Old Haunts

22 July 2021 – “Down to Strathcona,” I decide, my first return to this east-of-downtown neighbourhood since COVID reined in my travels. First visit since 9 February 2020, in fact, a walk celebrated with the now-ironic title of “And then the sun came out.” Who knew the metaphoric sun was about to go in?

Off I go.

North down a favourite alley, H-frame hydro poles overhead and a DATA-face levelling her eyes at me above the dumpsters.

Bounce east from False Creek, cut through False Creek Flats (the still-scruffy end, spelled with a final “s” not yet the snappy “z”), with a couple of murals on the wall and two sea gulls overhead. Who are almost certainly not levelling their eyes at me.

Another bounce, this time off the east corner of Chinatown and then east-east along E. Georgia to Princess, where a beautifully restored/maintained home demonstrates that, yes, Strathcona is the oldest residential neighbourhood in Vancouver.

More east along East Georgia, over to Hawkes and the brick-laid circle at a south corner of MacLean Park, with its benches and a mosaic that possibly links Strathcona to the nation-wide Communities in Bloom organization. (I try, but can’t quite track it down. Oh well.)

Another pedestrian & I exchange “Good morning’s”, then cock our heads as the first four notes of O Canada fill the air. Aha! The 12-noon ritual, courtesy of the Heritage Horns at Canada Place. We giggle and amend our greeting. “Good afternoon!”

On north along the east side of MacLean Park, already anticipating a latte at The Wilder Snail café up at Keefer. I pause at this alley corner en route, delighted that this workshop is still here, still vividly painted, still adorned with industrial art…

including this tribute to cycling embedded in the sidewalk: chain, gears & even an upright bike pedal.

On up to Keefer, about to cross the street to the café, and… whoa! This is new. The drop-dead sleekest community book box ever created.

No, not part of the Little Free Library chain that I admire so much; this (the discreet sidewalk plaque tells me) was brainchild of the Strathcona Community Centre Association, funded by some civic Neighbourhood Small Grants program.

I peer inside. On offer, Easy Songs for the Beginning Baritone/Bass. Also on offer — in case you’d rather read about a musician than be one — Life, by Keith Richards. (Isn’t this perfect? The autobiography of “Keef,” right here on Keefer Street.)

Enough of that, I want my latte. Except, once inside The Wilder Snail, I succumb to the day’s heat & my own curiosity and instead choose something cold called (as I recall) Turmeric Sunrise. Or something like that. Anyway, tart & citrus-gingery and perfect for the day.

I sit outside, and watch the woman in the red dress kitty-corner, inspecting offerings in that book box.

(D’you suppose she walked off with Keith Richards under her arm?)

Now it’s my turn to walk off, still heading vaguely northward, until I find myself in front of this wonderful mural of North Strathcona Pre-WWI.

I am at Campbell & East Hastings, and I know this because there’s the intersection, in its bright turquoise lozenge.

Once again I have cause to admire the perfect symmetry of location and language: the eponymous George Campbell was part owner of the Hastings Sawmill.

I start thinking about looping my way toward Commercial Drive and, eventually, a bus back home.

But meanwhile, still lots to look at. Mad animal cyclists in this mural near Woodland Park, for example.

And in this Venables/Victoria alley, a garage with a mural and some life-lesson instructions.

The life lesson? How to be an artist.

I’m particularly fond of “Make friends with freedom & uncertainty” near the top, and, closer to the bottom, “Listen to old people.” (Well, natch.) Also: “Play with everything.”

Fine, I think, that’s it. Camera back in my pocket.

But then I see this: garage-top garden, complete with sunflowers and an apiary.

Okay, I think. This time that’s it. But a few blocks over, I see this: wonder woman flexing her muscles.

And then?

That really is it.

And Then … the Sun Came Out

9 February 2020 – The sun is out, and so am I.

And so are spring blossoms. Look – snowdrops!

My feet scamper me north on Main St., under the Skytrain overhead tracks, under the Viaduct, and a smart right turn onto Union Street.

With an almost immediate left turn into Hogan’s Alley. You need the plaque to tell you this was once home to many homes and businesses of the city’s Black community, because mid-20th c. urban renewal demolished them. (How much destruction is done, in the name of renewal…)

So it’s fitting I am pulled into the alley by the sight of more destruction, its lines austerely geometric, but the human story so poignant, ghost lives pressed into those remaining interior walls.

But then my eyes are pulled past that wall to the mural beyond, moving from ghosts to immortals: “Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea” by the Bagua Artists Association.

And beyond that, to the delightfully named Fat Mao noodle parlour, right up there on East Georgia Street. I don’t go in, but I eye it, and store the possibility in my mind, even as I head east on Georgia and see all the other possibilities on offer, everything from hair extensions to tooth implants to woks and rice cookers.

Left on Gore, heading north again, and I know it’s north because, see?, there’s the moss on the tree pointing north.

Not urban legend at all, it seems, though only mostly true and only in the northern hemisphere. (In the southern hemisphere, the moss grows mostly on the south side, but for the same reason — moss favours the shadier side of the tree.)

Eyes left, though not feet, into this alley on the other side of the street.

If you happen to like the image on that wooden hydro pole by the sidewalk, or the purple lettering on the white wall farther back, treasure this photo: hose-wielding guy works for Goodbye Graffiti, and he’s about to live up to the company name.

Right turn onto Keefer — which always, always, makes me think of “Keef” Richards and the Rolling Stones, even though I know there is no connection. The association leaves my mind as quickly as it arrives, for there’s always something right there on the street to reclaim my attention.

Like the PTT Buddhist Society, just east of Jackson. I watch people come and go, light incense, spin a large prayer wheel.

A little farther east, two icons in a row, each telling its own story of this Strathcona community. On the left, a Vancouver Special, the city’s mid-century contribution to vernacular architecture that served so many immigrant families so well …

and on the right, a 1902 example of the Queen Anne style beloved in the day. This one was built for an Irish immigrant who rose from labourer to foreman at the Hastings sawmill and was later sold to the Italian immigrant family that honoured and restored its features, and caused it to be known as the Bezzasso House.

Close by, a former chapel of some sort, or so its architecture suggests, but it is hidden behind this bamboo fencing and — in case you haven’t taken the hint — the front gate bears a large notice warning it is now a private residence with 24/7 video surveillance.

And a dog. “Beware of dog.”

I am perhaps captured on their camera, but, hey, they are captured on mine.

From former chapel to former synagogue, just north from Keefer on Heatley Avenue. The city’s first synagogue, in fact, Schara Tzedeck, built early in the 20th century when Strathcona had a large Jewish community. (It is now condos, so I am not welcome here either — though here the exclusion is silken rather than churlish.)

I walk the building’s elegant length, but first nip into the alley just to the south, drawn by this enormous tree, blasting its way through the fence.

Another tree, okay, a shrub, right at the alley corner — full bloom!

Some sort of early-blooming rhododendron, I think, but that’s only a guess. Look carefully and you may make out, in that sliver of front door, a Christmas wreath still hanging and still handsome. Two seasons in one.

Some more wandering around, coat wide open, 8-9 degrees, full sun. More snowdrops, more crocus, more mahonia with buds ready to unfurl — and cats. Cats as good a sign of spring as blossoms. Cats unfurling their winter bodies into the sunshine, one here tall on his front porch, one there writhing happily on the sidewalk.

Even houses, I swear, are stretching into the sunshine, this one with a mural gleaming in the noon-time light.

Noon-time also means lunch-time, and I’m happy to be so close to the Wilder Snail, at Keefer & Hawks, across the street from MacLean Park.

A few posts back, I told you about watching a little girl play chess here with her dad; today I overhear an excited young man describe his up-coming one-man show to a supportive friend. It’s that kind of place.

Fed and caffeinated, at peace with the world, I emerge from the café, salute Paneficio Studios diagonally opposite …

and continue east, yet again on Keefer.

Where, over at Campbell, I am given one more snapshot of neighbourhood history, a sidewalk mosaic entitled “The Militant Mothers of Raymur.”

It commemorates the women who, upon moving into the new Raymur Housing Project in 1971 with their families, realized their children had to cross busy railway tracks to get to school. They wanted remedial action, and therefore took on the school board, the city council and the railway company, wielding the usual civic weapons of phone calls, petitions and speeches.

When all that had no effect, they began physically blocking the train tracks.

Again and again.

And they won. The city erected the the Keefer Street Pedestrian Overpass.

Last year, it renamed the structure. It is now, officially, The Militant Mothers of Raymur Overpass.

 

  • WALKING… & SEEING

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

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