Travels Through East Vancouver

Crossing East Van

In Art on June 2, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Coming home from work later than normal a few months ago, I was greeted by a massive LED-lighted cross spelling out the words EAST VAN as I traveled over Main Street and made my way towards home on the eastside. Damn, an awesome sight to behold. But I wondered where the hell it came from, and for what purpose it was towering over my neighbourhood. At first, all I could come up with was the Olympics, that shit-show of corporate greed and nationalism wrapped up in the cloak of so-called amateur sport. But who the hell from the Olympic Committee would pick this symbol I wondered? And are such neighbourhood markers going up around the city to highlight the diverse little places that make up Vancouver? But it seemed too permanent for the Vancouver Binennale – a bi-annual showcase that installs works in various media as a celebration of public art.

Turns out, it’s a little of both – a public art venture about neighbourhood markings funded through Olympic dollars granted to the city for the arts.  And I suppose, if something had to come from dirty money, this is almost as good as it gets in terms of a “line in the sand” between us and them.

This piece by Ken Lum is the artist’s homage to his neighbourhood, to what we locals call ‘the republic of east van’, to the place and people this little blog celebrates. At some 60 feet high Lum’s East Van cross sits near the corner of Clark Drive and Great Northern Way, marking the spot where Vancouver’s major trucking route cuts between this fast-gentrifying neighbourhood (once and still belonging to immigrants and labourers) and the Finning Lands – a long-time industrial wasteland being re-made as a multi-institutional post-secondary campus. It’s generated a lot of buzz, this cross.

It’s significance is in being there at all. Marking the neighbourhood as definable to those those who continue to claim its rough edges  despite gentrification. It’s a message about the way seemingly-marginal words and symbols come to imbue and be imbued by large meanings. How networks of people generate and circulate symbols, and how those things take on new meanings over time, are amplifications of the squabbles that exist as symbols are claimed by different groups of people for different reasons. It’s all very Society of the Spectacle on the one hand. A testament to the role of the symbol in helping to reconstitute and re-energize resistance on the other.

As the artist himself says in his statement about the piece: “[The crossword] signifies the identity of those living in the eastern part of the city and is often accompanied with the word “rules”. [This] is ironic, as traditionally those in the west of the city have held the economic and political power, though the real estate boom more recently has rendered the boundary between east and west more fluid. The piece monumentalizes a rearguard gesture of defiance, protest, and assertion of identity.”

The East Van cross. A fierce marker, symbol of gangs, an indication of pride and identity, a warning of all that was dangerous about my ‘hood. For those of us who lived here before the turn-of-the-century-homes were bulldozed for condos, before housing prices skyrocketed across the city, bringing folks who would otherwise have settled elsewhere onto this side of town to renovate old homes and open coffee shops for their morning lattes, before all that was (and still is) vibrant and real and diverse about this community became so much kitsch to be packaged, branded, and sold to folks with disposable incomes and a fascination with the ways people’s struggles against poverty, colonialism, and the cops could be re-branded a sale-able ‘cool’. The East Van cross. Staring from boutique windows across the neighbourhood on $20 coffee mugs, $35 t-shirts, $75 hoodies, even $200 dollar sneakers.  It’s all that and more.

(The official City of Vancouver page on the piece includes a nifty little video with some old east van footage as well as the artist talking about the work).


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