You might have heard that a recently-launched campaign celebrating an entity called “South Central Ottawa” as “the next great hood” has turned a lot of heads, especially among residents of the neighbourhood itself.
What’s wrong with a little community spirit?
First point: the world already has a South Central . But that’s neither here nor there.
Perhaps it’s because, until a few months ago, no one had ever heard of South Central Ottawa. Perhaps it’s because the project isn’t being community-driven; the people behind South Central Ottawa, the Urban Capital Property Group, are Toronto-based developers who are currently putting the finishing touches on three phases of condominiums near Bank and Gladstone Streets. The three-phase project’s name is – you guessed it – “Central”.
The most stunning aspect of this campaign is that on the one hand, the Urban Capital calls the neighbourhood a “dead zone”, while on the other hand, it extols the coolness of the some of Centretown’s local businesses and its on-the-cusp-of-vibrancy on their daintily-illustrated campaign website.
A number of articles have already been written about the negative consequences of the introduction of those condos into Centretown – including by our very own Centretown Buzz. I agree with many of these analyses. However, what continues to irk many residents about this project is the way in which South Central seeks to sell (I’d like to emphasize ‘sell’) not only condos, but also a new neighbourhood to Centretown residents who already have one.
How audacious, for example, for a developer to insert itself into the community, roll-out a marketing campaign to re-brand the neighbourhood, and then throw “the first South Central neighbourhood party” at the James Street Pub to “celebrate the launch of South Central” – though it might be more realistic to say that the real party was the protest outside.
As if communities are now launched instead of cultivated organically.
To better explain why the South Central campaign doesn’t work, I’d like to introduce you to Benedict Anderson, a Cornell University professor whose seminal book, Imagined Communities, found its way onto one of my university reading lists. Anderson was born in China to British parents, and he now teaches in the United States – so you can bet that he knows a thing or two about identity-building.
Anderson set out to explain how nation-states are supported by a shared identity that binds its members together. Since it is almost impossible for someone to have met enough people in a community that large to identify with it through interpersonal ties, as within an extended family, Anderson reasoned that people must establish their belonging through something less tangible.
When we think of our association with a large community, we might identify with certain ideas, values, or shared experiences. Because – let’s face it – we aren’t all family, so we “imagine” our community’s continued existence through our continued tacit agreement that we are members of that community.
In that sense, a community only exists so long as its members are prepared to let it exist. Communities, therefore, come into being though a natural, and oftentimes protracted, process.
Anderson’s theory applies especially well to large neighbourhoods like Ottawa’s boroughs. Even though Hintonburg, the Glebe, Nepean, Centretown and others are smaller social entities, they are still large and impersonal. The ties that bind are formed by ideals and values, in exactly the same way as we might identify ourselves as a Canadian, a Quebecois, or (perish the thought) a Torontonian. Heck, Nepean even has its own unofficial song that opened City Council’s meetings during its first of several temporary meetings there. It even plays when you visit the Nepean museum’s website.
Another excellent example of neighbourhood solidarity can be seen in the existence of community associations like the Glebe Community Association, Action Sandy Hill, and the Centretown Citizens Community Association, who work to represent the community’s interests in larger debates – these demonstrate the deep-rooted nature of such neighbourhoods.
So how does Urban Capital’s South Central marketing campaign fit into this framework of identity politics? Is the attempted “launching” of South Central the turning of a new page in our Centretown’s history, or a grandiose marketing scheme by a Toronto developer to pitch a trio of upscale condo buildings?
Anderson would question just who identifies with the South Central narrative – and what being a South Central Ottawan even means, beyond an affinity for large-scale urban development projects. Their website flashes inclusive pronouns and explains who “we” are. But who are “we”? Certainly not Centretowners. Its “Who We Are” page might even lead you to believe that South Central is a newly-struck Business Improvement Association. To lay the groundwork, the owners of the website canvassed area businesses with South Central window stickers, and then proceeded to organize a reception in a local bar. This does not a neighbourhood make.
The reality is that Centretown is called Centretown because Centretowners wish it to be so. If, at any point, we choose to map out our neighbourhood in any other way, then that is for Centretowners to decide – not the creative department of a Toronto developer. But don’t fret: we’ll make sure that, if it’s a major change, we’ll make window stickers.