Posted by: Scott | April 28, 2010

There goes my neighbourhood…

Feeding the hungry backhoe...

Two weeks ago, a house was torn down on my block. There was nothing particularly special about the house, or any other house on that side of the street. But it appeared to be in good condition, thus my surprise when I heard and saw the house rapidly devoured by a backhoe that was almost as big! But, as market forces would have it, a “new” house often sells for more than an old one, or so I’m told, and so a perfectly good – and likely more affordable than new – house gets the giant backhoe treatment. I don’t know why I’m making such a fuss about this. I couldn’t afford the old house even if I wanted to buy it; I was priced out of Vancouver’s housing ‘market’ a long time ago. I’ll talk more about the affordability issue in a future post. Please read on.

One particular problem I have with the ‘backhoe-meets-house’ way of removing an old structure is its emphasis on speed and waste. Buildings can be taken down differently, in way that would mean a lot less material going in the landfill. Those building materials could then be re-used by organizations like Habitat for Humanity, or anyone wanting to do an inexpensive reno job on their current abode. And, taking a house down piece-by-piece employs more people. But that of course would take just too much time (and cost the property owner too much money), and we can’t hold up the invisible hand of the real estate market, now, can we?

A couple of weeks earlier, a fellow blogger lamented about the gentrification of her childhood home in New York City. Her reminisces struck a chord, reminding me of places I grew up around, as well as some others – like that house down the block – that are endangered now. We here in North America tend to think that if something is old, we no longer need it. Tear it down! Then, you go through a neighbourhood you haven’t seen for a few weeks or months, and you notice a vacant lot or a hole in the ground where you just know a familiar place once proudly stood. If you’re like me, a piece of your past disappears with that…that…what-the-hell-was-it?

Some years ago, I went back to my old neighbourhood in North Burnaby to photograph the house I spent the first eleven years of my life growing up in, only to find it was gone (cue Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders). No more beer-bottle stucco to scrape my hands against; Mom loved me for that! No more willow tree in the front yard, filtering the light of a summer evening sunset. No more plastered-over hole in the dining room wall, demarcating where the exhaust pipe from a wood stove once connected to a chimney, rendered obsolete. (The house had been built around 1910, and a new kitchen and bathroom were added before my parents and sister moved in.) No more front porch that once received got the unsolicited attention of several thousand (yes, thousand) ladybugs one hot summer day. No more drain-hole at the basement entry where a wolf spider crawled over my foot when I was two. Or was I three? Damnit! Anyway, you get the idea. The house that replaced it is nothing special, but that’s probably what the property owner thought when they first looked at my old house.

Up the road from my old house is the Heights, a pretty typical suburban, working-to-middle-class neighbourhood on the way Downtown. It’s a collection of mostly 1- and 2-storey stores and offices that straddle Hastings St., surrounded by mostly single family and duplex houses, and most of those were built in the last fifty years. I’m fond of this area because my grandparents lived in the neighbourhood for many years, and a lot of my first experiences happened there. I saw my first movie in a two-screen theatre that still exists! There was a shoe store where they had one of those big glass cookie jars full of oatmeal cookies, to keep kids like me from getting bored and cranky. It always worked for me: in fact, I would sneak so many of those oatmeal cookies that I often barfed a few steps out the door! Guess why Mom stopped letting me wear my new shoes home?

Like other neighbourhoods in transition, there is a slow mixing of the new with the old in the Heights. There is a really innovative co-housing community right in the middle of the neighbourhood, and there is a small community garden for area residents. And then there is the return of the Swinging Girl – a mechanical neon light that marked a local children’s store (Helen’s). When the store owner retired a few years ago, the city purchased the sign, had it restored mechanically and its neon display altered slightly so it now reads ‘Heights’. The ‘Heights’ just wouldn’t be the ‘Heights’ without her.

The Heights' new/old neon mascot

My renewed interest in the Heights stems from my last project as a university undergrad. My class was tasked by provincial government officials to figure out how to take energy efficiency, urban agriculture, alternative transport and other ecological sustainability innovations successfully put to use in large-scale urban redevelopments and apply them to more typical suburban neighbourhoods like the Heights. No easy task. One important challenge is to make sustainability affordable for people at all income levels in North America, or the goal of reduced energy consumption and smaller carbon footprints will not be realized. (In a couple of weeks, I’ll set up a link to our final composite report, as well as my own report on community land trusts.)

Living at the gentrified "Big W": not a $1.49 day special anymore!

Farther down Hastings, my Mom often took me grocery shopping at the Woodward’s Food Floor downtown. The Woodward’s flagship store at Hastings and Abbott was the result of several additions grafted onto a much smaller original store, which dates back to 1908. With the Food Floor in the building’s basement, you ended up with an interesting assortment of low ceilings, narrow isles, dead ends, and a very uneven floor that sloped in the strangest places, which made racing shopping carts with my cousin all the more fun! Yes, we raced shopping carts – bashing into little old ladies, knocking over displays and the like – that is, until we heard the voice of God through the scratchy P.A. system:

“Attention! The two young men in Aisle 7. Yes, you. This is not Daytona! Stop racing those shopping carts right now!”

When Woodward’s went out of business in the early 1990s and its revolving neon ‘W’ went dark, it signalled the beginning of a really challenging period for residents of the surrounding Downtown Eastside, who relied on the store for its inexpensive groceries. It was a true anchor for the neighbourhood, and without it, the neighbourhood was set adrift. Derelict, abandoned buildings, combined with deinstitutionalized psych patients with no where to go, and plenty of cheap heroin, meth and crack, and you can guess the result. I really don’t know if it was the approaching Olympics or just a collective guilty conscience on the part of those in a position to make decisions, but finally a belated effort was launched to throw a lifeline to the floundering neighbourhood.

The recovery began where the decline started – at Woodward’s. The original building’s facade (the Downtown Woodward’s eventually grew to four times its original size) has been retained, and to connect with the past, a brand-new neon ‘W’ now adorns the complex. There’s even a mural-sized reproduction of a photograph in the central courtyard, depicting the infamous Gastown Riot in 1971, which occurred in part in the streets around Woodward’s. The mix of new and old is in some ways symbolic of the whole development, which includes a mix of market and social housing, a community resource centre, and a grocery store that is probably too expensive for most of the area’s current residents. I say ‘current’ because the Woodward’s rejuvenation was intended, at least in some peoples’ minds, to minimize gentrification, not encourage it. Thus, the jury’s still out on Woodward’s, and whether the Welfare Wednesday crowd can continue to afford to live around there. The problem is, they have no where else to go: it’s too expensive for them to live anywhere else in what is reportedly the world’s hottest real estate market.

As for me, I miss the Christmas displays in the store’s large front windows (now a bank – boring), and of course, those uneven basement floors.

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