys own this city, not just because they are rich and famous, but because they are New Yorkers.  And New York is large enough, and generous enough, to encompass them, Donald Trump and The New School.  

My family has been in Calgary since 1906; I grew up on Vancouver Island thinking Calgary was a terrifically romantic place based on family stories that went up to 1947, then in 1977 I moved here and found that the pre-oil boom city which had been small and jewel-like was being bulldozed away in the second oil boom.  Now, thirty-five years on in the extended third oil boom we have a city that inspires a kind of frantic boosterism within it and vies with Toronto as the city Canada loves to hate.  

Calgary's brand: The New West is a phrase that obliterates the old west of ranching and farming with the new one of oil and gas.  Oil and gas is an industry, not a culture. Both of them, the old west still encapsulated in the Stampede and the new west of the shiny, thrusting downtown core, exclude so many things, so many people.  Without being totally anodyne, how does a city indicate that it is generous and allows a wide diversity of people, ways of thinking, histories – something beyond the statistical indications that we have a sizeable immigrant population.  Perhaps the city should stop the branding thing for a while and develop some sort of critical consciousness rather than being threatened by every comment that might be construed as negative.  Perhaps it, and everyone in it, could become a bit more generous, not in terms of money, but in terms of welcoming alternative urban dicussions.  It is one thing to know that other cities have developed all sorts of strategies for alternative land use and spontaneous urban demonstrations, it is another to actually legitimise them on your own turf.

Not everywhere is New York.  There is Newport.