Travels Through East Vancouver

The WISE

In East Van Institutions on February 22, 2010 at 3:30 pm

The posters are yellowing on the walls. Cracks in the ceiling seem to grow with every beer I finish. Someone is glued to the TV screen, watching Eddie Murphy in Beverley Hills Cop II. Darts are bouncing around the place, the players probably too drunk to have access to sharp pointy objects. At a table in the back a loud rant about the municipal election competes with a loud rant about organized labour and the need for a general strike. Just across from us a group of four huddles around drinks, their conversation a conspiratorial whisper about some upcoming political action. And at our table, people drop in and out of rambling discussions about books, and unions, and radical gossip about whoever and whatever.

It’s the WISE Club, and I’ve been coming here since the early 1990s when I discovered the spot after a folk music show in the upstairs hall. Meg’s been dropping in since she moved to the city in the mid-1990s. And though no doubt on countless occasions we’ve been at different tables here, engaged in different debates about exactly the same kinds of things, it’s only in this last couple of years that we’ve come together, the spot that was each of ours now the spot that is both of ours. Drinking-hole. Dank basement. Gathering place of communists, anarchists, writers, musicians, ne’er-do-wells, students, folkies and local drunks – and we’ve been all of these at various times in this place. It’s the WISE. It’s exactly what we want. But it sure as hell ain’t what it started out to be.

In 1957, Peggy Campbell, a Brit now living in Canada, contacted a Vancouver radio station with her name and information, hoping that she might track down others recently-immigrated from the UK for some social time and reminiscences of home. Responses came in, a little group was formed, and at Lochdale Hall on February 28, 1958, the WISE Club was officially founded. Taking its name from the acronym for Welsh, Irish, Scottish, English, the club based itself around regular gatherings for cards, darts, billiards and the like.

Throughout the 1960s the Club grew, its membership at one point reaching 1000. And its activities grew, too, with a choir, fitness classes, group trips to the UK, and a soccer team being added to the roster of offerings. But what the WISE didn’t have was a home, instead bouncing among various halls for specific gatherings and events.

It was in 1963 that the WISE Social and Athletic Club formed a building committee and sought a home of its own, eventually settling on an old church at 1882 Adanac, just west of Victoria Drive. Bought for $14,000, the building allowed the development of a hall for Club events and outside rentals atop a lounge/ bar in the basement, closed to the public and allowing members a space to drop in for drinks, conversation, cards and darts. But just as some permanence was found for location, just as the WISE transformed from an event-based gathering to a place on the map, its membership went through a massive transformation, dramatically changing the character of the Club.

The original clientele began to move out of town, move into retirement, and membership declined to as low as 20 people. But when a group of folk music buffs – The Rogue Folk Club – partnered up with the WISE in the 1980s, it underwent a re-birth, becoming home to a wide assortment of East Van locals who moved through folk music, protest movement and radical labour circles. The darts remained. The billiards remained. But the character of the place was transformed, as the WISE came by accident to play a central role in building and sustaining a particular East Van working class and activist subculture.

Today, over 50 years after its founding, the WISE remains unique among Vancouver pubs and clubs. The bar is still home to the radicals, and has also attracted a significant cluster of artists, writers, musicians. Tonight, as we still here with our beers sharing a bag of potato chips, there are only occasional stomps from the hall upstairs – no band playing tonight, but instead the monthly gathering of kinksters for a BDSM party. Tonight,some friends from another circle have discovered the place for he first time – he a playwright, she a writer of short stories and poetry – and sit talking wine and writing with a group of former co-workers. Tonight, some dozen activists cycle to and from our table to reflect on and celebrate the anti-Olympics protest we’ve just returned from.

You can’t just walk into the WISE. Members only, guests to be signed in, and show up more than a couple of times and folks’ll start getting on you to buy a membership. But we like it this way. It’s kinda nice to have a place that is exclusively ours, a bar for all those who would otherwise have no neighbourhood bar to take them. A radical, writerly, dark-side of Cheers, where everybody knows your name.

I wouldn’t join any Club that would have me as a member, Groucho joked. Evidently, he didn’t have the WISE.

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