Urban Renewal & Staples of Vancouver

I recently attended the opening of Ken Lum’s Vancouver Especially (A Vancouver Special scaled to its property value in 1973, then increased by 8 fold) at 221A’s outdoor space, Semi Public. I laughed as I turned off Union Street and saw the perfect playhouse sized replica of a ‘Vancouver Special.’ Everyone in Vancouver has seen the box-like houses throughout Vancouver and its suburbs, but I had never thought of them as staples of Vancouver. The 1:3 size replica was built with a $45,000 budget equivalent to what the house cost in the 1970s and represents the changing values in Vancouver today.

In 2010, Lum’s installation from shangri-la to shangri-la similarly demonstrated change in housing and way of life in Vancouver through sculptures of squatter shacks that once existed along the Burrard Inlet.

ken lum - Vancouver Especially

Ken Lum’s “Vancouver Especially”

Vancouver Especially made me consider the characteristic elements of Vancouver and how they were influenced by urban renewal. In the 1970s, historic areas like Vancouver’s Chinatown and Gastown were slated for demolition. I interviewed Shirley Chan, a community activist, whose mother Mary Lee Chan successfully stopped the urban renewal project in Strathcona and saved some of Vancouver’s most characteristic neighbourhoods. (Interview coming soon!)

During my research for the interview, I found an informational video called “To Build a Better City” from 1964. The video was commissioned by the City of Vancouver and describes the urban development plan for Strathcona. It begins with a pan out from City Hall and scenes of the city with chirpy music and a deep masculine voiceover introducing the prosperous city by the harbour.

The music gets dark and ominous as the speaker begins to talk about “blight” in Vancouver. Blight is the video’s term for urban decay. It emphasizes that “most of Vancouver is made strong and healthy by the normal process of land and building renewal,” and that older buildings “were dying board by board and the property they occupy were dying with them…causing blight.” I thought this was an exaggerated and frightening way to personify the general aging of a neighbourhood and turn it into something evil. The video focuses on the negative aspects of the neighbourhood such as poor infrastructure, families on social assistance and illness to justify the destruction of the old for the new.

The video presents some truths, but it offers no alternative to redevelopment. It neglects the positive aspects of Vancouver’s original neighbourhood such as its history, culture and diversity and threatens to replace them with generic high-rise apartment buildings. The video was meant to show the benefits of the project, but it was also blatant propaganda used to persuade its audience into supporting urban renewal. ‘Vancouver Specials’ were not the product of civic planning and they offered “homeowners a certain amount of control,” affordability and independence unlike the social housing towers which threatened Strathcona’s unique history and community. There is value in developing cities, but it is also important to balance and maintain a city’s history. When I watch the video, I want to stop the destruction of Vancouver’s heritage and advocate for restoration of the neighbourhood, just as Mary Lee Chan did with the SPOTA campaign.

Ken Lum's "shangri-la to shangri-la"

Ken Lum’s “shangri-la to shangri-la”

Another example of presumed “blight” in Vancouver is the community of squatters and shacks that once occupied the north shore of the Burrard Inlet. Lum’s from shangri-la to shangri-la consisted of 3 replicas of Vancouver’s squatter shacks. The shacks were originally displayed downtown to contrast with the community of “hippies, artists and displaced loggers who sought out nature and self sufficiency as an alternative to the accelerating pace of development in Vancouver and its suburbs.” Lum’s sculptures makes people question contemporary lifestyles and poses questions about future infrastructure in Vancouver. For instance, what are the city’s plans for the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts which are the only remnants of the unsuccessful urban renewal plan in Strathcona?

Al Neil & Carole Itter's Cabin

Al Neil & Carole Itter’s Cabin

All of the squatter’s cabins in North Vancouver have now been evacuated, except one. Vancouver artists, Al Neil and Carole Itter, occupy the last waterfront cabin in Cate’s Cove. Their cabin has become a sanctuary for local artists and an artwork in and of itself. The artists were recently evicted from their cabin and are working with Glenn Alteen, program director at grunt gallery to relocate the cabin and preserve this unique piece of Vancouver’s history.

To learn more about the Al Neil and Carole Itter’s cabin and help support its preservation visit http://grunt.ca/al-neil-and-carole-itters-cabin-grunt-gallery-field-trip/ Tom Burrows, another artist who once occupied a “mudflat shack” in North Vancouver has an exhibition at the Belkin which references the history of squatters in Vancouver.   

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