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.

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.

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.

The Wisdom of the Raven

7 April 2022 — On the end wall of the Raven Song Community Health Centre, here in town:

I think, some years back, I included this wise observation in a post. But it bears repeating, does it not?

Not that the raven is known only for wisdom.

“Trickster” is the frequent label, so I looked around for some further information about the cultural importance of this physical creature. My happiest discovery was an article on the website of an organization called Raven Reads. The more I read, the more fascinated I was — with both the raven, and this organization.

First, the raven. Specifically, the raven in Haida culture, as reflected in a 2018 article they ran with comments by Eden Robinson about the latest book in his Trickster Trilogy, Trickster Drift.

Robinson points out that while Raven is central to how Haida see the world, he is not thought of as a god per se. “He symbolizes creation, knowledge, prestige as well as the complexity of nature and the subtlety of truth. He also symbolizes the unknown and is there to show that every person sees the world in a different way as another.”

From raven to Raven Reads: what is this organization? “Indigenous and women owned,” it says; founded by Metis (BC/Saskatchewan) entrepreneur Nicole McLaren, it is “the world’s first indigenous subscription box.”

Subscription box? That is what a small book club can become, if its founder is determined to raise awareness, spread knowledge and literature, and support other indigenous businesses (more than $300,000 so far). Subscribe to Raven Reads, and four times a year a literal, physical (and very beautiful) box will be delivered to your doorstep. It will contain a book by an indigenous author, a letter from the author or the box curator, and some giftware items from indigenous businesses & craftspeople. That’s the adult box; there are also children’s boxes, corporate subscriptions, and giftware separately available.

I like everything about this, both the business/advocacy model and the content, and having discovered the organization by accident I am quite delighted to tug your sleeve and make you aware of it as well.

One more image to close with, this one from some homeowner’s fence over on Quebec Street. I can’t guarantee he is a raven, he may be a crow …

or we can simply allow him to “symbolize the unknown.”

Trafalgar!

12 March 2022 – No, no, not Battle of — that event sits several centuries and various oceans distant from my Trafalgar. I’m on a street in the Kitsilano district of Vancouver, not floating around just off Cape Trafalgar, Spain. Mind you, there is water a kilometre or so to the north of us, and by carrying on down Trafalgar, we’ll hit it.

Which is the plan.

We already have a nautical reference point.

Not particularly well made, but so very cheerful. Intriguing, too. Why is this little boat perched on the roof of that front yard lean-to? Surely too high for any resident toddler to see… Ah well, it’s fun for passing adult pedestrians.

More gratuitous fun (always the best kind), another block or so to the north.

Why? But again, why ask? Just enjoy it.

Each little peak shelters its own ornament. In this case, a truck…

but others display everything from shells to toy animals to pretty pebbles to a plastic leprechaun, perhaps specially installed for St. Patrick’s Day.

Sedate good taste comes next: this fine balcony banner with its leaping salmon.

And right after that — side yard of the same Good Taste home, I think — comes another hit of nonsense.

Not that you’d be seriously tempted to ride it, but the draped fairy lights do emphasize that this bicycle is decorative, not functional.

Right at the next intersection, prayer flags and a plaque.

Well-worn flags — just imagine how many thousands of prayers they have fluttered into the breeze by now! And an equally weathered plaque, erected (it says here) in 2013 by “Friends of Siri” — their tribute to long-time resident Siri Kidder Halberg, who “loved to trade books.”

Thus, the little community book exchange these friends have created, right next to the bench.

This resonates for me, in many ways. First, I admire and support take-one/leave-one street libraries. Second, I am a huge fan of author Colin Cotterill‘s novels about the 1970s adventures of another Siri — Dr. Siri Paiboun, “the national and only coroner of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos” — and indeed I am reading one of them right now (The Merry Misogynist). And, third, when I dive into this little library, I discover an unread novel (This Poison Will Remain) by another of my favourite authors, Fred Vargas. I snap it up.

A few more blocks and we’ve walked as far north as we can go, right into Point Grey Park. Trafalgar finally meets the water — in this case, English Bay.

‘Way out there, some freighters waiting their turn to carry on down Burrard Inlet and unload at the port (yay! supply chain at work!); in close, dozens of Barrow’s goldeneye ducks, obeying no schedule but their own.

Like the ducks, we’re on our own schedule. We turn east, curve with the land mass onto Kitsilano Beach, backed by Kits Park. My favourite swimmer is up there, flutter-kicking like mad.

I do mean up there:

Meet Wind Swimmer, and could she be better named? I see basic credits on the plaque — by sculptor Douglas R. Taylor, installed 1996 — but that’s not the half of it. Ohhh, the adventures she has known.

The prototype created in 1993 and installed in Stanley Park, but smashed by a log; the current version created in a collaboration between the sculptor, the Parks Board and donors (the Auerbachs) and installed on Kits Beach in 1996. Then came the wind storms of August 2015. The swimmer literally took a dive, and was again badly damaged and removed.

Three years go by… Repair work (largely by the Parks Board), and safety upgrades. In 2018, she is re-installed, finally back home and swimming again.

I like her even better, for knowing all this.

To Beat the Deadline

27 February 2022 – It turns out to be a false deadline — but who knew, at the time?

The morning weather mavens are all serious faces and urgent voices: Merely cloudy now, they tell us, but by 1 p.m., it’s atmospheric river time! Snow, rain, high winds, ugly-ugly — and set to last for 3-4 days.

Suitably motivated, I zip out the door. If I want to say hello to False Creek, right now is the time.

No lingering to admire Animalitoland’s winsome lady (VMF 2020) as I zigzag north-west.

On to the Creek! Where I find everybody full speed with their morning agendas.

Paddlers getting organized, down on their dock just east of Olympic Village Square …

jogger jogging over the inlet, far side of the Square …

ferry boat bustling eastward to the Village Dock …

and an improbable bird house out on Habitat Island, just off Hinge Park, glowing gold against the surrounding grey.

No real live bird would give that creation a moment’s thought, but it’s not there for the birds, is it? Some human being built and hung it there to amuse and charm the rest of us. And since it harms no-one, I am charmed.

As I am by my next discovery, looped into the chain link fence just west of Habitat Island.

“Draw someone you love,” says that glossy red sign — and look at the display.

Most of the drawings are of humans …

but not all.

On I go and on I go, and out there past Spyglass Place, closing in on Leg-in-Boot Square, I see another drawing of love. This one.

I know. It’s just another, yet another, yet another generic old boring old smiley face. Please.

Except… it’s wearing a mask. So this is a drawing of love in action: love for each other, for our community as a whole.

I’m still cheered by that thought as I turn back east — and further cheered by the fact that the dread 1 p.m. deadline draws close, but there is no sign yet of snow/rain/wind/general mayhem.

Anyway, what’s wrong with rain?

I will not argue with Thrive Art Studio and their alley wisdom (VMF 2018).

Alley Art 1-2-3

25 February 2022 – There’s art, and there’s art. And there’s art.

1 – Window art

Jennifer Chernecki

… with a baleful stare.

2 – Wall art

Makoto, VMF 2016

… with a pointed beak.

3 – Objet d’art

Time, just… time

… with accessories.

First, standing there, I saw the rust. Now I see the tire. The perfectly placed tire!

River-Watch

11 January 2022 — The capital-W Weather just keeps piling up. The snow I blogged about late December was followed by more snow and more cold, and then a windstorm combined with king tides that tore up Stanley Park seawall and flooded the Ambleside Park I’d visited just a little earlier that month.

And now plus-zero temperatures and a new multi-day Atmospheric River, due to start … well, any time now.

“Now” being a few hours ago, as I set out to walk east toward home. Ah, but, I am wearing my Seriously Waterproof Coat and my duck boots, and I trust them to keep me safe and pretty well dry. So I am watchful — aware of the grey sky and impending River — but perfectly happy to let my eye snag on tiny details as I walk along, and not particularly care whether I beat the rain home or not.

Here at Yukon & West 8th, it isn’t the motorcycle I notice first …

it’s the butterfly decal someone has stuck to the back of the traffic sign. I don’t care that it’s wrinkled and beginning to peel, I like it a lot.

I pivot east into the alley just south of West 8th, away from the construction for the Broadway Subway Project (an extension of the existing Millennium Line) that keeps pounding along, whatever the weather.

I see this bold taco-shop mural right at the intersection …

but again it’s a detail that draws me in: a delicate line-up of red dots above one of the florets on one of the plants.

I wonder if this is a later, complementary (and complimentary) addition by some other hand, but then see another touch of red in the swirls of ground cover, and decide it is all by the original artist.

Only later, looking at this image, do I see the magic continuity of colour — black/white/red, flowing from the mural across those cars to the red building beyond.

Just east of Alberta there’s full-tilt alleyscape, so much going on I barely register the young woman who walks into frame on the right, checking her messages …

because I’m focused on that mirror up there on the balcony. Looking very pretty, in the midst of a lot of not-pretty.

Just past Columbia, I see the pumpkin-coloured car, who could miss it …

but, really, I’m fascinated by that convex traffic mirror, and the art-nouveau swirls it bestows on tall trees and power lines.

East side of Manitoba, I’ve seen this before but for a change it’s not the H-frame hydro pole that makes me pause …

it’s the haunting mural tucked into the garage on the left. So instead of walking by, I walk in …

and when I turn to the back wall, my curiosity is rewarded — finally! — with this artist’s name.

J. Whitehead, I later learn, is a Saskatchewan-born member of the Cree Nation, a Fine Arts graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Arts and Design, and now resident in Vancouver. I’ve seen his distinctive work elsewhere, am glad to give you a chance to discover him as well.

Same alley block but closer to Ontario, I once again halt at this battered old garage …

but, this time, it’s the sway-backed roof that pulls me close. I really look at it, at the textures, the colours, the thriving moss on crumbling shingles — the sheer topography of it all.

And then … and then, I’m east of Ontario, on to Quebec, and the end of the alley.

I swerve north to East 8th, away from all those alleyscape details …

into the ordered, aromatic, calm and considered details of a latte at my favourite café.

I make it home, just before the River starts to flow. (And flows still, as I type this. And is expected to continue to flow, right through Thursday.)

2022: the Travel Guide

31 December 2021

detail, 2018 VMF mural, by Phantoms in the Front Yard

“The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

La Prisonnière (5th volume, Remembrance of Things Past), Marcel Proust

  • 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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