Farms for the People: the Kelowna Model

Over the next few days, I will introduce you to some new farming locations that could help heal the social and environmental fabric of this valley of grass and sagebrush in which I live and out of which my bones are made.


A Little Bit of Me Flattened by the June Monsoons

To be absolutely clear, I consider the social fabric and the environmental one to be one and the same. Half a century ago, every day we had our ears and fingernails checked for dirt by our teacher, Mrs. Farmer. It was, really, a way to try to “civilize” farm kids and kids from the Reserve at Chopaka. “You could grow potatoes in those ears,” she’d say to me. My mother said the same thing, and she grew up in extreme poverty. A few years later, in the same school, teachers less fastidious introduced us to the idea that “man” is defined by “reason”. Not so. Humans are most excellent lenses and mirrors. You want to know how the earth is doing, look at how the humans are getting along, and vice versa. So, here we go to Kelowna, the self-proclaimed capital of the valley, a magnate for retirement and vineyard investment dollars from Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton (in other words, a part of Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto, but not of this land here)…


Downtown Kelowna, After a Multimillion Dollar Beautification

My idea was to tear out all the pavement and to put an orchard or a golf course right down the middle. After all, a large number of orchards have been torn out for golf courses, so that expensive housing can be sold along the fairways. Why not downtown? Sadly, no one was listening. Still, there are wooden… what? Up-ended lake pilings, I think. Or re-purposed railway crossing gates. Look, I dunno what those things are. There are lights bolted to them, though..

I know this, at any rate. In the alley behind the buildings on the right, we get this, and it’s beautiful.


Genuine Human Habitat

And it’s a herb garden, too! You could probably water it with the condensation from that airconditioning equipment!

Look, I have been accused of having no sense of humour when I show pictures like this, and even of being bitter and even unpleasant, so let me be absolutely clear: I think that is beautiful. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a sculpture anywhere, or a painting, that could improve on that. Just to be clear, let me repeat: the following image is beautiful, too:


Kelowna Rooftop Garden

The ductwork (a bit fire torched, excellent!), the impeccably placed light, the tomatoes, the beans, the exquisite brick. It has taken close to a century to perfect this. This is the basis for a native Kelowna architectural tradition.

Compared to that, this, in my mind, is not worth millions…


Bernard Avenue, Kelowna, at Dusk

Millions? Why, yes. Here’s the skinny on it from the city:

It’s Happening! Kelowna’s revitalization of “Main Street” has begun.Originating from the need to upgrade again utilities and roadway, the Bernard Avenue Revitalization has become an identity-establishing project. The $14-million investment is one of the first porjects to be realized from the City of Kelowna’s downtown plan and will help rejuvenate downtown and set the stage for more activity, attracting residents and visitors alike. Improvements include wider sidewalks, a coordinated complement of street furniture, as well as more trees and vegetation…and it’s going to be spectacular! Source.

14 million dollars! Spectacle is the word for it, all right! Now, to be fair, that money was to replace sewer and water lines, while the whole plan was designed to turn downtown Kelowna into an event space, with room on the sidewalks for restaurant tables and lots of crowds standing beneath the banners unfurled from those wooden railway bridge pylon something-or-others while watching parades. A town needs a downtown, and if Kelowna’s downtown was sucked dry of a raison d’etre by the shopping empires stretching for forty kilometres up and down the highway, then shopping wasn’t going to be its excuse for getting together any more. I get that. I think that’s great. Art, these days, is all about events. It’s about process. The thing I’m having a hard time about is this:


Alley Behind the Revitilization

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that is beautiful as well. In fact, I think it’s far more genuine than the event that is being staged up front. This is the signature of the people. It is an art work created in time. It is process. Now, maybe you’re thinking, “Harold, Harold, Harold. You impractical poet, you. You can’t sell crumbling alleys to tourists, tut tut.” Well, actually, Cuba does it all the time, but that’s not the point. The point is that the people are showing us the way.


One of the Few Non-White Washed Pieces of People’s Art in Kelowna

It seems to be pointing to the dumpster beside it, or is it to Pirate’s Treasure? Hard to say.

Most of the art like that in Kelowna looks more like the image below, which is beautiful, too, because, again, it shows the social dynamic, and all the processes of power that electrify human and environmental relationships in the city, plus it’s just great design:

P1080775Alley Behind Revitalized Bernard Avenue

Look how this attempt at censorship just can’t tell a lie, as it picks up on deeper aesthetic traditions:

P1080763Of course, I’m being unfair. The deeply beautiful aesthetic traditions and industrial languages (and the demands of money) that led to that exquisite artwork above, also led to the new stick sculptures along Bernard Avenue. They are home-grown — they’re just not for all the people, that’s all, but I just don’t understand how you can have a city when it’s not for all the people. Well, I guess it’s someone else’s city. Still, maybe I’m wrong, but even if I am, there’s a question still worth asking: is it really a good idea to separate your city from the agricultural heritage you’re trying to sell it as? Let me answer that: no, it’s not. Agricultural heritage? Why, yeah.


Agriculture: Vegetable Fields Covered with Car Lots…

…and a power box wrapped in apple-coloured plastic. Have you ever eaten an apple? It’s the kind of thing that can keep you alive.

Everywhere, though, the earth is crying for recognition, and remember, what happens in the environment is happening socially.


Sure, poverty is beautiful and romantic and all that, but it certainly is way nicer to contemplate it from a cafe stool under the swaying banners of middle class art than it is to struggle within its constraints of powerlessness and hunger, and yet, look …

P1080767… the earth keeps insisting on being alive. Here we are, just feet away from the new revitilization…

P1080797Agricultural Space or What

Even if it’s just up against the wall. You could plant trees there, even.

… and here we are across Bernard Avenue and in the alley in back. This time, notice the tree…

P1080735See That? You can plant a rooftop garden, and an organic airconditioner, on one square foot of space, and you can irrigate it with the water that pours down off your roof.

Either that, or you can do this with the water …

P1080811Yeah, it’s beautiful, but this is too:

P1080799Dueling Air Conditioning Systems

Now, again, I’m not being fair. A lot of all of this, including the plan for Bernard Avenue, is to keep homeless people from lying around and shooting themselves up with crack, which isn’t great for business or anyone, really. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to replace the razor wire, barbed wire, bricked in windows and the penitentiary look …

P1080730… with gardens, with food, for people, and life? That is Okanagan culture, too.

P1080727And you wouldn’t have to start big. You could just be modest at first …

P1080733… and the agricultural capital of the so-called Garden of Eden of the West could be so full of agriculture that it would be a model for all cities in the world and people would come, not because the city has been turned into an economic machine, but because it’s a living space, where people wanted just to be, because not only was it beautiful to see people living, despite everything…

P1080793… but it was alive.

P1080785If a restaurant can to it to create a romantic terrace, then it’s good enough for the people too. If not, then it’s not good enough. In fact, as I wandered these alleys for thirty minutes, I came across many restaurant servers sitting on cinderblock back steps, having a smoke or eating their dinner, with the brick wall of poverty instead of the greenery of Bernard Avenue, staring them in the face. Look how the earth is being ignored and its creative potential wasted…

P1080824Boarded-up windows, dysfunctional drainage, anti-human roof fence, and life still refuses to give up, even though it is being treated like garbage.

… that’s human potential being discarded at the same time. Without room in the plan of a city for the life of a city and its environment, it is a city without these things, or one in which they are weeds. It’s about power. It’s about who has it, and who doesn’t. It’s also about beauty, though. There’s beauty for the rich and their patio aesthetic …

foodonterraceMission Hill Winery Restaurant Source

… and there’s beauty for the poor and their patio aesthetic …

P1080739That’s a lot of common ground. 14 million dollars would have more than fixed this. It could have been used to make Kelowna into a city in which the producers and the consumers, the rich and the poor, the new immigrants and the indigenous people, could have all come together in a garden, but no, that’s left to us to do one downspout at a time.

P1080809Beautiful Art Just Waiting to Bloom

4 replies »

    • Thanks. It was quite the moment when this story started unfolding in front of me. Sometimes I just feel that a gift has come my way. Thanks for opening it. Harold


  1. brilliant! a genuine honesty and compassion embracing the experience of inhabitation expressed in the poetry of the back spaces – the way that the producers the workers those living are creating – together with the plants and stones(concrete asphalt) and… a sense of inhabitation – was struck at how the garbage cans were the place public “graffiti” expression was allowed to inhabit…

    the idea of village building & city repair here in portland very much parallels these ideas of recreating the public commons with places to sit and cook and drink tea and grow gardens capture water for gardens in public noncommercial ways… light a fire!


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