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14.00  The Swamp Ward and Inner Harbour Heritage Project: Contestation or Contentment?

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11:00, Saturday 4 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

Kingston, Ontario, is known for its nineteenth-century limestone buildings and its associations with home-town boy Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister. A great deal of architectural heritage has been saved via citizen activism from the 1970s on. However, the city suffers from the neglect of the physical and intangible histories of other parts of the city, and from an extreme oversimplification and “whitewashing” of its history. Only now is a second wave of citizen heritage activism emerging. This paper will describe an approach to avoiding some economic and political pitfalls in one instance of this “second wave.” I myself am both an academic and a community heritage leader and researcher. The Swamp Ward and Inner Harbour History Project (SWIHHP), which I direct, focuses on immigrant and working-class history via oral history. It is very much a community-embedded project with many volunteers and partnerships. It has contrasting politics and methods to the celebration of Canada’s first prime minister or its limestone mansions, but it shares an impulse to celebrate the city in which it takes place. Can this project resist appropriation into a new “official” heritage and tourism discourse? Can it resist appropriation by real estate players eager for the new “hot” neighbourhood? My reflections draw from recent critical work on heritage and gentrification by several scholars. 

SWIHHP was established to document places, lives, and experiences that have not been “on the record.” There is a great deal of interest in the project from City Hall, the tourism board, and the general public. But given that I don’t want the “authenticity” of the stories I am uncovering to price “authentic” people out of the neighbourhood, or to be rendered “quaint” or “amazing” by tourist promoters, I am increasingly concerned about keeping some knowledge local or alive. My emerging strategy is to conceive of the means as the end: rather than always harking forward to products (books, video, etc.), I encourage volunteers and researchers to conceive of our day-to-day activities (e.g. helping a resident use library resources, a casual conversation at a corner store) as the project itself. So even a phone call about how to schedule an interview becomes part of the “outcome” of the project: it produces relationships and information sharing in the moment. This “outcome” really is elusive and I would argue that (paradoxically?) it may be more valuable in its political/social polyvalence than “published” productions. My hope is that the “change” produced by this instance of the second wave of “citizens’ heritage movement” will not be the bolstering of the real estate or tourism market (as with the first wave), but the bolstering of the resilience of the neighbourhood.

Laura Murray


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