‘Royal City’ swag lights coming back to Columbia Street

Several weeks ago the City of New Westminster hosted an Economic Forum. The forum was intended to highlight the changes that have been occurring in the city and promote future economic opportunities. The keynote speaker at this event was real estate marketer Bob Rennie. At the end of his speech Mr. Rennie suggested that New Westminster ditch the Royal City moniker for something more contemporary. Although I was out of town during this speech, I could almost feel the collective groan in the community following this comment. Personally I do not agree that New West should ditch the ‘Royal City’ nickname, as it is engrained in the collective consciousness of our town. Having said that, and probably more to the point of Mr. Rennie, the city should be prepared to look at how and when this traditional moniker is used.

That same week on a seemingly unrelated topic, the City made the decision to install swag lights along Columbia Street.

Historic Seasonal Lighting over Columbia Street in the Downtown (Image courtesy VPL: 41806)

In the 1950’s swag lights hung over Columbia Street and contributed to a sense of pride in the community. During this time Columbia Street was known as the Miracle Mile for retail activity and drew in shoppers from all over the region.  The decades that followed were not so kind to this street though, as New Westminster largely became known as a small, old-fashioned, inaccessible community. Just as prominent retailers began to leave the street, so did the traditional crown swag lights.

Today Columbia Street is starting to make a rebound; one only needs to walk along the street to see that something is happening down there. So it seems only fitting that the city has decided to permanently install replica crown swag lights along the street. To be honest, I am not a big fan. I recognize that this is mainly a taste issue and my opinions are very subjective. I have spoken to many people and heard a range of comments from “I think they are going to look great down there” to “the design of the lights looks dated and old-fashioned”.  I am also probably the last person anyone should be getting style advice from. Having said that, I love cities and I take great passion in exploring the secrets behind what makes a city a great place.

I have been fortunate to visit a lot of great cities during my life and I don’t believe that these types of beautification programs are a key ingredient. I don’t need street banners telling me that I am in the big apple to appreciate New York. Nor do I don’t need signage indicating that I have entered the hipster capital of the world when I walk through Portland. There is something genuine about these cities and there is something genuine about New Westminster as well. Our historic buildings, our beautiful streetscapes and the river all tell the story of our community.

I also think we have lost an opportunity to allow ourselves to be inspired by the swag lights from a past era, but then to take this idea and design contemporary lighting that speaks to what the city is today and where we want to go in the future. New Westminster will always be the Royal City; I am just not convinced we need to put up ’50s-era stylized crown lights along Columbia Street to maintain our special place in the heart of Queen Victoria.

4 Replies to “‘Royal City’ swag lights coming back to Columbia Street”

  1. Thanks for the write-up, Jonathan. I’m glad we can have these conversations in New West in such an open forum.

    I don’t mind the “Royal City” moniker so much, but perhaps the crown motif is a little too Olde Towne for the current reality. My marketing advice is probably worth the same amount of salt as your style advice, but a talented brand specialist could find a way to evoke the tradition of the Royal City without inducing thoughts of tea sets and floral wallpaper.

    As for the swag lights, I like the idea. I think seasonal displays like this show that the community cares about how it presents itself, it shows a certain “community spirit” that tells people something is happening, and people in the town are paying attention to their surroundings. I hope the designs are a little more contemporary than the early 60’s photo (based on the cars?) and they are LED based! Will the same types of thing be applied to our other business areas (Uptown, 12th Street)?

  2. I like the idea of bringing back the swag lighting – I remember it from when I was a kid. I guess a lot would depend on the style they choose. I was all for a grand Christmas tree in Hyack Square, and then I saw what they chose. For me, Christmas is all about the traditional stuff – so if they are going to using those moving LED lights like they have put up at Plaza 88, then I think that would not fit in with the Downtown look.

  3. I agree with your comment Jonathan that the swag lights should have served as inspiration for something new. I guess I'll just have to wait and see how it all looks! As for the Royal City moniker, I'm torn.
    Some of us connect those words to some tired aspects of our city's past, but I've also seen how a name can be viewed differently when conditions change. For me, the word 'Surrey' today conjures a very different image from 10 years ago.

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