A few more amateur thoughts on Edmonton, infill, zoning, and city planning

This is a follow up to my A few amateur thoughts on Edmonton, infill, zoning, and city planning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “secondary suite” issue in Edmonton lately. Maybe I’m wrong, but given that garage, garden and basement suites are virtually always discussed in the context of increasing the density of our “mature neighbourhoods” I’ve always understood that City Council and Planners have seen secondary suites as an important part of increasing that density.  I think believing secondary suites to be of any importance is foolish and I’ll try to explain why I feel that way.

Imagine a neighbourhood like my go-to example, Parkallen.  It’s a pleasant combination of single family homes and low rise apartments surrounding a school, community hall, a few shops and a greenspace. Arterial roads border the neighbourhood on all sides.  An LRT station is nearby.  It’s a little lower density than the neighbourhood I live in, Strathcona, with it’s mix of single family homes, low rise, mid rise, high rise apartments, schools, greenspaces and arterial roads.  Both Parkallen and Strathcona have some amount of secondary suites as well.

The new idea seems to be to permit secondary suites on virtually any single family lot (with some restrictions) with the goal of increasing density.  The thought seems to be that seniors will be able to remain in their home longer if they are allowed to build space for an old fashioned boarder.  If every house in Parkallen added a secondary suite – an impossibility, of course — it would be the equivalent of adding a single child to every family living in a single family house.  Parkallen has 655 single-detached houses, so, at best, the secondary suite plan would add 655 people to Parkallen’s 2200.  This would be a significant increase, but, as I said, an impossibility.

The plan is premised on home-owners actually wanting someone – face it, a stranger – living in their house or yard.  Yes, some would be attracted by the economic opportunity, but I would argue that most who chose to live in their own little home on their own little plot of land choose to do so because they want that little bit of space.  Most people have no desire to be a landlord. Most home-owners will not  add secondary suites. In fact, I would expect few would, so the 655 additional people will never move into Parkallen.  I’d be surprised if the secondary suite plan added more than ten residents to Parkallen in a year.

But let’s back up a little.

Up above I mentioned that Strathcona, my neighbourhood quite close to Parkallen, already has a satisfactory density.  In fact, it’s one of the densest neighbourhoods in Edmonton.  How can that be? My description of Strathcona above was very similar to my description of Parkallen: single family homes, low rise apartments . . . Wait! Strathcona has mid and high rise apartments as well. Parkallen has nothing above about four stories.  The key to raising density in a neighbourhood is not to put people in back yards; the solution is to go up!

Anyone familiar with 109th street south of Whyte Avenue knows that the street, the eastern boundary of Parkallen, is lined with low rise commercial/retail buildings. Would it not be a more certain solution to the density problem to rezone that strip, or parts of that strip to high rise residential with commercial on the ground floor, rather than to depend on the financial difficulties of ageing home-owners?  One or two high-rises on 109th would bring in the 655 additional people quickly, revitalizing Parkallen School and Parkallen Community League, bringing new customers to the restaurants and shops, and, very important to the current residents of Parkallen, retaining the character of the neighbourhood.

A densification plan that relies on every homeowner choosing to become a landlord in their own home will never work, but vastly increasing the tenancy of a single or a few select properties would. Careful, thoughtful rezoning of particular properties would increase the density of many Edmonton neighbourhoods much, much more quickly than the secondary suite plan ever will.  I certainly have no major issue with the idea of secondary suites: I’m happy to have them in my neighbourhood.  But I’m also happy that there are high rises and mid rises around the corner.  I wish every Edmonton neighbourhood were allowed the benefits of a full range of residential options.

Love in The Bengali Night Does Not Die: Maitreyi Devi and Mircea Eliade

Imagine a story like this:

It’s 1930.  A twenty-something Romanian student with Fascist associations who happens to be quite fluent in French and has a bit of English arrives in Calcutta in British India to study with a renowned Bengali scholar.  The scholar takes an interest in the young European and invites him to stay at his home as a member of his large household.

The Bengali scholar’s sixteen-year-old daughter, herself already a revered poet and philosopher, becomes the object of the European’s fascination.  Over the course of a number of months of miscommunication across cultures, everyone speaking their second or third language but never their first, the two young people fall in love — or think they fall in love — which amounts to the same thing.  They visit her elderly guru, they witness the beginnings of the Indian Independence movement, they go to the theatre and see Ravi Shankar’s older brother dance.

Alas, her parents discover their star-crossed love in the delirious beri beri ravings of her younger sister.  Her father orders the young man out of the house and threatens to have him deported if he tries to contact his daughter.

The young man goes to a monastery in the Himalayas for a bit and eventually becomes an important scholar of world religions.

The young poet grows up to be an older poet, novelist, social activist, wife, mother, and grandmother.  Unknown to her, the object of her youthful infatuation, two decades after the events, writes a novel based on his experiences in Bengal.  Showing an unbelievable lack of judgement, while he gave himself a pseudonym in his novel, he uses her real name, and injects extra physical passion into the story.

The unfortunate lady does not know for another 20 years that she has been named by a famous man as his under-aged Bengali sex-partner.  Horrified by the distortions of her experience (it had not been a physical relationship), in 1974 she publishes a novel, forty-four years after the events, giving the true story.  Two years later she publishes her own English translation.  As well, she contacts the now old man and he agrees his novel will not be published in English until after her death.

And then, in 1988, a largely French team makes an English language film based on the European’s novel.  The film stars a young English actor destined to be famous both for his performances on stage and screen as well as public performances of a licentious nature on Sunset Boulevard.

Imagine a story like that!

Well, truth seems to be stranger than fiction.

In 1930, Mircea Eliade, Romanian, Fascist sympathizer, student of religions, and future professor at the University of Chicago, did, in fact, move into his professor’s house in Calcutta.  Eliade did spend time in the company of the then sixteen and already famous Maitreyi Devi.  The young friends did go to visit her elderly guru. The witnessed Indian Independence marches, and they did go to a performance of dancer Uday Shankar, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar’s eldest brother.  And Eliade was asked to leave the house in some haste.

In 1950, Eliade published La nuit bengali.  It by agreement with Devi, it was not published in English until 1993, when it appeared as Bengal Nights: A Novel .

In 1974, Devi published Na Hanyate and, in 1976, her English translation titled It Does Not Die: A Romance.

And the film.

In 1988, French director Nicholas Klotz and French producer Philippe Diaz released their version called The Bengali Night, based on Eliade’s French novel, without any consideration of Devi’s novel.  The film stared Hugh Grant as the Eliade character, now a British Engineer building dams or something.  In 2009 an absolutely awful print of the film was packaged as a DVD.

Now, I’ll review these three versions of the same few months in the lives of Mercia and Maitreyi.

Bengal Nights by Mircea Eliade, translated by Catherine Spencer

Eliade’s work on Comparative Religions was a massive influence on my thinking as a young scholar.  He continues to be one of the giants upon whose shoulders I perch unsteadily.  I’ve long known about his early Fascist leanings.  Bengal Nights shows him to have been, at least in the first half of his life, a petty White man fully and unquestioningly steeped in an ugly colonial superiority, even after he falls in love with the “dark” Bengali girl.

The novel has little to recommend it as a novel.  It is a pedestrian version of the young summer love story that has been done thousands of times and usually far better, from Shakespeare to Trevanian.  Bengal Nights never rises to anything lyrical and is often ugly.  Perhaps it is never more ugly than when Eliade, at the end of the novel, goes off to the Himalayas to purify himself like a yogi on a mountain top, and finds cleansing in the bed of a blonde Nordic Valkyrie!

About the only interest Bengal Nights can has is for the student of Eliade’s scholarship — he slips in ideas which became important in his later work — or for the student of Maitreyi Devi who want to see what she was so pissed off about.

It Does Not Die, by Maitreyi Devi, translated by the author.

It Does Not Die is a beautiful, poetic, aching novel.  Here a born-poet is at the height of her powers and maturity and yet is still that vulnerable, joyful sixteen-year-old girl.  Devi slips back and forth in time, not simply remembering 1930 and all the years since, but living them again, even as her family life, her political and charitable work, and her poetry swirl around her.  It Does Not Die is a meditation on memory, and investigation of motivation, a study of the tragedy of self-delusion, and, in the end, a profound philosophical statement on Love and Truth.

At the end of the novel, when Devi meets Eliade for the first time in forty-two years, it becomes a confrontation because Eliade refuses to look at her, preferring the fantasy vision in his memory to the reality in the room with him.

“Mircea, you have read so much, but you have acquired no wisdom!  You don’t speak like a wise man.  Is love a material object that can be snatched away from one and given to another? Is it a property or an ornament? It is a light, Mircea, a light — like the light of intelligence, like the light of knowledge is the light of love.” pp 253-4

But Eliade has always refused to face the reality of Devi.  He has never returned to India because he has clung to his fantasy of her and of her land.

“Mircea, I am telling you, fantasy is beautiful and truth is more beautiful, but half-truth is terrible.  Your book is a nightmare for me.  I was a simple little girl who sometimes played philosopher.  I was no enigma.  The mystery is your creation.  You love the fantastic and unreal.  But now I have really come, to perform an impossible deed.” p. 255

I’ll stop there; no further spoilers.

It Does Not Die by Maitreyi Devi is a simply glorious novel.

The Bengali Night
starring Hugh Grant and Supriya Pathak
directed by Nicolas Klotz
written by Nicolas Klotz in colaboration with Jean-Claude Carriere

What a hash of a film!

Supriya Pathak is marvellously natural as Gayatri, the Maitreyi Devi character but is obviously older than sixteen.  Hugh Grant is somehow both slack-jawed and wooden throughout, and his accent wanders back and forth across the English Channel.  The rest of the Indian cast is professional and comes across as having mysterious depths, one of the few positives of the film.  John Hurt and the other European cast members have pretty much phoned in their performances.  Thankfully, the story ends before Grant meets the cleansing blonde Nordic Valkyrie.

The version in the DVD package from Cinema Libre Studio is visually flat, almost colourless.  Everything is washed out.  And the sound is as muddy as the water of the Sacred Ganges. It is physically difficult to watch.

While the film is merely dull, the DVD “Extra”, a monologue by producer Philippe Diaz is, at best, an uncomfortable experience.  Diaz strangely regularly punctuates his description of making the film with statements that “India was a wonderful experience for the cast and crew” and “Go to India!”  But most of what he says between the punctuation is either condemnation of or superior laughter at Indians and their culture.  And he makes a remarkable point of dismissing Maitreyi Devi, her novel, her upset over Eliade’s novel, and her opposition to the film.

The Indians were all running on Indian-subcontinent Time, not caring whether shooting got done each day, Diaz says.  They’re all used to the Indian film industry which has such quaint, backward little methods.  They aren’t at all like our Western civilized way.  According to Diaz, Eliade’s book is a masterpiece.  Devi’s is just a bitter little backward girl’s foot-stomping response.  Diaz admits he never read Devi’s book “because it’s in Bengali”.  Of course, Devi’s English version had been available for a decade and more.

Diaz’s entire monologue is a European dismissal of Indians, their cultures, and their concerns, despite his half-hearted, ass-covering “Go to India!”

In nutshells

Mircea Eliade’s pedestrian Bengal Nights is an early-middle-aged man’s extremely soft-core paedophilic sexual fantasy based on his youthful myopic brush with a culture much deeper than his own and with a young woman far wiser at sixteen than he ever got to be.

Maitreyi Devi’s It Does Not Die is a brilliant, angry, gentle, loving, beautiful, generous, poetic novel.  When Devi translated her novel into English, she gave a gift to the West that the West hardly deserves.

The Bengali Night, starring Hugh Grant and Supriya Pathak — If you must see it, see it for Pathak’s performance; the rest is a horrid mess.

“Imagining Head-Smashed-In” by Jack W. Brink

Sometimes we find ourselves in a place that will forever remain with us, geography somehow making a change in who we are.  It may be a small curve of the Bella Coola River or the ruins at Cumae or the sweeping vista from the Palace Tower at Palenque over the Plain of Tabasco and the Yucatan beyond.  As a young fellow, I found myself on the edge of a windswept sandstone cliff looking east across the Canadian Prairie and geography made yet another change in who I am.  I was at Head-Smashed-In.

It was the late 1980s. The Interpretive Centre for this UNESCO World Heritage Site had recently opened. The sun was shining. Everything was aligned. The geography of the place and of my life had channelled me, like thousands of bison over the centuries, to that spot at the top of the cliff on the edge of the Porcupine Hills.

Now, three decades later, I’ve just finished reading Jack Brink’s beautiful, award-winning biography of six thousand years at that sandstone cliff, Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains.  For so many reasons, Imagining Head-Smashed-In should be a required text in Alberta’s schools, indeed, in schools across Canada.  Brink’s book in not only an archaeological study of the technique of communal buffalo hunting.  It is a field study in how to – and how not to – do consultation with indigenous peoples. It is a heartfelt gesture of gratitude and respect across cultures and time. And it is a celebration of one of the greatest and most overlooked of human intellectual achievements, an achievement that should be as well known to all Canadians as the building of the Railroad, which did so much to wipe the bison from the Plains.

Imagine Head-Smashed-In:

A group of people gather together on a landscape that has been carefully altered over countless generations.  With skills trained over a lifetime, unarmed and on foot – the horse had not yet been brought from Europe – the most skillful approach a herd of the largest land animal in the Americas and persuade that herd to move along a designated path, marked out by uncountable generations of humans and bison before them.  As they progress, the herd’s movements become an inevitability.  The result is, as Brink describes it, “the most productive food-getting enterprise ever devised by human beings.” (p. 6)

The sheer quantity of biomass harvested in a communal hunt at Head-Smashed-In or any of the other buffalo jumps on the Northern Plains was unrivalled by any other human activity.  And that vast quantity of food spurred the invention of something often attributed to Henry Ford: the assembly line. The bison carcasses had to be processed quickly, the food and hides preserved for long term use. Teams would assemble, to skin and gut the animals, to prepare the hides, to cut and dry the meat, to prepare immediate meals for the other workers, to pound the dried meat for pemmican. Head-Smashed-In was an industrial operation during a communal hunt, an industrial operation on a scale as large as anything on earth during much of its six thousand and more year use.

It should be mentioned that as much as Brink marvels at the ingenuity of the people who used Head-Smashed-In for all those generations, he is very careful to emphasize that they were human, not mythical beings magically at-one with the environment, never letting a bison hair go to waste.  They killed bison to survive. If they needed hides for tipi covers, they killed for hides and used what meat and fat they needed, leaving the rest to rot.  In starving seasons they would use every bit of an individual animal down to the stomach contents. In rich seasons they would use the best cuts and preserve what they could for the lean winter times.  Brink remarks:

Some Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people believe it is a disservice to Native heritage to state that sometimes more bison were killed than were needed.  In my opinion, such assertions show a lack of understanding of both the deeply spiritual and profoundly practical world of Aboriginal buffalo hunters of the Plains.  It seems to me always a disservice to relegate rational and spiritual people to the status of robots, acting in a machine-like fashion without regard to contingencies, deeply held cultural beliefs. and common sense. (p. 160)

Throughout Imagining Head-Smashed-In, Brink’s primary purpose is to make sure we understand that he is talking about real people, human individuals, who came together in a physical, biological and cultural landscape to perform a magnificently choreographed inter-species dance of death and survival.

Imagining Head-Smashed-In is a wholly remarkable piece of writing about archaeology and humanity. Jack W. Brink well deserves his many awards for the book, including:

2009 Best Book Award from the Society for American Archaeology
2009 Canadian Archaeological Association Public Communication Award
2012 Felicia A Holton Award from The Archaeological Institute of America.

Imagining Head-Smashed-In is published by Athabasca University Press.  Buy it. Read it.