3 - Fear

Until I got used to it, I was surprised at how often the topic of fear came up in conversation with Oakville people.

When speaking with a successful local real-estate agent, I asked her to pretend I was a professional who had just landed a good job in Toronto, and was currently in the throes of deciding where in the GTA I was going to buy a house. What unique thing could Oakville offer me that downtown Toronto could not?
Her instant answer: safety.

I found this reply mildly insulting to my home town. In the more than 30 years I have lived in downtown Toronto, I have never felt, or been, threatened by anyone. I have gone out of my way to be surprised, delighted, provoked, simply because that's the way anybody learns anything new. So what is it about the city that's so fearful one has to escape to Oakville?

"It's not fear of being shot," said Craig MacBride, a young journalist who grew up in the town. "It's fear of being offended."

As Mr. MacBride explained, it's fear of seeing a homeless person, or being hustled by a panhandler. Fear of seeing a drag queen, or some other surprise that comes with everyday life on big-city streets. More gravely, it's the fear of losing the financial security that enables one to live and flourish in Oakville. And, according to the people who work at Oakville Galleries, and some townspeople, this fear and loathing of uncertainty extends even to critical and intelligent contemporary art.

"I love the wit, materials, the beautiful crafting in contemporary art, its engagement with social issues and its optimism," artist and activist Jane Coryell told me. "I love its belief that art can change the way people think. I have no problem looking at contemporary art, but a lot people in Oakville do. They explode in rage. What they resent is space and time and effort being given to some of the subject matter that shows up on the walls. They resent having their noses rubbed in indigence. We don't have indigents on Lakeshore Road, we would not tolerate them."

While Ms. Coryell is probably speaking about a minority in this town of well-educated persons, her contention that some citizens do feel this way rings true. Francine Périnet, director of Oakville Galleries for the last several years, told me that the town "is not small enough to shape a tighter community, not big enough to sustain anonymity. It tends to isolate people. Here you are protected, privileged, you don't live in the real world…They are aware of the world, but afraid of the world."

This fear of the provocative, the different and surprising--a feeling very remote from my own sensibility, and that of many another urban man and woman--is at least understandable in light of Oakville's last century of development.

After a decline in prospects during the mid-Victorian period, the town enjoyed an influx of growth and new wealth when it became a resort for wealthy Torontonians and a day-trip destination for holiday-makers out from the city for a good time. The urbanites, rich and not so rich, fled, in other words, at the very moment (from the 1890s until the First World War) when Toronto was suddenly hit by a tidal wave of immigration, mostly British and working-class, and by the cultural earthquake that always comes with rapid urban agglomeration. The city was no longer Toronto the Good, as the title of Christopher Clark's 1898 book-length lamentation named it. Old Torontonians no longer recognized the new, broad-shouldered industrial city, with its slums and burlesque houses and strangers--So they left town and came to Oakville to find the gracious life they felt was disappearing in the city. A second great wave of immigration, after the Second World War, brought new strangeness to Toronto, and inspired a younger generation of professional people to become commuters living in Oakville, where they also felt happily distanced from the turmoil and dissonance of urban culture. As Teresa Casas, Oakville Galleries public programmes officer, remarked several times during my stay: People came from Toronto to Oakville chasing an ideal of life they believed had become unattainable on the concrete streets.

This elusive ideal, as I found in my numerous conversations with townsfolk, is summed up in the word "community." I have never liked the word. It conjures up in my mind visions of the small Southern town of my grandparents, with its network of surveillance and gossip, rigidly enforced conformity, and a certain contempt for those actually enjoy the anonymity of which Francine Périnet spoke, and the many opportunities offered by big-city life to grow and learn. I stayed in Oakville hardly long enough to conclude that "community" plays out there in its full-blown, authoritarian and exclusive form--though I must admit wincing a little every time I heard the word.

I am inclined to think that at least a little malignant communitarianism is at work in the body of the town, having seen (and been shocked by) some things Oakville appears to like very much. Terrible new architecture seems to be, not merely allowed by the town, but encouraged. How else are we to account for the proliferation of the house-type I've called, elsewhere, the Oakville Special?

This is a pastiche from historical sources as various as Victorian, Georgian, Château, English Edwardian and Frank Lloyd Wright and the Magic Kingdom--almost any kind of historical fashion, in fact, except Twentieth-Century Modern. ("The problem with Modern houses," says leading Oakville architect Gren Weis, "is that they did not spell success. People want more pretension, more pomp. You can't make a business in Modern architecture.") The houses that result from this whimsical design process speak less about the intimacy, retreat, family life and other values so often mentioned by the communitarians, than about philistine show-off. They are instances of poor taste made visible: overscaled, busy with frivolous historical ornament, sentimental.

But what are we to make of other arts the town applauds? I am thinking here specifically of Neville J. Bryant's film Amusing Grace, a film set in Oakville and which premiered there in September, 2003.

Here's the story. A white, stubborn, substantial and totally boring old matron meets, in Oakville, a white, spry, yappy and totally boring old codger. He invites her for lunch, she declines. Then he invites her for lunch, whereupon she declines again. And so forth and so on, in a seemingly endless and unfunny procession of tedious interchanges, hammy skits and dead-handed camera work.

The house gave Mr. Bryant's movie a rousing ovation, which took me by surprise. I only later was given to understand that Oakville applauds usually its own, no matter how terrible the product. (Its own, in this case, was the director, a long-time Oakville resident.) "Oakville is circles within circles within circles," Jane Coryell told me. " If I were to make public my response [to a play or performance by local people] I would choose my words very carefully. I see the same faces, I travel in narrow circles."

Such taste for the insipid, whether in theatre or architecture or at, is learned, not inherited. Children are naturally curious, and it takes a mighty force to stamp out that curiosity. But one's taste has an impact on life far beyond the aesthetic realm. Once schooled thoroughly to enjoy what is worthless and to shun the pain, exaltations, and needs of real humankind, one may have a hard time simply discerning what is real and what isn't.

By universal account, Oakville people are great volunteers, doing good works without ceasing. That said, Wendy Perkins, a fund-raiser for the Salvation Army's Lighthouse, a service to Oakville people in crisis, told me of the professional frustration that comes from working in a place where so many people are both busy and blind.

"Good fortune allows us to be people with teeth, who aren't losing them because of poverty or quality of life. There are problems here--alcohol problems, debilitating depression. Marital breakdown, crashes in worldly status, addiction, gambling. But there is a deep denial that this could happen there. Friends, neighbours and family can't believe it. Some people here will support homeless shelters in Toronto and Hamilton, but not in Oakville. They just don't have a clue that there is homelessness here."

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