Legends of Myself 28

Posted on September 30, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 27

28.  Vancouver, 1958:  Monuments, Phantom Creeks, Phantom Speedways

In early 1958 I moved back to Vancouver to stay with my father.  It was beginning then that I started to get an inkling of one or two of the city’s distinct neighbourhoods.

However, to put my own kid-level observations in proper context, a primer on Vancouver geography might be useful.

Sandwich. Vancouver sits at the seaward end of the Fraser Valley and faces westward twenty miles (thirty or so kilometres) across the Georgia Strait to Vancouver Island.  It’s sandwiched between salt and riverine water, between Burrard Inlet to the north and the Fraser River and its delta to the south.

(In fact, three municipalities make up the filling for that geographic sandwich, Vancouver to the west, New Westminster to the east, Burnaby amorphously in-between.)

Bridges.  Across Burrard Inlet from Vancouver are the North Shore Mountains and the municipalities of North and West Vancouver.  Connecting the North Shore and the city are two bridges which effectively bracket Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet waterfront.  The western bracket, sprouting from the tip of Stanley Park, is the Lions Gate Bridge.  The eastern bracket, a tip of it touching the edge of Burnaby, is the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge.

In 1958, the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge was still under construction, and the incident which led to its naming in fact occurred during the brief period I remained in the city.  At 3:40 p.m., June 17th, 1958, owing to structural flaws and—according to some reports—dangerous shortcuts and the use of cheap materials by the construction company, a span of the bridge suddenly buckled and collapsed.  It took another span with it, and together the collapsing spans tossed 79 bridge construction workers willy-nilly into the inlet.

Some died instantly.  Others were reportedly hauled under water by the weight of their toolbelts.  18 bridge workers were killed, and a diver later drowned trying to recover their bodies.  The bridge, completed in 1960 and for a long time simply known as the Second Narrows Bridge, had its name changed in 1994 in remembrance of the 19 who died because of those fatal spans long-ago .

I moved to Vancouver three or so months before the tragedy, and was living in the city when it happened, but I heard not a rumour of it.  My eight-year-old world still wasn’t expansive enough to include most current events.  (One event crept in, however, which I will deal with presently.)  Nor did I know anything about that corner of Vancouver.

Eiffel, of course.  My personal Vancouver geography began at about Clark Drive and proceeded patchily eastward.  Thus, my gazetteer of the Burrard waterfront might leave out storied, tragic bridges, but it naturally included the BC Sugar Refinery, a distinctive if unprepossessing industrial building which in that era on the British Columbia coast—according to our Teddy’s soon-to-be-evolving view of things—was Vancouver’s Eiffel tower.

If you watch any movie set in Paris, any establishing shot, any neighbourhood, any car route and taxi ride, any sewer grate or belfry, any balcony, any hotel room, mansion, garret, bordello or restaurant window in the City of Light looks out on the Eiffel Tower.  Because the Eiffel Tower stands for Paris, of course.  Likewise, in Teddy’s slide show of our west coast metropolis, carried with him when he went away, the BC Sugar Refinery represents Vancouver.  Of course.

The reason–and this would become clearer with experience–was that every package of cube sugar sold on the coast by the Roger’s Sugar monopoly had a picture of the celebrated refinery on the cover.  And every fisherman or raincoast dweller in British Columbia who wanted sugar for their tea or coffee inevitably had it in lumps.  Powered sugar, the alternative, doesn’t always do well in the conditions of rain, fog, dew, seep, leak, sleet and bilgewater of our wet green coast.  Thus, pictures of the BC Sugar Refinery were inescapable.  Alternative, tourist-friendly iconography issued by the tobacco shops to represent Vancouver—postcard pictures with totem groves, lagoons and hollow trees—could hardly compete.  Contrary to the ubiquity of Roger’s sugar boxes in multiple galleys or kitchens up and down the coast, attested to in Teddy’s future travels, postcards were few.

In the Chamber of Commerce, okay, they natter and thump their oaken tables complaining that a stark-faced sugar refinery squatting between the train tracks and an industrial waterfront was too humble, too blue collar, too positively eccentric (I tell you, gentlemen) to be the Jewel by the Sea’s defining monument, to stand in as our raincoast Eiffel Tower.

But, sir, Vancouver was in those days a small, damp backwater city, a warehouse town on the leftcoast edge of a backwater nation.  Humble, blue collar and eccentric was appropriate.

Anyway, take it up with Teddy.

Phantom Creek.  Vancouver (to return us back to our geography lesson) can be divided three ways.  An east and west divide, which is also a class divide, is traditionally drawn at Main Street, with anything east of there considered other-side-of-the-track-ish.  The East End is the working class part of town.

West of Main Street, two joined bodies of water—or a single body of water with two names—English Bay and False Creek, divide Vancouver into north and south peninsulas.  Outwardly, facing the outer harbour and Georgia Strait, facing beaches and better neighbourhoods, the body of water is called English Bay.  Inwardly, back behind, with loading docks, cement works and barrel factories, yes, and men with tools and working boots—in earlier decades, mind, it was a much more industrial puddle than it is now—it’s known as False Creek. 

Today False Creek reaches inland nearly to Main Street but at one time, before World War I, before the eastern part of it was filled in by the Canadian Northern Pacific and the Great Northern Railway companies to make room for railway yards, False Creek extended inland almost to Clark Drive.  The railway yards which were installed then to replace the tidal-flat inlet continue to divide the city north and south as effectively, perhaps more effectively, than the waters of False Creek ever did.

It’s awkward, for example, to paddle your canoe across fences and railway tracks, even during spring tides.

Peninsulas.  I knew nothing about Vancouver’s larger southern peninsula in 1958, the one terminating at Spanish Banks and the University of British Columbia Endowment Lands.  My entire experience was contained by the northern peninsula—the atavistic original peninsula which began at Clark Drive, proceeded through Strathcona, Chinatown, Skid Road, Downtown, the West End, and finished at Prospect Point in Stanley Park.

And I hardly knew much of that, really

The West End, now one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods on the planet, then merely a toney upper-middle class neighbourhood of houses and mansions, was to me merely a place to pass through on the bus to Stanley Park.  Downtown, the proper downtown core, was likewise.  I learned something, however, just a little—I was a very junior reporter—about Skid Road (now known as the Downtown Eastside), Chinatown and Strathcona.

Phantom speedway.  It was slightly beyond the eastern reach of Strathcona proper, at least as I think of that neighbourhood, that I set down first in 1958 in Vancouver, the first of two places that I lived in with my father while completing second grade.  Our address was on Adanac Street, almost at Clark.  If I had lived there half a century earlier, my home would have been two or three hundred yards (think slightly smaller numbers for metric conversion) from the shoreline of False Creek.

Shorelines are busy places, but when lands that used to line a shore are transmogrified into the random extra territories outside of railyard fences, they can lose purpose altogether.  The strip of territory between Strathcona and the railway yards is a mid-city backwater still, more than half a century later, only spottily developed.  It was in 1958 a jungle of brush, swampgrass, nettles, ferns and berry vines, a paradise for hobos, birds, racoons and children.  But, in keeping with its no-mans-land status, there was something tucked in there which it would be difficult to imagine in the heart of the city today:  a motor track.

In Strathcona Park, you can see a pavement oval to this day.  The pavement actually was installed after the time that I’m talking about now.  In 1957 and 1958, the track was still clay.

It had been opened in 1957 by the BC Midget Auto Racing Association as the False Creek Speedway, a quarter mile clay oval for the racing of midget and midget stock cars.  Those cars are small, weighing about 450 kilos or a thousand pounds, but small is a relative thing, and with 300 or 400 horsepower engines, racing them was and is a serious, dangerous, and deafening business.

When I moved into the Clark and Venables neighbourhood in 1958 and wandered over to the Strathcona Park area (I’m hazy about whether there was actually a park there at the time) I remember the buzzsawing of those cars as they rumbled around that track.  I also remember an announcer cryptically calling the races over a crackling p.a. system sufficiently loud enough to outshout the racers.  But that was all, alas.  I never saw a race.  I peeked.  I circled round.  I searched the wood for knots or flaws.  But I never managed to see anything past that high wooden fence they had wrapped so securely and smugly around the fun.

Those were the days before noise bylaws.  A lot of rip and racket passed that fence to feed my imagination.  It could be that what I imagined to be happening was much more exciting than what was actually happening.  I didn’t believe that.  It was as plain to me as it was loud that anything that deafening had to be fun.  If I could have knocked that mocking fence down, I would have knocked it down with a jawbone or pulled it down with a Fargo truck.

I just might have traded my scooter for a lingering look at the fuss on the other side.

Or maybe not.


Continued @ Legends of Myself 29

Posted in: autobiography