April 9, 2010

The more things stay the same …

Miro Cernetig writes in today’s Sun about a rapidly changing Vancouver to come.   

They’re working on multi-billion-dollar plans to fundamentally remake the city, a development boom that will unfold over the next few years and rival what happened after Expo 86. The skyline will never be the same.

Really?  What surprises me about Vancouver, given its youth, is how much it stays the same. 

Here are some shots, all taken in the 1960s (that’s half a century ago, kids), of Vancouver street scenes:

300-block West Pender

 800-block Granville

900-block Granville

900-block Granville

2000-block West 41st

Correct me if I’m wrong, but except for the signage and the cars, not much has changed.  I’d guess that almost every building in these shots is still there.  Certainly, the overall look hasn’t changed that much – something that arguably might be true for the majority of the streets in the city.

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February 15, 2010

Diane Switzer, the Executive Director of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, sends along a much better pic of “The Wall” – the new site for art that comments on our built environment, located on the west side of the new CBC Plaza.

Eric Deis is the artist of Last Chance, and here’s his statement:

In Eric Deis’ architecturally-scaled photograph, a house is framed by a large cedar tree on one side and condominium sales office on the other. In the background, the presence of a residential tower suggests  a similar fate for the little house at 1062 Richards Street. The photograph was taken just months before the owner ended her resolute stand off and sold her home of 45 years to make way for advancing development.

Echoing the current rapid migration of construction sites from one street to the next throughout Vancouver’s downtown core, Deis has transplanted Last Chance to the 700 block of Hamilton Street.

Using a printing medium commonly associated with full colour advertising and real estate marketing, Last Chance asserts a distinctly quiet, black and white presence. Its scale suggests a distant view, yet focuses upon a recent past.

Compressing into one image the last house, the last tree, and the last chance for preconstruction pricing, Deis’ photograph captures a somber and familiar moment of transition in Vancouver’s  built environment

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September 23, 2009

James Johnstone is a house whisperer.  Or perhaps that should be a house listener.  In any event, he researches the history of old Vancouver homes in extraordinary detail, revealing not only the circumstances of a particular dwelling but also the context – the historyof the times – in which it was built and occupied.

Of course he has a blog.

And now he’s giving tours.

He has been doing walking tours of the East End for about a month now – the first one a fundraiser for the Heritage Vancouver Society.  His next tour is this Saturday (Sep 26), departing from the Heatley Block at the southwest corner of East Hastings and Heatley Avenue at 2 pm. 

More info here.

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Continuing on the tour, walking east on Nelson into Downtown South.  Almost all the blocks have filled in now, and it all happened in less than two decades.   A few glimpses of the past remain.


Astonishing that the Penthouse survives, with its storied history and painted sign, as dated as top hats and white gloves.

Across the street, something slightly different from the usual Downtown South podium of townhouses and stoops.

Level offers what looks to be commercial space above the storefronts.  And another sign of the times: furnished rental apartments, perhaps a temporary use until the condo market revives but also a helpful part of the mix in what is really Vancouver’s new West End – a neighbourhood that accommodates people in transition.  Newly arrived, newly divorced, just passing through or waiting for circumstances to change.  We’ve all been there at one time another.

What helps make such a hard-edged district a littler softer are the street trees, some of which are now the oldest things on the block.  And the landscaping that creates corridors of green for  pedestrians: columns of trees on both sides, with a canopy above, and a rich carpeting of textured plants below.

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September 11, 2009

NOTE: I took the image above on March 30 this year, from the riverfront walkway in Jersey City immediately across Downtown Manhattan.  It is one of two memorials to 9/11 that I saw, including this one on the left.  There are still no memorials on the Manhattan side, waiting, I suppose, for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center.

The next issue of Price Tags, the third in the New York series, will be about the urban design of the Jersey City shore, also affected by post-9/11 developments.

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August 6, 2009

“Statesmen of World War I lamented afterward that if only the negotiations in the days before the first mobilizations had not been conducted by telegraph, the war might have been avoided.

“The problem, they said, was that none of the kings or foreign ministers of Europe had accustomed themselves to the speed of information, to the quantity of it that became available when telegraphs replaced letters.  And in their confusion, they felt they had to act and decide at the (then-blistering) speed of a telegraph machine. It destroyed their judgment.”

– Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Age of the Unthinkable

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Imagine the corner of Carrall and Hastings in the 1920s. 

At the B.C. Electric Railway headquarters (foreground on right), interurban trains were arriving  from places as far away as Chilliwack and Steveston.  From here, passengers could immediately transfer to a streetcar on Hastings that would connect them to any part of the city.

Down the street was City Hall, located in the Holden Building (centre left), one of the tallest towers in Vancouver. 

Across the street: the Beaux-Arts Merchant’s Bank building.  Up the street: the city’s premier department store, Woodward’s.

At the centre: the Hotel Pennsylvania.

Previously known as The Woods, the hotel must have been a place to meet, for business and pleasure.

And none who passed through this intersection could ever imagine how dramatically it would decline in the later decades of their century.  Just as we today are sceptical of the possibilities of change for the better in the Downtown East Side.

In fact many are fearful of any sign of improvement, concerned that gentrification will displace the most vulnerable.   In the stratified politics of Vancouver, that’s often why change is only embraced when the Left sees benefit.  So it was that COPE (later Vision) councillor Jim Green, who justifiably deserves the credit for the Woodward’s project, provided the catalyst for change that will transform this neighbourhood in the next few years.

And yesterday, another sign of that change was lit.

The opening of 44 units for the homeless or at risk marked the end of a long journey for those in the Portland Hotel Society who struggled to transform a dismal, dangerous SRO into something of pride and hope for the Downtown East Side. (That’s Tom Laviolet of the Portland Hotel Society at the window.  The “Portland Hotel” was another name this building has known, preceded by “The Rainbow”.)  More here.

The hotel has been wonderfully restored, including the turret at top and a replica for the sign that punctuates the corner with a touch of neon:

But credit also to the City for extending the corner sidewalk and adding a gentle curve to Hastings where it bends:

And for allowing a replacement of the areaways underneath the Carrall Street sidewalk, including the glass tiles lit from below:

And to those who doubt this intersection will regain its vitality, just wait.  As the Carrall Street greenway is completed, as the streetcar is extended through the neighbourhood, as social housing projects replace the SROs, as more residents and businesses are welcome, the Pennsylvania will once again become the place to meet.

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From PT reader Andy Coupland:

You correctly identify the fabulous reno of the Portland Hotel in your recent picture piece. These days it’s known by its last commercial name – The Pennsylvania Hotel – and it’ll be getting a significant piece of signage to reflect that on the corner of the building. It was once the Woods Hotel – and the sign for that was much more impressive! As you know, the Portland name was re-used on the Arthur Erickson designed New Portland Hotel.

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Knute Berger, a regular writer in Seattle’s online e-mag Crosscut (The Tyee of the Evergreen City), has penned a reflection on his city that could as easily be applied to Vancouver.

I complain a lot about how the city has evolved, but despite growth, upheaval and displacement, I am often struck with ways in which Seattle hasn’t changed. Vacant lots have disappeared, housing is more expensive, some parts of the city have been radically over-hauled (South Lake Union, the light-railed portions of Martin Luther King Way), landfills are now parks, downtown sprouts a fungi of ugly high rises. But many parts of the city are stoic in the face of a century of radical transformation.

Full article here.

Berger, who writes as ‘Mossback’, is often irascible (and he’s not a big fan of Vancouver) – but he’s always insightful.  We have to get him up here sometime soon.

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