Rage & Respect

1 January 2023 – All around me are reasons for the former; the latter — unexpected, vehement — lifts my heart. A life lesson in life’s juxtapositions, on an alley wall in the DTES, with the new year barely 11 hours old.

I had been elsewhere in the city’s Downtown Eastside, and I am now walking south on Gore Street before doubling back out to Main and a bus ride home. The area is… devastated. I have earned my living with words, and I have no adequate words for the DTES. COVID on top of the long opioid crisis, tent cities on sidewalks. No-one harasses or threatens me; I walk without fear but with an impotent mix of pity & frustration. What to do? What useful response? And, to which bit of which problem?

Then, between East Cordova & East Hastings, I walk down one half of one grubby alley, and I see something wonderful.

I see rage, and I see respect for one response to one bit of one of the problems.

Far end of the alley, down toward Main Street, is bleak and still. Crows scream insults; nothing else moves.

The near end, here at Gore, pulses with street art life. Really street — not juried, approved & curated into a festival. (I say this with no disrespect for the VMF, just in recognition that street-street is a different creature.)

This is the first of three images, all three raw with colour & line. The images are interspersed with text, and it is the text — the rage & respect of the text — that lifts my heart and fills me in turn with respect.

Text fills the wall, either side of that bald biker image. On the left, a nod of thanks to the East Van Art Crew…

and on the right, a message about the real problem. Which is not the drugz.

A big verbal smack upside the head, to treat each other right.

I move on, read on. Next, a whole doorway of text.

A big “265” at the top, okay, probably back door to something. And then a lecture, surely added later, about the people involved with “265” and how to treat them.

Later, I look it up. This is the back entrance to the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, located at 265 East Hastings, founded in 1978, open 24/7, and “one of the few safe spaces within the Downtown Eastside for self-identified women and their children.”

There must have been some incidents. Kendra, author of this lecture, is on a tear.

Hat’s off to Kendra. All these workers & volunteers deserve respect, she says. “None of these women are obligated, forced or bribed 2 BE HERE! They are all here 4 all of us because they want to be…” She closes her tirade “with all my love & respect.”

(As I stand here reading the message, a slight, young hoodied figure slides past me, inserts a key, goes in.)

Next, on the wall, a woman’s face…

and next to her, more text. Another message about how to behave.

One more face…

and one last message of respect & gratitude.

Did you see the very bottom? Half-effaced, in ground-level dirt. Your work, it says, doesn’t go unnoticed.

I go home. I am shaken by all that is so desperately, pervasively, wrong in the DTES. But I am also moved and encouraged by the proof that good work is quietly, doggedly being done — and is appreciated.

Human nature, eh? The great both/and of good and evil.

Behind the Paint

11 August 2022 – There are the murals, and then there are the stories that take you behind the paint on the murals. I’m reminded of this when I join the Mount Pleasant-area mural tours offered this week by Vancouver DeTours, the VMF guided-tour partner.

I already knew the murals; I didn’t know the stories.

For example: big, bold Courage, in an alley I often pass angling down Kingsway near East 11th. I even know, because I can read signage, that it was created in 2021 by Ariel Buxton.

What I don’t know is that she created it in collaboration with Rabble Rousers, a group of young adult mental health advocates, and that it faces a youth mental health facility housed in the building opposite. The powerful one-word main theme is supported by smaller images, each important to the young people involved. A yellow rose, a cactus, a shamrock and, here on the mural’s east edge, an acorn topped by a butterfly.

As we’re being given this background, I notice a tour member waving vigorously. Big smile on his face. I turn. Arms attached to a whole window-full of faces in the building opposite are waving at us. We wave. They wave. Everybody waves some more.

And then we walk on.

On down that same alley, closer now to Watson Street, a 2018 mural by Pakistan-born Sara Khan. It is called Recycled, for reasons that escape me, and flows strong colours and dream-like images across the wall.

We learn that when the sketch went to the City for final approval (many partners, many steps), the reclining male figure was anatomically correct. When he came back, he was a Ken-doll.

Okey-doke. (Many partners, many steps, and the art of the compromise.)

But ever since, again and again, anonymous citizens have crept forth, paint brush in hand…

to restore his manhood.

One of the tours takes us past the 2022 Melanie Jewell mural I showed you in my murals teaser post, From Bach to Bears. Remember?

Now I learn that the bears, while deliberately painted in folk-art style, are much more than (as I called them) “adorable.” Each one represents a member of this Northern Dené artist’s family; together, they resonate with deeper meaning.

This cuddling pair, for example, represent her grandmother and mother.

They loved each other. They were both, one generation apart, survivors of the residential school system. And when Jewell’s grandmother unexpectedly fell ill and was dying, her mother — at the time a small child away at school — could not come home for one last visit.

There are more stories, other places. Happier ones, for example the time requesting shop-owner permission to paint on her back alley wall ultimately led to the City installing lighting in that alley as well. Upshot: the woman finally felt safe going out to her car in that alley late at night — and even had something beautiful to look at.

So by the time I’m trucking back down Kingsway, I have a head full of stories to go with my eyes full of murals.

And then — right there on the sidewalk in front of Budgie’s Burritos — I see one more.

Well, if they say so!

… And the Edge of the Tracks

26 July 2022 – It couldn’t look more different, but this is the continuation of the walk that took us along the edge of Coal Harbour. I left you with those not-polite Canadians (feathered variety) at the Convention Centre — but I kept on walking.

On east into Gastown, following an alley squeezed between Water St. and the train tracks.

No more sparkling water, foliage, gamboling doggies, and cafés to tempt their owners and the rest of us.

Instead, the grit of an alley. Showing not its Water St. Gastown-tourist face, but its back-door strictly functional face. And displaying, in the process, powerful graphics. Once again, geometry at work. I’m captivated by the lines and curves, but I don’t romanticize them.

This is a DTES (Downtown East Side) alley, and it is not romantic. While I tilt my head in appreciation of a spiral staircase (below), three bicycle paramedics roll by on one of their regular overdose patrols.

Both/and, eh? The reality of those paramedics, but also the reality of these bold lines that make me tug my camera out of my back pocket once again.

The spiral, the verticals, the punch of yellow, the graffiti…

the stark “H” of this (I think) loading dock & the inadvertent colour-blocking all around…

the angles of the window security bars…

some zig-zag…

and gleaming loops of razor wire…

that ground a perfectly framed vertical to the sky.

And then I put my camera away. I really, truly do.

Wall Art

8 July 2022 – Nature’s art, thrown against downtown walls.

Alley walls, to be precise, with exuberant clusters of wildflowers sprawling against the fences & concrete barriers that divide them from Polite Society — but also showcase them so beautifully.

Like this…

and this…

and this…

and this.

Then I’m out of the alley, looping back east along West 6th — and, suddenly, the wall itself is the art.

And surely the work of some human hand? A wall-to-wall, ground-to-roof triumph of delicate pointillist tracery — perhaps a precursor of our Mural Festival yet to come?

But no.

The art is on the wall, but it is nature’s art after all.

The Ghost of Ivy Past.

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!

Ostensible (1 & 2)

12 December 2021 – It is not what I anticipated, as I set out for a misty walk to False Creek, but here I am in an alley just west of Main & north of East 4th, pondering the meaning of the word “ostensible.”

Don’t you love an erudite alley dumpster? Grubby, battered & odiferous it may be, but by the Lord Harry, it is determined to improve our minds and build our vocabularies. All the way to polysyllabic adjectives.

Nothing “ostensible” about this dumpster, per definition no. 1: it is exactly what it appears to be. And if definition no. 2 seems (to my mind) to better fit “ostentatious” than “ostensible,” never mind! It defines the scene here on the alley’s east side.

It is indeed “open to view.” Indeed, “conspicuous.”

From barbed wire and ominous signage …

to the jumble of piled-up rubbish, punctuated by dumpsters.

Behind the rubbish, Nick Gregson‘s peacock mural still rides high.

It’s a 2016 veteran, one of the collection painted (largely in this neighbourhood) in that very first year of the Vancouver Mural Festival.

And here it is again, reflected in a doorway of the new construction on the west side of the alley — construction that undoubtedly explains the pile of rubbish.

Murals used to line both sides of this alley. Not now! Old structures disappear, new builds arrive.

Ahh, but. I have no right to sound that doleful; it is misleading. We have a net gain of murals every year, and I like a lot of the new construction, fresh & clean-lined & none of it high-rise.

And there are still murals in the alley, including Chairman Ting‘s 2017 bunny-rabbits, just north of East 3rd.

Partnered with — I hope you noticed — one of my beloved H-frame hydro poles, doing its party trick: a 45-degree pivot to accommodate alley intersections.

So that’s it, I decide: enough photos, enough to think about, should anybody be inclined to do so; I shall now just walk on on down to False Creek, and have myself an eyes-only walk.

That resolution lasts all the way to the Village Dock, the last ferry dock right at Science World. Where the pedestrian pathway leads me past this garbage bin. With this contribution neatly piled on top.

I dissolve in giggles and pull out my camera. Two passing 20-Somethings pause, and raise quizzical eyebrows.

“Look!” I say. And point, and giggle some more.

They flash bright nervous smiles, and scoot on past me as fast as their alarmed little legs can carry them.

H-Frames

23 February 2021 – In my recent Alley Eyes post, I was all “H for hydro pole” — but I have learned so much more since then.

Not least that, in this part of the country, people talk about power poles, not hydro poles: “hydro” seems to be eastern-Canadian usage only.

I’ve also learned that some of you share my admiration for the look of these two-legged monster poles, the way they march down the alley and, block by block, frame everything it contains into a deep-downtown alleyscape.

Like this.

I didn’t just stumble on that, I went looking for it. I went looking for it because of what I had just learned during the “Discovering Heritage Places” virtual tour offered online by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation as part of its Heritage Week events. We virtually-visited a number of buildings in older neighbourhoods, each one with history and meaning for its area and the city as a whole.

And then, next image: one of these power poles. Identified by name: H-frame.

The city began installing them some 80 years ago, therefore in the older neighbourhoods, and is now gradually replacing them with underground lines instead. The speaker then invited us to broaden our definition of “heritage.” Why limit it to buildings? He mentioned the attachment some communities have to these old poles, and, yes, there is a preserve the H-frame campaign underway right now in Chinatown.

See? H-for hydro (my eastern usage); H-for-H-frame (local); and H-for-heritage. And that, all that, is what took me into the alleys of Mount Pleasant, looking for H-frames. The photo above is from Ontario Street, looking east toward Quebec, along the alley between East 2nd & 3rd avenues.

Those H-frames just keep framing the alley into segments as they (and you) march along, creating context and visual punch.

Mind, it helps to have interesting content for them to frame.

That sassy yellow & black Dog Taxi on the right, for example, one of a small fleet that picks up woofers for their day at the doggy hotel… And on the left, a bit farther down, that back-tilted face…

Walk closer.

Yes! The face, the hand. Summer 2019, I watched Argentinian street-artist duo Medianeras create that work as part of the year’s Vancouver Mural Festival.

A few days ago, I was a bit farther south in the neighbourhood, around 18th-22nd avenues. This part is newer than the more northern stretch, and its hydro … sorry! … power poles come from different parts of the alphabet.

There’s the T-frame …

and the L-frame …

and even, to my giddy delight, the occasional hybrid.

Meet H-L-L. (What the H-l-l??)

But… no. Com’on. Nothing matches a majestic H-frame, rearing into the sky.

Especially when you get a colour-block building thrown in for good measure.

Crow Bingo

I know. Total change of subject. You could get whip-lash. But since I am as obsessed with local crows as I am with H-frames, I have to do this.

June Hunter is a local artist who translates her deep love of urban nature into prints, photos, calendars, scarves, tote bags, jewellery and more. She obviously has a website, and she also has a newsletter & blog, to which I subscribe. The latest issue features her very own creation: Crow Bingo.

Play beginner level or intermediate, and while you’re on the site, I encourage you to click on her Crow Therapy as well.

We all need therapy these days, and we might as well get it from the crows.

  • 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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