Sunday, March 8, 2009

Historical Acitivsm In A Digital Age.

As my previous post mentioned we recently had a class on writing for a public audience. We were given the assignment of writing a 400 word newspaper article on any topic of historical relevance. My 'article' was a blog idea I'd been toying with for awhile, and here are the fruits of the assignment:

Your family has been attending the same church for as long as anyone can remember. Your family has celebrated numerous marriages and mourned many deaths in the same church. This memorable and center of much community history is being turned into condos. You have virtually no means of stopping it, but on the plus side the condo will have a very nice pool.

Throughout Toronto and Montreal numerous historic churches over have been sold, are slated for demolition, or are currently being renovated into condominiums. Without active preservation efforts historic churches, like all old buildings, are susceptible to the demands of our changing society.

Over the past decade, more than 150 churches have been sold in Toronto and Montreal. Other churches have been abandoned, with hopes that a potential developer will eventually want to develop the land. What is more shocking is what some churches have been renovated into. Churches have been renovated into rock climbing and fitness facilities, concert halls, factories, and numerous other commercial ventures. Not all churches were lucky enough to merely have their building converted. In 2000, St. Jude’s, Toronto, was sold to developers to be made into condominiums. But, when faced with complaints from heritage groups, costs of renovations, and design complications, the building was torn down without notice.

The issue is not the merely loss of beautifully constructed religious buildings. Rather, irreplaceable community history is being forgotten and at times destroyed. In Montreal, the Church of Saint-Eustache, which features stones damaged by British cannon fire from 1837, and where more than 100 Quebec patriots died, is at risk of being sold or demolished. Many churches have similar historical significance, even if it is just the history of the parish and the community which was once based around the church.

Heritage designation can discourage developers from buying historical churches, as it limits the renovations which can be completed. However, only 75 of Toronto’s many churches are heritage properties. But is heritage designation enough? Often heritage designation only preserves exterior elements, when some of the most historically significant elements are located inside churches. The transformation of churches into commercial spaces can destroy historical interior architecture and eliminate places of rich community heritage. Creative housing and business solutions are essential in an urban world, but historical buildings are far more culturally valuable than another rock climbing facility.

After thinking about this topic a bit more, I began to consider how the internet and digital publishing can be used to support various activists groups. Similar to expanding the range of historical literature, digital technology can be used to spread concern about virtually any cause. With websites, blogs, twitter, facebook groups, and numerous other wide reaching, getting the word out isn't hard. the internet as a forum for activists isn't a new thing, but I think public historians and heritage groups need to continue to expand their online presence through as many different types of technology as they can. In most cases this only presence can be built up with minimal costs, and by anyone who has a rudimentry understanding of the internet.

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