Tuesday, November 23, 2004

A missed opportunity

I've been taking a lot of pictures lately. That's not really a big deal for me, since I've always been rather photographically inclined. Since I learned my way around a darkroom at summer camp a whole lot of years ago, I've found great comfort in capturing the world around me with my camera.

But this week, I can't stop thinking about the picture I did not take. Sure, I wanted to take it, and made one mental note after another to toss a camera in my bike bag so I could snap it on the way to the office. But I never did. And now I'll never be able to get that picture, for the object of my photographic curiosity no longer exists.

Some background: London is home to the University of Western Ontario. This renowned institution contains some of Canada's top faculties in business, medicine, law, and countless other fields of study. It is a center of research, and an integral part of the broader community. During the week, I ride through the campus to get to work. Weekends, the campus is a place to reflect and think.

The student population has grown significantly in recent years. Ontario's abolition of Grade 13, combined with the general trend toward greater post-secondary enrollment rates, has put a lot of pressure on UWO to grow, and grow fast.

This has had a direct impact on London's housing market, which has struggled to put more student housing units on the market to meet this soaring demand. The school has been actively building residence buildings since we moved here almost eight years ago, and the process shows no sign of slowing down.

Which brings us to a stretch of houses on one of the main roads on the edge of the campus. Most recently, they housed a daycare that catered to university families. They were fairly non-descript by anyone's architectural standards: they looked much like oversized side-splits. Nothing to write home about.

They sat across the street from a unique, home-made concrete round house that was once featured in the paper's architectural column. It was bulldozed a couple of years ago for a student apartment building that looks just like a half-dozen other such buildings within a four-block radius. It wasn't far from a running track that once surrounded a wonderfully lush athletic field. It was paved over two years ago and turned into a parking lot. Two weeks ago, the bulldozers crossed the street and started taking down the old daycare facilities.

When only one old house was left standing, I thought I'd take a picture and write about how important it was to take pictures of stuff – no matter how seemingly inconsequential said stuff seemed – because after it was gone, there would otherwise be no way to remember what was there. It's like when you come back to a neighborhood you haven't seen in months and there's a parking lot where you know there used to be a building. Only you can't quite picture in your mind what that building looked like because you never took the time to commit it to memory. Or film.

I wanted to get a picture of the last building standing. But I got busy this morning and left the house without the camera. As I came home in the damp, dark evening, all I could see was a forlorn pile of rubble topped by the still-extended arm of the backhoe. The scene, surrounded by a temporary chain link fence, was backlit, making it seem even more melancholy. Now, nothing stands between this site and the multistorey residence that will rise there in the months to come.

So, in the end I didn't get that picture. Over time, how I remember the buildings that stood there will gradually fade as well until, eventually, the corridor created by the ever-expanding march of block-long, five-storey buildings will define the streetscape and push any memories of what once was into the oblivion of forgotten memories.

I didn't take a picture of the round house, either. Nor did I snap the athletic field. And I won't be taking my camera to their old sites. The concrete and asphalt that has replaced them just doesn't seem photo-worthy. There is no history in them; only a bleak future of sameness, and an ever-present reminder that we have no understanding of the importance of our past.

Next time, I'll bring the camera with me. Just in case. I don't want to miss any more of where we've come from than I already have. I hope you'll consider doing the same.


Rachel - Wicked Ink said...

Keep in mind that memories that are captured in other mediums are just as important. You may not have taken photos, but you have 'shown' us what you saw.

I love photos, but I have discovered that what happens beyond the lens of the camera is pretty stunning too. Sometimes things are meant to be experienced in that moment only.

That being said - visit your museum, and there are probably photos in the archives.

And keep writing, it's giving the rest of us non-Londoners a view of your city that I would never find in a tourist brochure.

Anonymous said...

That is kind of a sad story. I went to vancouver once and I could remember they had these little houses like right int he middle of the skyscrapers and I remember thinking just how neat it was they had preserved that bit of history and how cool it would be to live in a little house next to a big building like that.

I always wondered how cities got to be like either all big buildings or all subburby - has always seemed stupid to me.

Stephane Tardif said...

I am so chocked, I have not been by that street lately but I can remember that little house. It was painted purple last summer. It was seemingly there to stay. I feel your sadness.

I also remember you and me talking about that round house, how hard it would be to buy furniture for it. You just made me realize that it is also gone.
I would have never thought of this happening in so little time.

Thank you for writing about it!