I grew up in a border town – not Niagara/Buffalo, but the ‘twin city’ Sault Ste. Marie border in Northern Ontario. Until recently, I’d never thought about how that has influenced my life and what kind of relationships and communities can form around a border. As a child, we’d go “across the river” as we called it, to get gas and milk—and the rituals of crossing the border were formed by the activities we did there. For me, my map of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan would consist of: the bridge, a few roads, the gas station and a grocery store; on occasion we’d go to the beach on the American side when we knew our beaches would be full. I could give anyone directions on how to get to the Meijer’s on the outskirts of town but couldn’t tell you how to get anywhere near the downtown. For Michiganders coming over to our side, I’m sure they had similar landmarks by which they navigated.
Of course this was pre-9/11, there was a fluidity to the border that paled in comparison to earlier generations but was quite porous in comparison to what exists now. Until this week, I had never thought about how that border community was its own cultural landscape and an international one at that. Since coming to Willowbank, I’ve begun to recognize the importance in understanding how this sort of relationship plays out in our physical space and how we use it. The rituals that connected the two cities were shared: crossing the bridge, paying our tolls, doing our shopping or going to beaches. Without that sort of shared border activity, the two communities would never be connected and would have little to do with each other.
This past week The National Preservation Conference was held in Buffalo (October 19-22), which meant that we had the opportunity to meet with a small groups of individuals connected to heritage throughout the week. There were small groups who came over to Willowbank to have workshops on writing Historic Structures Reports, as well as just to explore Willowbank and meet some of us students. We had some great conversations comparing the educational approach here at Willowbank to some of the more traditional academic approaches at other schools throughout the U.S.
On Wednesday, Willowbank, in conjunction with Conference co-chair Bob Skerker, hosted an intimate dinner for some very influential heritage professionals and developers attending the conference as well as some of our board members and other Friends of Willowbank. I was lucky enough to attend, and have some interesting discussions about different heritage projects throughout both Canada and the U.S. Our guest of honour was the head of ICOMOS, Gustavo Araoz, but the rest of the group was almost an equal mix of Americans and Canadians.
What seemed to become the theme of the evening was the recognition and redevelopment of the international relationship of the border towns in the Buffalo/Niagara region. Like the border town landscape in which I grew up, the Niagara region is inherently linked to its U.S. counterparts, despite the imaginary line that runs down the Niagara River. The two sides of the border have identities informed by their interconnectedness on a historical, economic, environmental, and cultural level. It is this sort of intangible, but also tangible, connection that creates a shared experience that defies nationalistic concepts of space.
One of my U.S. dinner companions relayed his childhood memories of having spent much of his time on the Canadian side of the border. Those formative years of crossing the border had imparted such an impression on him that now as an adult, he and his wife have bought their second home in Niagara-On-The-Lake. This is completely consistent with the rich historical tradition of this sort of American patronage of the Niagara area. From the Crystal Beach Amusement Park, to the grand homes built by American banking barons in N.O.T.L, to the Larkin agricultural and business acumen that left its mark on both sides of the river, Americans and Canadians are linked in this area in often complex relationships that result in a cultural landscape that fuses physical landmarks with our shared understanding and use of them.
It was very heartening to attend the dinner and experience such a coming together of Canadians and Americans that recognized the interdependence our two countries have with one another, as well as how that reflects the heritage of our regions. In addition there was a general feeling of optimism that despite the increased security at the border crossings, there should and could be an increased intertwining of the two sides of the border.
Throughout our various meetings with groups of conference attendees this week, it was amazing to meet other professionals who got a glimpse of the space we are blessed to have at Willowbank and to hear their feedback. And it was great to get to boast a bit about the incredibly comprehensive hands on and theoretical approach that the program takes towards heritage. I hope that in our meetings we may have fostered some new relationships and given other institutions something to chew on in the way they approach heritage.