Last night I attended PechaKucha Night Victoria (Volume 3), where City of Victoria Councillor Philippe Lucas was supposed to give a presentation about efforts underway to get a permanent covered farmers’ market set up in the city.
Lucas’s perky presentation featured a number of holiday snaps taken in exotic locales where people still eat local food. Those photos were augmented by snaps of his child eating …well, local food. The point, presumably, was to show the importance and significance of local food consumption. Perhaps the inference thereby was also on the importance of local food production, although aside from a shot of a vegetable bed recently planted outside City Hall, I don’t recall that Lucas elaborated.
Admittedly, my attention drifted elsewhere, but then – toward the very end – Lucas at last came around to the topic at hand: a local farmers’ market for Victoria.
And that’s when he did it: he showed a photo of the covered public market we used to have.
Oh, the irony…
Why irony? Earlier that day (Aug.12) Councillor Lucas voted to tear down the unique Johnson Street Bridge – because it’s too decrepit and we need something new and shiny to take its place.
But that’s exactly what this city did with its existing Public Market building in the 1960s – and the result was the disaster known as Centennial Square. The city tore down the public market for some of the same reasons it’s now tearing down the Johnson Street Bridge: it was said the building wasn’t up to standards and that it wasn’t being used properly anyway, and that economically it was a failure. But the city had also spectacularly mismanaged the enterprise, and failed to maintain the structure, which fell into disrepair. Its offerings were apparently sub-par if not skanky, with vendors mired in red-tape, to boot. (See Ross Crockford’s excellent June 18, 2008 post, Market Forces, which details the very troubled history of Victoria’s Public Market.)
And then the building itself became an eyesore (now there’s a loaded word, one applied by the haters to the Johnson Street Bridge), and everyone knows that once something becomes “ugly,” it’s easier to argue for its destruction. The word “blight” was freely applied to a structure designed by the same architect who built Victoria’s still-standing City Hall. As Ross Crockford’s article shows, the building was once extremely grand, but the City’s very poor management helped bring it down:
John Teague, the architect who created the 1878-built City Hall, also designed the market. It was a grand, two-storey structure of brick and granite, with a 70-metre-long facade of arches facing onto Cormorant Street (today’s Pandora Avenue). Inside, the main hall had room for 60 stalls and a bandstand, and was surrounded by a second-level gallery, all illuminated by a peaked glass roof. With a gala Christmas party, the Victoria Public Market officially opened its doors in December of 1891.
It was a disaster. As historian Jean Estes noted in a detailed 1975 Daily Colonist article, many farmers were already selling their wares directly to retailers, and avoided the bureaucracy of the city-run market, which was governed by a 67-item bylaw. The city ended up renting stalls to a strange assortment of tenants. One visitor in the late 1890s reported that she saw “a portrait painter’s studio, a real estate agent, the Sanitary Inspector, and the most ghastly of all things – the public morgue was an annex of the market.” (source)
The idea took hold that replacing the old Public Market Building with something new and shiny (a “square” built in accordance with the latest – frankly, bad – ideas of urban renewal emanating from 1960s Great Britain) would somehow be the magic wand to cure downtown’s ills. (See in particular my March 2008 FOCUS Magazine article, Victorian Fables; Does Victoria have an urban planning blind spot? [on Scribd.com].)
Well, razing the “blight” didn’t cure downtown. Centennial Square is awful, …and the Public Market Building is gone forever.
Will the Johnson Street Bridge decision be Act II in the drama called “The Destruction of Victoria’s Urban Character”?
And how can Philippe Lucas not see the irony in the juxtaposition of his morning vote to destroy the Johnson Street Bridge, and his evening bromides about local food consumption and farmers’ markets in Victoria…?
In the picture below, you can see the high arch of the Victoria Public Market’s entry, next to the Fire Department engine bays in front.