The Decision Tree

30 June 2022 — Have you ever noticed?

No matter how rigorous your methodology…

No matter how scrupulous your self-analysis…

All paths lead to sugar.

City Centre: The Triad of Transformation

24 June 2022 (et salut, la Fête St-Jean-Baptiste) – You don’t look at it and say, “Aha, a triad of connected interests, a strategic partnership, just look how that business plan is rolling out.”

You say, “Wow! Look at all that paint!”

Indeed. Paint has taken a 1950s motor hotel, which finally closed its weary doors in 2021…

and turned it into this.

May I introduce you to the City Centre Motor Hotel? A Mount Pleasant (Vancouver) landmark, iconic as all-get-out, pure mid-century North American vernacular architecture — and an anachronism. A magnet for urban historians, but not for travellers.

No surprise it was sold. No surprise it was bought by a real-estate group “for redevelopment potential.”

And that’s where the surprises began — the phone calls & sparky minds that brought together The Narrow Group (an East-Van group dedicated to providing art/music/dance/food/drink in historic spaces), Nicola Wealth Real Estate (dedicated to “creating cash flow and wealth through real estate”) and the Vancouver Mural Festival (dedicated to “providing large-scale murals, street art and experiences”).

They found a community of interests. Nicola Wealth knew it would take years to sort out redevelopment best options and permits, and was receptive when Narrow Group’s David Duprey called up suggesting a temporary lease. Deal! VMF was happy to jump into the mix — a new hub for its work as well.

Result: some 70+ ratty old motel units have been transformed into low-rent artist work spaces, and the Mural Festival has just pulled off its biggest mural yet, with more than 30,000 sq ft of building/parking lot coverage. The city has its newest temporary (2 1/2 years or so) community space for art and social connection.

I suddenly pay attention because all that paint is being flung around quite literally under my eye (when my eye happens to be on my balcony or up in our roof-top garden). Also because this very weekend will be a launch party for the repurposed building, and a tease for the Aug 4-14 festival, promising 30+ new murals in 8 neighbourhoods and 11 straight days of paint, talks, tours, events and street parties.

Here’s your preview: last-minute prep for this weekend’s party…

but so much already in place, whether your eye tracks vertical…

or horizontal.

For all the happy colours and popping design, the artists and everyone else close to this world know there is a dark side with dark stories, lives no longer being lived but honoured “in memory.”

So it is not through ignorance, but with a kind of clear-eyed courage & optimism that these artists & urban adventurers throw all their creativity & shrewd instincts into exploring what else they can do, what else is possible, how to dance the best damn dance to the beat of the day, this very day.

And in the process, they offer the rest of us a whale of a time.

Yaletown: art & history & life & even buttercups

18 June 2022 – Well, that title is a big promise but the City’s Yaletown Art Walking Tour delivers as promised, yes it does. So lace up your imaginary boots, and away we go.

The loop is just 3 km long, from green-go to red-stop, but it circles us around downtown streets and the north shore of False Creek, with reminders all along the way of the past that informs our present.

This area has been home to indigenous peoples for millennia, and to settlers since the late-ish 19th century. It gained this name after the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) finally crossed the entire country, and then relocated its construction equipment & repair shops from the community of Yale in the Fraser Canyon to the railway’s new western terminus in Vancouver.

This area, therefore, now gentrifying at a bright glossy pace, is built on a history of long maritime use and more recent, but intense, industrial use. Public art references all that history, and picks up on modern concerns.

I walk the loop, but not quite exactly as shown. Since I arrive by Skytrain (“M” on the map), I’m already launched on the tour and skip the Roundhouse Community Centre starting point. That makes me also skip the tour’s first example of public art, but I substitute my own: the Blossom Umbrellas once again blooming in Bill Curtis Plaza next to Skytrain.

After that I do what the tour tells me to do. I make discoveries in the process, since I’ve never before walked this bit of territory just east of the station. First stop, Leaf Pond (aka Big Leaf), at the N/E intersection of Cambie & Pacific Blvd. I think this is the work of Barbara Steinman, but couldn’t quite pin it down.

I move in close. Indeed a leaf, indeed a pond — and I wish I still had the nimble legs to dance me down the leaf’s central vein.

But I don’t! So I prudently admire it from the sidewalk, and walk on.

The next work of art is anonymous — and that’s sort of the point. It is an 8-metre high gear salvaged from the swing span of an earlier Cambie Bridge (1911-1984), mounted here as Ring Geer, in tribute to all the workers and all the bridges that have served this part of town.

A bit farther east, and it’s time to turn south through Coopers Mews, leading me to False Creek. Coopers and the barrels they created were important to the area’s industrial strength, and an installation by the same name, Coopers Mews (by Alan Storey), honours that history.

The punctuation mark for the whole installation — of course — is five wooden barrels.

This brings us to the Seawall along the northern shore of False Creek, just west of the current Cambie Bridge. Surprisingly this art tour does not point out a significant work of art, on the very pillars of the bridge itself.

See? Those blue stripes, titled A False Creek (by Rhonda Weppler & Trevor Mahovsky), mark the 4-6 metre rise in water level now anticipated because of climate change. Even though not part of this walking tour, this installation is featured in another online brochure of public art in the area. It’s worth the click.

Westward ho, everybody, on along the pedestrian path that borders False Creek. For a while, the railing that separates us from the street above is itself a work of art: Lookout (by Christos Dikeakos & Notel Best). Words & phrases remind us of the layers of natural and industrial history that underlie what we enjoy today.

“Million and millions of herring” … “Acres of ducks” … “fish stories” …

Down at the foot of Davie Street, the soaring I-beam towers of Street Light (by Alan Tregebov & Bernie Miller)…

with texts incised into each limestone base that evoke another vignette, another moment, for our imaginations to relive.

Soon after, one of my favourite Seawall signs. Not part of the official tour, of course not, but it’s part of my tour. Pedestrian and cyclist paths run side-by-side, and this sign urges us all to pay attention.

Duly attentive, we walk on. This next installation, running from Davie Street on west to the foot of Drake, is a good example of “I don’t much like it but I’m glad it’s there.” Welcome to the Land of Light (by Henry Tsang) consists of words/phrases in both English and Chinook (a trading jargon of the day), all along the shoreline railing.

No, I don’t much like it as art, but yes I’m glad it’s there — both because public art should have a broader range than my own personal taste, and also because I suspect it’s the kind of work that seeps into your consciousness over time, and enriches you in the process.

Next up, something I do like very much, though I can’t say I understand it. (As if that mattered…) The Proud Youth (by Chen Wenling) came to us courtesy of the Vancouver Biennale. I remember heading for it, that first time, expecting to giggle. Instead, I admired it. Still do.

On again, more installations I love to revisit. We’re taking the long approach, lots of time to anticipate what we’ll see as we follow the curve of David Lam Park.

Track that line of stones to the point where the shoreline veers sharply left. See the circle of rocks? Good. Now track left, past that B&W pedestrian couple, to the circle of pillars topped by a ring . Good.

Those are a pair of sister installations, by Vancouverite Don Vaughan, landscape architect and artist. The first, Waiting for Low Tide

is complemented by the second, Marking High Tide. Vaughan also wrote the short poem incised into that upper ring: “The moon circles the earth and the ocean responds with the rhythm of the tides.”

The rhythm at the moment is such that there is no water to be seen — but yes, the tide washes in and out, and the dance continues.

I promised you buttercups! They’re all over the place at the moment, all that bright cheerful energy smacking your eye at every turn. We’re now climbing the steps up out of David Lam Park back to Pacific Blvd, and buttercups fill the slopes.

I like the sight of that guy over there — back to a tree, at peace in the sunshine with his iPad. Just one more of all the people enjoying this place, in all their different ways.

City pavement now, north side of Pacific Blvd between Homer & Drake. The pavement design is pleasing in and of itself…

xm

but there’s more to it than contrasting colours & herringbone pattern. This stretch, running along an ancient shoreline & punningly titled Footnotes (by Gwen Boyle), features 57 inset granite markers. Most are just a word or two — “Salmon Weir,” “Mussels,” “Beached,” “Hello,” “Shore Line” — but a few say more.

My favourite: this 1967 poem by poet & novelist (& GG Award-winner) Earle Birney, about a walk he took at the mouth of False Creek.

End of the walk, the loop now looped, we drop into the south plaza of Roundhouse Community Centre. The tour instructs us to notice the installation Terra Nova (by Richard Prince) on both the ground and the wall behind.

There it is. But what I like even more is the life all around it.

Here in the foreground, that man belting along on his tricycle (with walking poles stowed behind), and there in the background, close to the wall, a bride and her attendants, posing for post-wedding photographs.

Art, history, life and buttercups.

Five Blocks, 20 Minutes, One Morning

11 June 2022 – A subset of a longer walk home, and, as I wheel left onto West 11th Ave. from Yukon Street, I realize I’m on something close to auto-pilot. I have walked here before, and, even though I am in British Columbia, home of dramatic vistas, there is nothing even remotely dramatic about what’s on offer here.

It’s comfy/relaxed/family-residential all through this neighbourhood, nothing grander than that — though also affluent, one must add, because otherwise you don’t live in a detached home in this city. But it’s low-key, and it’s friendly, and I’m not here to pick a fight.

I decide to observe, really pay attention & observe, this specific five-block micro-culture, this specific June morning, as I spent 20 minutes or so walking east from Yukon to Main Street.

Distinctly amateur, but cheerful (& cheerfully punning) artwork pinned to a hydro pole…

yet another fairy garden at the base of a sidewalk tree…

eco-protest (speaking of “Fairy”) signage…

and beautifully maintained pre-1930s homes whose front porches and wide front steps welcome neighbourly interaction.

I think most of these homes are variations of Craftsman style (check your own impressions on the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s house styles webpage), though gingerbread-y flourishes on this house…

make me wonder if it’s earlier, perhaps Victorian. I don’t know, don’t hugely care; I just like the friendly mood, both hardscape & softscape, that dominates the street.

There are poppies & rustic swing gates…

rhodos & security plaques (friendly, yes; naïve, no)…

a canoe poised for adventure…

and a car-share vehicle and a rubber-tire swing, each poised for its own next adventure as well.

There are bike-only lanes on cross-streets, framed by more poppies and (again, I think) Cow Parsnip…

and, right at Main, giant asparagus.

This is one of my favourite murals. Because: (1) it is by Emily Gray, a local graphic artist who several years ago led a group of us on a terrific street-art tour; and (2) it offers an artist’s version of my “Cambie Loop” walk — west along the far side of False Creek from Science World (that white dome) to the Cambie Bridge, over the bridge, and back east along this near side.

Alas… While I encounter bikes, skate-boards and dragon boats a-plenty on this walk, I have yet to see any giant asparagus.

I live in hope.

Lost & Found & Restored

31 May 2022 — We’re in Camosun Bog, that magic enclave within Pacific Spirit Regional Park, delighted that the promised drizzle has become peek-a-boo sunshine. Our plan is to loop around the 300-metre boardwalk a couple of times, and then follow our feet onto trails that connect into the surrounding forest.

We pause at the Bog’s minute pond; walk alongside great carpets of sphagnum moss; read cheerfully instructive signboards about labrador tea/salal/huckleberry/blueberry/salmonberry/sun dew/ & more; and, at the very end of our first lap, we look for the tree with the carving.

The Tree With The Carving.

The one I noticed and showed you in April, “a thunderbird, perhaps?” I said. A carving someone had wedged in among some branches, making it impossible for my photo to capture the entire piece.

This time I can’t capture anything, because it isn’t there. Gone! Lost!

No. Not lost. Just tumbled to the ground, there by the tree trunk, behind the fence.

My friend fishes it out, holds it up. Still in perfect condition.

To make good news even better, I can finally pay tribute to the person who carved it, and give it the name he chose for it himself.

Jim Jules, Eagle Head, 2015, Nootka (now Nuu-chah-nulth) design. Later I look him up and, no, he is not an important carver, he does not seem to have a website of his own, and his works do not sell for impressive amounts of money. But he has a name, and a talent, and he creates works that honour his people — and this particular work now honours the Camosun Bog.

We restore the eagle to his perch in the tree, and continue our walk.

Onto side trails now, beyond the Bog, where buttercups spill through split-rail fencing…

moss-furred trees climb skyward…

a winding path guides our feet through the mixed deciduous-coniferous forest…

the high canopy sifts dappled sunlight onto our heads…

a web of sinewy roots embrace their nurse log…

and giant stumps wear their scars like medals, veterans of fire and logging.

Eventually we’re back in the Bog, and, just before heading out to city streets …

we spend a last moment with Jim Jules and the Eagle Head.


Strathcona: Cats to Containers

23 May 2022 — A sunny holiday weekend & I’m in East Van’s somewhat raffish Strathcona neighbourhood, which began attracting settlers in the 1880s and is thus the oldest in the city. (Well, “old” in settler terms, but nothing special for the Coast Salish peoples, who have been here for millennia…)

But I am here today, and not arguing with anyone or even with history. There is peace & good humour all around, starting with the cats I happen to meet.

Lucy (as her name tag later explains) is bolt upright on her bench, roughly at the transition point between the historic Chinatown district and Strathcona to the east. As a friend later remarks, she looks for all the world as if she is waiting for someone to deliver her latte.

Next cat is indoors, neatly framed by that dramatic red duct tape, and almost invisible. Locate his white central pattern, and imagine the black that surrounds it.

Final cat is also the other side of a window, but oblivious to all. “For the cat,” says the pillow beside his bed, and his flanks, softly rising/falling/rising/falling as he sleeps, prove that as far as he is concerned, everything is for the cat.

Enough cats. Think gardens, nature, greenery & blossoms leaping up as spring finally takes hold.

There are planned gardens all around, this one literally rising to the demands of its topography (and reminding me of Upper Beach gardens among Toronto ravines). Bonus: the mid-century Vancouver Special architecture of the home up top.

Some yards are just as bright, just as exuberant — but untouched by human hand. Nature Gone Wild, is what we have here, in this totally untended forecourt, and isn’t it terrific?

Then there’s the whole art-in-Strathcona experience.

Some of it official, indoors, in galleries. Like the very engaging Gallery George, whose current show, Ebb and Flow, lures me inside. Nautical theme; diverse media to express it, including these duets of blown glass to driftwood.

No need to visit galleries, however appealing.

Just walk down a few streets. There is front-porch art (here, a woven hanging)…

side wall murals (I wait for that white spud.ca truck to pull away before I can get the shot)…

even rock art, this one in a parkette at Hawks & East Georgia.

I’ve seen a few other story stones, notably over by Vanier Park. It seems to have been a Millennium project, collecting local stories to incise into rocks to honour a specific street, memory, person, time. Here Dr. Anthony Yurkovich, who worked his way through medical school in local canneries but later became a major civic benefactor, describes his young life At Home on Keefer Street.

It begins: “At Christmas 1934 my father came home from the Tuberculosis Hospital knowing he was dying…”

I take that in, then walk north on Hawks and move from rock art to found-object art. Specifically, two ancient wash tubs back-to-back with plant life valiantly fending for itself in both, followed by (that rusty rectangle farther north) an equally ancient bath tub. Whose plant life is also a survival experiment.

Beyond the bathtub, at Hawks & Keefer, a fine if somewhat fading example of street-intersection art.

It leads us very nicely into examples of historic housing, because that red awning marks the Wilder Snail Neighbourhood Grocery & Coffee store, housed in a 1910 building. I go in, you knew I would, order my latte and then sit for all the world like that first cat we met — neatly arranged in my space, alert for the signal that my coffee is ready.

1910 fine, but here’s an older building, 1904 to be precise and built by a city policeman — but that’s not the most interesting thing about it. Nor is its period architecture, nor its authentic period colours.

The really interesting thing is the information on that plaque out front. From 1938 to 1952 this was the Hendrix House, owned by Zenora (Nora) and Ross Hendrix, former Dixieland vaudeville troupers, later pillars of the Vancouver Fountain Chapel — and grandparents to Jimi Hendrix. A ’60s guitar trailblazer whose importance I won’t even try to describe, while still a child Jimi often stayed with his Vancouver based family and attended school here for a while.

While alley-hopping my way to Campbell St. between East Hastings and East Pender, I not only meet the sleeping cat I showed you earlier, I notice this fresh lettering on the brick building opposite. Very fresh and bright, and in high contrast to the near-illegible signage below.

Only when I turn the corner onto Campbell, and study the mural map that runs between the alley and East Hastings, do I learn the mystery of St. Elmo.

Find the turquoise lozenge — You Are Here — and read all about the St. Elmo Hotel, right next to it. It was built in 1912 and home, like so many structures around here, to waves of immigrants seeking work and a new beginning. These days, if I’m reading my online search correctly, the St. Elmo Hotel has been trendified into the St. Elmo Rooms, and offers “microsuites” to the middle class — in-comers at quite a different level than their predecessors.

Soon I’m on East Hastings near Clark Drive, eyeing more proof of the new Strathcona: The Workspaces at Strathcona Village. (Soon as you see the word “Village” in a title, you know an old neighbourhood is seriously on the rise.)

I sound snarky, but I’m not. I like it. I like what it is: three towers of mixed residential/office/industrial/retail space, including social housing along with market-price condos. I love the jutting stacked-container look. It’s reminiscent of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67 experiment, and nods very nicely to the ubiquitous containers of today, which bring everything from everywhere via ship and rail and are then endlessly repurposed.

I’m on the far side of the street, just where Hastings flies over some streets and parkland below. I look over the edge on my side, and there they are.

Containers!

I laugh. It all fits together.

Sites & Sights

19 May 2022 – Warmish again, air truly soft for the first time, and not raining. I walk a loop.

Over to South China Creek Park

where I see dandelion fluff, glowing in the sunshine,

a kiddies’ birthday party in the play area down below,

and, up here, some celebratory “candles” on a red horse chestnut tree.

Back along East Broadway

where a crochet heart offers a hug to this derelict site,

and the reassurance, “We care,”

while a bit farther west I meet a fox (or perhaps a dog),

a rabbit,

a whole clowder/cladder/cluster/pounce of cats (choose your favourite collective term; mine is “pounce”),

and a trio of rhodo blooms, with the one in the middle showing the other two how it’s done.

And finally north on Main Street.

Where I discover a Buddhist gone bad!

Or so it says.

Artspeak

8 May 2022 – “Artspeak” is the term that I (and some equally snippy friends) use to disparage gallery signage we consider unduly precious about the art they are describing.

This Japanese camellia blossom, recently dropped into this bronze hand, made me think about that term another way ’round.

Restore ‘speak’ to verb form, I say to myself: the power of art to communicate with the viewer.

More specifically, the power of some public art pieces to speak so powerfully to passers-by — everyday, you-and-me passers-by — that they become part of their community, adopted by that community, beloved.

My mind jumps a few kilometres east to my own neighbourhood park, officially Guelph Park, unofficially and pervasively Dude Chilling Park. Because of this bronze statue by Michael Dennis…

officially Reclining Figure, but unofficially The Dude who — just look at him — is chilling. We chill with him. We hang with him from our favourite park bench…

and we cuddle up to him with our picnic lunches.

The fact I enjoy seeing this kind of familiarity is… extraordinary. I respect art work! It is art, dammit, so admire with your eyes and keep your hands (and other bodily bits) safely out of range! And yet…

With the onset of the pandemic, The Dude became not only beloved, but comforting. The park was a safe place to visit, everybody carefully distanced, and, for the first time, I saw people sit on the plinth, creep into the Dude’s embrace. He is now regularly visited this way. He has never been vandalized.

Very similar story for another bronze sculpture, this one by Henry Moore: Large Two Forms, which for a very long time sat by the sidewalk at the north-east corner of the Art Gallery of Ontario, owner of the sculpture (and much more by Moore as well). Not fenced off, fully accessible, right there by a street car stop. Torontonians have a history of loving works by Henry Moore — this one more physically than the rest. Of course it featured in endless selfies! And of course people sat in its convenient curves, or boosted their children to slide through those curves, while waiting for a street car!

I took this photo in 2015, when the statue had already become seriously weathered — except for that bright patch in the middle, constantly burnished by hands and backsides.

More recently, the AGO has had the statue restored and moved into the equally refurbished (and public) Grange Park to the south of the art gallery. A recent AGO communiqué shows it sparkling bright — but, apparently, still accessible to loving hands.

Back to that camellia, dropped into a local bronze hand, right here at Main and East 24th.

The blossom caught my eye, as I walked past. How could it not?

A child offering a flower to a fire fighter… I read the plaque, later go online. This statue honours the BC Professional Fire Fighters Burn Fund, a charitable organization that does exactly what the name suggests — offers help to burn victims. My guess is that the flower is a very personal tribute, to one instance of that help and the difference it has made in someone’s life.

Statues and floral tributes. My mind jumps years and continents to land in Havana, Cuba, in 2009. I’m revisiting Habana Vieja to write a story for Outpost about the places that my habanero friends love best in their city. One example: the Plaza de San Francisco in general, and this bronze statue in particular.

This is sculptor José Villa’s representation of a much loved local street person, nicknamed El Caballero de París for his insistence (unlikely) that he came of aristocratic French origins. One friend remembered him, still a familiar figure in her childhood: “He was a love! He refused to go into an institution, so everybody fed him and looked after him.” She then sang for me a local ballad, composed in his honour, about the way he greeted his community: “… con una flor tan linda para tí / y un saludo para mí.”

The pretty flowers are now being offered to him, not by him, and on a regular basis. I just happen to pass by when the offering is an Ostrich Plume (aka Red Ginger, or Alpinia purpurata, and thank you to my generous Master Gardener friend, who identified it for me).

I remember lingering across the street, watching the community greet their Caballero. Again and again, passers-by of all ages slowed for a moment, trailed their fingers across his hand or stroked his beard.

Or even…

threw their toddler arms around his legs.

Art that speaks.

Below/Above

2 May 2022 — Warm-ish & sunny-ish, and a lot of activity around, on and above False Creek.

Here below:

a trainee dragon boat, its crew stroking as best they can to the call …

a veteran gull, conserving energy between sudden dives for food …

and the cyclical gully between Hinge Park and Habitat Island, opening anew each low tide.

While above us all:

a float plane, dominating the clouds …

and an eagle, even higher, dominating the airplane.

Warmth Makes Happy

23 April 2022 — Not that much warmer, just an upward nudge from mid-single digits to low double, yet suddenly emotional muscles unclench along with the physical, and people are smiling at each other. Not to be outdone, happy sights are smiling up at us as well.

In the Camosun Bog, for example.

I enjoy all the usual delights. The boardwalk, embracing the rescued & stabilized remnant of ancient bog, made safe from the encircling forest …

the bog ground covers and undulating carpets of moss …

and the shallow lake at the heart of it all, home to the double headed serpent — sʔi:ɬqəy̓ — of Musqueam lore.

I don’t see the serpent here today, but I remember him as he was once presented to us in a Museum of Vancouver exhibition that can still be enjoyed online.

And then, just as I turn to leave, something so unusual I don’t at first believe it is there.

But my eye is snagged, and I stop, I turn, I look up through branches into the fork of a tree. Just here, here at the edge.

And I see it.

A thunderbird, perhaps? Somebody has carved this beautiful spirit, and brought him here, to guard his ancestral land.

Later, in Sahalli Park.

A small local park, with standard grass/benches/kiddy swings. Even so, magic in its own quiet way. Once we watched a coyote walk politely by, going peacefully about his own animal business, leaving startled but equally polite humans in his wake. And once, when I admired a passing woman’s armload of fresh-picked flowers, she promptly thrust them into my arms instead: “Take them! I’ve just been clearing them out of my plot!”

Her plot is one of many in the adjacent Sahalli Community Garden. Today, a languid Girl Gardener oversees spring clean-up …

and a fresh line-up of Rainbow Birdhouses is on offer for artistic (but very small) birds.

Across the street a retro Pink Caddy flaunts its fins (and fuzzy dice in the front window) …

and a bold new Magic Toadstool has jumped up in the “sit back – relax – unwind” nook next to the Community Garden.

I am tempted! But I am also hungry. So I head home instead.

  • WALKING… & SEEING

    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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