There is no palimpsest like a city. And especially, there is no palimpsest like the city of Cranbrook.
“Palimpsest” is a wonderful word, and useful when describing a place like Cranbrook. Its original meaning is a manuscript, or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been erased or scraped off to make room for new writing, but of which traces remain.
In a broader sense, “palimpsest” has come to mean something reused or altered, but which still bears traces of its original form.
In the case of a city like Cranbrook, it has changed so much that it feels we are living upon layers of ghost cities — like Troy. And not just buildings and structures, but people and ideas. And sometimes, a ghost city will re-emerge.
More than a decade ago, Cranbrook artist Kirstin Taylor created a large mural covering the wall of the paint store where she worked, on the corner of Theatre Road and Cranbrook Street North. She spent months making the mural, and when it was done, it was striking — cans of paint tipped over and butterflies emerging as if from cocoons. It was on such a scale that you could see from from a long way away driving east down the Strip. By itself, the mural added so much colour and imagery to that stretch of highway that it single-handedly lifted the Strip out of that rather dreary reputation that passing travel writers have given it. (Something I’ve never really understood, by the way. Any city or town I’ve been in in North America has an identical highway running through it — most are a lot uglier than Cranbrook’s. I suppose the backdrop of the mountains accentuates the utilitarian nature of the Strip — and most people passing through somehow expect our town to fit in more with that. But I digress …)
In any case, that beautiful mural wasn’t up long before the paint store changed hands and became something else. The owners of the new business announced that they were going to paint over the mural, because after all it wasn’t a paint store anymore.
There was considerable public outcry to save the mural, but nothing doing. At the time, the owners of the new business explained to the Townsman that even if they wanted to save the mural, their business was a franchise, and franchise rules dictated a certain appearance for the building, and if they wanted to open a business there, they had to repaint the building. And so the beautiful, striking mural of butterflies emerging from spilled cans of paint was, ironically, painted over (stuccoed over, I suppose, would be more precise).
But now, over 10 years later, that particular business is also history. And, several more businesses later, that mural recently re-emerged briefly into the light of day. In the aftermath of a fire at the most recent business at that location, the outer wall was prepped for re-stuccoing, and suddenly those butterflies were visible again. This is not dissimilar to the discovery of an ancient mosaic that graced the wall of a house in Pompeii, the Roman city that was buried by volcanic ash. However, unlike Pompeii, that butterfly mural is stuccoed back up again, and if you didn’t know it was there before, you won’t know it now. Art is fleeting.
Meanwhile, down in Rotary Park, a giant concrete structure that was created less than a decade ago has vanished. Council made the decision last Monday, and the next morning it was gone, just like that. The area will be grassed over.
According to my own unscientific survey on this action, the general populace were largely unconcerned that it was removed, and many actually applauded its removal. It was indeed a rather large, indelicate structure, especially for its original purpose, which was to carry plaques celebrating the contributions of various citizens to the community. In nine years, only two plaques were ever mounted.
(I do think that the story of Soren Johnson, who was responsible for the creation of Cranbrook’s urban forest — i.e.: most of our trees — is a story worthy of much more that a small plaque. But I digress …)
Rotary Park can get pretty cluttered, but in true palimpsest fashion objects come and go. From a generally marshy area with a rink and the city garage, to the municipal auto camp, the cenotaph, the Fink Fountain (now reappeared elsewhere), the Wall of Honour, the playground, the bandstand, the restroom, and a host of other modifications and added and subtracted objects, Rotary Park has been reinvented and reshaped over the last long century.