Two shots of a three-block series on the corner of Hastings and Kamloops which document the not-so-distant past of a neighbourhood that creeks flowed through and where people kept bees as part of their backyard agriculture. Continued work around the Hastings Park Conservancy and guidelines adopted to re-allow urban beekeeping in Vancouver in 2005 are part of bringing back to life the natural features that helped make Hastings-Sunrise such a liveable part of the city. Although the Hastings corridor itself is a tad shabby in spots, the surrounding neighbourhood is full of beautiful and productive gardens, fruit trees, and the occasional coop of illegal chickens.
Archive for the ‘History’ Category
Restaurants, public spaces, moments in the history of struggle – all of these make for good introductions to this piece of the world we call Van East. Sometimes, though, nothing so dramtic or notable is required at all. Sometimes, it is just one home among many.
I’ve lived in East Van most of my life, but in 1990, as I approached the end of my high school days, the family moved from the southeast corrner of the city, round the Knight Street Bridge area, to East Georgia Street, on the eastern edge of the Downtown Eastside. It was an old house, the quintessential run-down Vancouver “character home”, three levels on a narrrow lot, solid wood construction that had been covered over many many years past with asbestos shingles. The home sat directly across the street from Seymour Elementary School, and it sits there still – though my folks have moved on, I have moved on, and the 100 year old cedar that shaded the front yard for so long has sadly been taken down.
Apparently the city has bought the Heatley Block on Hastings Street with the intention of tearing it down to build a new city library. The Heatley Block is an important heritage apartment building and storefront (1931) attached to two houses also slated for demolition – built in 1889 and 1889. In its place the city is proposing an 8-story modern building, which will significantly change the character of that part of Strathcona.
But there are alternatives!
Please go to these sites dedicated to the preservation of the Heatley Block and get involved with the fight to save what little historic East Vancouver is left:
It is not too late to bring options to the city for discussion. We encourage everyone who cares about the preservation of East Vancouver heritage sites to let the city know of your concerns and support the proposal to locate the library into the old Strathcona School site instead.
On Canada Day Brian and I woke up early. A sunny Tuesday, already warm at 6:30 am, I was itching to go for a swim somewhere in the lower mainland despite the potential for holiday hordes lathering themselves up with sunscreen and indulging their screaming children with “fun times outdoors”. Whatever. Brian and I figured we could hit Sasamat (in Port Moody) early, have a quick jog around the lake and a dip before 10:30 and then get outta there before the crowds descended, right?
Well. Except for that little matter of the swim meet organized for that morning. Drove all the way out to Port Moody just to be met by hundreds of cars jostling with each other in the dusty parking lot and people every which way blowing up floating devices and ensuring their coolers were properly loaded to take down to the beach. So we decided to blow over to Buntzen Lake instead – and although we were early enough to get ourselves parking and a little space to dump our towels on the beach , the joy of swimming was not to be mine there either. Still being fed by melt-off from the surrounding mountains, Buntzen was close to freezing and I could not force my body to take the plunge. (I am a cold-water swimmer quite happily – the water has to be atrociously low temperature before I refuse to swim.)
All the way from East Van to Port Moody and by 10:30 Buntzen was becoming over-crowded with early barbeque-ers and pop-up bug screens so it wasn’t like we wanted to hang out until the day got warmer for a potential bout of hypothermia. We left, a little dejected, and determined to get the hell out of the suburbs and back to our hood for some relaxing at least!
Why not Trout Lake? Brian asked when we got back in the car. The lake that is 15 blocks from my house. The one I have never swam in during my entire adulthood living in the area. Why not Trout Lake? I said. At least then we can write about it for Viaduct.
I’m going to step out of the narrative for a moment here to explain that while I have long lived close to Trout Lake, and really enjoy the park (officially John Hendry Park – named after the sawmill baron whose family donated the land to the city), I have always found the idea of swimming in East Vancouver a little off-putting. A spot of neighbourhood prejudice if you will, I’ve had this vague notion that somehow the lake bottom would be littered with broken glass or perhaps the odd hypodermic needle, even though the park is nowhere near the skids. And if not garbage, then the water must be really polluted right?
On the drive back from Port Moody, Brian and I talked about this. Nothing I have ever actually heard or seen at Trout Lake, has given me that impression that it wasn’t safe or clean. And every time I go, there are dozens of children playing in the water with a lifeguard on duty until 9 pm at night all summer long. According to a friend who swims there regularly, the water is routinely tested for fecal coliform and often comes back with much lower levels than Vancouver’s most popular swimming beach at English Bay (this most recent water quality report confirming it – levels in this study being non-existent). A prejudice entirely about the “east” part of Vancouver, about the urban nature of the park – somehow being inferior to the wilds of Port Moody and area. Something to get over, clearly.
We drove the 45 minutes back to the hood, turning off Victoria at 19th and then onto the treed lane to the parking area. Distanced from the suburban packs with their angry summer faces (too crowded! too many screaming children in the back seat!) we found Trout Lake populated by a few locals and their kids splashing about in the shallow water. It was Canada Day here too, with picnics and kids eating concession french fries – but the people just seemed – I dunno – more laid back. Less harried. Most of them had obviously walked or taken transit from elsewhere in the neighbourhood. No one was doing the big all-day-giant-family outings we had seen at Buntzen and Sasamat. No need to jostle or rush past anyone else to get the “perfect” spot because thousands of people hadn’t descended on the tiny strip of beach and concession all at once.
For over one hundred years, Vancouverites have been coming here to swim, boat and ice skate (back when it still got cold enough) – which makes sense given that it is the only lake within Vancouver city limits.
Situated on 68 acres of land, Trout Lake is often listed (by the Parks Board, among others) as the site of an early sawmill in Vancouver, though as far as we can tell, it was never a mill site but a water source for the Hastings Sawmill down on the waterfront at Dunlevy – with a flume running from the lake to the waterfront (a distance of several kilometres) in the late 1800s. A peat bog that apparently had four different creeks draining into it, the lake never did contain trout with the exception of a few stocking efforts over the years, but has been popularly known by the name since locals started using it for recreation. Owned by the family of John Hendry (the owner of Hastings Sawmill among other local interests), the land was donated in 1926 to the city under the condition that it be named “john Hendry Park”. Interestingly, while the city took the land in the interests of local recreation, it wasn’t until 1942 that the Parks Board started referring to it by this name. Of course locals have pretty much always called it “Trout Lake” despite its official name. (Apparently the non-existent fish have more resonance for locals than the name of a long-deceased logging baron). Shortly after becoming a park, the first lifeguard post was set up – 1928 – and has been staffed through the summers since – these days mostly to ensure no one swims outside the boundaries and into the parts of the lake that have been planted with grasses and marsh plants. And of course over the years picnic facilities have been set up, paths have been sculpted in the shade of the trees and bushes that surround the park. A leash-free dog park takes up one corner and on the Victoria side of park is a community center, tennis courts, parking lots, and sports fields.
But oddly, despite the number of years in existence, despite the number of events and people who have passed through the park in its lifespan, there is tremendously little recorded history about it. Few photographs exist in Vancouver’s city archives, and the history of the park is often written with factual inaccuracy. It is impossible to find any information online about the restoration of the green space around the park that took place in the 80s and 90s. Twenty-four hectares in the middle of East Vancouver and it could just as easily not exist except to those who use it as their community park. It is not a destination that people plan to go to like Sasamat or Buntzen – and yet many neighbourhood activities revolve around it. And I suppose it’s better that way, because who needs the crowds that popularity would bring?
As I mentioned above, on Canada Day there were no crowds and I hazard to guess that this was the least populated beach in the whole lower mainland despite being situated in a high-density neighbourhood. When I finally did get around to taking a dip I found the water refreshing but warm, a bit murky and deep enough for proper swimming. A quick spin out and around the floating dock at the edge of the swimming boundary and I was hooked on the fact that this place was available only blocks from my house. A few other adults were out swimming along the perimeter of the rope – enough laps and you can get a work out without being in the shallow kids zone near the beach. Brian even came out to join me for a second dip after I had dried in the sun from the first – concurring with me that in fact that water was not at all too cold or murky for swimming (though you might not want to drink it).
Best part? No milfoil and no swimmer’s itch afterwards – which surprised me since these exist in pretty much every other lake in BC these days (both invasives that barely existed when I was a small child). Taking an outdoor shower at the edge of the beach is not a bad idea anyways. The peaty nature of the lake means that you may encounter some lake scunge in the suit if you don’t have a rinse.
As we have been blessed with a warm and sunny July, I have since been back a few times to swim after work, relishing the look of shock on people’s faces when I tell them I’m going to swim at Trout Lake. The same one I used to wear before I realized that my prejudice was unfounded. After 15 years it was probably about time, and it means my future summers in the neighbourhood will be that much more enjoyable. Thank goodness for the suburban hordes on Canada Day – reminders of who I don’t want to become and where I do not want to be.
In 1990, my parents were looking for a change. We’d just returned from a year in Zimbabwe, and as we returned to Southeast Vancouver mom decided it was time to leave her job with the international social justice wing of the Catholic Church and concentrate on local solidarity. She opted to work in the Downtown Eastside, and she and my dad took up positions at the Downtown Eastside Senior’s Centre. Not prepared to work in that part of town without making it home, the family moved to a run-down 1905 house on East Georgia, directly across the street from Seymour Elementary School.
The history of that house deserves a post of its own. As does Seymour School. For this post however, they simply provide an introduction a historic eastside moment – the struggle and victory of the Militant Mothers of Raymur.
In 1970 a new affordable housing complex was on the horizon for Canada’s poorest neighbourhood. The Raymur Social Housing Project was created just south of Hastings, a few blocks west of Clark Drive. Vancouver’s first residential ‘hood, this was the former site of free speech fights, unemployed workers’ demonstrations, immigrant rights organizing, and anti-immigrant riots. The new project housed a diverse, low-income population, primarily made up of families.
Families mean kids. And while two schools sat within a few blocks walk of Raymur – Strathcona to the west and Seymour to the east – it was into the Seymour district the Raymur kids fell. Only problem being the train tracks that ran between the Raymur Social Housing Project and the school the kids were assigned to.
1970 was still the era of the train in Canada. To this day, trains run through the neighbourhood several times a day, often shutting down traffic for up to 20 minutes as the engines switch from one track to another where the line crosses Venables. But in 1970 there were even more trains. Many more.
Going to school was a short walk. But it also meant dodging some incredibly busy train lines, and despite the fact the city and school board had created the situation, they refused to provide a safe passageway between home and school for these kids. Their mothers wanted an overpass to stop the children from clambering through stopped railway cars in order to make it to school on time. The city delayed and stalled and delayed some more. The mothers went to the railroad companies. They got no meaningful response at all. The mothers got more organized.
Phone calls, petitions, speeches to council and actions at City Hall – nothing got any movement out of the city who sent the kids across the tracks to school or the companies whose trains hurtled through this residential neighbourhood. For of course these were just poor families. And to help them would cost money that no one wanted to spend.
And so government inaction was met with direct action. On January 6, 1971, the mothers of the Raymur Social Housing Project were good and pissed off. With signs reading, “Children vs. Profit” and “Petitions Don’t Work”, they moved to shut down the railroad themselves. 25 women blocked the tracks. They sat together in the path of the engines, and would not move. Well, didn’t take many hours of lost shipments to get the corporate execs interested. Didn’t take long after that before the city responded, too.
The railway companies agreed to alter schedules, restricting train traffic during the times school kids would most likely be crossing. The city agreed to build the overpass.
One day. One direct action. After months of fighting, that’s all it took.
Now, these Raymur moms weren’t stupid. They knew only too well how easy it is to make promises, and that poor families are a pretty low priority for the folks at City Hall and the transportation companies. So they kept it up, occupying the tracks periodically until construction of the overpass actually began in March of that year. By the beginning of the next school year in 1971, the Strathcona pedestrian overpass was built, linking the Raymur Social Housing Project with Seymour Elementary School.
Twenty years later it was still the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. Twenty years later the Raymur project still stood, its kids still enrolled at Seymour. Every day a steady stream of them tramping morning and afternoon up the metal stairs of the overpass, between its chain-link walls, and down the other side to the little cul de sac across from the schoolyard. Twenty years later, when my family moved onto that part of East Georgia, amidst the used condoms and needles and beer cans and broken glass, one of the first stories I heard was the story of the overpass and the militant moms who made it happen.
Some of those women still live in the neighbourhood. Some of those women still struggle and protest and fight for affordable housing and safety. And all of those women remain a vibrant part of its history, a cornerstone of community-building, and a reminder of what a little courage and direct action can accomplish.
Take a walk over the overpass, starting at Seymour School. Pause at the top and look down on the tracks – not as busy now, but still slicing through the ‘hood, marking this mix of residence and industry where Vancouver started. Head down the steps and carrry on west, through the housing projects and towards Chinatown. At the corner of Cambell and Keefer you’ll find a mosaic in the sidewalk, a tribute to the mothers and their struggle. Stop a moment. Study it. It may be overshadowed by the new condos going up. It may be scuffed and dirty. It may be partially hidden beneath a discarded newspaper.
But this is our East Van to remember.