Katie on the Role of History in Cities

blvlWhen I was around 12 years old, I found pictures of what certain stretches of Bridge Street East looked like in 1953 on Google Earth (the image above is not one of them). Since then, I’ve loved wrapping myself in research of Belleville’s history. It’s gotten to a point where, as I walk around the city, I can recall architectural histories of specific houses right off the bat, and I can tell you what businesses used to be in what buildings in the downtown core. Aided by old city directories, insurance maps, and pictures, I find it so addicting to learn what the city and streets used to look like; I love being able to appreciate how my city grew and developed.

When people think of city planning, it’s common to think of it in terms of the future. This makes sense – the word ‘planning’ naturally refers to the future. However, planning is so diverse, and it encompasses something I would love to take part in during or after my studies at UWaterloo – heritage planning.

It kind of sounds like an oxymoron, but heritage planning focuses on the preservation and protection of cultural heritage so that historic aspects of the city can be appreciated as the city grows and changes again over time. It is because of heritage planning that you can appreciate century-old architectural gems in your city, museums, and commemorative statues that reflect your city’s historic accomplishments. Historic preservation aims to preserve and celebrate the city’s (or town’s, or neighbourhood’s, etc.) identity.

It’s rather difficult to justify why heritage planning is so cool as someone who has a natural passion for city history, but I will try. As cities grow and expand, it’s important to reflect on what had influenced the growth of a city in the first place. It’s a form of respect that the city and its culture deserve. Without a sense of history, the city risks losing a sense of identity. Think of a city with no roots to ground it; a city that becomes a whole new entity with every change of plans. A city like this can not physically exist – it is natural for cities to have a story detailing its growth and it is the responsibility of planners to manage and celebrate meaningful parts of this story through appropriate and respectful design and policy decisions. A city without a sense of identity is a desolate place; such an empty identity would result in a lack of connections between the city and its people.

That being said, what does it mean to me to be a Bellevillian? Should this have any significance anyway? I connect growing up in Belleville in the early 2000s to how I could have grown up in the early 1850s, 1900s, and so on; considering all of the beautiful ‘vintage’ photos I have looked at and town plans I’ve read, I think that Belleville has so much interesting history to learn and I’m happy I’ve become a part of it as a Bellevillian. Additionally, I argue that your demonym does have significance. Where you grew up/where you live has a huge influence on your growth as an individual. Of course, to be a Torontonian, for example, is not the only aspect of one’s self. However, to be a Torontonian would mean you grew up in a very multicultural, dense, and evergrowing city; it would be silly to suggest that this has not had any effect whatsoever on how you grew as an individual and what kind of person you’ve become with whatever interests and whatever concerns. Your city reflects you, and you reflect your city.

Currently, I am in the process of learning what it means to be a resident of the City of Waterloo. I am definitely more connected with Belleville’s history (and, as a result, what sense of identity it offers) than Kitchener-Waterloo’s, but I still ponder the histories of the streets that take me to and from campus, the grocery store, and the bar (which is, to be honest, the extent of my travels here as a student). Currently, I consider myself more as a student than a citizen here, but I can’t ignore the fact that I live here and spend my money here. Still, my Waterluvian identity is carefully unfolding.

Now it’s time for you to consider what significance your demonym has. What role does your city’s history play in the significance of that demonym? If you don’t even know anything about how your city came to be, I encourage you to take a look. It doesn’t take a trip to your city hall to learn more about your city’s history; you can easily find Facebook pages or blogs that post vintage photos of your city’s neighbourhoods that are, at face value, just plain cool to look at. You may not find it as addictive as I do, but you’ve been warned anyway.

Below are some links to get you interested in (or at least acquainted with) Belleville’s interesting and glowing history.

My favourite image database – Belleville History Alive

The Glanmore Museum

Heritage Properties Belleville

Vintage Belleville and Area Photos

One thought on “Katie on the Role of History in Cities

  1. Pingback: Katie on Public Art – Katie on Cities

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