Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Happy 125th birthday, city of glass

We arrived in Vancouver sight unseen, lured westward by such beautiful images as this found on a $1 definitive stamp. BELOW: The plaque for Wasserman's Beat.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 6, 2011

VICTORIA

We pulled into Vancouver for the first time along Highway 99A, known as the Kingsway, a regal designation for a strip dedicated to car culture.

The view of motor courts and tattered used-car-lot pennants was a most unpromising glimpse of a city of such supposed beauty.

It was like being introduced to a debutante by a brash uncle in a loud sports coat.

As dusk gave way to dark, lights hovered in the distant sky to the north. It would be morning before we spotted the mountains, later still before the lit peak had a name. We were incredulous to learn the ski hill on Grouse Mountain was a short bus ride from downtown, stunned as well by the sandy beaches along the waterfront.

My family — parents in their 30s and two teenagers — arrived in the Terminal City in the summer of 1977 after a week-long, cross-continental trek by car. We had no home, no jobs. We knew no one. Like so many before and since, we arrived — almost empty-handed — in search of opportunity.

Not one of us had ever so much as seen the city, though my stamp collection included a mint copy of a recent $1 definitive, which featured the city’s apartment towers reflecting on still waters.

We found an apartment in Kitsilano and work as day labourers, my father and I, clearing debris from a building undergoing renovation. Our off days by necessity were filled with pursuits not demanding money. So, Stanley Park became a haunt, as did the old main branch of the public library, where the most popular local history book was subtitled, From Milltown to Metropolis. Frankly, coming from Montreal, it seemed more milltown what with Sweeney’s barrel company hard by downtown.

Today, as the city celebrates its 125th anniversary, Vancouver is the City of Glass, as Douglas Coupland calls it, the metropolis promised by the history book.

Happy birthday, kiddo, you don’t look a day older than 50.

Vancouver is a boom-and-bust town, but for my family it was almost all boom.

Our early days were tough. The stamp collection? Sold for groceries. But my father soon found work as a teacher and we were on our way.

Not long after we arrived, the mayor unveiled a brass plaque along the 600-block of Hornby Street. The street was to be known as Wasserman’s Beat in honour of nightclub habitué and man-about-town Jack Wasserman, who had died suddenly. A city that honoured saloon reporters was the city for me.

Mr. Wasserman got his start on the student newspaper at the University of British Columbia, which also claimed to be the training ground for the likes of Pierre Berton and Allan Fotheringham. I signed up for the Ubyssey on my second day on campus.

Two months later, a secretary ushered me into a city hall office for an interview. Jack Volrich, the slick-haired mayor of Canada’s third-largest city, the ceremonial Chain of Office dangling from around his neck, pumped the hand of one of his newest constituents, a long-haired, squeaky-voiced student reporter/urchin in torn jeans. He gave me the better part of an hour.

In retrospect, the moment captured for me the spirit of my new home — the boy reporter and the politico from the mining town of Anyox, both of us come-from-aways, reinventing ourselves in the big city.

As a teenaged reporter for a daily newspaper, an early story featured the arrival of the first Vietnamese boat people. Many had nothing at all, not even the language. Now, the anchor for the national public broadcaster canvasses the owner of a successful Vietnamese bakery for his political opinion.

People still come to the city in waves, from Asia and Latin America, from eastern Canada and the western United States. They come to live in a place of scenic wonder in an urban setting notable for its diversity and tolerance.

Who wouldn’t want to live in a city where neighbourhoods are named Fairview, Grandview and Mount Pleasant?

In time, the beauty of the Kingsway revealed itself — the wondrous neon sign JESUS — THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD, now in a museum; the 18 bungalows of the 2400 Court Motel, a throwback to a post-war era of plenty; and, especially, the dripping goodness of a deluxe chuck wagon from the old Wally’s Burger drive-in.

Thank you to those who preserved Stanley Park. Thanks to those who fought for equal rights and for good wages. Thanks to those who stopped freeways. Thanks to Don Stewart for maintaining MacLeod’s Books as a refuge of the old Vancouver, when rents were cheap and storeowners indulged their idiosyncrasies. Mostly, though, thanks for the opportunity.

Happy quasquicentennial, Vancouver. Let’s do this again on your sesquicentennial in 2036.

This magnificent neon sign now belongs to the Museum of Vancouver. It once lit the way along Kingsway in Vancouver.

1 comment:

Eric Promislow said...

Hey, I remember those jeans! Good article, Tom.