History & Heritage
June 4, 2020

Physical Distancing 1948 Style~Vancouver’s Georgia Street & Bing Crosby comes to Town

Another gem from Diana Sampson via Dave2onreddit:

Here’s the corner of West Georgia and Howe Streets looking east. Take a look where the traffic lights were, they are on lamp standards. There’s no crosswalk markings, no curb cuts to make it easier to step off the curb when walking. The width of the sidewalk  appears to be a generous six meters wide. You can see the Hudson’s Bay building in the left background, and just make out the Birks Clock when Birks was located on Georgia Street.

That’s Tenth Avenue Angel playing at the Strand Theatre  in the background  starring Margaret O’Brien, Angela Lansbury and George Murphy.

It’s interesting  how vast the large portion of the street  dominated by vehicles appears. Signage for people crossing the road indicates that “pedestrians start on walk light only” , and is placed  way above walkers’ heads on the signpost  facing traffic. It is oddly located above  the  “left turn only” sign for vehicles.

To get a sense of the post-war optimism of the era, here’s a YouTube video from September 21,  1948 when Hollywood actor and singer Bing Crosby brought his “radio show” to Vancouver toraise money for the  completion of the Sunset Community Centre(which was again  replaced in 2007). He raised 25,000 dollars and the City of Vancouver contributed the rest.

You can hear City Hall being called “ultra modern” (it was built in 1935) and see the City’s silver mace (which is a replica of the City of London England’s mace and one of the only pieces of civic regalia hallmarked before  Edward VIII’s abdication)  being carried out.

The acting Mayor follows wearing the Chain of Office. Bing Crosby meets First Nations Chief Mathias at the Sunset Community Centre site and be aware, there are some cringe worthy comments  in the description.

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I’ve been posting the occasional video vignettes of city life in the time of covid – especially along the Slow Streets and the Beach Flow Way.

Video captures the cyclists and walkers intersecting among each other – appearing like dancers on an asphalt stage.  The setting is ideal: the beauty of a particularly lush spring, according to gardening friends.  A big drop in the number and noise of vehicles.  Busy roadways notched down.  All that’s needed is music.

Here’s the latest such vignette: 32 seconds set to Bach, at the corner of Beach and Davie, where the blocks on all sides are completely closed to cars.

The volume of cyclists is so high that the crosswalk demands even more attention and respect from high-speed two-wheelers and alert walkers, who want to cross the flow way wherever they want.  So they should – so long as there’s mutual respect.

The result can seem almost choreographed, right up to the birds overhead.

Here is ‘English Bay Ballet’ from the Virus Pastorale Suite*.

* Thanks to Andrew Walsh for music, production and support.

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Price Tags Reader Ray read my  post on the Return of the Corner Store and reinforces the importance of the neighbourhood store for convenience, independence, and aging in place.

Ray says: I grew up a 5 min walk from McGill Grocery in the 1950’s & 60’s. There were actually three small grocery stores close by, the closest to me was also on McGill, a block west of the McGill Grocery at Penticton.

Having a grocery store on our North side of busy McGill Street, meant that my mother could sent me to get milk, or the odd item of food, or frequently used household supplies. I could also go there when I walked home from school, or when my friends and I were free. My mother walked or took the bus everywhere. She did most of her shopping on Hastings St., unless she caught the bus on McGill Street to go to Woodwards downtown.

In her later years, my mother relied heavily on McGill grocery. Access to that store helped her to ‘age in place’.I feel badly for parents who can’t walk to neighbourhood services as I did, who don’t know most of the people they get their supplies from, and often don’t even know their neighbours.

Now I live in West Point Grey. We moved here because it enabled my father-in-law to live with us. Here he could walk to the Safeway, and to the shops on 10th Ave a few blocks away.However Safeway has now closed, and many other shops on 10th Ave have closed. Without those shops, I fear aging in place will be more difficult for us.

I hope the experiences with Covid-19 will increase the efforts increase the viability of grocery stores and other local shops. They help create the more walkable city we need.”

Images: Fred Herzog & GlobalNews

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Three years ago on the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion I wrote about the 2,000 people that died when a munitions ship blew up. That explosion left 25,000 people homeless, with 20 percent of the  population killed or seriously maimed. The Vancouver Sun published an interactive map that detailed the events leading up to and after the explosion.

But there was another story too, and that was the rebuilding of the city. The explosion meant that Halifax could  rebuild the city with better constructed houses, paved roads,  and proper water pipes and discharge sewers, an effort that took many years.  The City of Boston and organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation teamed together to bring health and sanitary services to the community. This has been documented in a book edited by David Sutherland called We Harbour No Evil Design: Rehabilitation Efforts after the Halifax Explosion of 1917.

Before the blast, Halifax still had dirt roads, unreliable electricity, open sewers and a declining tax base. Despite the  funding that came to rebuild the city in a sanitary way, it  was not distributed evenly across Halifax. While the funding brought pasteurized milk, water treatment and a health centre, certain neighborhoods received sanitary sewers while one neighbourhood received none. Author Michelle Herbert Boyd observed that wealthier areas such as Richmond were  provided for while the African Canadian neighbourhood at Halifax’s North End, Africville, received scant assistance.

Africville was established in the 1840’s and included freed slaves and refugees from the War of 1812.  When new sanitation sewer was provided for all of Halifax, it was not extended to Africville. While the Richmond neighbourhood  was “being reconstructed and improved after the Explosion, the main sewer line was brought directly through Africville to empty into Bedford Basin; Africville residents were not themselves given sewer service, and to add insult to injury, they had to endure raw sewage from their Richmond neighbours running through their backyards whenever a line broke.” 

That inequity continued in the following decades.  In the 1930’s Africville residents petitioned for running water, paved roads, sewage disposal garbage removal, police coverage and electricity. That was ignored by Halifax City Council. And in the 1950’s Council placed an open-pit garbage dump 350 meters away from the western side of Africville. That cemented the city’s perception of this neighbourhood as a slum. There’s no “reference in the council minutes to any concern for the health of Africville residents, or any consultation”.

In the 1960’s when Africville was cleared for a “renewal” scheme popular at the time, few residents had land titles and the land was expropriated by the City a lot at a time over a period of five years. Promised rehousing never materialized, and residents’ belongings were moved in dump trucks instead of moving vans.

Today the segregated school which was closed in 1953 has been rebuilt as a museum and the area renamed Africville Park. The school site was made a National Historic Site in 1996 and on February 24 2010 Halifax Regional Municipality Mayor Peter Kelly offered an official apology for the community’s destruction.

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North Vancouver District School Trustee Kulvir Mann has shared this YouTube collaboration with students from Carson Graham Secondary Choir and Bands.These students were to be in Southern California this spring and had planned to collaborate in a musical workshop with the Orange County School of Arts. Orange County School of Arts in Santa Ana.

Of course after all the fundraising and planning the tour was cancelled due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. The two music directors and students  decided to work together to create a virtual choir collaboration with  Kyle Pedersen’s song written in 2016 “We Sing the Darkness to Light”. 

There are 25 students  from the Carson Graham Secondary School and 25 participants from the Orange County School of Art in this performance.   It’s a beautifully sung work  they describe as about “hope, compassion, mercy and unity”.

The choir starts performing  at 58 seconds on the video below.

 

 

 

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North Van City Councillor Tony Valente was apparently very pleased with his Council’s last meeting, according to his hashtag:  #bestcouncilmeetingever. Two reports, especially, drew his praise: the first  on Open Streets, the second on public drinking.

By dealing with the reports immediately, Council sped past every muni in the region. On May 25, 2020, Council had directed staff to develop “an action plan for advancing the reallocation of road space …”   Two day’s later an action plan was on their agenda – with this proposal for an Open-Street Network.

 “Open Streets” (nothing ‘closed’ here) is made up of Green Trails, Neighbourhood (or slow streets) and Destination Streets (closer to flow streets.)  For $150,000, the 12 kilometres in the system will by priorized for action:

Clearly staff were ready to go, meaning they were confident of council approval. When things happen this seamlessly and this fast, it’s a sign of well-coordinated relationship among Council and Staff.

Assuming the same efficiency, with cities across Metro laying out their own open streets and patios, by the end of the summer the region will have gone through the fastest, biggest and furthest experiment of street reallocation in its history.

And that wasn’t all.

On May 11, Council had directed staff to come back with a process to expand temporary patios into public spaces, and report back on the feasibility of “the consumption of liquor in certain public spaces for safe, informal public dining.”  Given the abuse of alcohol in the rough-and-tumble North Van of the past, this is quite an evolution. Of course “it relies on people adopting, using and managing the public place with regard to physical distancing and respectful consumption of liquor.”  A challenge when the last word overcomes the first.

So, a qualified thank you, virus, for giving us the rationale to do what we’ve only talked about before.  Now we have crises, collapses and uncertainties for justification.  Here’s the one CNV staff used:

Just as the coronavirus fallout threatens to cause economic uncertainty, it also may cause a collapse in social contact among our residents. Utilizing public places is a central part of moving forward and getting people out of their residence, which in turn will support local businesses.

In the next few weeks, in North Vancouver City and elsewhere in the region, we may see the emergence of a street culture we haven’t seen before: places of domestic conviviality for people who live nearby.  Few visitors, no tourists, just the people who live here and aren’t on vacation.

We’re going to find out who we really are.

 

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PT: With respect to the future of urban transportation, we are in a fragile moment: the pandemic has resulted in some very bad consequences (a crash in transit use), some good trends (a growth in cycling) and some dangerous possibilities (Motordom Redux).

In the next few months, local government in particular will have to decide whether the temporary responses (like slow streets and flow lanes) become permanent, whether past commitments (like the Granville Bridge greenway) will be sustained, or whether it will all be swept away in a wave of single-occupancy vehicles and an attempt to accommodate their demands.

A survey Mustel Group conducted for the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade showed that 36 per cent of respondents in Metro Vancouver said they plan to increase their car use or ownership because of the pandemic.

These trends and choices are, like the pandemic itself, a global condition, as described in The Economist (registration required):

Cycling is one industry that probably won’t need any bail-outs.

Where statistics are available, they show huge rises in bicycle use across Europe and America. In Switzerland, the number of kilometres cycled since early March has risen by 175% (and fallen by 11% for trams). In Philadelphia cycling is up by 151%; usage of New York’s bike-share scheme rose by 67% in March, year-on-year. Even in Copenhagen, the two-wheel capital of the world, Jens Rubin, of Omnium Bikes, says his shop has been “busier than ever”; sales doubled in April and May compared with the same months in 2019. In March sales of bikes in America increased by about 50% year-on-year, according to NPD, a market-research firm.  …

Western governments are seizing on cycling’s big moment to try to make such temporary measures permanent. Because social distancing is likely to endure for months, or even years, public transport won’t return to normal soon; it may never do so. So the bike will remain an essential tool in many countries’ strategies to taper their lockdowns. As the French environment minister, Elisabeth Borne, put it, “the bicycle is the little queen of deconfinement” …

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Say “corner store in the West End” … and the romantic among us think of this:

Most aren’t really ‘corner stores’ of course – more remnants of an age prior to ‘Euclidian’ zoning when the owner of a house with a front yard could build a storefront to the sidewalk and open for business, providing, as Sandy describes below, “a place where locals can buy milk, cheese, some staples and hear the local goings on and gossip.”

When I first moved to the West End in 1978, there was such a place literally down the lane – empty now – operated by a Korean immigrant family whose daughter I watched start to turn into a teenager.  (Perhaps now writing a novel or screenplay on the west-coast version of Kim’s Convenience.)

No wonder we feel so romantic about them, though many of those that remain are really coffee shops, able to survive on the caffeine mark-up and artisanal sundries.

For places that never had such conversions in their post-war history – starting with ’50s suburbs like Oakridge – corner stores of this kind are not allowed today, and there are reasons.  A new structure would have to be built, and it would require rezoning, raising two problematic challenges: parking and the impacts, perceived or otherwise, real or mistaken, on the present neighbours.  Ask the opinion of someone who would live in their single-family home next door to a design-controlled, limited-service, locally serving commercial establishment without parking, and then wonder whether the proposal would survive the public consultation process.

In reality, of course, there are still corner stores.  They’re very viable, selling diary, staples and many flimsy packages of fat, sugar and salt in all their processed variations, and they look like this:

They may be the only places, under 20,000 square feet, that can meet the ‘popsicle test’ – where your kids can go out by themselves to a store safely to purchase a popsicle and return home before it melts.

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Remember the corner store in your neighbourhood?

Coming out of the pandemic is the need to access goods right in your neighbourhood. The local corner store used to fill this role, with shopkeepers knowing everyone in the neighbourhood, and providing a place where locals can buy milk, cheese, some staples and hear the local goings on and gossip.

In an article written last Fall by Jesse Johnston with the CBC there were 226 business licences for Vancouver convenience stores in 2018, 86 less than ten years ago. Many used to be run by new immigrants as a way to learn the language and to work independently in a new place. But rising property taxes and the fact that residential zoning does not allow the use of corner stores as an outright use makes it difficult for these family owned convenience stores to continue.

Corner grocery stores are existing non conforming uses in residential areas. Stop running a corner store in the premises for six months, and a new lessee cannot receive permission to reopen the store, no matter how compelling the case.

But as civic historian and former City of Vancouver staffer John Atkin observes, corner stores are “community meeting places”  where people can gather. Quebec Street’s Federal Store is an example of a convenience store that has remorphed into a cafe, as has Keefer Street’s Wilder Snail which also provides fresh baking and groceries.

Vancouver still has some of the localized neighbourhood market fabric in existence on the west side at Mackenzie Street and 33rd Avenue an on the east side at Nanaimo and Charles.  These are grandfathered in businesses from a time fifty years ago when the car was king, and driving  to shop at big malls with plentiful parking was a “thing”.

This returning trend  of neighbourhood level  convenience shopping that can be accessed by walking or by bike is described in this article by Architect Toon Dreessen who talks about the “popsicle test”. Can your kid go out by themself to a store safely to purchase a popsicle and return home before it melts? “And is there even a corner store for them to shop at?”

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