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YOU SHOULD KNOW: About The “Places That Matter” In Vancouver’s Past & Present

Michael Marrus, one of the great Canadian scholars on memory studies, once referred to Historians as “custodians of (the) public memory.” I’ve taken his words to heart. In a city that boasts hundreds of events and instances each year that publicly and privately mold our relationship with our past, there’s a significant amount of ‘cleaning up’ to do to ensure we choose to remember is as meaningful as it is appropriate. Through our relationship with ceremonies and celebrations we interact with the past in innumerable ways, and these ways are in and of themselves tools to frame experiences we didn’t actually have. When we visit the boring, typified war cenotaph on Hastings and Cambie or eat at the re-purposed, hipster-meets-history Save On Meats down the street, we’re engaging in the past in specific and often counter-intuitive ways. It’s important to remember what these vehicles of memory are imparting on us. While it’s true that concentrating on memory studies theory each time we think about history could drive us crazy, it’s nevertheless a fascinating exercise: what we celebrate, designate, and experience as history is dictated not be the events of the past, but entirely by the present.

If there ever was a perfect example of how our present values and perspectives affect the “historical process”, the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s Places That Matter project is it. Started in late 2011 and running through November of this year, the VHF is celebrating Vancouver’s 125th anniversary of incorporation by hosting 125 plaque ceremonies across the city to highlight the publicly-voted, committee-selected “winners” of their contest. Committee members range from noted Vancouver Historian John Atkins to Rebecca Bolwitt of Miss604 fame – a neat grouping of individuals who know their stuff when it comes to monument and memory. From the Del Mar Inn to the Punjabi Market on South Main, these sites have proven that they mean a great deal to our communities, and deserve to be designated as such. It’s a fantastic way to get involved in Vancouver’s history, and to learn about sites you might not otherwise be aware of. There’s only a handful of site designations left, so visit the Places That Matter website to find out when the next ceremony takes place. Everyone is welcome.

Another notable benefit of this project is the opportunity to witness the unique process that delivers us our “heritage”. While there is definitely something to be said about the problematic nature of discerning “winners” and “losers” in the history-relevancy contest, even the most ardent collective memory theorist has got to admit that 125 new historical sites to visit is pretty cool. We’re lucky that we live somewhere where we have organizations committed to acknowledging both the positive and less-than-praiseworthy facets of our past. We’re equally fortunate that our historical processes have designated sites all over the city, and not just in the city center. And we should be proud to live in a city where our numerous cultural and ethnic diversities are represented and influence how these sorts of commemorations are realized.


View Places That Matter Nominated Sites 2011-2012 in a larger map

The criteria for the PTM project were simple. Sites were required to have a geographic spread (across) the city; they needed to create awareness about little-known city history; they had to be at least 20 years old; they could not be connected to current political issues (bummer); and they needed to represent various communities present in the city. Textbook civic process? You betcha! Cohesive with popular perceptions about history and heritage? Yep! So check it out – learn a little about your city and take this great opportunity to learn about the process, too. Best of all? It’s free!

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Stevie Wilson is an historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to show you the things that you already see. Just nod your head and pretend you’re paying attention.

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