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In the 22 years since Whitecap Books published the first edition of Vancouver The Way It Was, I have learned much more about the city, partly by observation and study, partly from people who contacted me in response to the book, and the rest by perusing the landslide of Vancouver writing that has appeared since. Vancouver Remembered continues in the vein of the earlier book, exploring impressions and memories in a way that, I hope, paints a meaningful, evocative picture of the city, focusing on the decades between the Second World War and Expo '86. Such a book needs a narrative overview: the Introduction beginning on page 15 provides a chronological history with links to pages in "scrapbook" chapters on different areas of the city.
Due to the amount of Vancouveriana, it has become quite a challenge to create a book that presents relevant new material, without making something too specialized or arcane for the general reader. Because the city's "golden age" -- the Edwardian boom of the first dozen or so years of the 20th century -- has been so thoroughly gleaned, recent writers have focused on specific events, personalities, photographers, street railways, architects and buildings. Fans of buildings should start with Exploring Vancouver, in three separate editions by principal author Harold Kalman (UBC Press, 1974, 1978 and 1993). Those interested in architects as much as their creations should read Building the West, compiled by Donald Luxton (Talonbooks, 2003). A spate of books, including The Vancouver Achievement by John Punter (UBC Press, 2003) and Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination byLance Berelowitz (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005), analyzes and congratulates the new Vancouver. Nostalgia for the old entertainment scene animates Backstage Vancouver: A Century of Entertainment Legends, by Greg Potter and Red Robinson (Harbour, 2004). Names and places get their own books, the best of which is Elizabeth Walker's Street Names of Vancouver (Vancouver Historical Society, 1999). John Atkin has used walking tours to explain the city in Vancouver Walks (which I co-authored) and SkyTrain Explorer (Steller Press, 2003 and 2005). Perhaps only Chuck Davis, principal author of the landmark Vancouver Book in 1976, and subsequently editor of the Greater Vancouver Book (Linkman Press, 1997), is still trying to record the city and region in a single volume "urban encyclopedia." Detailed histories of Vancouver neighbourhoods by various writers, including me, appear in the Greater Vancouver Book.
Because these books and many others are now so easily accessible through libraries and for sale on websites such as www.abebooks.com, I have annotated my text to make recommendations for further reading and library-building and, also, to save space here by not duplicating already published material.
Yet, in spite of this outpouring of words, no true Vancouver history book has been published in a generation. Humorist and Province columnist Eric Nichol wrote a pretty good one, succinctly called Vancouver (Doubleday Canada, 1978), but his predecessor, the newspaperman Alan Morley, wrote the classic: Vancouver From Milltown to Metropolis (Mitchell Press, 1961; 3rd edition, 1974). It contains the combination of chronology, politics and human affairs that puts the "story" into history. None of the current generation of journalists, who have collectively covered city hall for decades, has stepped forward into the breach.
Bob Spence could have written well about the city, given his knowledge of the police and fire departments and the city's entertainment scene. Born in Kitsilano in 1947, he had a normal, middle-class boyhood until age 11, when his policeman father suffered a heart attack and died after a gunfight in an East Hastings hotel. His mother went to work taking care of Firehall 12 on Balaclava Street in Kitsilano, where Bob hung around after school. A journalist and advocate for the downtrodden and the Nisga'a First Nation, he lived hard and died too young, of cancer, in 2001. I worked with him from 1982-86 at CKVU-TV and CJOR radio.
All books reflect the backgrounds and class prejudices -- as academic historians call them -- of their authors. I'm a baby boomer, born in 1951 to an eastern Canadian couple who met and married overseas during the war and decided to settle in the west once they returned home. My father was a musician who joined the BC Electric personnel department, my mother a nurse, both from lower middle-class backgrounds. My older brother Paul was born into a small bungalow at 40th and Ontario -- the first home my parents had in Vancouver. My paternal grandparents had retired in Winnipeg in the depths of the Great Depression, then moved west to the cottage at 2322 Cypress in Kitsilano. My parents had just reached the level of optimism to buy a $12,000, 20-year-old house in Kerrisdale when I arrived.
Each working day my father walked the four blocks to Granville Street to catch the trolley and often found himself accompanied by other men from the neighbourhood, including Gordon Wyness from across the street, who managed the renowned James Inglis Reid butcher shop downtown. The neighbourhood mothers all stayed home and raised their children, of whom there were droves. Every block had legions of boys, rampaging around in back yards and, like us, playing road hockey on the quiet street. When we noticed girls, they were usually walking together in groups -- what they did the rest of the time was a mystery. Although the cliché stereotypes Vancouverites as reserved and insular, our homogeneous neighbourhood was a friendly place where people looked out for each other. Like the vast majority of children in Vancouver, we walked unaccompanied to the local public school: Maple Grove, a half-mile away, for elementary grades; Point Grey, more like a mile away, for junior high; then Magee, next to Maple Grove, for high school. My Vancouver childhood winters involved chilblained hands and soaked shoes; the girls, who were not allowed to wear pants to school, suffered worse than we boys did. Fewer than 10 "rich kids" had cars in high school and ostentatiously drove them there each day.
Our family did not have a car until about 1956 or 1957, and I have vague recollections of travelling with my mother on trams when she went shopping. Our car purchase coincided with the opening of the Oakridge shopping centre with its Woodward's Food Floor, an experience my mother took to like a duck to water. On Sundays, wearing our Sunday best, we joined the flow of Anglicans on Wiltshire Street going to the little church on 57th near the tracks.
There were a half-dozen Jewish children in my class, one Canadian-born Japanese girl and one Chinese boy who lived with relatives above the Granville Market grocery store on 41st. The rest of us were white and mainly Protestant (devoutly Catholic parents sent their children to private Vancouver College). In about grade four a family moved into the area from Iran, no doubt fleeing persecution from the shah, and the boy joined our class; the "phys-ed" teacher asked a group of us to teach him how to play baseball after school so he wouldn't feel left out.
Children in that era grew up almost entirely in their neighbourhoods, so my experience of the rest of the city was very limited. True west-siders didn't even know what the Lions were, as you had to be at least as far east as Cambie to see them. Only the Pacific National Exhibition each August took us across the great divide between west and east. However, some Saturday mornings (part of the office work week in the 1950s) my brother and I went with our father to his office in the BC Electric building at Carrall and Hastings. His window looked out onto the roofs of Chinatown; sometimes we ate at the Ho-Inn or the Ho-Ho before returning home on the bus.
In the spring we played on a softball team of company employees' sons at the newly reclaimed False Creek Park at Heatley and Prior, next to the old city garbage dump. On the way I stared at the Georgia Viaduct with its antique globe streetlamps, the old gasworks, the unpainted Strathcona houses and the poor old men standing outside the Main Street beer parlours. I had never seen grown men riding bicycles and had to reason my way through to the fact that they didn't have enough money for a car. On Remembrance Day we went to the Cenotaph, but I was as fascinated with the worn old buildings and people nearby as with the sharp uniforms and pageantry of the soldiers. Sometimes even the Norris cartoons in the Sun, such as the ones on pages 31 and 111, could open a door for me onto a part of the city I hadn't seen.
In 1957 my father's office moved uptown to the new BC Electric building at Burrard and Nelson, and my view of the world outside changed. Next to the gleaming office tower were streets of decaying rooming houses, shabby apartments and auto repair garages. In those years my mother got her hair done in a converted old house on Beach Avenue about a block from Stanley Park, and as I waited for her I used to watch the construction cranes transforming the West End skyline. All my early memories of the city were of a place in transition, the old making way for the new, except, of course, in Kerrisdale, which seemed tranquil and increasingly bland.
The rate of change increased when, as a teenager, I discovered hippie Kitsilano and the gloriously faded Embassy Ballroom, then called the Retinal Circus, on Davie Street. I was a little too young and cautious to become fully engaged, as it were, in the goings-on of 1967 and 1968, but what stuck in my mind's eye as much as the plumage of the brightly coloured people was the peeling, picturesque quality of the neighbourhood. It could not have been more different from my parents' tidy realm and seemed to reflect what had been happening to us socially. We were just on the cusp of moving from formal high school proms, dance cards and convertibles to pot and crash houses; suddenly, the orderly progression from high school to university to job to marriage seemed optional.
From 1972-75 I lived in a series of rooms and basement suites, mainly in Fairview Slopes and Kitsilano. From the porch of 1346 West 6th, a crumbling house with black-painted walls I covered with cheery Indian cotton bedspreads, I watched the demolition of old False Creek's industry. One winter I lodged in the rooming house at 1696 West 11th ($50 a month), then found a basement suite on Walnut Street on Kits Point, then moved to a cheaper basement suite ($85 a month) at 2121 Macdonald.
The last was about 300 square feet with its own door from the side lane and about six feet of headroom between the beams. The tiny kitchen had a double hot plate, a cracked sink and an old fridge that buzzed all night. "The heat pipes just cough" as in Dylan's Visions of Johanna. The toilet and shower were in the unfinished basement outside my room, among the cardboard boxes, spider webs and bare light bulbs of the landlord's domain. But it was cheap and, for better or worse, I could devote myself to my attempts at becoming an artist and writer without having to take a job and do what somebody else wanted me to do.
In retrospect that was part of the brilliance of Vancouver in the 1960s and 1970s. It was so affordable and, as long as you could tolerate the rather basic conditions, you could shelter yourself from the housing crunch that was pushing up prices for proper apartments every year. Later I "inherited" the attic of 2204 Macdonald (page 185), one of those places that passed from tenant to tenant through an informal network of friends and acquaintances. The landlord, who lived in Kerrisdale, was informed of each change but seemed happy with the situation as long as the rent cheques came in on time.
Fairview, Mount Pleasant and Kitsilano, where old houses waited quietly while businessmen and city planners dickered over the substance of redevelopment, provided a milieu and a muse. The way these neighbourhoods wore their layers of change, like a wardrobe of Value Village clothes, became the subject of much of my painting in books like this one -- and Vanishing Vancouver (Whitecap, 1990).
A few writers have tried to capture the transitional nature of Vancouver in that era and its influence on them. Stan Persky wrote about the poets and artists living in the Worth Block at Yew and York in Kitsilano, the nexus that created the Georgia Straight in 1967 (page 181).1 In his story "Buying Leo Dinner and Other Missed Bohemian Opportunities of a Vancouver Afternoon," Norman Ravvin described the West End, his neighbourhood in the 1970s, and the bohemian characters who thrived in its low-rent places. He quoted the curator of the Or Gallery, Reid Shier, describing what happened to the Hastings Street blocks near Woodward's in the 1980s: "The area was shit but livable, so artists moved in. The area became worse, so artists moved out." As Vancouver has gentrified in the last 20 or so years, the creative underclass has been pushed eastwards, with many now occupying old warehouse buildings like 1000 Parker near Clark and Venables -- ground zero for the annual East Side Culture Crawl. As these areas continue to change, it will be hard to guess bohemia's next stop.
The state of some of the Vancouver places I remember was close to the sort of Third World conditions I witness now while travelling abroad; with their demise, residents have either become gainfully employed or homeless. Homelessness got kick-started by the recession in the early 1980s, then picked up speed when Granville Street and the Downtown Eastside began to gentrify, initially with the conversion of old hotels to prepare them for Expo '86 visitors.
During my own trudge toward respectability, I have watched the city gradually lose these edge conditions in its old neighbourhoods. It is harder now to read the layers on the landscape. The city looks almost finished, dominated by shiny new buildings. Nearly a century ago at the end of the great Edwardian boom was the last time it looked neat and finished, or so it seems from the photographs of the time.
Vancouver's long decline and slow rebirth are the main themes of this book. Following the introduction, chapters describe the city's different downtown areas, using images from a variety of sources to illustrate the city in the years before Expo '86. The north side of False Creek is examined in the Yaletown chapter while the south side and Granville Island become part of a chapter describing Fairview and Mount Pleasant -- neighbourhoods linked historically by the streetcar belt line of 1891. Strathcona, the West End, and Kitsilano/Jericho get separate chapters. The various communities of the west side and east side are rolled together into the two concluding chapters.
The paintings are mainly small watercolours done over the past few years of places in the city still in a state of "becoming." Compared with the watercolours I painted many years ago for earlier books, these ones are rather simplified and unfinished, for I have decided that paintings have to leave a lot of room for the imagination. It would be fair comment to say that my point of view has become more detached than it once was; I seek high ground and long views in order to witness the obliteration of the Vancouver I remember.
The bird's-eye views are intended as illustrations more than documentary quality maps. They are a kind of freehand isometric drawing that defies much of what I learned from the Renaissance, and probably have their genesis in my occasional dreams of flying over the city. But however much of a guessing game they may be, neither aerial photography nor standard maps nor Google Earth could deliver the kind of information I wanted to convey. John Atkin loaned me his copy of the Vancouver Fire Atlas of the 1925-55 period, which helped greatly with their research.
I seem to have spent my career summing up places. Vanishing Vancouver focused on the values and priorities of residents during the immediate post-Expo period when the city was tearing itself to pieces. Vanishing British Columbia (UBC Press, 2005) is a set of as-found sketches of the rural parts of the province that are being abandoned due to urbanization and globalization. And Vancouver Remembered tries to sum up the pleasant seaport that existed before it became the self-congratulating "Dream City" and host of the 2010 Winter Olympics. It closes the circle I began in 1984 with Vancouver The Way It Was.