Left image: Anonymous photographer. Collection of Keith Freeman.
Right image: The exact same location in 2011. Photograph by Keith Freeman.
The Vancouver Waterfront
by Keith Freeman
24 April 2014
Vancouver’s interface with the ocean has always been and still can be fleeting, illusory and prized. It’s been used for sustainable seafood harvesting by First Nations, an open industrial sewer and dumping ground by early settlers, a place of rail yards and recreation, log booms and squatter’s shacks. In more contemporary times it commands a real estate premium, edged with green spaces and seawalls, dog parks and dining.
There was a time, it doesn’t seem like long ago, when one could walk along almost all of our city’s shoreline right into the working areas of the port. No security shacks, no barbed wire fences, just a few steps across the train tracks and into a different world. My Dad and I would make a day of it. From his apartment in Chinatown, we’d pack a few snacks and go exploring. Through the eyes of a child, the creosote-tinged air was exciting and full of mysterious sights and sounds– from the ominous and rather Dickensian sugar refinery to the rats scurrying through derelict wharf warehouses. The Campbell Avenue fisherman’s wharf was in its waning years, and the odd fisherman and fishmonger could still be seen.
Meanwhile, across the peninsula, False Creek in the 1980s was going through perhaps its greatest transformation since the pre-colonial era. Its usage as a narrow industrial conduit was coming to a close. Canadian Pacific rail yards, sawmills, shipyards and floating squatter’s shacks had defined the periphery of the downtown core for most of the 20th century. As Vancouver became less dependant on resource industries, the aforementioned went from necessity to blight. As early as the fifties, serious civic plans were conjured up to transform Vancouver’s inner city waterfront. Over the intervening decades, housing projects, condominiums, seawalls, a sports stadium, a casino, an art school and numerous marinas took shape.
Yet for all of this recreational interaction with our city’s shoreline, something seems missing. When the working shoreline became restricted and cut off, especially following the events of September 11, 2001, it was something like losing a limb. The city’s history and development was defined by its working waterfront. This is where defining labour struggles like the Battle of Ballantyne Pier in 1935 took place. This is where the timbers that built our city were milled and the workers from around the world who built it, landed. And underneath the layers of colonization and industrialization, a deeper interaction with the land and the sea was forged here by the S?wxwú7mesh (Squamish), Tsleil-Waututh and x?m??k??y??m (Musqueam) people, caretakers of the marine resources that surround what is now Vancouver.
To a child, the simplest things can bring the greatest joy. Just west of Main Street on the waterfront lies one of the few public beaches on Burrard Inlet. In the 1980s, a fellow named Don Larsen began to campaign for more access to the waterfront of our city and formed an campaign group called C.R.A.B. (Create Real Available Beaches). Little posters from this group were ubiquitous around the East End of Vancouver during that period of time. The campaign worked and, eventually, Portside Park was carved out of an area once inhabited by warehouses at the foot of Columbia Street. Before the park was created, I used to play there amongst the barnacle covered rocks, turning some of them over to reveal scurrying hermit crabs, anxious to reach the safety of the next rock, and away from my little blonde menace.
It doesn’t take much for a community to feel connected with its waterfront.
While sanitized seawalls chocked with rollerbladers and dog walkers reflected in glass condominium windows represents a sizeable portion of our city’s interface with its harbourside at the moment, it is still the working waterfront, now mostly out of public view, that is the engine behind the city.
Without this relationship, conflicted and wrought with aquatic degradation as it has been at times, there would be no Vancouver. As our interaction with the shoreline has transitioned from resource usage to industrialization to recreation, each overlapping the other, it is worth reflecting on all of those usages and how they have shaped the people and the landscape of this place we call Vancouver.