It is a sign of just how rapidly the early character of Vancouver is vanishing.
The new book of heritage watercolours by Michael Kluckner , president of the Vancouver Historical Society, is not slated for official launch until Nov. 21 and already it has been overtaken by events: More demolitions in the name of gentrification.
Kluckner’s evocative book, Here & Gone: Artwork of Vancouver and Beyond , fondly describes how at least some iconic family-run corner grocery stores in the city, including in Kitsilano, have survived the way property developers are funnelling billions of dollars into Vancouver.
But, as recently as Oct. 5, the Vancouver Sun published a story describing how one such store, at Yew and Sixth, will be bulldozed. Owner Jian Li Li and his wife, Yan Li, face financial ruin and loss of their living space. So much for retaining small, independent businesses.
Those who want to conserve the character of Vancouver, even in works of art, have to move fast, Kluckner warns. The city is being turned into nondescript towers and cookie-cutter dwellings more rapidly than New York and San Francisco, which are also desired by global investors.
Kluckner explains how Vancouver is definitely not like cities in Europe such as Barcelona, which I visited last year, marvelling at the thousands of cozy neighbourhood retail outlets and the way politicians devote themselves to architectural and cultural preservation.
“Romantic-era artists in 18th- and 19th-century Europe lingered over picturesque ruins that would evoke melancholic thoughts on the passage of time and the frailty of human endeavour. Their Vancouver successors have to be quicker on their feet, as nothing sticks around here for long,” Kluckner writes.
Vancouver is turning into an homogenous and repetitive city of “bland glass and stucco.” Like in the much-mocked U.S., the gap between the haves and have-nots is expanding, from Chinatown to Marpole. Vancouver is not only losing streetscape diversity, but economic diversity.
“Relatively inexpensive houses are being demolished and replaced by more expensive ones,” he writes in Here and Gone, which includes a painting of an “orange fence of death” encircling a tree, a familiar sight marking a pending demolition.
Born in Kerrisdale, Kluckner at a young age chose the semi-bohemian life of a visual artist and writer hanging out with musicians and actors, eating moderately and wearing old clothes. “But you can’t be willfully poor in Vancouver anymore. Vancouver has lost its cheap options.”
After his family returned to Vancouver a decade ago from Australia and living on a farm in the Fraser Valley, Kluckner, with Here and Gone, is back to the work for which he is most well known: heritage advocacy . In 1990 and 2002 he wrote two high-profile Vanishing Vancouver books.
Although Kluckner says Here and Now does not offer a systematic analysis “of affordability, of ‘making room,’ of speculation and overseas capital, preoccupations Vancouver shares with other popular cities,” I nevertheless found it packs a sorrowful and subtle punch, juxtaposing warm watercolours and etchings with pointed prose.
Kluckner reminds us that the city’s old corner grocery stores were “a kind of port of entry for many Chinese and Japanese immigrant families, providing housing and income.” I also remember visiting three such stores as part of my daily childhood routine, having spent my first 10 years in a house at East 29th Avenue and Prince Albert Street.
“In retrospect, they were hugely significant culturally,” Kluckner writes. “An acquaintance of mine whose family immigrated from Hong Kong in the 1950s grew up behind the Cardero Grocery in the West End and is now a successful corporate lawyer — an arc of achievement in a single generation that ought to be a badge of pride for Canadian society to complement our earlier history of racism.”
Instead of a city of lively corner stores, however, Kluckner these days notices that “shuttered storefronts and For Lease signs have become another symptom of a sick city.”
Vancouver’s retail outlets are now taxed based on their “highest and best use.” A property that contains a one-storey building is taxed on what could be built, which might be five or 10 storeys. City council and staff, he says, are “eager to upzone whenever a developer walks through the door.”
The west side of Vancouver, once home to hundreds of small retail businesses, is hollowing out — faster even than Grandview-Woodlands, where Kluckner and his wife, Christine Allen, live in a heritage home they restored, including with a burgundy paint colour popular in the 1920s . Their street, of course, has been upzoned, with expensive duplexes but no increase in population.
Kluckner makes it clear that “Dunbar and West Point Grey were especially hard hit due to declining populations — satellite families living in large new houses for only a part of the year — and a demographic shift, notably to Asian Canadians who preferred to shop elsewhere, such as in the malls of Richmond.”
Then came the technological shift to online shopping, he writes, and a continued move to big-box stores for many whose incomes have stagnated while their expenses soar. “Add in the COVID-19 pandemic and it was the perfect storm for independent retailers and restaurateurs.”
The Halloween trick-or-treat map released this week by Andy Yan, head of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, suggests how lifeless, and devoid of children, many west side neighbourhoods have become.
And the former director of policy planning for former U.S. president Barack Obama, Anne-Marie Slaughter, offered a similar overall warning about maintaining heritage when she spoke in Vancouver in 2018.
“The difference between a genuine developed economy and a developing economy is history remains visible in a developed economy,” Slaughter said. “When I lived in Shanghai, the Chinese approach was tragic. It was, ‘Tear down everything and put up new glass structures.’ I think the sign of a really developed economy is seeing layers and layers of time, where you continually renew but do not discard your past.”
Asked how he deals with developers and their often dubious “grassroots” allies who sometimes accuse heritage advocates of being reactionaries and even “xenophobes,” Kluckner said in an interview there’s “no question I am a conservative” when it comes to heritage and change.
“I believe that in many cases things and buildings should be reused and conserved, not thrown away and replaced by shiny new ones. To me, this is the essence of environmentalism and a key part of saving the planet.”
What of the “xenophobic” allegation? “Hardly. If you want to know what’s going on in Vancouver, just ‘follow the money.’ ”
Like many Metro Vancouver heritage advocates and residents who have given up the fight and moved away from the city, Kluckner also muses over whether he still “belongs” here. Yet he concludes he does.
For that, the people of Vancouver should be grateful.
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