Tacit Past: Review

Essay by Catherine Pulkinghorn in response to Tacit Past: Marks of Vancouver’s History lead by Samantha Knopp on November 13, 2011.

I am so pleased to be able to write about our walk in central and historic Vancouver with emerging artist Samantha Knopp. Samantha was a participant in the first iteration of the Walking Home Projects pilot year (Yaletown, summer of 2010) during which she constantly inspired the project team and youth leaders to learn as much as possible while critically reflecting on the public art and urban planning we were exploring. Samantha became an amazing research intern and writer for our following two projects, studying historic and contemporary intersections in the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown, on Carrall and Pender Streets. As a presenter for our current project Artists Walking Home, Samantha continues to bring insight, inspiration and an opportunity for embodied engagement in our city.

With Samantha’s guidance and well-planned walk, we were literally able to experience the tacit, sensory and real transitions from what I began to realize felt like almost neighbourhood or cultural enclaves within the broader Downtown Eastside site. The changes within two city blocks were astonishing; we imagined the remnant history of the early to mid 20th century Hastings Street with tens of thousands of bustling commuters disembarking from the Interurban streetcar system, alongside today’s chaos of the Sunday afternoon street market at Pigeon Park, and then so quickly found ourselves feeling a totally different atmosphere in touristic Gastown.

Both old and rejuvenated architectural and street level sites on Carrall and Hastings Streets tell important stories of the history of the city and region. Our venture down Blood Alley, which dissects the block between Carrall and Abbott – the decrepit part on the south side (mainly populated with single room occupancy housing), the gentrified Gastown business and housing developments only metres across on the north side of the alley – highlighted urban blight and renewal, and the tensions and problematics of the neighbourhood.

Our visit to the Woodwards Development gave us pause to consider the past of this previously very important centre of the district, the Woodwards Department Store which served Western Canadians for 100 years before the business failed, resulting in the abandonment of the buildings; the buildings first became home to a squatters’ movement, and later became a critical real estate anchor for the changing neighbourhood of the new millennium. The progressive innovations and impacts of the highly designed mixed-use community and site plan include: market and social housing residential options; municipal and non-profit offices; commercial spaces; an artist-run centre; community uses of the public atrium; permanent and temporary public art; and Simon Fraser University School of Contemporary Art classes, studios, gallery and theatre. Reports indicate the development is a success. Architectural and planning critics will surely watch, with scrutiny, the evolution of the site and community over time.

Heading east along Pender Street to end our walk in historic Chinatown, we considered the contrasts of the master plan guiding the Woodwards Development within the broader neighbourhood, with the challenges faced in Chinatown. With some progressives pushing for dramatic changes such as mid to high-rise height developments, there has already been regeneration of significant buildings (the Wing Sang and Chinese Freemason’s buildings), alongside the development of several brand new buildings. In the meantime other buildings are literally falling apart – many operated by complex Chinese community organizations. Many organizations (whether historic or new, non-profit or commercial, neighbourhood based or external) strain under the demands to maintain both their mandates and their buildings within the context of extremely high costs for just about anything – rent, real estate, repair, staff, materials, and access. The complexities of the aforementioned highlight a strong need for a comprehensive community development strategy and plan with all parties cooperatively committed. The range of economic and cultural interests are already proving problematic, but with this neighbourhood being in the centre of the city, the value of real estate will continue to pressure both those resisting or wanting change.

Throughout our extremely well-designed walk with Samantha we were able to integrate the intellectual demands she presented to us with a tacit experience, while also being immersed in the past and present of the sites we visited. Samantha also provided us with a touchstone throughout the walk: Vault Lights featured a significant reference, grounding our explorations with these remaining traces of history. Samantha’s research and fascination led her to understand how the clear glass windows were originally embedded in the sidewalks, bringing light to the basements of the heritage buildings (built before full electric infrastructure). Over time, they have captured the ultraviolet from the sun’s rays, becoming amethyst coloured light boxes, presenting those who notice them with a piece of the subtle history of Vancouver. The vault lights are for me a powerful yet subtle symbol of the change, growth and influences affecting our city, as well as a reminder of the best of what I have experienced in Samantha as an artist, and a person.