Michael Kluckner, author of Vanishing Vancouver: The Last 25 Years, spoke to a full house at the Vancouver Historical Society last night.
Before Michael left for Australia a decade ago, he would often jump in the car and race to a site where an old building was scheduled for demolition in order to capture it in watercolour. “I’m drawn to derelict buildings like a moth to a flame.”
He was in his car a lot.
On his return, there were hardly any old boarded up houses waiting for demolition. In districts like Downtown South, it had all been done. As a consequence, he noted, we’re losing the texture of light falling on old painted wood. Modern manufactured products get old by getting moldy, not by weathering.
And that’s not the only change.
The neighbourhood movie house.
The Ridge, the Dunbar, the Hollywood – they’re the last of a form that was so impacted by the rise of television that, in 1955, 14 movie theatres closed in a week. (He hinted that their might be a reprieve for the Hollywood on Broadway.) Given that TV reception really only became possible in 1953, when CBC and KVOS began to broadcast, the uptake of the technology and its impact on the Vancouver landscape were way faster than, say, the Internet.
The Toll Bridge
After showing a bucolic shot of the new Port Mann Bridge (of 1964) set in a still-sylvan landscape, he noted that it was the first major bridge not to have toll booths installed. But in the 1963 election, all the tolls were taken off bridges in the lower mainland, notably the Second Narrows, by the W.A.C. Bennett government. Now tolls are going on to the new Port Mann Bridge 50 years later, ending exactly a half-century in which vehicle bridges were free and the motoring commuter could live where he wanted.
The Corner Grocery
Michael showed an ad promoting the 84 Chinese groceries that serviced neighbourhoods throughout the city. Perhaps a half dozen are left. The traditional Vancouver corner store was much more significant than just a cute, nostalgic piece of architecture; it provided an opportunity for immigrants, mainly Chinese and Japanese who were banned from other professions and industries, to have a business that also houses their families and gave them an opportunity to establish themselves in Canada. The contrast with modern convenience stores, staffed by low-paid workers and presenting a unified corporate brand, indicates a profound social change in the city.
The buried house.
Single-family houses were extended to accommodate suites and storefronts in 1920s and 30s to generate cash in hard times. There are maybe a dozen of them left, all on streets that have become completely commercial in the past half-century or so.
The sort of people who volunteer for churches can’t afford to live in Vancouver anymore.
But Michael wasn’t there just to bemoan the losses. Indeed he reflected on the yin and yang of Vancouver: the city of concrete and glass juxtaposed with neighbourhoods of medium-density apartments and restored homes, given that the quality of the old-growth wood allows these places to come back, often as condos. It’s that magical combination of different types of housing, working for different people at different periods of their lives, that makes Vancouver such a successful city.
Yes, affordability has been an issue going back to the 1910s, but so long as the city has continues to retain this mix as it evolves, then there’s hope that the essential character of this place will be retained and that Vancouver will continue to mature into the world-city status it so desperately craves.