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Jock-straps versus G-strings

A lack of recreation resources causes tribal friction in Pemberton

Goths, punks, jocks, nerds, loners, stoners, floaters, geeks. Slackers, gangstas, bo-hos, skaters. Ravers, choirkids, headbangers, freaks. Every high school is a swirl of labels, of cliques and enclaves; a jungle of tribes, alliances, and social rules that make Survivor look like the kindergarten sandpit.

The latest mega-marketing trends of data mining and geo-demographics are revitalizing this theme of tribal identity. Research companies gather information on us based on our postal codes, our magazine subscriptions, our spending habits, and slot us into clusters of social values. Our membership of a neighbourhood cluster indicates our most likely spending patterns. Just as in high school, you could locate the people-most-likely-to-buy cigarettes/black T-shirts/pink lipstick, based on their hangout zones (behind the bus shelter/in the basement locker rooms/out on the playing fields watching the football team train), today’s marketing analysts are compiling data to let companies know the most likely postal codes to hawk wine club subscriptions/hunting paraphernalia/commemorative royal wedding plates. More and more we’re being repackaged under labels that make you wonder if high school was actually the pinnacle of social engineering, instead of the nadir many of us remember it as.

U.S. studies show that most parents would rather their kids be cool than smart; so that social programming clearly still has many of us in its thrall. (A 2004 article in the Journal of School Health reported that 60 per cent of American parents, if forced to choose, would prefer their children to make C grades and be active in extracurricular activities rather than make A grades and not be active. The article writers argue that for those parents, "making A grades and not being active" is a code for being a nerd or dork, while athletics is the ticket to social status.)

Whether parents want to expose their children to theatre sports or swim training, increasingly in British Columbia’s regional communities the burden has become not just a matter of signing them up, but extensive chauffeuring, volunteering as a coach, finding a facility to host the event, or lobbying the local government to build one. The impacts of provincial and federal funding cuts are being felt at home, as school boards are forced to meet budgets by moving to four-day weeks, or cutting art, drama, physical education and outdoor education. Teachers’ and custodial staff’s work-to-rule policies preclude after-hours access to school facilities, gymnasiums and art rooms. Smaller communities’ resources are stretched – with local governments and non-profits forced to provide more and more services, from public transit to policing to recreation.

And the kids have nothing to do.

Geoff Pross, a corridor youth worker and co-ordinator of the Pemberton Community Centre’s youth centre, recognizes that youth are universally united under the war-cry that "there’s nothing to do." However, in Pemberton where a dearth of recreation infrastructure is set to become the election issue this November, there really is a sense of genuine longing from the youth accessing the drop-in centre. "I hear from a lot of youth that you just can’t go to a party and just hang out," says Pross. "It’s almost expected that there’ll be heavy drinking, at the least. I tend to see the certain cross-section of youth who are actively looking for alternatives to the house parties and bush parties."

But as far as alternatives go, the pickings are slim. There’s no movie theatre, although Pross is trying to start a movie night at the youth centre. There’s no skate-park, although a committed group are working to get that off the ground. There’s no gathering place, like a mall or village, where kids can hang out without feeling like they’re loitering. The only place in town to see live music is the Pemberton Hotel. There are, Pross notes, some good organized sports teams, including soccer and dragon-boat racing, "but if you’re not really into competitive sports, there are not a lot of things to do."

Pross was looking forward to the proposed Pemberton Community Centre, which would have moved the youth centre much closer to the high school and had a theatre providing great opportunities for the high school drama club. The top two pieces of infrastructure on Pross’ wish-list, to provide recreation alternatives for Pemberton’s youth, are the skateboard park and a more central youth resource centre for students to drop in after school, work on their homework and hang out with their friends before heading home.

The proposed Pemberton Community Centre would have provided that, but was halted in its tracks last month by a vocal group of opponents voting against a loan approval process that would have enabled the borrowing required to supplement a federal/provincial infrastructure grant. Sandy Ryan was at the forefront of this group, securing signatures on 850 counter petitions in just a day and a half. Some have contended that this outcry was a response to a basic name game – that calling the community centre a "recreation centre" and naming activity rooms "meeting rooms" galvanized people who are more interested in drop-in hockey games than community theatre and business conferences. Ryan says,"For myself, and I could speak to most of what the people who counter-petitioned were concerned about, it was not that it was a ‘community centre,’ which in this particular facility would service the arts user groups more than sports, but people were concerned with the functionality of the building, and its potential for expansion."

Hackles were raised at the $3.6 million cost, for a building that "services minimal user groups."

"It’s a gorgeous building," states Ryan. "Wrong town. This place needs facilities and it needs them quick."

But lining up for those facilities are the hockey-players, child caregivers, drifting teens, overcrowded librarians, and a host of other users of civic spaces. The 1999 Pemberton District Recreation Master Plan identified the area’s recreation infrastructure vacuum, and recommended a multi-phased approach, beginning with replacing the current community centre, based out of the old high school. Everyone agrees that the town needs facilities, and pronto, but what they can’t reach consensus on is what comes first. And in resource wars, tribes form and square off. Jock or boho? Arena or "meeting rooms"? Which clique is going to prevail?

"Recreation" is any leisure activity, artistic or sporting, pursued for its own sake. Recreation participation increases in communities with higher levels of education, income and mobility. In other words, recreating is a luxury. Advocates argue that poetry readings and mountain bike trails are necessary and vital, but the bottom line is both are something enjoyed by the privileged, the person who has their basic needs taken care of, who isn’t scrabbling for food and shelter. As Brian Eno recently said, "Culture is everything we don’t have to do." Eating versus cuisine, clothes versus couture, bicycle-commuting versus stunt-dropping. The things that don’t satisfy our animal needs, but engage our imaginations as well. So, when budgets are cut in schools, art and music classes, physical education and outdoor education get slashed. Vocational courses are prioritized. Kids need to get jobs. They don’t necessarily need to dream, philosophize, bang drums, shoot hoops.

From a social sustainability perspective, though, they do need these things. Pemberton’s 1999 Recreation Master Plan lists a handful of the positive impacts of recreation, including evidence that participation in recreation, sports and arts/culture reduces self-destructive behaviour and negative social activity in youth.

In Whistler North, where the community’s inventory of recreation infrastructure includes Meadow Park, Spruce Grove, the Valley Trail network, an award-winning mountain bike park and developed set of trails, and the artistic tribes are enjoying an increased chunk of the funding pie, the problem for youth might be the opposite. Greg McDonnell, Youth Outreach Worker thinks Whistler youth are over-programmed. "Many of these kids couldn’t care less if we got 30 cm of fresh snow. They’re more interested in going to the city. There’s a big over-emphasis on the sporting things in Whistler, and a lot of kids react against that."

For a long time this over-emphasis on sport has eclipsed the arts in Whistler. Doyenne of arts advocacy, Joan Richoz, recounts a friend’s joke, "There is life above the thigh." But that below-the-thigh dominance is changing, and there’s a well-documented energy in the local arts and culture scene. For Richoz, this is part of the maturing of the community. "Whistler is growing and becoming more complete. The arts are what are going to complete Whistler. You can’t just be driven by sports. Or just by the arts. You need a balance."

The scales are evening up. ArtsNow funding from the Olympic Legacies program, has been secured by Whistler Film Festival, the museum, and the Writers Group. The February Celebration 2010 arts festival has continued to grow, and is unique to Whistler amongst other towns in B.C., to enjoy matching funding from its municipality. The Resort Municipality of Whistler has also supported a new arts drop-in centre at the high school’s Art Room, and the 2005 World Ski & Snowboard Festival headlined its programming this year with its arts events.

Part of this, as WSSF founder Doug Perry explains, is a natural evolution of the festival, reflecting the way sports have become more about an entire way of living. But it’s also a reflection of how Whistler and the corridor have matured. "When I first moved here in 1983, it was all about skiing. If you didn’t ski, then why were you here? But as the town matures, it attracts different people." Residents mature too, and as they go deeper into the practice of the sports that brought them here, they’re drawn to arts, to different ways of rendering those sensations, of interacting with nature, to different ways of practicing.

But another factor evening out the scales is the Olympics. Richoz sees the 2010 Winter Games as a great opportunity for the arts, and a chance for Whistler to be as renowned for arts and culture as it is for sport. The Whistler Arts Council’s recently commissioned report on Potential Impacts of the Games on Local Arts and Sports, reveals that in the earliest years of the modern Olympics, from 1912 to 1948, artists competed for medals like athletes in a Pentathlon of Muses. After Salt Lake City’s figure skating debacle, it’s not hard to imagine the arts competitions didn’t fare very well. After all, how do you rate a sonnet against a haiku? Artistic contributions don’t lend themselves as well to competition as pure physical feats, so the arts showdown subsequently morphed into a festival of performances and exhibitions and gala opening ceremonies. As an outcome, the Olympics celebrates sport, culture and opportunities for youth. A nod to its ancient origins, when the fully-rounded person sought balance and excellence in all fields of endeavour.

The Olympic spotlight, a growing emphasis on cultural tourism, and Whistler’s maturity are all creating a culture in which the bohos have as many opportunities as the jocks. And because, in the real world, despite what the geo-demographers are trying to promote, we don’t fit neatly into little boxes or categories, this gives us all access to more opportunities to balance out our imaginations, our brains and our bodies.

In Pemberton, the little town in the physical shadow of Mount Currie and the figurative shadow of Whistler, some hard decisions need to be made and priorities set. To provide opportunities that will give youth an alternative to house-wrecking parties and crystal meth experimentation, we can’t afford to pit sport and the arts against each other. We can’t have community leaders line up on opposite sides of a field and charge at each other over a limited funding pie, until there’s only carnage left. Nor can we afford to let petty politics and small town rivalries stonewall every initiative that’s put forth. A long-term commitment to improving culture and recreation within communities is key to keeping them livable and alive. Which requires a concerted effort. It’s time for all the kids to learn to play together.