Meeting Notes: July 2013

A good turnout of enthusiasts spent one of the hottest summer evenings last night in the cool of the Britannia Boardroom, discussing a wide range of heritage and historical topics:

  • We began by patting ourselves on the back for the organization and success of the Shelly’s Sign Party in June.  Especial thanks were given to Ann Daskal who was the principal organizer of the event. We had perhaps 200 people there and a good time was had by all.
  • On a more serious note, the issue of the recent purchase of 2040 Pandora Street and its neighbour was raised. 2040 Pandora is a particularly fine house and perhaps the earliest (1906) in its area. It had been converted in 1939 to a triplex.  The house and its neighbour sit in 2 50′ lots in an area zoned for small apartment buildings, and there is a danger that the old house may be lost in any new development.  Michael Kluckner noted that nothing has come to the Heritage Commission yet and he hoped that, at the least, the developer could be persuaded, probably through a densisty bonus, to restore the house and build units around the back and one side — not disimilar to the Jeffs House development.  This is a watch and wait situation.
  • As an offshoot of the previous discussion, Bruce Macdonald noted his current research into the Burrard South shipyard which operated during the war at the north end of McLean Drive and which employed hundreds of Grandview residents.
  • Jak noted that at the Shelly’s Party he had been approached by a large number of local residents who complained about the new “The Drive” street signs that had appeared without warning throughout much of the neighbourhood. Jak reported that after a discussion with the Commercial Drive BIA, the business group — who had had the signs put up — had written to the City asking for them to be removed except on Commercial Drive itself.
  • A newspaper article regarding the failure of New Westminster’s attempt to institute heritage areas in their city had been circulated before the meeting, and this was discussed.  As Michael noted, the Royal City had tried to use sticks rather than carrots and that has not worked out too well.  It was also noted that New West, unlike Vancouver, operates under the Municipal Act of BC which has caused concerns regarding liability.
  • We then had a long discussion about the current state of the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan.  Clr. Andriane Carr’s Motion for 23rd July was noted, as were the next two Open Houses on 29th and 31st July.
  • We then discussed future Walks & Talks.  Maurice Guibord has offered to reprise his popular Commercial Drive to Clark Drive Walk at a date in the fall to be determined. We also agreed to make the Researching Your House’s History seminar into an annual event.  Eric also is working on a few more of his Historic House Mechanical and Materials series and we look forward to those.
  • Jak and Lance reported on the progress with the Grandview wiki project.  Jak is hoping to make this available publicly befofe the next meeting.  At the next meeting he will also give a presentation on how to enter material into the wiki.
  • It was noted that an extended version of the July 1st piece on our blog regarding the construction of the First Avenue Viaduct will be included in the fall edition of BC History Magazine.
  • There was an interesting discussion about collecting and videotaping interviews with senior residents of Grandview to capture their stories before they are lost.  We will pursue this further.
  • Bruce reported on his continuing work to try to get the super-size bowling pin moved from the now-closed Ridge Bowling Lanes to the Grandview Lanes. We await further developments.
  • The next meeting will be on Thursday 15th August.

 

Next Meeting: 18th July

Time flies, and we are coming up to the next meeting of the Grandview Heritage Group at 7:00pm on Thursday 18th July at the Britannia Board Room. Everyone is invited!

As usual, our meetings are pretty informal.  This week I am sure we will have a debrief on the fabulous Shelly’s Sign party we enjoyed at the end of last month, a discussion on the sale and possible destruction of 2040 Pandora Street, and a look at what the latest Community Plan draft might mean for heritage in Grandview.

It’ll be fun — come along and join the conversation!

Worthless Grandview Property

I was looking through old copies of the Vancouver Sun on the Google News Archive (actually, looking for Shelly’s 4X advertising to try to confirm the vintage of the Via Tevere sign) when I stumbled upon the pages of Tax Sale Properties, in this case the November 1, 1934 edition. It’s relatively common knowledge that large numbers of people lost their homes for unpaid taxes during the Great Depression, and rumoured that some great Vancouver fortunes have their roots in such properties bought at the tax sale auctions (although I’ve never been able to tie any names to that). The city eventually responded to the homeowners’ plight by implementing a Work for Taxes program that allowed them to do manual labour on city projects (Fraserview Golf Course, for example) until the tax bill was paid.

Here’s the first page (of 6 or so) at the back of that day’s paper…

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… and a close-up of properties in DL264A: the heart of Grandview south of Venables. The first two columns are block and lot number, followed by the tax arrears and a ‘penalty’ column, the sum of which is the ‘upset price’ in column 5 that would stop the auction. The final column indicates the further payment required to regain title to the property.

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Maybe readers can find their own houses on the list? It must have been easy to get a Grandview house for $500, if you had that kind of savings. A typical annual wage might be $800 and credit was almost impossible to obtain, but if Aunt Maisie suddenly croaked and left you with a cashable legacy, you could be on your way!

The green house next to The Cultch

After a hiatus of a couple of years, I’ve begun to take my sketchbook out into the city looking for derelicts – looking for pending change. One place that’s been on my mind is the house at 1885 Venables that was used as rehearsal and administration space next door to The Cultch.
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The house was built as part of the church compound, as a manse or rectory (whatever the term Methodists used), in 1912. Here are images of the building permit (from Heritage Vancouver‘s permit database) and the site as it appeared in the Goad’s 1912 atlas.

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1885venables
I’ve watched the blue tarp on its roof, put there to protect the interior from leaks, deteriorate to the point of uselessness, and heard the rumours that The Cultch will demolish the house rather than adapt it to its needs, arguing that it is too far gone to be rehabilitated affordably. And I wonder, is this an example of the prudent use of scarce arts-and-culture funds, or is it an example of cultural vandalism, the sort of thing we deplore when developers turn their backs on heritage stewardship? Just curious….

First Avenue Viaduct — The Saviour of Grandview

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Today is the 75th anniversary of the opening of the First Avenue Viaduct, an event that rescued and re-invented what was then a failing Commercial Drive suburb and to link it firmly once and for all to the growing city of Vancouver.  The story of Charles Smith and the First Avenue Viaduct is the veritable creation story of the modern Drive, a story without which East Vancouver’s history would have been markedly different.

* * * *

The boom for building in Grandview was in the decade before the First World War, and by 1914, the neighbourhood was filling out and thriving. Unfortunately, the impact of the War and the business downturns immediately after, left the Drive without much opportunity for further development and expansion. These difficulties were exacerbated a decade later by the economic disruption of the Great Depression which had a devastating effect on the people and households in Grandview. Hundreds of lots in the district were surrendered to the city for failure to pay taxes.  With the vast number of empty lots and the consequent lack of any need to provide reasonable transportation to those sections, the City had not felt it necessary to spend any of their limited resources on grading, paving or servicing many of the streets running east of Victoria Drive.

As the economic conditions of the Depression were slowly alleviated, the eastside was being left behind in the recovery. For example, while almost fourteen hundred houses and apartments were built in the west side of Vancouver in 1935, less than three hundred were constructed east of Ontario Street that year.  Most of the houses in Grandview were already considered older stock and many were run down and dilapidated, causing locals to campaign often about what they called the “slumification” of East Vancouver.

A City Engineer had contemptuously described Grandview in these years as the City’s “back door”:  it wasn’t that important in the scheme of things and could be allowed to become shabby in a way that a front door never would be. The Highland Echo was no doubt accurate when it editorialized that westside and downtown interests, including the daily metropolitan newspapers, saw Grandview as an unpleasant sort of place inhabited by an unpleasant sort of people, namely the working classes.  By 1935, Grandview had become identified, in one newspaper’s words, as “the Cinderella in the family of Vancouver suburbs.”

Part of the problem stemmed from the urban planning consequences of Grandview’s geography.  Grandview and Commercial Drive sit on the high ground just east of the then-undeveloped False Creek Flats. Trapped behind this barrier, Commercial Drive was cut off in a material way from the developing city that seemed so close.

Motivated partly by the need to detour around the Flats, City planners had developed the primary east-west routes to and from downtown Vancouver to be north of Grandview along Hastings Street and south of Grandview along Broadway.  Traffic coming along Kingsway was also prevented from visiting the district because Commercial essentially still ended at Clark Park, leaving no direct road connection from Kingsway to the Drive.  This configuration left Commercial Drive stuck in the middle of nowhere, and it seemed quite possible to some that the suburb might simply disappear as an independent business centre.

M004-0But there were ways out of this transportation trap. In fact, a Grand Plan had been proposed by Charles E. Smith since at least the early 1920s.

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Smith was an Australian who landed in Vancouver in 1907. He arrived in steerage and with a tourist landing permit, but within two years he held many thousands of dollars’ worth of property on Commercial Drive. Between 1909 and his early death in 1948, there was little of importance that went on around the Drive that Charles Smith did not have a part in. As a realtor, building manager, legal advisor and insurance agent, Smith was the consummate insider and he covered all the big deals.

Smith’s Grand Plan included a major new east-west thoroughfare right across Vancouver with First & Commercial as a primary intersection. He proposed that the newly constructed Lougheed Highway bringing traffic from the east and the south be linked to First Avenue at Boundary Road. The traffic would then be carried through the centre of Commercial Drive’s shopping district, and onto a viaduct or bridge over the False Creek Flats from First & Clark to Terminal Avenue, and thence down to Main Street. From there, he suggested another viaduct that would take this traffic downtown to Georgia Street. The Fraser Valley would thus be linked through Commercial Drive and Vancouver to the new Lions Gate Bridge by an almost straight thoroughfare.

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At the same time, Commercial Drive would be extended south to connect with Kingsway in an attempt to divert some traffic away from an already clogged Main Street and, not incidentally, to divert that traffic from downtown to Commercial’s retail interests. If such a plan could be achieved then riches indeed would flow to the merchants of Commercial Drive.

However, looking back from today it is difficult to understand just how much a leap of the imagination was needed for this vision.  The very idea of First Avenue as a major east-west thoroughfare was a fanciful idea in the nineteen-twenties and early thirties. The First Avenue of those years was an unimpressive roadway at best: From its intersection with Commercial, it traveled five blocks west down the steep hill to Clark Drive, where it simply stopped: It had nowhere else to go, with the cliffs and the Flats in the way. Gravel-topped and with grass verges where the sidewalks should be, it could have been a country lane.  Traveling east from Commercial, First Avenue wasn’t fully graded, it was narrower than standard, and travel east beyond Victoria Drive was very uncomfortable over a series of short, sharp hills all the way to Rupert Street.

0099-1There were few cars on that route and the intersection with Commercial had no traffic control of any kind; it didn’t need any so long as you watched out for the streetcars. It took a strong dose of imagination – and probably a pro-Commercial Drive bent — to see First & Commercial as a thriving urban centre, let alone as the hub of a miles’ long highway corridor linking the eastern borders of the metropolis with downtown Vancouver.

The First Avenue Bridge or viaduct was the key component of Smith’s Grand Plan to free Commercial Drive from its transportation trap. The viaduct would make it easy for traffic to cross the False Creek Flats and access Commercial from First Avenue, which itself would become a thoroughfare from Commercial to Main. Crucially, once First Avenue had been thus established at its western end, pressure could be bought to extend it eastward toward Boundary Road and the Lougheed Highway.

The history of this project fed directly into the narrative of the neglected suburb:  Commercial Drive merchants, following Smith’s lead, had demanded the viaduct for years without any satisfaction, and this had bred resentment.  The target of all that resentment tended to be City Council. However, it has to be said that Vancouver City Council had on three separate occasions put all the money needed for the First Avenue Bridge to the electorate as part of City Council’s overall plans for the following year.

And on all three occasions – in 1930, 31 and 32 – the bylaws had been defeated by the voters. Apprehensive for the future in troubled financial times, and not seeing any advantage for themselves, the majority of voters elsewhere in the city had pulled tight the drawstrings on the public purse and denied Grandview its desires.

Plebiscite

Whenever an occasion arose, speakers from the eastside continued to harp on the terrible conditions that, they said, were the result of a cumulative process of deterioration due entirely to neglect by the civic authorities.  By mid-1938 it had been said so often that the Vancouver News Herald, at least, seems to have bought into the story. They wrote that “The people of Grandview have been very patient, and repeated defeats would have daunted less courageous people”.

1930s leaders

Al Higgins (Commercial Drive Garage), Pete Brown (Brown Bros. Bakery) and Charles Smith

The abolition of the Vancouver City ward system in 1935 removed the most obvious political avenue for a local party of municipal discontent.  But the group of leaders that emerged on the Drive in the 1930s and 40s were in general independent merchants and salaried professionals who were far more interested in commerce than they were in ideology. In fact, they were stridently agnostic when it came to party politics.  A small group of businessmen with definite plans for the future gathered around Charlie Smith, “Pete” Brown of Brown Bakeries and Alf Higgins of the Commercial Drive Garage. Their nominations got Brown elected president of the Chamber of Commerce in November 1936, along, of course, with Higgins and Smith. And their renewed agitation about the slowness of the Lougheed Highway construction, for example, was already being noticed by the Province newspaper in April 1937.  More directly, they were keen to see progress on the First Avenue Viaduct.

When the flamboyant lawyer and monetary theorist Gerry McGeer was elected Mayor of Vancouver at the end of 1934, a deputation from Commercial Drive led by Charles Smith took pains to visit the new mayor and discuss their issues, most notably the First Avenue Bridge. Smith and his allies were careful to pitch their arguments to include benefits to sections other than Grandview. For example, they claimed that such an artery as they proposed along First Avenue would be of tremendous assistance in helping to solve the daily problem of incoming and outgoing commuter traffic which had already resulted in what everyone agreed was a serious aggravation of traffic conditions on Kingsway, Broadway and Main Streets, with a consequent high accident rate at the points where those thoroughfares converge.  But it would not have been missed by anyone hearing the proposal that the area most benefited by it was Commercial Drive.

In early 1936, McGeer came to Grandview and gave a rousing speech confirming his assurances about the viaduct, and a Council committee was struck straightaway. The only problem, of course, was funding. Under the circumstances of the Depression, and after three failed plebiscites, no funds from general revenues could be expected. No matter. Mayor McGeer was sure his baby bonds could be stretched to fit the need.

McGeer-2Baby bonds were a controversial municipal financing measure that McGeer was pushing through to pay for the new City Hall and for other civic work projects. At the time of McGeer’s visit to Grandview, provincial authority for the bonds had not yet been granted; but that spring “baby bonds” were approved in Victoria, and the Mayor’s enthusiasm for the viaduct cleared away all other delays.

The preliminary surveys and test holes were completed that summer and contracts were signed with the Dominion Construction Company in January 1937.  The lump sum bid for the work was $208,000.  Substantive construction work began that March and the building would take a year to complete.

G022-0G008-2G024-0In anticipation of the new traffic from the Bridge, the City Board of Works approved $5,500 in improvements to First Avenue from Clark Drive to Commercial, and the widening of First Avenue by three feet between Commercial and Victoria at an additional cost of $1,000.

Charles Smith’s history with the Town Planning Commission in the 1920s, and his negotiations with Mayor McGeer, along with whatever motives crossed the mercurial mind of the Mayor himself, probably had most to do with getting the Bridge built. However, in a mighty gesture of self-congratulation, the Grandview Chamber of Commerce hosted 250 residents and friends at a banquet in the Masonic Hall on First Avenue.  Guests included Reeve Solomon Mussallem of Haney and Reeve J.B. Leyland of West Vancouver. These two symbolized the two ends of the string that the Grand Plan’s boosters saw linking Lougheed Highway with the brand new Lions Gate Bridge. M002a-1City Council gave $3,000 to help celebrate the opening of the viaduct which took place on Dominion Day 1938, and tens of thousands thronged to witness the opening of the bridge and the subsequent revelry. There was a parade of course, which stretched twelve blocks and included huge animal balloons that bounced along. Bands included contingents from the American Legionnaires and the Kitsilano Boys Band.

G027-1When the parade arrived at the central span of the bridge, the dignitaries disembarked and at 9:45am, Mayor Miller cut the twisted strands of blue and yellow ribbon with a special set of golden scissors presented to him by Charles Bentall of the Dominion Construction Company. There were cheers all around.  Alderman John Bennet declared the day to be “the dawning of a new era for Grandview and the city. It is the realization of a dream of twenty-five years of a thriving community,” he said. Many in the crowd held placards proclaiming “This Is Grandview’s Great Day – Watch Grandview Grow.”   The crowds stayed throughout the day, enjoying the carnival games that lined the bridge. In the evening, at 8pm, the crowd sang “O Canada” and the dancing began. Fun was had until the rain started about ten-thirty. This was Vancouver after all.

There were differing views as to the purpose of the First Avenue Bridge, and they depended on where you were standing. Downtown and on the west side, the Bridge was seen as a way for people on Commercial Drive to have direct access to Vancouver’s shopping centres. They also saw it as an exit from the city to the Fraser Valley: a “valuable new artery,” as Mayor Miller called it. On Commercial, however, it was seen as making the Drive an easy destination for the growing numbers of Vancouver’s car-driving shoppers. The Echo prophesied that quote once traffic has discovered this new convenient route more vehicles will cross at First Avenue & Commercial in a day than crossed it in a week before endquote. In addition, realtors were sure there would be a general increase in property values as a result of the tremendous amount of home building they expected to take place.

The immediate success of the First Avenue Bridge was confirmed as early as February 1940 when a survey from the Town Planning Commission showed that in one two-hour period 565 vehicles had used First Avenue east of Clark Drive. In 1937, three years earlier, a similar survey had shown only 17 vehicles on that same stretch.  In the hindsight of just a few years’ use, it became clear that routes to and from downtown Vancouver and the westside had changed significantly to take advantage of the improved connection the bridge afforded.

It is hard to imagine today Vancouver traffic without the First Avenue connection. And that the building of the Viaduct turned First and Commercial into a well-known and popular intersection is demonstrably clear.  Happy anniversay Viaduct!