Jane’s Walk 2015 – Rediscovering the Complex Legacy of Urban Renewal in Downtown Victoria

Jane's Walk 2015

In the course of my research on urban renewal in Victoria during the 1950s and 1960s, I discovered an outline of a walking tour of downtown Victoria organized by G.J. Greenhalgh, the City of Victoria’s Director of Community Development. The original tour was given to a group of municipal politicians, architects and arts groups from Seattle in June 1967. Greenhalgh chose the sites to highlight several urban renewal and revitalization projects undertaken by the city and private landowners, and enlisted the help of volunteers from the Chamber of Commerce to show off the city.[1]

Because many of the sites that Greenhalgh decided to include in his walking tour have been contested sites for decades, I decided to reprise his tour for the annual Jane’s Walk festival on May 2, 2015. Because the sites we visited continue to be important today, it was an interesting and intellectually satisfying exercise to retrace Greenhalgh’s steps and discuss the ways in which the history of our city informs how we think about it now.

The Tour

Greenhalgh’s tour was scheduled to last three hours and fifteen minutes, during the afternoon of June 3, 1967, with an hour and a half scheduled for mingling, tea and crumpets at the Empress Hotel after the tour. Here’s what his schedule looked like:

Time Event
1245 Depart C.P.R. Station with 10 Guides. Proceed on foot north on Government to Bastion Square via Bastion Street.
1300 Arrive Bastion, tour Square – main floor of Duncan Building – Birdcage walk etc.
1330 Leave Square – east on Bastion cross Government and proceed through Trounce Alley – North on Broad Street to McPherson Theatre.
1345 Arrive McPherson Theatre. Greeting and short address by Mayor Stephen. Show film “Townscape Rediscovered.”
1420 Leave Theatre and tour Centennial Square.
1445 Depart Square – south on Douglas to 700 block Yates Street. Up North side cross over at Library, down south side and through stores to arcade in rear.
1520 Depart arcade (700 Block View) east on View to Blanshard – south on Blanshard – north on Fort to Vancouver and thence south to Cathedral Precinct, Y.M.C.A., Law Courts etc.
1545 Leave Precinct area proceed by shortest route to Empress Hotel. (Short detour could be made here through Thunderbird Park).
1600 Arrive Empress Hotel for Tea and Crumpets.

Reprising Greenhaglh’s tour for a Jane’s Walk worked well, because he had selected the sites in 1967 for very specific reasons, and those sites continued to play important (but often unexpected) roles in how the city developed in the intervening time. In a strange sense, it was like taking a fifty year long tour in two and a half hours. Here are some of the issues we discussed at each site:

  • Between the CPR Terminal and Bastion Square: Industrial, residential and commercial uses of space around the harbour, and the process of gentrification.[2]
  • Bastion Square: The role of municipal, provincial and federal governments, private land owners and non-profits in creating cultural spaces and maintaining heritage structures.
  • Trounce Alley & Broad Street: Pedestrian and vehicle access to downtown streets and spaces, and the concept of greenways.
  • Centennial Square: Civic spaces, modernist architecture and heritage conservation.
  • 700-Block Yates Street: Urban streets versus suburban malls and Business Improvement Associations.
  • Cathedral Precinct, Y.M.C.A., Law Courts: In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the City of Victoria considered building the new Civic Square and City Hall in the block bounded by Blanshard, Broughton, Quadra and Courtney, rather than at its current site in Centennial Square.
  • Thunderbird Park: Representations of First Nations culture and heritage in public spaces in Victoria.
  • Empress Hotel: Tourism and leisure at local, provincial, national and international scales.

Obviously, this isn’t a complete list of all the issues we discussed or a comprehensive history of each of the sites, but it does give a sense of how each of the sites Greenhalgh visited is related to a long history and to current debates about land use in Victoria.

The Films

My favourite part of the tour was a screening of “A Townscape Rediscovered,” a 1966 film that traces the development of Centennial Square and Bastion Square. This film provides rich imagery of 1960s era Victoria and information about the kinds of things the designers of Centennial Square were thinking about in executing the project. I encourage you to watch it, as well as a similar film produced about urban renewal projects in Vancouver during the 1960s.

During Greenhalgh’s original tour, the screening of “A Townscape Rediscovered,” took place at McPherson Theatre, with an introduction by the Mayor. During the Jane’s Walk this year, City Councillor Margaret Lucas generously donated space for the screening at the Hotel Rialto at Douglas and Pandora. Councillor Pamela Madoff attended much of the walk and provided an excellent introduction to the film, based on her own extensive knowledge of this period of Victoria’s history; she also provided some more information and commentary at some of the sites we visited. I owe a great debt of gratitude to both City Councillors for their assistance and for the work they are doing on behalf of the City.

A related film that inspired some of the revitalization efforts in Victoria during the 1960s was The Story of Magdalen Street, which describes the efforts to enhance a downtown shopping street in Norwich in the 1950s. (The East Anglian Film Archive won’t let me embed the video here, so please do follow the link and take a look at the fifteen minute film.)

The Oversight

Greenhalgh’s original tour glosses over an important aspect of urban renewal in Victoria. By 1967, the municipal, provincial and federal governments were embroiled in the controversial Rose-Blanshard urban renewal project that involved displacing 157 families to build a new school and social housing. Greenhalgh’s tour highlights several downtown urban renewal and revitalization projects that, because they were new, probably impressed his guests from Seattle. It’s not clear from the archival record why Greenhalgh didn’t highlight the Rose-Blanshard urban renewal project in his tour – I can only speculate that he thought that the difficult and incomplete process of urban renewal at Rose-Blanshard would have shed a negative light on the City for his Seattle guests. From his perspective, it was probably a happy coincidence that he didn’t have enough time to take his guests on a tour outside downtown, or that his guests were more interested in issues surrounding the renewal of downtown civic and commercial structures than they were in issues surrounding residential urban renewal projects.

While I think reprising Greenhalgh’s tour was effective at highlighting many of the issues that Victoria has faced over the past fifty years, I think it’s important to remember, commemorate and memorialize the Rose-Blanshard urban renewal scheme, because that project highlights other issues that are just as important. I will be working on a public history project aimed at just such a commemoration and memorialization over the next few months, and will announce details about the project here in the near future.

I am also hoping to lead a similar version of Greenhalgh’s tour next year for the Jane’s Walk festival. If you or a group you’re involved with is interested in taking the tour with me at another time, I would be pleased to discuss the logistics with you. You can find my contact details in the About tab above.

[1] The original tour outline and some correspondence related to the tour is in the City of Victoria Archives, CRS 23 1 A 7, File 2 20.12, Receptions, Official Ceremonies, etc, 1964-1967.

[2] William G. Hamilton & Bruce Simard, “Victoria’s Inner Harbour 1967-1992: The Transformation of a Deindustrialized Waterfront. (Canadian Urban Landscape Examples, Part 9),” The Canadian Geographer, 37.4 (1993): 364-.

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