Kingston, Ontario, in the 1990s

One’s lasting impression is of the old-world feel of the place, ivy growing on limestone and so on. The city, especially its gentrified regions, has a distinct charm. Kingston is Loyalist and wants you to know it: even the garbage cans bear a slogan, pro rege, lege, et grege [for king, for law, and for the people]. Throw a rock and the plaque you’ll hit reads, In this house Sir John A. MacDonald (or perhaps his sister-in-law, or brother) once lived. Walking in Sydenham Ward, among the portes cochère and the gothic churches, the North American feels somehow to have been transported to the Old World, which partly discloses the appeal of the place. For whatever else the Old World may be, it at least is not the same old same old. It is an anachronism which offers both to the conservative and progressive imaginations an escape from the Here and Now. Living in Kingston one learns that architecture is full of metaphor and allusion. The Old World is a mental construct which points us somewhere. That somewhere is by definition an anachronism, and anachronism is itself the dominant Kingston motif. Go to a pub, the Wellington for instance, and you’ll discover Mississaugans drinking Guinness and singing nostalgic Irish songs (Irish songs always mourn that which is lost, for obvious historical reasons). A handful will boast an Irish grandparent, but in any case what you have is a gathering of misplaced souls, and a textbook instance of Freudian cathexis.

Kingston represents nearly everything which is anathema to the contemporary technocrat. This is its chief merit among the artistic. It is not efficient (until about 1 month ago, tall buildings were prohibited), but rather is set out roughly on a human scale and to a good degree with human needs, and not the needs of the automobile, foremost in mind. Business is not its chief legacy, but instead it is dominated by the public sector. Its historical figures are all first and foremost politicians. There are, I think, more parks than shopping malls. Prior to the triumph of the Open For Business agendas of Messrs Harris and Chrètien, the hospitals, schools, and military college were principal employers. Since the triumph, our many prisons have become a growth industry – a warden told me once that the bank granted without further questions his mortgage when told his occupation – but like other public functions the prisons are likely to be privatised, large profits being virtually guaranteed. Only tourism rivals the public sector as a source of economic activity, but it’s questionable whether tourism isn’t in many ways simply an extension of the public sector. I’ve noted, for instance, that the Japanese adore having themselves photographed before our city hall, and not before the Chamber of Commerce. They are fascinated by our squirrels. It is noteworthy that these simple human facts elude our economic experts, who talk as if technology and the modern corporation were the only things that matter. As for private enterprise, it exists, but mostly on the small scale we’re told simply won’t do in the global economy. Kingston business, that is, locally-owned Kingston business, is Mom-and-Pop in scale, which means politicians will praise it as the hope of our future while undermining it at every opportunity.

Everyone who lives in Kingston is a part of a clique. Hugh MacLennan might well have written a book about the place called Many Solitudes. To the north, in what is known as the Heights, you will find many of Kingston’s GWA recipients. The Fruit Belt, still to the north but much closer to downtown, is mostly proletarian ‘townies,’ but elements of the middle class have been moving in. Sydenham Ward is upper-middle, or perhaps lower-upper class, but here also you will find student apartments and some middle class professionals. Going north-west of the downtown you’ll encounter everything from shoebox bungalows, built between the wars, to middle class Tudor houses, neo-colonial mansions, and neighbourhoods where residents sit shirtless on their porches, dining straight from the pot. But these people of course are not mixed up together, and I assume prefer not to be. Class affiliations are too deeply ingrained. The divisions are, appropriately enough, determined by Division Street, which runs roughly north-south, and Princess Street, which runs east-west. The Ghetto, in the south-east, is nastiest of all for sheer aesthetic ugliness – but it’s only student housing, Put-On ugliness, like a Hallowe’en costume. The Ghetto houses are shabby and sordid Victorian monstrosities, at least eight persons to each, and their studied dilapidation is a matter of great pride. I’m unable to say how the name, The Ghetto, has come about, but it is in any case an instance of camp. The idea is to pay homage to the working man, as he’s conceived by the middle classes, until graduation into the Real World. This imitation underscores the essential fact of Kingston life, that the classes barely encounter one another except in the imagination. If you are a student, it means by definition you never socialize with the Fruit Belt proletariat, and vice versa. Perhaps your paths cross. You may both find yourselves at 3 in the morning eating poutine at Bubba’s, but that’s about it. The middle class student will at most learn from Judith Thompson’s play, The Crackwalker, that the lower classes of Kingston enjoy Hockey Night in Canada and hanging-out at Lino’s. The upper classes of Kingston are invisible, as they are everywhere. I have only one personal anecdote concerning them, from my days as a hospital employee, and it involves the annual Hotel Dieu Hospital food drive, a butler, and a can of sardines. As for the so-called lower classes, they will probably never see up-close either Queen’s student life or Old Money society, which they mistakenly conflate. Many BMWs pass within feet of the ‘Hub’ subculture, where Division and Princess intersect, with neither party coming within a million miles of the other.

These of course are largely abstract socio-economic groupings, but there are other sorts of cliques, or perhaps sub-cliques, as well. There are the teenagers who occupy downtown Princess Street doorways, smoking cigarettes and panhandling. There’s nothing distinctively Kingstonian about them, but they are almost a part of the local architecture, like body-pierced gargoyles, one feels. There’s a women’s community which, if you’re part of it, you know intimately. Literally everyone knows everyone else, or has at least heard something specific of her. The culture is organised around Take Back the Night marches, women’s dances, and women-centred agencies like the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre of Kingston and Kingston Interval House. There’s a gay and lesbian community centred on Club 477. If you wish to be seen as a member of long-standing, as they do in the commercials for American Express credit cards, you’ll refer to the club as Robert’s, its former name. There are more narrowly political groups, each with its own history and culture and favoured enemy. (A favoured enemy is essential to group cohesion.) And no list would be complete without Kingston’s itinerant, the many homeless who are well-known by sight. But don’t they form a socio-economic group? No, I suspect they live outside such categories. They aren’t even a clique, being necessarily of a mostly solitary nature. I have heard some of their life stories, which no doubt are embellished if not made-up entire, but the only thing that makes them a distinct group (besides their poverty) is that they all have fallen outside the system. A few of them are clearly mad and you’ll hear it said for that reason ‘they shouldn’t be on the street’ (as if others should), but most are entirely sane. My first year in Kingston, 1990-1991, I read all of Beckett’s novels; his characters’ predilection for bicycles struck me as uncanny, for such people were, and are, a common Kingston sight. Why, I wondered, the bicycle? Why not a yo-yo or a pet? Years later I bought a bicycle myself, and it occurred to me that a bicycle gives one a compelling sense of momentum, which must be a great comfort if you sense your existence is pointless. It’s easier to feel you’re going somewhere on a bicycle. Beckett nowhere makes this explicit, but I doubt the fact escaped him. I’m thinking of one Kingston indigent who I often saw travelling about in a grand arc, like Haley’s comet, taking in not only the city but much of its environs. He collected bits of refuse which he then affixed to his bike, using other bits of refuse. It would have seemed mad if not for the fact that his acquisitiveness simply reminded me of my own. We are all busily engaged in the accumulation of stuff, and whether or not it’s junk is a matter of opinion. This is not however to trivialize deprivation by putting all consumption on a par. The principle characteristic-in-common among the homeless, as I’ve said, is their poverty, for which they are treated as criminals and swept from public view. Their consumption is judged non-economic and hence is subject to treatments alien to the better-off. I dwell on these people (they are always ‘those people’) because they are a highly visible feature of Kingston. No tourist is encouraged to consider them – quite the opposite, in fact – but they exist and speak volumes of the sort of place Kingston is. As a group with an almost exclusively public existence, they constitute a unique category of person. The poor are in a sense always with us, and yet we understand them least of all. On the topic of social groupings I could go on and on (religious affiliations, men’s clubs, Chamber of Commerce, artists’ groups, etc.), but the point is always the same. The members of these cliques rarely if ever interrelate, even in cases where a clear overlapping of interests would lead us to expect them to. This is perhaps typical of any city, but it’s remarkable given Kingston’s geographically-determined physical intimacy. Nowhere are so many solitudes packed into so little real estate.

The solitudes make generalisation about the character of Kingstonians difficult. Nonetheless, at first glance Kingston does at present appear to be a ‘progressive’ community. Progressive here designates a promotion of cultural and political diversity. The positive feature of multiple solitudes, at least in principle, is its advancement of tolerance. You can be anything you wish, and folks will leave you alone. This impression derives from the sheer variety of culture and lifestyle on display, most of it but not all organised for tourist consumption. It’s true that Kingston is more progressive than most Ontario cities, if we’re careful about what this means: many kinds of ‘ethnic’ restaurants, and a diverse set of goods in the stores. This is of course banal, but it does make an impression. A disproportionately large number of writers settle here because it appears to them that Kingston is cosmopolitan and hence ‘civilized’ – that is, it supports Bohemianism. Since many Canadian writers come from small towns and are in flight from orthodoxy and parochialism, this logical error is understandable. In a more narrowly-political sense of diversity, there is plenty of theatre and art which characterises itself as a ‘celebration of alternative lifestyles,’ meaning gay and lesbian. So support for diversity does appear to be part of the local character.

Behind the scenes however one should note Kingston’s managerial monoculture, its solidly Open-for-Business political ideology. To some there’s a contradiction here, but since diversity sells well, the contradiction can be easily resolved. Everything is judged according to the market, including heresy. Window dressing aside, Kingston’s character may be inferred from its current municipal government, elected in 1997. 16 of its 17 members are white males, almost unanimously conservative and middle class, and the lone female was acclaimed. Debate the significance of this if you will, but at least it’s clear that the city is run by the same sort of persons who advise the provincial Harris Tories, and this as the result of a democratic election. [-June 1998]

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