Of place, property and opportunity

In an article published last March in High Country News George Sibley contemplated place.

"When Americans talk about ‘place’ today, and ‘sense of place,’ it’s often in the context of real estate, because that's the way Americans think," Sibley wrote. "But if you are going to really consider ‘place,’ you must distinguish it from the concept of property. Both place and property are matters of possession, but it’s who and what are possessed, and how, that’s important. ‘Property’ is a cultural convention whereby a person has the belief, confirmed by a piece of paper, that he or she possesses a piece of land. ‘Place,’ on the other hand, is something related to the land that comes to possess a person."

Sibley’s words came to mind while contemplating Whistler’s sense of place and some of the issues facing the community in the last weeks of 2002. There’s the amendment to the OCP that will permit development in the Callaghan, which the new council will consider Monday. There’s the next phase of the Whistler. It’s Our Future process – the Simm City phase – where Whistlerites will be asked to consider what they want this place to look like in the future. And there’s a whiff of fear in the air as we approach mid-December with no appreciable snow and people quietly, privately considering what this place would look like if the winter of 1976-77 were repeated.

"No place is a place," said American writer Wallace Stegner, until two things have happened: 1) "things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monuments;" and 2) "it has had that human attention that at its highest reach we call poetry."

A little of Whistler’s history, and some poetry, are being celebrated Saturday at the GLC, where the official launch of a new book called Whistler: Against All Odds takes place. Written by Michel Beaudry and filled with gorgeous photographs from some of Whistler’s best photographers, the book is all about place, about the people who have been possessed by this land.

In Whistler, and much of British Columbia, place is often secondary to property – indeed, it could be argued that there can be no place if there isn’t property first. Property, be it in the Callaghan or elsewhere, often provides opportunity, which is essential to attracting and keeping people. But it is people who create a sense of place.

The Callaghan is an interesting situation in the place-property-opportunity debate. Many people’s reaction is: Why would Whistler want to build a satellite community there when there may be areas within the existing physical and social infrastructure that could provide opportunities to house people? To quote Gertrude Stein, yet another American writer, "There is no there, there."

The counter-argument might be that purpose-built towns, like Whistler, eventually develop their own place and the Callaghan community would too. The question is whether the Callaghan’s sense of place would be shared by Whistler and vice versa.

But of course Whistler is only considering a part of the Callaghan. The Squamish Nation and the Lil’wat also see opportunity in the Callaghan – in the form of a hotel and a golf course, among other things. They also claim the Callaghan as a place – part of their history – rather than property.

And perhaps someday history and legends will be made in the Callaghan. Meanwhile, Whistler must continue to build a sense of place.

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