Up the Mighty Fraser

16 April 2019 – Drop that paddle, shuck that life vest — I’m talking street, not river.

No, not the river that tumbles 1,375 km from B.C.’s Mount Robson Provincial Park, down & down to empty into the Pacific via the Strait of Georgia in Vancouver. Yes, the 13.6 km street that runs through Vancouver and neighbouring Burnaby.

Why Fraser Street? Because — like Sophia Street — it’s there, and I’ve never spent any time on it.

I join Fraser at the Kingsway, with a utility-box owl to cheer me on my way.

Right across the street, under that orange awning you can see behind the owl, the grocery store advertises some of its specials in a note taped to the window.

Not-quite-gentrified neighbourhoods, with their independent shops and quirky homes, have a particular kind of streetscape. They teem with juxtapositions.

Guns & gardens, for example …

Followed by a variety of calls to civic activism, one after another. On a post box …

on a utility pole …

and in a convenience store window.

There are homes as well as shops along Fraser, with peaceful gardens glimpsed over weathered fences.

And then — just after a big evangelical church, and just before a compact Hindu temple — I see a side street with a long string of Vancouver Specials. Bonus!

Another 7-8 blocks farther south, I decide to cut over westward toward & through Mountain View Cemetery, making the first of the turns that will eventually bring me back north & home.

And what greets me, on this residential cross-street? Two more Vancouver Specials, one each end of the block. Both comprehensively restored, each in a very different style. The first is cozy-charming, as comfy as a glass of warm milk at bedtime. The second …

is quiet, and austere.

I stand there shaking my head, delighted. Talk about vernacular architecture! Architecture-turned-folk-art!

This once-despised design — boxy, pragmatic, purely utilitarian, churned out in generic quantity — is now, I suspect, the play toy for a new generation of owners. Are you old enough to remember how hippies loved their VW vans, turned them into expressions of their own identity? Something like that seems to be going on with the VS.

Around a corner and another couple of blocks south, I’m about to dive through a hobbit-hole gap in the hedge surrounding Mountain View Cemetery … but I stop. I’m intrigued by the cheerful lady I see cutting strands from the ivy that cascades through the hedge.

“My mother’s name was Ivy,” she explains. “When she died at 95, I decided to include fresh ivy in every bouquet I make. The City told me I can take as much as I want, as long as it’s from the outside of the Cemetery hedge.”

I don’t expect anything inside the Cemetery to be as touching as what I have just experienced on the outside. But I am wrong.

What could be less alike than fresh ivy and a plastic Snoopy? Or a 95-year-old great-grandmother and a toddler? But they are entirely alike in the love of the families who remember them, and have found a visual icon for that love.

Outside the Cemetery again, I nod at the white trilliums in someone’s front garden — my Ontario moment! — and then make one last westward dog-leg toward Main Street.

And, of course, run into another Vancouver Special.

See what I mean about individual expression? People are not intimidated by the VS. They just grab that box, and run with it. Wherever their self-image wants them to go.

Onto Main Street. I am finally heading north.

An owl marked the start of this walk; a pair of ravens mark its final few klicks.

 

 

Hands Off!

21 March 2019 – There are times where you just want to bellow, HANDS OFF!!, and slap the offending fingers for good measure. But you can’t, can you? Because you are Canadian, and, according to media clichés worldwide, we are too polite to go around bellowing at people.

So what-to-do, what-to-do?

Well, don’t fret. The Creekside Collaborative Garden

has come up with a whole list of suitably polite euphemisms.

The Garden is well named. It is indeed both creekside (tucked near the south-east tip of False Creek) and collaborative (planted and maintained by people in the neighbourhood).

Everything is still a little stark …

but soon plants will burst into action, and fruit tree branches will  be bare no longer.

Which is exactly when the Hands-On impulse might lead passers-by into temptation.

Which is why polite messages are already neatly tied into place.

They encourage interaction …

but with limits.

They appeal to our nurturing instincts …

they flirt with us …

and they invoke spiritual resonance.

And when all else fails …

they guilt-trip us.

In Other Other Words

In other gardens, I’ve seen a different compromise between the urge to protect and the urge to remain … umm … Canadian. Here & there, you spot a hand-lettered sign that simply says, “Please don’t steal.”

Masterful, isn’t it? That polite “Please,” followed by that blunt choice of verb.

“Everything talks…”

16 July 2017 – Apparently mum used to waltz toddler-me around the place, crying “Everything talks, in our house!” and inventing dialogue among assorted inanimate objects to prove her point. It surely amused me, seems to have imprinted me: I have a vaguely animist view of the world, and now amuse myself with multi-stream messages as I go about my day.

A row of Muskoka chairs at Spyglass Dock on False Creek, for example.

Happy messages, starting with the visual — bright & cheery on a bright, cheerful day. A slew of memory-messages as well: Muskoka chairs by lakes in Muskoka itself; more of them in Toronto parks bordering Lake Ontario; now here by tidal False Creek in Vancouver; all of them an invitation to relax & enjoy. And so an emotional message of gratitude: how lucky I am, to live where public space offers such enjoyment, and it may safely be enjoyed.

Walk-walk eastward along False Creek — my Tuesday walking ritual appears reborn, here on the Left Coast — and eventually we run out of water, continue along East 1st Av. into a once-grungy part of town being reborn with art galleries, studios, housing & (surely the magnet) relocated Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Another message, a wall mural, talks to us. Or, perhaps, at us. We are befuddled.

It is large, in clear text, and in English. What’s our problem?

I am still befuddled about the word-message, but I like the Look-At-Me message. Something well-executed, provoking (best sense of the word) and in public space? All good.

Into a gallery, where there are some painting-paintings, and then there is … well… another example of a message delivered large, in clear text, and in English.

We are not befuddled. But we do break our museum-cool sufficiently long enough to giggle.

Don’t answer that.

Jump forward a day. This time I’m on my own. I’d planned to walk back up to the VanDusen Botanical Garden (worth many visits), but get diverted. As I often do.

I find myself in Shaughnessy Park, a small and simple lozenge of tree-hung space on a height of land near Granville Street. No amenities except benches, under the trees.

I lean back on a bench, relax into the bench, look overhead.

What talks here? Eye and ear messages, both. Sun shimmering through the trees, dancing green air, occasional background rattles of crow or squirrel. Occasional car-whooshes, too, but dialled ‘way down to insignificance by my calmed & peaceful brain.

A different sound claims my ear, when, eventually, I pick myself up to head home.

Do-mi-la.

Not a human whistle, definitely mechanical, but still sweet not harsh. (And so much more interesting than do-mi-so would have been!) Again. Do-mi-la. And again …

My eyes follow my ears to a young City Maintenance worker at an open sewer grating. The three tones die away yet again as she reads the instrument in her hand & calls out, “Got it.”

I follow her to her truck. “?????” I ask.

One worker sends the tone from one open grating, she explains; the other waits to receive it at the next. If, when and how the tone arrives tells them if there is any blockage in the water line, where, and how much. No need to drop cameras into the system any more. (Let alone small children with goggles & fins, as my Dickensian imagination would have it.)

Music is the message. It talks. I love it.

I am in a seriously up-market residential neighbourhood, I suddenly realize. All subdued anglo-elegance. Complete with a sense of civic responsibility.

I admire, as I am surely meant to do.

Next sign? Not so friendly. But delivering an equally clear message.

Right. Got it.

The rare gate (locked, of course) that doesn’t have a dog-warning sign to go with its intercom system has this kind of sign instead:

Right. Got that, too.

It is a relief, some blocks later, to find myself in less-elevated — all senses of the word — terrain. Where a sidewalk offers me quite a different message.

I hop my way through it. Of course I do. Thank you, chalk-on-sidewalk! Good humour is restored.

And then, ooooo, another dog-related message. Except this time it is to the dogs, not about them.

As I get up from my photo-taking crouch, I see an approaching woman sink to her own crouch at a companion sign at the other end of the garden. I wait for her to read it. She gets up. We grin at each other. Nice.

I turn left at the playhouse at the corner (itself a kid-happy message) …

and think: “That’s it.”

I put away the camera, lengthen my stride.

And stop short for one more message.

‘Cause any time someone wants to love the whole world, I’m happy to help them spread the message.

  • 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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