Friday, May 20, 2011

Fahrenheit 613

Today, I have censorship on the brain.

No, I'm not debating boobs in hockey (although, really....who finds women's breasts offensive after getting an eyeful of these?) I digress, almost compulsively.

The censorship I am talking about today is the act of erasing ideas, identities and people from the city.

Tech Wall, May 2011

One of the 'fears' that widely circulate about graffiti is that it devalues property. Few real estate agents are 'pro graffiti' for example. Surely the buffing of the large retaining wall facing Lebreton flats is a victim of this way of thinking: It faces new condo development (2008) the new Canadian War Museum (2005), as well as the Bluesfest site.

Before becoming touristy prime real estate, however, it used to be a bustling mixed community that served the town's lumber industry in the mid 1800s. In 1900, fire burned through a large part of this area, and was soon repopulated by largely the blue collar workers of the area. In the 1960s, the land was expropriated by the federal government (reportedly related to issues of soil contamination after years industrialization).

After the fire (and the rich folks left the area), the area was described as a "slum" by local politicians high on the enthusiasm and promises of urban renewal policies. Local artist Ralph Wallace Burton thought otherwise about the area's vibe, and painted scenes of the area before its demolition. These scenes were recently placed on display by our current municipal government.

Curiously, the act of capturing the 'slums' become art worthy memories about Ottawa hanging in buildings of the City that condemned it as a slum: this nostalgia plays a part in providing 'value' to this area. Today,  real estate agents use phrases like "historic" in selling the Lebreton Flats area as a high end lifestyle.

What is historic, though? Isn't everything that ever happened historic?

Images shape how we remember a time and place: memory is at least in part a political social process. How many  memories of your childhood are shaped by photos you have a seen or talked about with other people? Recently a family friend posted a photo of my family that I had never seen before. It was odd; I had no context for it (no memories that were given by spoken accounts of 'that day', for example).

My own family looked strange to me (well, stranger than usual )

Some things my brother has hair and I don't...

Arguably, the graffiti community in Ottawa has a longer history than the current township of Kanata, which was essentially created by a real estate developer. There are writers who people in the current graffiti community recognize as key community builders. There are 'museums' of graffiti throughout our city (hidden from most citizens) that commemorate some of these writers,  'remembering' the city and some of the different people who passed through it or called it home at one time.

It is interesting that us humans crave to locate markings of the past to tell us something about our ancestry - clues about 'what was life life' in particular places and times; and yet, many of our cities are attempting to edit out marks that do not fit the 'real estate' aesthetic of ideal urban spaces.

There is something important being said on these walls about some of the people who live in Ottawa today. I think maybe its time to celebrate Graffiti History in Ottawa in a way that reminds our municipal government of this. Perhaps Jennifer Paliaro is correct to suggest that the municipalities 'attitude' towards graffiti are changing. I will be more convinced of this when the language used by the City to talk about graffiti is not limited to 'decreasing crime'.

I DO think that the citizens are ready for a change though, and I do hope the City will follow...

If we are to believe the newspapers and some municipal counselors, there are many people in Ottawa who think that graffiti is 'new'. In part, this is because the City has effectively burned a lot of metaphorical books these past ten years especially. Its time to remind people that graffiti writers have been a positive part of Ottawa.

This is what erasing history does. It erases people too.

Many of my students were openly disapointed when I mentioned in class that that the 'button cat' facing Lebreton Flats was 'buffed' last year. It is now tagged and buffed almost weekly, whereas before this cat greeted OC Transpo riders daily (for years) without buffing & tagging drama.

Attempting to silence a history or people tends to backfire on the Firemen of culture. As someone who lives in this City, I have a couple ideas about how to deal with the attempt at censorship.

How about if we use digital projections of historic murals on the Lebreton Flat walls during Bluesfest? How about a night of digital projections of local writers works on buildings in Westboro during Westfest?

I welcome your ideas too....


  1. I remember this was one of the first topics we discussed while on the trail together, how Ottawa as a whole has a severely over inflated tendency to whitewash over the history this town has to offer. I was right about the old Chaudier train station ( spot that used to be along the O-Train route, after tearing it all out, they just started flattening off the area to build another strip mall. Thank you commercial development!

  2. Inspiring commentary, as always =)