Architectural Digest: Vancouver edition

Last week the City of Vancouver applied to the B.C. Supreme Court for an injunction to dismantle the tent city at Oppenheimer Park, claiming concern over wet weather conditions. Despite the offer of shelter beds, many protesters are refusing to leave. Vancouver Parks Board lawyer Ben Parkin says “I’m not sure what more the city could do to create an orderly transition. We’ve provided shelter spaces, we’ve provided transportation.” But tent city residents are protesting Vancouver’s dwindling stock of affordable housing as well as the City's lack of comprehensive housing strategies, and shelter spaces are a temporary fix, a stopgap measure.

In this commentary I want to look at the City’s injunction against Oppenheimer Park tent city, an impermanent architecture, in relation to two poetic texts that contemplate the built environment: Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture(Clear Cut Press 2003; Coach House Books, 2006 & 2010) and Thursdays Writing Collective’s The Stanza Project (Otter Press, 2013), edited by Elee Kraljii Gardiner.

Robertson’s collection of poetic essays on architecture and space in Vancouver includes histories of the Arts and Crafts–era Ceperly Mansion in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby and of two colonial–“New World” berry hybrids. There are researches on clothing as cladding at the Value Village store on East Hastings Street, one of Vancouver’s main retail and transit corridors, the drinking fountain at Victory Square Park on West Hastings, just half a block from Woodwood’s—a formerly bankrupt department store that has also been the site of a tent city and has been recently “redeveloped.”I love reading and rereading the Office’s urban explorations yet find theorizations of Vancouver as “like a raw encampment at the edge of the rocks, a camp for a navy vying to return to a place that has disappeared” or as “the shack turned inside out” problematic when people live here without shelter.

In 2002, a year before the first edition of Robertson’s book was published, low-income folks and anti-poverty activists occupied the 10-years-vacant Woodward’s building, then after eviction, set up a tent city known as Woodsquat around the perimeter. In 2003, the City secured the bid for Olympics then purchased Woodward’s from the Province and used the site as an anchor of gentrification in the Downtown Eastside. 2003, the same year a preliminary hearing determined there was enough evidence to put a serial killer on trial for the murders of several women from the Downtown Eastside. 

In the preface to her series of dreamy meditations on space and the mutability of structures, Robertson says:

The Office for Soft Architecture came into being as
I watched the city of Vancouver dissolve in the fluid
called money. Buildings disappeared into newness.
I tried to recall spaces, and what I remembered
was surfaces. Here and there money had tarried. The
result seemed emotional. I wanted to document
this process. I began to research the history of
surfaces. I included my own desires in the research.
In this way, I became multiple. I became money.

In “Site Report: New Brighton Park” Robertson historicizes how “[t]he parcel of land now occupied by New Brighton Park was subject to the first real estate transaction in the city.”  The sale of Lot 26 preceded Vancouver’s incorporation in 1886 and took place in 1869 in New Westminster, then the capital of the Colony of British Columbia. The poet points out “[t]his was the first colonial sale of the Musqueam clam beach called Khanamoot.” Currently, property values and rental rates are on the rise in the New Brighton area on unceded native land, and the City is attempting to brand the Hasting Sunrise neighbourhood in which New Brighton is located as the East Village.

“Doubt and the History of Scaffolding,” Robertson’s investigative musing on scaffolding, ends with this little Rococo remake: “When at night we hear the scaffolding rustle, then look up to watch it sway, we feel voyeuristic longing. In the darkness the scaffolding is foliage. Sometimes swinging in special leafy scaffolds we feel compelled to loose our little slipper.” An allusion to Fragonard’s The Swing (1767), this image of Robertson cradled in a swing of ropes used by labourers within one of the many metal-tubed scaffolds of Vancouver’s leaky condos, swinging in the late–night cool breeze of summer is delightful yet troubling. Is she identifying with the subject of the painting, an aristocrat? Perhaps it isn’t an identification, though we as the chosen pronoun of the Office doesn’t read like a collective or community–based we but the royal we

 The Stanza Project is a collaborative anthology of poems by Thursdays Writing Collective (TWC) and MLPPROOSTEN|ARCHITECTURE that contemplates the idea of claiming space via poetry. Coordinated by Elee Kraljii Gardiner, TWC is a creative writing program that provides access to writing space and inspiration at Carnegie Community Centre in the Downtown Eastside, providing material and immaterial support to DTES writers. I’m lucky to have worked with some of the many TWC writers at chapbook workshops I’ve organised in the neighbourhood. Gardiner says the group spent a year “focusing on the spatiality of language”:

We worked with proportions, experimenting with writing big words on tiny pieces of paper and one syllable words on long ribbons of paper. We wrote about houses, homes, rooms, buildings, hotels, shelters, parks, indoor and outdoor space, private and public space, accessibility, the notion of welcoming and prohibiting, spaces with specific uses and halls meant for public rituals. We thought about the energy left in a room after a fight or a musical performance. We questioned how we interact with the city and how we create the city as we read it.

Phoenix Winter and Antonette Rea, who I wrote about in my first “Downtown Eastside Poets” commentary, contributed poems to the anthology. Winter’s “How to Discourage the Homeless” is written on an architectural design by Bartholomew & Associates titled “Diagrams Illustrating Landscape Development of Home Grounds,” which was prepared for the Vancouver Town Planning Commission sometime between 1926-30, when noted American urban planner Harland Bartholomew was actively shaping Vancouver. Winter outlines exclusory measures the housed use against the houseless:

keep trees carefully trimmed
keep sightlines clear to the houses
avoid cardboard in the recycling
keep nettle and thistle near places
  the homeless sleep
have a doberman or pit bull
build a dog house with a long leash for the dog
bring in an outside security company
build a gated community

Antonette Rea’s “Three Home Suite” is in three parts, each ruminating on housing and home, both real and imagined, at different stages in the poet’s adulthood, beginning with a “young man's fanstasy” of accumulation—enough land to see “no neighbours / for hours in any direction”–land with creek and lake, with fish and game, with house, vegetable garden, motorcycle shop and “[f]reedom / to run and hunt, for me and my trusty dog.” The second section narrativizes the reality of acquired property, a rancher–style house “in the British Properties / of West Van: half an acre backing on to the woods / of Capilano Canyon Park” complete with space to fix his Harley—a property worth millions in today’s real estate market, property that is lost by:

a person who doesn’t really exist anymore.
That biker, clothing care expert, real estate agent and father
he lost everything, all his money.
He lives now only within the She
a mature, though still financially poor
but spiritually much richer, transgender queen. 

The opening stanza of the final section reflects on downward social mobility, regained familial relationships, and the idea of home:

30 years later, long after the sale of that first house,
my space
where I live now,
this room, a home?
Yes, a safe place where my children
can come visit and not be scared.
A place I’m not embarrassed to be living,
away from the prostitution and drug world.

The concluding stanzas of Rea’s poem emphasizes the material benefits of this word home and the concept it signifies:

This room I live in
is the same room I write in.
I have created a space
for my laptop in the middle
of my old oak veneer tabletop.
Never before have I has a specific place
to sit down and write.

This sitting down thing
in this specific time and place,
is a new thing for me;
so is having a computer.

Before, it was long hand scribble
for my emotionally–fueled drivel.
I would grab a pen and write, wherever:
in a bar, a restaurant, a friend’s room
or outside down by the water.

Now I stare at a blank page
and find it difficult to sit down
at a particular time to write,
but this is my space
so I will sit down
at no particular time and write. 

Captivated by both books’ critical project of thinking through and theorizing space via poetry, I ask: when the City of Vancouver will do its job and house the people who need it most?