99. Vancouver/Burnaby, 1961: Tall Buildings
I suppose because of arrangements my father had made with welfare, the first night we four spent in Vancouver was in a room overlooking Hastings Street, at the Hazelwood Hotel. Across the street was the Lenity Café, which no longer stands, and down the way west and visible if we leaned out the window was the bright neon of the Ovaltine Café. That café is still there, and—entirely because of its still bright neon sign—is a location-filming favourite for film and television directors who, when their storylines detour to the noir, need a colourful greasy spoon.
I don’t think we spent more than that first night in the Hazelwood. Our next was my father’s habitual first stop in Vancouver—equivalent to the Grand Café rooms in Prince Rupert—the Butler Hotel on Water Street. The Butler had been my last address in Vancouver in 1958, but rather than ho-hum, it had somehow changed to exotic after my three years spent mostly in small, remote and anachronistic places, where Prince Rupert stood in for Metropolis.
And somehow it was different also when experienced in the presence of my sisters.
I tried to assert my priority. I lived in Vancouver before. But my sisters weren’t accepting that from an eleven-year-old kid brother. And anyway, as I said, I couldn’t help but look at Vancouver as google-eyed as any tourist or country-bumpkin sister.
The elevator was a novelty, for instance. And, while nothing to talk about in Vancouver, at six stories the Butler would have been taller than any building in Prince Rupert. It inspired us to scour the neighbourhood for other and better examples.
An obvious candidate was the Sun Tower at Pender and Beatty, not very far away, a building with a rounded copper roof, tipped with something like a bell tower. I suspect the bell tower was added not merely to add elegance to the structure, but to prevent the building, in those days of black, white and sepia, from photographing too much like a phallic symbol. Unfortunately, it then resembled a condom with a reservoir end, which I suspect is why you find few buildings that look like the Sun Building elsewhere in the world.
All of which architectural subtext was lost to me in 1961.
Anyway a better candidate for the tallest building in the neighbourhood was the Dominion Building at Cambie and Hastings, opposite Victory Square. At the time it was built, 1910, it was (briefly) the tallest commercial building in the British Empire. Nowadays I suppose you can look down on its roof from any number of offices around. It’s a handsome building, still worth looking at, even if half a century away from awe-inspiring.
Vancouver was a much more modest city then. The West End was mostly a quiet residential neighbourhood of single family dwellings, not the built-up-and-up collection of residential towers which for decades has rendered the area between downtown and Stanley Park one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Back then Vancouver’s towers were the Marine Building at the north foot of Burrard Street and, also on Burrard, dominating the centre of the downtown peninsula, the BC Electric Building, as it then was. The Dominion Building was third.
In 1961 Vancouver was a Euro-Canadian city which boasted of a Chinatown second only to San Francisco. It is now an Asian city with a large Chinese population which still has—oddly enough if you consider it—a Chinatown.
The Butler Hotel was only two blocks away from Pender where Chinatown centred. I have fragments of memory of me and my two sisters eating there in some “Chinese-Canadian” café, adding soy sauce to the noodle soup and crackers to the vegetable soup.
But we weren’t downtown long.
When my father was attempting to persuade the welfare authorities in Burns Lake to fund the rest of our journey to Vancouver (welfare authorities are not usually of the sort who will underwrite family excursions for just any reason) I suspect he invoked resources he could call upon when he got there. He had connections at the union, the UFAWU, at the Fisherman’s Hall, out of which the Fisherman newspaper was published.
The Fisherman was publishing my father’s column, until, I suppose, the fire burnt us out. I don’t remember the crumpled obsessive litter—the litter which always appeared around his chair when he wrote his column—haunting any chairs after the Boneyard.
But my father’s connections to the newspaper must have continued. Our family’s next host was John Rutka, a man with a withered hand who fulfilled some important role at the Fisherman. We stayed at his house, I think sort of crowding in. I remember a furnace room, a sawdust bin to feed it, and an experiment with black-eyed peas, served to the Collins and Rutka clans each for the first time as we sat around the table for supper. Teddy secretly thought the black-eyed pea experiment was a failure, and has never repeated it, but we all thought the Rutkas—and especially John—were just fine.
And finally we landed at the Sunset Auto Court on Boundary Road near Grandview Highway, the Burnaby side of the boundary. Vancouver was across the street. Far away downtown the BC Electric Building dominated the horizon.
For the first time our little family had a home, so we settled in and began to set up housekeeping, meanwhile continuing to learn what it was to be a family. Because a family in a hotel room, a family on the road, is not the same as a family with an address, which is what we were for the first time.
The rooms we moved into would probably look impossibly small and cramped to me if I saw them now. But back then, it was the city which our address overlooked which impressed the mind; that was large, that was bright. It was the continuing amazement of being a family. The size of our rooms was irrelevant. Our prospects were large, and as tall as the downtown towers, which you almost fell backwards looking up at.