Tag Archives: Vancouver History

Burning Rituals

The detail of this map was sketched in by Major Matthews, Vancouver’s first Archivist, some 50 years after the fire that wiped out the new city of Vancouver on June 13th, 1886. Matthews interviewed dozens of Vancouver’s early inhabitants — many who were children when the fire occurred — and pieced together a detailed account of the fateful day.

The CPR work crews had been clearing land between the old Granville townsite (Gastown) and today’s Burrard Street, preparing their land grant to sell lots in anticipation of the coming railway, and the influx of new settlers it was expected to bring. They burned the massive slash piles and, as June 13, 1886 was a hot dry day, the conditions were ripe for the fires all over the area to catch and spread. The accounts tell of a “summer gale” blowing up from the west in the early afternoon, carrying embers that began raining down on the townsite. Within forty minutes of the first building catching fire, the whole town was ablaze.

The heat of the fire was apparently so intense that people were vapourized, and the sap of the wood buildings would heat and boil, making buildings literally explode into giant fireballs that leapt across streets and buildings like incendiary bombs. Of the town’s original 600+ buildings and shacks, only about half a dozen were spared, including the Hastings Sawmill, the town’s main source of industry and employment. The next day, the millowners opened their gates and allowed anyone to come and take lumber so that the rebuilding could begin immediately.

In order to prevent another destructive fire, many landowners decided to rebuild using bricks and mortar, and so the Gastown buildings we see today are mostly built of these materials. One exception, which can still be seen today on the SE corner of Hastings and Columbia, is the oldest original woodframe building in downtown (the original Hastings Mill store, which survived the fire, was later moved to the foot of Alma street and is now a museum).

125 years later, the Fire Department held a celebration of the history of firefighting in the city at Maple Tree Square. It was kind of odd for firefighters to choose this day — a day when the fire won and devastated the city — to celebrate their history. But burning rituals, like civic celebrations, help us to both remember the past, and move on from it. If I had a spot of land, or even a wood burning fireplace, I’d be burning a bunch of relics from my past as I prepare to move on from this chapter of my life, too.




A Banner Year

My son’s home ice hockey rink this year was the PNE Agrodome, which has an odd collection of ancient banners, trophies and photographs of old horsemen, 4Hers, hockey teams, and figure skaters. I often strolled the concourse before games and gazed at the trophies and banners, and read the detailed biographies of the founding B.C. horsemen. Some were born on farms in the Lower Mainland in the 1880s and 1890s, when there were just a few pockets of civilization linked by dirt and skidder roads carved through the predominant forest.

The Hastings Hockey Association, which was originally located in the Forum circa 1930, was the forerunner to the Vancouver Minor Hockey Association that my son plays in now. Like most things in Vancouver, the City is divided into two hockey associations, with the VMHA representing the East Side and downtown, and the immeasurably better-funded Thunderbirds playing for the West Side.

Over the first few years of playing hockey, my son’s teams have often been trounced by the dreaded T-Birds. Teams from Richmond, Burnaby and New West often beat them too, but there always seemed to be a little extra frustration (especially among the parents) when they lost to the West Siders.

But this year, after 4 years of playing on hockey teams that lost far more games than they won, my son’s team had an impressive 18-2-2 record. They won every game against the T-Birds teams, and finished in first place out of 18 teams in their President’s League division. For the first time, my son’s team won a banner – a rare feat for the East Side kids.

The banner will be hung in Britannia Arena, just one of dozens that hang there from bygone eras. But, hopefully, in 20 years or so my son will take his own kids there and point up into the rafters, and tell them the story of his first banner year.


Kissing Goodbye to the Spiritual Core of Vancouver

A couple of weeks ago, I had the immense pleasure of having dim sum in Chinatown with architect Joe Wai and a couple of other friends who have been working on finding solutions to help preserve the Historic Area against being steamrolled by market forces. Five condo towers of 150 feet are being proposed for Main Street just north of the viaducts.

My feelings about the Historic Area Height Review and approving towers in the heritage district are well documented — I oppose this plan and feel it is sheer stupidity and greed that is driving it. Vancouver stands to lose and/or denigrate its historical core by letting this happen. In a city becoming increasingly homogenized, sanitized and void of unique neighbourhoods, the HAHR plan seeks now to extend the awful modernist, car-centric urbanism of the City Gate towers north into the unique, human-scaled urbanism of Chinatown. It’s the thin edge of the wedge, one that of course started with the Woodwards towers, and the rampant speculation by developers that followed its approval.

Joe Wai, a man with a long and honourable history in Chinatown, has a slightly different take, which he has articulated in The Tyee:

Why Chinatown Needs to Grow Taller

Vancouver’s historic district is struggling for its spiritual identity. If done right, higher buildings could help it succeed.

By Joe Wai, 16 Mar 2011, TheTyee.ca

Last Thursday eleven major Chinatown organizations held a media conference in support of the Vancouver planning department’s Historic Area Height Review Report.

The zoning changes recommended in the report, which will be open to public discussion at tomorrow’s city council meeting, would allow taller buildings in Chinatown — though nothing like the soaring towers proposed in the past. If this report is approved, in Chinatown’s historic core, building heights could rise 10 feet above their current height, to a new limit of 75 feet. And the southeastern corner of Chinatown could see buildings of 120 feet — even, in one stretch of Main Street, 150 feet.

Chinatown’s united front backing this vision includes the merchants, residents, cultural and service groups that do not always agree on all community issues. Evidently the Historic Area Height Review is an issue that all Chinatown groups can come together around, just like their opposition to the freeway planned to go through Chinatown some 40 or so years ago.

The irony is that the adjacent neighbourhood organizations, in particular the Carnegie Action Committee and the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council, would prefer to have a local area planning process started for the related area, including Chinatown, before considering  any higher buildings in the district.

But the Chinatown groups had been working on their plans through the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalization Committee with city planning for the last 10 years. The groups are totally fed up with the prospect of yet another round (and years) of more meetings.

The Historic Area Height Review was debated in public information meetings from April 2009 to January 2010. This version is what city council asked the planning department to proceed with after listening to over 75 speakers in January 2010.

It is a tragedy for neighbourhoods to be pitted against one another.

Those who oppose this proceeding immediately are concerned that higher density and taller buildings will

displace the low-income residents. I don’t believe that has to be the case. There is a need for Chinatown to evolve with some flexibility for increased density, which would be helpful as long as the streetscape character can be maintained and its spiritual identity reinforced.

How to deal with community evolution

Before we attempt to proceed with this current debate, let us step back a little.

With emancipation and citizenship in 1947, Chinatown began a process of slow change. The rest of Vancouver took two decades to notice. The civic mindset, however, remained the same from city hall’s point of view. As cities grew, new vehicular access was deemed a necessity whether the local residents knew it or not. That meant a freeway running through the slum-like “Chinatown” of the planners’ imaginations.

How many people really cared about Chinatown in the mid-1960s? Well, apparently enough, even besides those who lived and worked there. However well-meaning, the society at large still viewed Chinatown as an oddity, though a worthwhile area where by then food and evening entertainment had wider appeal. The younger generation of all ethnic backgrounds found it an inexpensive venue. Most of the “opium and gambling dens” that had supposedly festered prior to World War II were now gone.

In proposing to demolish all of this with a freeway, city hall decided to compensate Chinatown with new grandeur. For example, the 20-foot-high ramp over Pender and Carrall Streets could be designed with two levels of retail shops — just like the Ginza in Tokyo (where they had no other choice). A tranquil park space on Pender Street would be a memorial to Chinese-Canadian history: ‘See, we honour you poor Chinese.’

Academics and activists, from UBC in particular, helped to orchestrate a protest against the freeway and formed a new civic party that encouraged change of societal values. Hope stirred in those who valued better communities. Jane Jacobs was only middle-aged. The talk was about vibrant neighbourhoods, with people relating to each other rather than to cars. The debate took seven years to calm down.

As late as 1973, remnants of the freeway system would surface for city council’s review and approval, even though the system had been defeated in 1967 and 1969. The imaginary “Chinatown” still had a grip.

So, what is it about Chinatown? Why do some of us think it is valuable? Valuable to whom? Thirty years and many events after the first phase of the Chinese Cultural Centre, these questions remain.

Thirty years of demographic change

During the past 30 years, the demographics of Vancouver’s Chinese-origin people have changed radically. Numbers have quadrupled, mostly by immigration from Hong Kong, then Taiwan and recently the PRC. We estimate that these immigrants comprise about 70 per cent (or 250,000) of all people of Chinese origin in our region. They brought with them different values, different aspirations and different expectations. They even started their own Chinatowns, in Richmond, the Westwood Plateau, South Vancouver, Burnaby, and Vancouver East. In short, they have different cultural characteristics and different visions of “Chinatown.”

So, what do we do? Tear down Chinatown and rebuild it with maximum return in mind? Why do we even contemplate revitalizing it? What is there to revitalize? Who should be party to making such suggestions? The planners are no longer paternal (well, most of them anyway) and they are no longer English, or middle-aged males.

Since the Freeway Debates (1966-1973), many other groups have formed in addition to the traditional “ancient” associations or societies. They didn’t necessarily agree with each other. But they led to the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalization Committee (VCRC), as set up by city planning in 2001.

Over the past decade, the VCRC, which is made up of many Chinatown residents, conducted 26 “visioning” sessions to prioritize its needs. City Planning, meanwhile, commissioned studies on market housing on the tight 25-foot-wide sites. It started a heritage incentive program that offered density transfers and tax exemptions in exchange for the restoration of heritage buildings. City planning also supported the Chinatown Association Buildings Society and contributed significantly to the consultants’ studies on what to do with such venerable century-old iconic buildings.

Finally, when something like a “community plan” emerged after a decade, City Planning unveiled the Historic Area Height Review (HAHR) in April 2009. It felt as if the old planners were back in force, with visions of 300-foot towers in the Historic District (HA.1) zoning — one proposed immediately next to the cultural centre and the classical garden.

So what was this all about? The explanation was yet another effort to provide a “landmark” for Chinatown in its struggle to “revitalize.” Those who cared viewed this as the second coming of the Freeway Debates. Once again, sleepy Chinatown was asked to undergo another drastic facelift.

The spiritual identity of Chinatown

What is “Chinatown” anyway? If it is no longer an opium/gambling den, would the non-Chinese be glad to have it back with neon lights everywhere? With some fully restored 1900-era buildings, could we say that we as a city support “heritage” (and would we draw more tourists)?

Or do we have new “contemporary, green” 12-, 15- or 30-storey condo towers and other luxurious or “fusion” facilities, which save one floor for a “Chinese Cultural Centre” at its present site?

To some, it is none of the above. Firstly, it is a spiritual identity: the integration of history, culture and physical characteristics.

Simplistically, it is like skating on the frozen Rideau Canal in Ottawa, or playing hockey on backyard Prairie ice rinks. It is the identity of the place and the people, integrated with their cultural history. It is their sense of place.

These qualities are an expression of Chinatown as it was and as it is. The “spiritual identity” factor has also changed to ensure its survival. Some Chinatown institutions need to be sustained: the associations, the different retail and commercial outlets, the restaurants and food suppliers. In other cases, the old institutions are gone. The gambling clubs have been replaced by the cultural centre, the social services centre, S.U.C.C.E.S.S. multi-care facility, the large parkade, and the classical Chinese garden, among others. Thus Chinatown has seen significant organic growth, albeit comparatively slowly.

The district schedule has also changed. In 1989 a few colleagues and I were asked to conduct a review for such change. This resulted from complaints within the Chinatown community over the restrictive development parameters of 1974.

In our discussions, someone suggested allowing a good portion of the Historic District to be rezoned “HA.1A,” with far less restriction on height and design directives. I was appalled until I reflected further on the few designated blocks and the already-changing activities and demographics of Chinatown. The HA.1A idea was further reviewed in 1992 by other consultants under a much more conservative senior heritage planner.

Chinatown went ballistic and accused the planner of discrimination. This was another one of those times when I had to explain that, “City hall does that to every neighbourhood and not just Chinatown,” because heritage was its focus at that time. Over 125 hours of volunteer meeting time were expended to arrive at a “compromise,” which included the 90-foot height limit in HA1.A, and 65 feet in the HA.1 zone.

Predictably, there was not much redevelopment because of the land ownership pattern upon its enactment in 1994. The current Historic Area Height Review has had its debate in multiple public consultation meetings, culminating with city council’s January 2010 approval of an incremental height increase to 75 feet for the HA.1 and 120 feet for HA1.A.

Keep architecture on a human scale

Based on observations of the past 41 years, I didn’t have much difficulty with this. My concerns are with the 150-foot height allowable from Keefer and Main southwards. The most galling possibility is that the high street wall would resemble any other “downtown” street.

Now, to me, this is a fundamental point of what “Chinatown” is. Spiritual identity, history and cultural activities are indispensable. However, the architecture is that of a human scale; the architectural identity is that of a particular rhythm and character, without which it could not begin to house any semblance of similar spiritual identity, let alone abide the erasure of what remains of the cultural history.

While it is essential to retain Chinatown’s scale and character, this would not preclude the use of innovative design to complement the truly iconic buildings and would reinforce the overall streetscape experience.

“Chinatown” may yet further evolve into another phase. The HA1.A area today is already far different from what it was in 1994. Virtually new communities have been formed on the 200 block of East Georgia and Union Streets. Happily, these seem active and sometimes even chaotically vibrant. These streets have 10-storey buildings, but they are well set back from the street, and show two or three storeys, which respect compatibility with the streetscape.

This is the intention for HA.1A. Denser developments are required by those who develop them, but it is critical to maintain a streetscape compatible with the “spiritual identity” and activities of a vibrant street life. Perhaps then we shall indeed see more organic growth in “Chinatown,” whatever we think Chinatown means.

It has been 10 years since the city began its consultation with the VCRC. Many public information sessions have been conducted, including the “visioning” process, the market housing and the associations’ building studies. Frankly, “Chinatown” interests, whether the associations or the merchants, are fed up with the continuing delay for a public hearing to proceed on the decisions they made with city council’s general approval in January 2010.

One exception is city staff’s proposal of the 150-foot street wall on Main Street. If allowed to build straight up from the property line, or even with a ten-foot setback at 70 feet, it would indeed be the new “Great Wall of Chinatown.” This needs much further review regarding the depth of the setbacks and streetscape livability before being considered.

My aspirations for “Chinatown” are related to its ability to retain its spiritual identity while meeting the different levels of change that are not limited to physical annihilation, but cultural subversion.

If an organism has managed to survive a period of successive crises, it has the resilience and resourcefulness to prevail. In a world of increasing homogeneity, distinctive cultural character, integrity of form and cultural expression are both hard to find and hard to maintain. However, the form is less important than the essence, as long as such essence can continue to regenerate its spiritual identity.

— Joe Wai has been involved with senior/social housing and a volunteer in Chinatown community issues for over 40 years. He is also the architect of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the Chinatown Millennium Gate, the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum and Archives, the Chinatown Parkade and Plaza, and the Commemoration of Block 17 as well as many restorations of the early Chinatown Society buildings.

Santa Saturnina

This map was first published in France in 1798, and is the first map to chart the Gulf of Georgia and the coastline around what is now the City of Vancouver. The map combined the explorations by the Spanish and English explorers in the early 1790s.

Although George Vancouver explored the area for about 2 weeks in June, 1792, it was the Spanish, a year earlier in 1791 under Jose Maria Narvaez, who were the first Europeans to sail the waters around Vancouver. Narvaez’s ship was called the Santa Saturnina.

Vancouver first met the Spanish in the area–Valdez and Galiano–on June 23th, 1792 at Point Roberts. The explorers compared maps and shared information, and met several times again before leaving the Gulf area for good–not having found the Northwest Passage.

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Death of the Pantages Theatre?

“They’re in the old tailor shop at 134 E Hastings tearing up the hardwood flooring, and salvaging timber. They’ve built pass-throughs from there into the old Blue Eagle at 130 E Hastings and into the building to the east, doing the same work – so basically all 3 of the low rise buildings in the land assembly. The worker I spoke to said they’re going to move east to the 2 storey building directly beside the theatre, then on to the theatre itself. Looks like only a matter of time now. I wondered since the For Sale signs dissappeared.”

From a citizen named Ron, on January 28th, 2011.

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I swear to God, if our current City Council lets this happen, they will live in shame for the rest of their lives…


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Embracing the Olympic Spirit Can be Unpredictable

Well, I decided to take the advice of Olympics boosters and get in the spirit. So, my son and I went downtown today looking for some fun. To start things off right, and to fully indulge in the Olympic spirit, our first stop was breakfast at McDonalds, the official restaurant of the 21st Olympic Games. It’s not often we go to this place, but what the hell, let’s indulge, eh?

My son convinced me to get him a cinnamon swirl for breakfast, and begged me for a large Coke, too. Of course, I said no. But he kept at it, and argued persuasively that Coke was an Olympic sponsor, too. I thought, kudos to you, kiddo, for being smart enough to exploit the loophole I presented you today. So I relented.

Would you like to supersize that?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!!!

Well, he drank about a litre of the stuff, wrangled a refill out of the counter girl, and, when I went to the washroom to vomit up my egg mcmuffins, the little bugger had the gall to swill down half of my Coke too.

Now, most kids these days grow up on chips and pop, so they can handle the stuff by the time they reach 9 years old. Sugar and caffeine coursing through a child’s veins is de riguer in our society. We addict our kids at a very young age.

But we try our best to be responsible parents, and I have never let our son drink Coke and rarely let him have sugary stuff. So, thanks to his abolitionist parents, my son is a bit of a lightweight when it comes to sugar and caffeine. He doesn’t always handle it too well, and today was worse than most days…

As we left the place, I could see in his eyes that something was not quite right. He was literally bouncing off buildings and people, his hands were shaking, and he started spouting gibberish I couldn’t understand.

Well, he practically sprinted up Granville to Georgia, bashing into tourists and public art every three steps, until we ended up where a bunch of protesters had gathered in front of a police line. It was still a peaceful protest at this point, and although there was certainly the potential for things to turn ugly, it didn’t seem too likely, despite what all the reports say about black-clad anarchists looking to fuck things up.

But, after spinning in circles about ten times, my son somehow managed to wrap his scarf around his face and eyes. To the surprise of anarchists and cops alike, my pint-sized whirling dervish began body checking newspaper boxes over, punching parked cars, and kicking cops in the shins.

At this point, all the chicken-shit anarchists must have feared that they were going to look like a bunch of woosies for just chanting some lame slogans and carrying signs. They were being shown up by a little kid!

Finally, when my son (with superhuman strength, mind you) picked up a paper box and hurled it through a window at the Bay and yelled, “Corporate greed is ruining the world!” the anarchists finally got the balls to join in.

The riot had started, but, to be honest here, the anarchists did very little of the damage. Sure, they took all the credit to try and save face (which is fine by me), but most of the VANOC cars damaged and paper boxes overturned and broken windows were actually the result of a kid with way too much Coca Cola in his system.

So, I apologize sincerely to the people of Vancouver on behalf of my son, the agent provocateur who actually started the riot today. All we really wanted was to have an Olympic experience, get in the official spirit of the Games, and have some good, clean fun.

The mainstream media will, predictably, blame the anarchists for all the trouble. But the reality is, my son simply ate too much sugary Mcdonalds food and drank way too much Coke. And then he went berserk.

So, when you think about it, the big corporations really are to blame for the sad state of affairs that occurred today.

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Heightened Senses: A Late Night Walk in the Rain

What’s that you say? Public support for any tower proposal was virtually non-existent?

At the risk of being tossed in the klink for a sideways glance on Day Six of the DES popo pre-Olympic sweep, last night I took a late stroll around Chinatown to check out the only TWO tower sites approved, right? Huh? Right? Um, well, unless we consider… the financial considerations… cause someone, I’m not sure who, might have maybe inquired, so we thought maybe we’d look into it, on the City’s dime…

Nothing like a walk in the rain to heighten your senses! It’s money well spent, so to speak. Unlike other things….

I reconfirmed in my own mind that the Budget Rental site one could sorta swallow a high rise on, given Fung owns it and it’s still under the height of the Sun – pretty much anything will improve this intersection, And hey, now someone will be there to complain to Alex Tsakumis about the pissing drunks, loud groups of girls, too many furries coming and going, or the constant reek of McDonald’s deep fryers from across the street in Tinseltown.

But 8 East Pender on the SE corner at Carrall (bordering the new Greenway no less) is right across the alley to the north of Sun Yat Sen. So how the heck is this site any different than the site Council nixed at Keefer Square or the Cultural Centre site that didn’t even make it to Council? It’s still 150 feet over and above Sun Yat Sen, and much closer to it than Keefer Square. Remember, the business plan here says: go for UNESCO World Heritage Site. But, but… the Scholar’s Room won’t see this one unless you stand on your tippy toes, so, yeah, its totally OK, and there’ll be no shadows coz it’s to the north? A fine logic, indeed.

Yes, a tower and podium proposal to set it back …yawn… and lessen the spatial impact, but then, on the other side, across the street on Pender, a string of heritage pearls lie low, awaiting polishing. Either way, aspect ratio be damned, the sun will hardly illuminate the pearls, you know. And we’re gunning for FIFTEEN storeys here! Blah! It won’t matter what size plate you serve this thing up on…

And speaking of nimbys, I bet all these new high risers on Carrall will band together and force Rennie to take down Everything Will be Alright, or at least turn it off by nine pm so they don’t have to stare at it every bloody night from their roosts.

And, in an ode to how fast council quorums can make real estate decisions, the For Sale sign is already up on the old (unprotected heritage) service station in Keefer Square – the one tower site that got nixed by Council. I guess there’s really no point in updating the Heritage Register at this point, eh? It certainly wasn’t on the agenda presented to council by Planning, because hey, this review is all about high ideals, right? Groans (from speculative heights). More groans.

Twelve storey Paris-style apartments traversing the Hastings parade route! Think of it, even higher than the ugly Luxling! Quick, wall that whole sucker in before an Area Plan process is approved! The 20% is already institutionalized; so there’s really no limit to what we can do here now, old boy! Ever been to Greenwich, mate?

For Wendy P, and all the starving or successful artists who used to live around here, a final thought to ponder about the INTENSIFICATION! policy that’s behind all this, as quoted from a Skyscraper:

“These changes should allow the populate to increase from 8000 today to just under 17000 upon build-out in about 20-40yrs.” (Sic)

Most of you will be dead by then anyway, eh? It doesn’t really matter if it’s livable.

And either way, I’ll still be a ghost.

So I’ll give it a rest, already…

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