Renovating time and history


A couple of curious structures with funny clue-full history today. First up – a truly magnificent avian mansion, which was erected down by the waterfront a few years ago, as part of the un-development along the lakeshore.

I’ve got to admit, I was intensely skeptical about this idea at first – the rough ugly and industrial strip along the lake that isn’t already built-up is awfully thin, and the plans were ambitious in the extreme – new marina, music-park and also patches of recreated wetlands with wild native species like this.

I was entirely wrong – not only is the music park (designed with Yoyo Ma) a real triumph, these small zones of uncontrolled nature are calming and lovely, and also serve to set-off the culture-attraction area of Harbourfront (art galleries, massive glass-blowing studio, several different open-air concert venues and a lovely performance theatre) from the mellower (and always less crowded) park system running Westward.

This second (sorry, ugly) photo is of no aesthetic importance – BUT – this is a historical building all the same – to everyone all at once, and to a small subset of everyone who know it’s old incarnation better. There was a recent story in the news about the building, because one of our more interesting and useful prime ministers (Lester B Pearson) once lived here for a fairly short while. The question was asked – should they allow development on the site, or should it be preserved as a historical location?

Inspectors inspected and found something that thousands of people like me could have told them from memory – the interior of that building bears no resemblance whatsoever to the original structure (nothing historical to save).

How do I (and many other keeners) know this? Simple – because this used to be the location of AAA aquarium – which was one of the best aquaristics shops in the entire city. The whole main floor was done up custom with few remaining walls (load-bearers only) and giant tanks set up everywhere, with tropical and marine fish of every variety and an especially amazing array of Cichlids from the great lakes of Africa (very hard to breed).

There was virtually no light at all, except for what came from the tanks – which gave the entire place an incredibly cool undersea feeling. But the most memorable thing of all was the gigantic tank that greeted you when you first came in the door, with a fish so big you knew no one could buy it and take it home (even a beer cooler would be too small). A huge and surly-looking grouper, who had lived there so long, just growing and growing and growing, that (especially as a little kid) one felt he practically ran the place.

“Got a complaint? Talk to the coelacanth in charge.”
“No sir, no complaints at all, sir.”

One of the hardest things to convey to younger folks is the extent to which the activity and effort of individual obsessive nonconformists used to provide truly unique enchantments for us all, pleasures which have thinned-out a great deal recently, in favour of cheaper more profitable standardized-format corporate products.

But I was reminded of a good baseline reference-point the other day in discussion, which may perhaps frame the distance of drift in our assumptions helpfully. I was lucky enough to run into a couple of wonderful old friends, and had a truly lovely afternoon, catching up with two of the smartest men I know (between them. almost a century of actively uncovering the hidden, rigorously analyzing the suspect and relentlessly promoting art and creativity for the whole city). Not just cool in themselves – but actively generous to others, too.

“Can I drop you guys a note on facebook?” I asked. “What’s the matter, Paul?” asked one, “you forget how to write an actual letter since last I saw you?” Nope – neither one was even slightly interested in using FB – nor are many of the other brilliant fellows we were discussing and missing together. Which reminded me that I was myself a staunch opponent for quite some time, and indeed, not one of my objections to the medium has proven false. Whatever else can be said, time is finite, which means it cannot help but displace time available for creative projects, thoughtful reflection, and actual face-to-face friends (not to mention lovely letters on paper, that you save for your whole life).

So the next time we’re tempted to take FB presence, opinions, feedback or activity in general as emotionally meaningful, politically representative, creatively significant or in any way ‘objectively’ worthwhile, lets all step back a second and remember – a very high percentage of the smartest people in the world flat-out refuse to play here at all – because they have a full life already, and simply don’t care to displace any of their treasured human(e) activities, for the sake of plaintive and alienated ego-marketing.

And if the very smartest of us are staying away on well-founded principle – then who exactly are we all getting ourselves so upset about tussling-with objecting-to and arguing-with here, anyhow?

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