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Illustration: Sarah Kift

"The Lost Neighbourhood" by Sarah Kift
Illustration: Sarah Kift


I live in a lost neighbourhood. It looks vaguely familiar, with hallmarks of an East Vancouver 'hood: the small corner grocery, the worn playground, the scattered heritage houses, the stalwart cherry trees, the velour blankets doubling as living room curtains, the running shoes swinging from the power lines.

North of Hastings, west of Nanaimo, east of the Downtown Eastside, bounded by railway, water, highway, and warehouses, is a small thumb of three-story walk-ups that has forgotten its name.

Designated by the city of Vancouver as part of the hipper-than-thou Grandview-Woodlands, it identifies more with adjacent Hastings-Sunrise. Both of those neighbourhoods have richly renovated heritage homes, bustling business centres, ethnic communities, fiesty community action groups, reputations.

Reputations like that overshadow this waterfront community. Nobody knows how to get here until you mention its more famous neighbours — the Pacific National Exhibition, Commercial Drive. A light dawns, they nod knowingly, and then you must specify, "Just past there, just a little further, just south of there." The light goes out, and they punch your address into Google, marvel that the bus goes that far.

The inhabitants of this sliver of living space share a love of ocean air, cheap rent, second-hand furniture, and Donald's Market. We also share sleepless nights when the trains rumble by, a penchant for quirky gardening, and the inevitable metropolitan fear of bedbugs. We are treated casually by city services: from half-finished speed bumps to overgrown roundabouts, they'll get around to it eventually. In the meantime, we carry on, enjoying this overgrown urban jungle.

Standing in one of many small parks along the waterfront, watching the tugboats work and the blackberries flourish, I can hardly picture what things were like when this was the seat of Vancouver, the original downtown, the vacation destination for travellers from lesser-civilised areas.

Yes. This neighbourhood had many names. Ward Four, Hastings Townsite, the End of the Road. The first post office, first Customs house, first telegraph terminal were here somewhere. In fact, we remained aloof from our fledgling neighbour, Vancouver, for 42 years. Come 1911, 1200 residents voted to join the metropolis, one man said no. Maybe he saw what was coming.

Absorbed into a growing city, the neighbourhood kept slipping further and further into the background. The railway ate up the waterfront and fenced off the beaches. Whole blocks of homes were bulldozed in the 1970s en masse, to make way for the new world of efficient, stuccoed apartment buildings. While Hastings-Sunrise repainted and rebuilt heritage homes, and Grandview-Woodlands concentrated on coffee shops and funk, this neighbourhood became a detour for large trucks seeking shortcuts through city traffic. Streets once named after the most prestigious colleges in the Western World (Eton, McGill, Yale, Oxford, Trinity) became addresses of the underemployed, refugees, those who couldn't afford to live elsewhere.

I'm one of those folk – a refugee from a trendier Vancouver: studious, sparkling Kits, the festive Drive, well-established Kingsway. I've landed here for lack of money, for the sake of adventure, for a born-and-raised love of East Vancouver.

When I look out my window, I see the glittering Lion's Gate Bridge, the lay of majestic mountains and vast ocean. But I also see the railway, the scrappy seagulls, the heavy trucks, the container ships and tugboats doing the everyday work of the city. When I walk along Wall Street to my favorite, still unnamed park, I see ancient trees, unkempt gardens, unfashionable cars and old habits dying hard on wooden park benches. I see the man who has taken it upon himself to mow the lawns, pick up the garbage and trim the trees in the park, when the Parks Board forgets about us. I see the artist's collective in the storefront of a perpetually for lease warehouse, sewing t-shirts for another guerilla flea market in a trendier part of town. I see the local furniture specialist – a man with a dolly, who picks up the abandoned street pieces that we buy back from Mama's Furniture.

I see the daily life that makes this nameless place worth living in, and I feel shy writing this piece because I like this lost neighbourhood. I don't know if I want it to be found, transformed and face-lifted.

I like its off the map-ness, its under the radar pace of life, its honest assessment that it used to be a destination neighbourhood, but now, it's simply home. It's found me, just as I am – not yet “arrived,” but full of stories, living in the present, without the pressures of a well-known reputation to uphold.


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