I’m embarrassed to admit this, or I should be anyway. On April 1st of last year, I was listening to an interview with Mayor Mel Norton on CBC Radio’s Information Morning. Norton was rather earnestly suggesting the city should rename some streets after Renaissance artists, part of his attempt to brand Saint John “Renaissance City.” I believed him and was annoyed, and then embarrassed when we listeners were let in on the joke – April Fools!
“Renaissance City” is a political slogan reflecting Norton’s vision of renewal in the city. It’s a Twitter hashtag to celebrate events and developments in the community, and a catch-phrase to repeat during speeches at business luncheons and charity dinners. It’s not something that should have a permanent legacy in the form of city street names. And so I was relieved (though a little sheepish that I fell for it) that Norton’s proposal was just a joke.
Detroit (another “Renaissance City”) should have displayed the same sense of humour, and restraint – regarding the use of the name anyway.
In the early 1970s, a group of businessmen started an organization called Detroit Renaissance to help revive the city’s sagging fortunes. The group still exists, but has been rebranded with the more matter-of-fact name, Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM).
It’s actually an impressive organization when you review the list of accomplishments and initiatives over a five-decade period.
Welcome to Detroit: The Renaissance City
There is still a “Renaissance City” legacy in Detroit. There is a photo online depicting an old street sign that says, “Welcome to Detroit The Renaissance City”. I do wonder, though, if this photo has been altered because I can’t quite believe they actually put this phrase on a municipal street sign. But the city does have a Renaissance Center, a downtown multi-tower complex with shops, restaurants, a theatre and hotel. It was originally built by Henry Ford II in the early 70s as a catalyst to rejuvenate the city centre.
Detroit also still has what it calls a Renaissance Zones program, which offers tax incentives for commercial and residential development in eight designated areas of the city. The emphasis on the economic revival of these areas seems much like Saint John’s focus on the Primary Development Area in PlanSJ.
What Detroit is trying to do (revitalize itself) is ultimately more important than what it’s called (Renaissance City), which may partly explain why the BLM ultimately abandoned its original name, Detroit Renaissance.
People in places like Saint John and Detroit – industrial cities labouring to improve their economic fortunes and reinvent themselves – engage in a lot of soul-searching about the core identities of the places where they live. That leads naturally to branding exercises like “Renaissance City.” The nickname is aspirational in nature (much like “People City”), and is the kind of catch-phrase a mayor such as Norton would adopt to instil a renewed sense confidence and optimism in a city like Saint John, Detroit, or Newark, N.J. (another industrial city that’s been called Renaissance City in the course of reinventing itself)
‘Greatest Little City in the East’
At different times in its history, Detroit has had many nicknames, including Motor City and Hockeytown. The same is true of Saint John. We frequently refer to it as the “Port City,” and proudly call it Canada’s first incorporated city. That’s not very catchy though, is it? A few years ago, some started referring to Saint John as Canada’s “Original City,” used mostly around the time the city held its 225th birthday celebrations and was designated a Cultural Capital of Canada (2010). Of course, the city’s most famous nickname is “Loyalist City”, and its most celebrated tagline is former mayor Elsie Wayne’s expression, “Greatest Little City in the East.”
Norton’s “Renaissance City” is probably most like Wayne’s expression; they’re both feel-good in nature, even if Wayne’s is more folksy. They’re also both open to criticism for being overly-optimistic, especially in a city with so many economic and social problems. But Norton, as Wayne likely did before him, has helped inspire an important discussion about the city’s identity and how we talk about its strengths and weaknesses. Good politicians help frame conversations for their constituents, and they can hardly be expected to do so in negative terms.
It’s not ‘Renaissance City’ and that’s okay
And good citizens will take an active part in those conversations, offering praise, a critique or constructive feedback. Local writer and zine publisher Julia Wright gave a thought-provoking presentation called, “Hard Times/Good Times. Creating a scene in SJ,” at the IgniteSJ speakers event I helped organize last month. She subsequently published an expanded version of her talk as a blog entitled, “Saint John is not the Renaissance City, and that’s okay.” Her post provoked a flurry of comments from people on her Facebook page, and ultimately inspired a critique of her piece by poet and UNBSJ English professor Robert Moore.
Saint Johners love to talk about what they love about this city, and what they hate; why they want to stay, and why they sometimes want to pack up and leave. These angst-ridden discussions are common-place between the people who live here, and ex-pats trying to decide if they want to come back.
We are #stuckinrenaissancecity
Last week, I attended a speaker’s event at Port City Royal cheekily entitled, Stuck – a provocative, attention-grabbing title that could make you think the participants were down on the city and its future prospects. That was far from the truth. It was an inspiring evening of stories about why we choose to live here, or why we have to because of our circumstances – some happy, some not. It was packed with 75 people who care a lot about Saint John, but have a sense of humour and perspective about its strengths and weaknesses. At one point, I told a friend the evening had inspired a cheeky hashtag of my own: #stuckinrenaissancecity.
By characterizing the evening this way, I don’t mean to frame the discussion in opposition to ones that take place between proponents of “Renaissance City.” If the city is indeed in the midst of a renaissance of some kind, it was evident at Port City Royal that night. The event took place in a great new restaurant, in a beautifully restored historic building, and was attended by active and engaged people who want this city to be a more vibrant and interesting place. If you organized a speakers event on the “Renaissance City,” I bet you the people at “Stuck” would be happy to take part.
It’s not Renaissance City, it’s Saint John
Ultimately, Norton’s phrase is most useful as a conversation starter, not a brand identity. Saint John is not the “Renaissance City,” “Loyalist City,” or the “Original City.” It’s Saint John, as someone I know said on Facebook recently.
Of course, the naming of the city was really just another branding exercise. Perhaps we should rename it. Mr. Mayor, that could be the subject of another April Fools’ Day joke, long after people have forgotten about your last one. But not me. I’ll be onto you this time around.