Barry Keith Grant, Joan Nicks, eds. Covering Niagara: Studies in Local Popular Culture. Cultural Studies Series. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010. 408 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-55458-221-1.
Reviewed by Dominique Brégent-Heald (Memorial University of Newfoundland)
Published on H-Canada (December, 2010)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth
Falling for Niagara: Exploring Local Cultures and Regional Identities
Academic interest in regionalism in Canada has waxed and waned over the decades, with scholars clustered in such loosely defined geographic areas as the Prairies, Atlantic Canada, the North, or the Pacific Northwest. While most scholars recognize that these regions are social constructions with loosely defined territorial boundaries and diffuse histories, the tendency nonetheless has been to situate them within the oftentimes insular politics of the nation-state. Increasingly, however, regional studies within Canada have transcended the national boundary and offered a trans-border perspective that recognizes broader patterns of history, culture, and meaning. In particular, studies of regional popular culture provide a window into the various networks and relationships between local and community identities on the one hand and global interests and activities on the other. Covering Niagara, the latest title in Wilfrid Laurier Press’s Cultural Studies Series, is an interesting example of this approach.
The anthology considers various local popular cultural practices within the Niagara Region, a borderland stretching from Lake Ontario to the East and Lake Erie to the West, with a view to illuminating their broader implications on national and global levels. Edited by Joan Nicks and Barry Keith Grant, who both hail from Brock University’s Department of Communications, Popular Culture and Film, Covering Niagara represents the culmination of over eight years of collaborative research, originating with the formation of the Popular Culture Niagara Research Group at Brock University, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded research enterprise. The anthology opens with a lively foreword by Geoff Pevere, a media critic who spent his teenage years in St. Catharines, followed by a concise introduction. Here, the editors explain that their intention is to “reveal a region that is unique and derivative, constructed and consumed, and sometimes a hedge against parochial and globalized thinking, media flow, and the wireless domain” (p. xxi). The fifteen essays function as case studies in the localized popular culture of the Niagara Region and are divided into five broad sections.
The contributors in part 1 explore public space and public memory. Phillip Gordon Mackintosh demonstrates that during the summer months, Niagara-on-the-Lake offered elite Torontonians at the turn of the twentieth century a haven where they could engage in such polite recreational pursuits as tennis, golf, lawn bowling, and the bicycle gymkhana. These bourgeois urbanites escaped not only the heat and humidity but also the perceived unruliness of Toronto’s lower classes who availed themselves of the city’s public spaces. Next, Russell Johnston and Michael Ripmeester restore to the public memory the origins of a monument on the grounds of St. Catharines’s City Hall, which commemorates a local solider who perished during the 1885 North-West Rebellion. Finally, Marian Bredin discusses the active presence of First Nations peoples in Niagara’s tourist economy through her study of Niagara Falls Indian Village, which was in operation during the 1960s. Despite its commercialized setting, Bredin argues that the reconstructed Iroquois village gave First Nations people “a place within local popular memory, actively participating in and negotiating their own representation, a place that is now almost entirely erased” (p. 46).
The three essays in part 2, “Movies and Media,” explore the complex interrelationships between various media and local consumers. Paul S. Moore considers the popularity of scenics of the Niagara Region, that is, short nonnarrative motion pictures depicting local scenery, as a springboard to understanding the ways in which local movie-going practices connected residents to broader currents of modernity during the first decade of the twentieth century. For Jeannette Sloniowski and Nicks, the discourse in Niagara Region newspapers of the 1920s promoted Hollywood culture and the star system, which enabled “early media literacy” among local readers (p. 92). At the same time, the local press expressed an ambivalent stance on the emergence of Hollywood’s new icon of femininity--the New Woman. Turning to radio, Laura Wiebe Taylor focuses on three St. Catharines radio stations to illustrate the rhetoric of local radio as the supposed voice of the community within the realities of the corporate mass media world.
Part 3 contains a trio of essays devoted to food and drink. Fiona Lucas and Mary F. Williamson focus on a now-forgotten cookbook written by a housewife from Grimsby, “the first original cookbook to be published in Canada that was not a reprint of a foreign cookbook,” to shed light on the rural culture and culinary traditions of Upper Canada in the 1840s (p. 147). In his essay on the Ontario Liquor Control Board’s (LCBO) regulations of public drinking in the post-Prohibition Niagara of the 1930s, Dan Malleck demonstrates how with its “mandate to control but permit public alcohol consumption, the LCBO had to balance the demands of social order” with the desires of local businesses and the public (p. 272). In the final essay in this section, Hugh Galer examines the significant role that the Niagara Region has played in the development of Canada’s wine culture.
Niagara’s music and arts scene is the subject of part 4. First, author and poet Terrance Cox surveys the vibrant jazz/swing music scene of the Niagara Region by sketching out the illustrious career of one of the area’s most famous musicians. Jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler who left St. Catharines as a young man still maintains his ties to the community. For Nick Baxter-Moore in his ethnographic study of local shops selling musical instruments and accessories, these music stores represent more than commercial places of business but function as sites of community interaction for local musicians and would-be musicians. Finally, Toronto-based artist Roslyn Costanzo discusses the Niagara Artists Centre, located in St. Catharines, which was established as an artist-run center in the 1970s to provide a pluralistic vision of community and Canadian culture.
The ties that bind the essays in the fifth and final section of the book, “Borderline Matters,” are less clear; although the editors state that the three studies “emphasize different modes of display, each established on iconography borrowed from elsewhere” (p. xxviii). In their analysis of the popularity of local amateur blackface minstrel shows in Niagara Falls, Ontario, from the 1900s through the 1960s, Nicks and Sloniowski argue that blackface minstrelsy “not only provided a socially approved form of community activity and an accepted way to express racism and fear outside of official discourses, but also expressed covert sexual desire and poked fun at authority” (p. 304). Next, Norman R. Ball examines the ways that the Canadian Niagara Power Company, in a promotional strategy largely aimed at women, encouraged the greater use of electricity in the home. In the final essay in the volume, Greg Gillespie explores the notion of “invented tradition” in his study of the Niagara Regional Police Pipe Band’s creation of a new tartan in 2007 as a way to mark its thirtieth anniversary.
On the whole, the essays in Covering Niagara cover a wide range of topics that serve a common goal: to show how localized popular culture activities can further our understanding of broad-based theories of popular culture and cultural studies. The cover art of the anthology is thus very apt; it is a photograph of a mosaic of Niagara Falls by a local artist named John Sakars in which many small fragments together form a picturesque and vibrant scene. Nevertheless, readers may be tempted to cherry pick from the eclectic contributions as opposed to reading the anthology from cover to cover. The strength of this volume lies in its essayists use of varied sources, such as film, material culture, and oral history, and different methodologies, ranging from archival research to participant interviews. Indeed, the anthology attempts to bridge the distance between academia and the community by incorporating the stories, memories, and memorabilia of local residents. Although most of the essays are informed by cultural theory, they are nevertheless written in a way that is accessible to undergraduate students and lay readers.
: Studies in Local Popular Culture
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Dominique Brégent-Heald. Review of Grant, Barry Keith; Nicks, Joan, eds., Covering Niagara: Studies in Local Popular Culture.
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