My Town - A Sense of Optimism


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One of the best things about living in Waterloo Region is that it is easy to be optimistic about the future. As great a city as Toronto is, it is still at a crossroads. If I still lived there, I would be terrified of the challenges ahead, and the local politicians' abilities to handle them. I don't live there, and I still fear for the city's ability to control sprawl, handle homelessness, maintain its transit, rebuild its waterfront, keep its business and maintain its safety. My friend Martin lives in a part of town that's ailing, and I think that affects his outlook on life. How can you believe that the world is getting better when the neighbourhood around you crumbles?

Kitchener-Waterloo has its problems. Congestion is increasing, there are homeless people, and the Social Planning Council of Kitchener-Waterloo is being kept busy. But urban sprawl is largely under Waterloo Region's control, transit is improving, our downtowns are increasingly vibrant, our finances are in order and our council meetings are cordial. Unemployment is low, our industries are diverse and growing. We will have a population of 700,000 by 2041; we may even have an LRT within the next decade. Although challenges exist, there is no fear that Kitchener-Waterloo will experience the "white-flight" downtown degredation that has been suffered by many American cities, and which Toronto risks if it is not careful.

And the most encouraging sign of all: it didn't used to be this way.

When my family moved to Kitchener in 1991, we were delighted with our neighbourhood: nice houses, well-developed trees, and everything within walking distance of good stores. However, we quickly discovered that we had a crack house down the street. The neighbourhood five blocks down was not a place to walk at night (we didn't have that problem in big bad Toronto).

This wasn't all. Kitchener's downtown was half full, with such buildings as the old Goudi's Department Store empty husks. Even the much vaunted Farmers' Market was faltering under competition with the far more rural St. Jacobs Market. The City was still reeling from the bad planning decisions of the 1960s, which cost it a fantastic neo-classical City Hall and was driving downtown stores to suburban malls. The two malls that were supposed to anchor Kitchener's downtown were themselves dying. If people wanted someplace to stroll and shop, they went to Uptown Waterloo.

Kitchener's downtown hit its low point in the early 1990s when an arsonist started burning down the abandoned stores and the empty shells. Great gaping holes of destruction started to appear in our core, and that was the moment that Kitchener residents had enough.

More people may have lived in the suburbs than in downtown, but Downtown Kitchener was the face of Kitchener, and it was embarrasing us. Downtown revitalization became an election issue. Priorities shifted. The downtown neighbourhood of Victoria Park got support and cleaned up its drug pusher mess. Victoria Park itself started to come back as a downtown amenity. Victoria Public School, shut down due to underpopulation, was turned into a seniors co-op and revitalized the area. Then the City of Kitchener rolled up its sleeves and really got to work.

Despite much controversy, the city bought up a block of run down stores in the middle of downtown Kitchener and razed them to build a new City Hall. Council, which had been meeting in a leased office building since losing its neo-classical structure, moved into a state-of-the-art building with a large public square. It may have been expensive, but it gave the downtown a symbolic focal point. A block of decay had been eliminated, and the City intended to stay in its downtown. Real urban renewal swept out from there.

The derelict areas were bought up and cleaned up. Whole blocks were expropriated and then sold to developers with sound and imaginative plans. Strong attempts were made to tie Victoria Park to the downtown core. The Water Street Theatre was moved out of its backroom digs into a state-of-the-art theatre rising on one of the parcels of land burnt down by the arsonist. One of the two dying malls was bought out and sold to Mutual Life Insurance Company for office space. The Goudi's shell was finally renovated, and opened up into a children's museum. In our own area, the crackhouses were raided, expropriated, renovated and sold to responsible owners. The impoverished area five blocks from our home started to transform into an artists community and be cleaned up.

I've only scratched the surface of all of the projects the City of Kitchener and the Region of Waterloo have done to bring Downtown Kitchener back. And it was all small steps, carefully planned. No glitzy mega-projects for us -- that had happened in the 1960s and caused some of the problems we were fighting. Whereever they could, the City of Kitchener tried to make its downtown a place to live and play instead of just work and shop or possibly avoid. The diversity of uses started attracting people downtown, as did the new office space. Stores started doing better.The rot has slowly disappeared. Soon, what was one the joke of Waterloo Region was transforming into a solid, diverse core. Downtown Kitchener boasts an area of relatively low crime, and a neighbourhood population of over 10,000.

The City of Kitchener now has a real City Hall, and a good relationship with its central park. It can talk seriously about demolishing downtown bus terminal (built on a questionable location) and rebuilding a deindustrialized corner with a combination bus station/train station/LRT stop/convention centre. The city has lost some battles, but it is winning the war.

It's great being a part of an improving community. An optimistic city can't help but improve your own outlook on life.

But there are battles still to win...

Dirty Girls

This week's episode of Buffy ("Dirty Girls") was brutal and shocking, but it was workmanlike in its tone. A lot of plot elements had to be juggled, and while the writers coped, they didn't sparkle. Nice to see Faith back, but she was underused here, for the reasons I stated.

Far better was Angel's "Shiny Happy People". Despite the risk of having your regulars all act like they were on happy juice, and despite the risk of having loads of metaphysical peace slogans tossed about by Jasmine, everyone involved sold it, and the risks paid off. It helps that it feels like half of the regulars' reaction feels like plain relief that the bloody battles they've faced for most of this season are (apparently) over, but Jasmine has to get most of the credit. She gave Erin the heebie-jeebies from the get-go, and although the revelation of what she truly was was hardly a surprise, it was effectively handled.

The best thing about this episode is Fred. Now, I know that Fred is unpopular with Angel fans, but I happily tweak their noses with my disagreement. Amy Acker is an excellent actor, and she carried her story brilliantly. Kudos to her character for pulling herself together miraculously upon seeing Jasmine's true face. A lesser character would have shrieked, run, and kept shrieking and running until they were in Iowa, although on balance I would have to say that this would probably have been safer for Fred in the long run.

The threat of Jasmine seems stronger to me than the threat of Caleb on Buffy. Jasmine is obvious, but she's obviously subversive. The abject worship of the people in her presence strikes me as far more dangerous than the obvious evil-preacher shininegins of Caleb, even if he is evil, and even though both actors are just great. Nice to see that members of the Firefly crew getting work...

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