Travels Through East Vancouver

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Defend Grandview Park…. from the People?

In Development, East Van Institutions on May 18, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Only on Commercial Drive could a community park redevelopment engender the creation of three different ad-hoc “groups”. The issue? The redevelopment of Grandview Park, one of a number of East Vancouver parks slated for a facelift over the past few years. Like other redevelopment projects (Victory Square, Oppenheimer Park, Victoria Park), there is a shut-down period of approximately eight months scheduled in which to complete the work (July until March) during which time local residents will have to content themselves with Victoria, Strathcona, or Mosaic Parks, all in the immediate vicinity. From what I can tell from the park plan the intention is to:

  • re-do the children’s play area and water park
  • tear down the rotten tennis court that is rarely used as a tennis court and replace it with a multi-use court that apparently will allow bike polo (this was not on the original plan, but has been added following community consultation)
  • improve street visibility of the park to “cut down on crime” (I have to note here that since my first visit to the park twenty years ago there have been no less than three improvements to visibility in the park for exactly this reason).
  • increased seating – benches and picnic tables (most of which were removed from the park about a decade ago in order to reduce loitering and “crime”)
  • improve park drainage (which they have tried to do on more than one occasion)

All pretty standard stuff right? I mean, cities redevelop parks all the time with many of these same objectives – including the one about reducing the amount of drugs flowing through a given neighbourhood – and people don’t pitch huge fits. But not in East Van. Read the rest of this entry »



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. Read the rest of this entry »

Swimming in Trout Lake.

In East Van Institutions, History on July 22, 2008 at 3:42 am

On Canada Day Brian and I woke up early. A sunny Tuesday, already warm at 6:30 am, I was itching to go for a swim somewhere in the lower mainland despite the potential for holiday hordes lathering themselves up with sunscreen and indulging their screaming children with “fun times outdoors”. Whatever. Brian and I figured we could hit Sasamat (in Port Moody) early, have a quick jog around the lake and a dip before 10:30 and then get outta there before the crowds descended, right?

Well. Except for that little matter of the swim meet organized for that morning. Drove all the way out to Port Moody just to be met by hundreds of cars jostling with each other in the dusty parking lot and people every which way blowing up floating devices and ensuring their coolers were properly loaded to take down to the beach. So we decided to blow over to Buntzen Lake instead – and although we were early enough to get ourselves parking and a little space to dump our towels on the beach , the joy of swimming was not to be mine there either. Still being fed by melt-off from the surrounding mountains, Buntzen was close to freezing and I could not force my body to take the plunge. (I am a cold-water swimmer quite happily – the water has to be atrociously low temperature before I refuse to swim.)

All the way from East Van to Port Moody and by 10:30 Buntzen was becoming over-crowded with early barbeque-ers and pop-up bug screens so it wasn’t like we wanted to hang out until the day got warmer for a potential bout of hypothermia. We left, a little dejected, and determined to get the hell out of the suburbs and back to our hood for some relaxing at least!

Why not Trout Lake? Brian asked when we got back in the car. The lake that is 15 blocks from my house. The one I have never swam in during my entire adulthood living in the area. Why not Trout Lake? I said. At least then we can write about it for Viaduct.

I’m going to step out of the narrative for a moment here to explain that while I have long lived close to Trout Lake, and really enjoy the park (officially John Hendry Park – named after the sawmill baron whose family donated the land to the city), I have always found the idea of swimming in East Vancouver a little off-putting. A spot of neighbourhood prejudice if you will, I’ve had this vague notion that somehow the lake bottom would be littered with broken glass or perhaps the odd hypodermic needle, even though the park is nowhere near the skids. And if not garbage, then the water must be really polluted right?

On the drive back from Port Moody, Brian and I talked about this. Nothing I have ever actually heard or seen at Trout Lake, has given me that impression that it wasn’t safe or clean. And every time I go, there are dozens of children playing in the water with a lifeguard on duty until 9 pm at night all summer long. According to a friend who swims there regularly, the water is routinely tested for fecal coliform and often comes back with much lower levels than Vancouver’s most popular swimming beach at English Bay (this most recent water quality report confirming it – levels in this study being non-existent). A prejudice entirely about the “east” part of Vancouver, about the urban nature of the park – somehow being inferior to the wilds of Port Moody and area. Something to get over, clearly.

We drove the 45 minutes back to the hood, turning off Victoria at 19th and then onto the treed lane to the parking area. Distanced from the suburban packs with their angry summer faces (too crowded! too many screaming children in the back seat!) we found Trout Lake populated by a few locals and their kids splashing about in the shallow water. It was Canada Day here too, with picnics and kids eating concession french fries – but the people just seemed – I dunno – more laid back. Less harried. Most of them had obviously walked or taken transit from elsewhere in the neighbourhood. No one was doing the big all-day-giant-family outings we had seen at Buntzen and Sasamat. No need to jostle or rush past anyone else to get the “perfect” spot because thousands of people hadn’t descended on the tiny strip of beach and concession all at once.

For over one hundred years, Vancouverites have been coming here to swim, boat and ice skate (back when it still got cold enough) – which makes sense given that it is the only lake within Vancouver city limits.

Situated on 68 acres of land, Trout Lake is often listed (by the Parks Board, among others) as the site of an early sawmill in Vancouver, though as far as we can tell, it was never a mill site but a water source for the Hastings Sawmill down on the waterfront at Dunlevy – with a flume running from the lake to the waterfront (a distance of several kilometres) in the late 1800s. A peat bog that apparently had four different creeks draining into it, the lake never did contain trout with the exception of a few stocking efforts over the years, but has been popularly known by the name since locals started using it for recreation. Owned by the family of John Hendry (the owner of Hastings Sawmill among other local interests), the land was donated in 1926 to the city under the condition that it be named “john Hendry Park”. Interestingly, while the city took the land in the interests of local recreation, it wasn’t until 1942 that the Parks Board started referring to it by this name. Of course locals have pretty much always called it “Trout Lake” despite its official name. (Apparently the non-existent fish have more resonance for locals than the name of a long-deceased logging baron). Shortly after becoming a park, the first lifeguard post was set up – 1928 – and has been staffed through the summers since – these days mostly to ensure no one swims outside the boundaries and into the parts of the lake that have been planted with grasses and marsh plants. And of course over the years picnic facilities have been set up, paths have been sculpted in the shade of the trees and bushes that surround the park. A leash-free dog park takes up one corner and on the Victoria side of park is a community center, tennis courts, parking lots, and sports fields.

But oddly, despite the number of years in existence, despite the number of events and people who have passed through the park in its lifespan, there is tremendously little recorded history about it. Few photographs exist in Vancouver’s city archives, and the history of the park is often written with factual inaccuracy. It is impossible to find any information online about the restoration of the green space around the park that took place in the 80s and 90s. Twenty-four hectares in the middle of East Vancouver and it could just as easily not exist except to those who use it as their community park. It is not a destination that people plan to go to like Sasamat or Buntzen – and yet many neighbourhood activities revolve around it. And I suppose it’s better that way, because who needs the crowds that popularity would bring?

As I mentioned above, on Canada Day there were no crowds and I hazard to guess that this was the least populated beach in the whole lower mainland despite being situated in a high-density neighbourhood. When I finally did get around to taking a dip I found the water refreshing but warm, a bit murky and deep enough for proper swimming. A quick spin out and around the floating dock at the edge of the swimming boundary and I was hooked on the fact that this place was available only blocks from my house. A few other adults were out swimming along the perimeter of the rope – enough laps and you can get a work out without being in the shallow kids zone near the beach. Brian even came out to join me for a second dip after I had dried in the sun from the first – concurring with me that in fact that water was not at all too cold or murky for swimming (though you might not want to drink it).

Best part? No milfoil and no swimmer’s itch afterwards – which surprised me since these exist in pretty much every other lake in BC these days (both invasives that barely existed when I was a small child). Taking an outdoor shower at the edge of the beach is not a bad idea anyways. The peaty nature of the lake means that you may encounter some lake scunge in the suit if you don’t have a rinse.

As we have been blessed with a warm and sunny July, I have since been back a few times to swim after work, relishing the look of shock on people’s faces when I tell them I’m going to swim at Trout Lake. The same one I used to wear before I realized that my prejudice was unfounded. After 15 years it was probably about time, and it means my future summers in the neighbourhood will be that much more enjoyable. Thank goodness for the suburban hordes on Canada Day – reminders of who I don’t want to become and where I do not want to be.

Ever wonder about the Lido?

In East Van Institutions, Local News on July 10, 2008 at 7:31 pm

I have – and apparently there was more behind those newspapered windows that we ever would have guessed:

From today’s Vancouver Sun….

Mysterious East Van shop yields hidden bounty
Darah Hansen
It was one of the great mysteries of Vancouver.

For years, city dwellers walking and driving past The Lido’s stylish old storefront on East Broadway have wondered just what was behind the perennially closed glass door.

Now, we finally have an answer.

Hidden among the retro furniture and 1950s-era electronics, the piles of mildewed clothes, rat droppings and a mountain of rusted tuna and salmon cans, was a treasure no one could have anticipated: $400,000 in Canadian bank notes circa 1930.

The money was uncovered earlier this year following the death of the building’s owner, an elderly German woman who lived in a small apartment above The Lido shop — at 518 East Broadway, just east of Main Street — for decades.

A cleanup crew hired to clear out the place — which operated sporadically as a deli and general store before closing for good more than a decade ago — found $950 in old $100 and $50 notes hidden under a rug.

But it was the caretaker who made the greatest discovery, stumbling on a bag containing a whopping $400,000 stuffed inside a bedroom closet.

“It was pretty amazing,” said Brendan Fuss, a driver with 1-800-GOT-JUNK.

Crews spent five days at the site removing enough furniture and garbage to fill 10 truckloads.

Inside, Fuss said, was “like a time warp.”

“There were some crazy retro things in there … nothing modern at all,” Fuss said.

Fuss said the banknotes found under the rug were so antiquated the young clean-up crew thought they were fake.

“They thought it was play money from a Milton Bradley game board. They were almost ready to bag it up and toss it in the garbage,” he said.

Fuss said the money was turned over to a chartered accountant working on behalf of the elderly woman’s family.

Also found in the house was a suitcase containing old German passports dating to the 1940s and ’50s, and a remarkable 15 cubic yards of rusted food tins — evidence of The Lido’s working history, though few in Vancouver can recall ever seeing the shop open for business.

“In its heyday, I think it was a specialty goods store,” said Craig Sexton, 1-800-GOT-JUNK’s general manager, who recalled visiting the store once in the early 1990s.

Vancouver coin dealer Brian Grant Duff called The Lido discovery an “incredible find,” adding that the recovered money could be worth as much as double its face value depending on the condition of the notes.

“The family,” Duff said, “should definitely check them with a reputable dealer before taking them to the bank.”

For another blogger’s memories of The Lido –

Nick’s Spaghetti House

In East Van Institutions, Food on June 15, 2008 at 2:33 pm

1956. That’s the year Kruschev denounced Stalin while Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, ending any possibility of an autonomous socialism in Hungary. That’s the year Elvis recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” and Little Richard released “Tutti Frutti”. That’s the year Egypt re-claimed the Suez Canal and Israel seized Gaza. That’s the year “The Price Is Right” debuted and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregation on public buses. And that’s the year Nick and Pauline Felicella opened Nick’s Spaghetti House at 631 Commercial Drive.

52 years.That’s a long fucking time for two people to keep a place like this. And it’s famous in this neighbourhood. So we’re here to check it out and write it up.

Walk in the door and your eyes immediately hit upon a landscape of Venice painted below two archways. OK. Not a-typical. A moment later, however, you realize that plastered around and atop this scene are dozens of pictures of….horse-racing. It’s a veritable shrine to the race-track. Hmmm. Yup. Definitely east side.

Megan came in here a couple of times some ten or so years ago, but has no strong recollections of it all. I was here only once, around the same time. Doug Henwood, who publishes the Left Business Obverver out of New York. was in town to give a talk at the Maritime Labour Centre. I went down and ended up after the event at Nick’s with Doug and an assortment of older radical men. Heading in, they all raved about the place – not about the food, particularly, but the place. It’s a night that I remember pretty vividly. Great conversation and debate, lots of fun. But not impressed with the food, and I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why this place was so important to these guys.

So, a decade later here we are, Megan and I, wondering the same thing as we walk in. It’s pretty busy for early evening on a Tuesday. Couples, families, a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings, a couple of old-timers and the requisite lone diner reading a paper while he slurps his pasta. Past the venetian-racetrack fusion entranceway, we’re seated at one of many standard restaurant tables, down to the diner-style red-and-white checked tablecloth. It’s 1970s basement decor – low ceilings, faux-leather-sided bar, round globe lights along the walls.

OK. Not getting anything from the atmosphere or decor to justify the fame of this place. But let’s get down to it. Meg opts for spaghetti and mushrooms, me for a ravioli and baby back ribs. We’ll start with a tomato and onion salad to share, and a couple of Moretti beers. Just the basics, exactly what this place has been doing for half a century.

We’re brought a plate of bread. Take a piece, pull off a corner. Ugh. Not fresh, not good. A slather of butter – well, prepackaged margerine, but we won’t quibble – and I lean across to Meg, who’s just taken her first bite. “Butter doesn’t make it any better.” Bread to the side, we’ll just sip our beers and wait. The salad comes – six slightly-less-than-ripe tomato slices, some onions and a basic vinaigrette on top, and parsley. Not fresh parsley, but dried. Hmmm. Is that really necessary? How hard is parsley? Apparently too hard. But we finish the plate, and that’s a step up.

Mains arrive looking like what we’d expect. A plate of spaghetti, covered in lots and lots and lots of mushrooms, most hiding beneath the dollop of tomato and meat sauce that tops it off. A plate of ravioli and a half-rack of ribs on the side. It’s food. Not good food, but we can eat it. Bad quality ribs are usually drenched in sweet barbecue sauce. Here there’s almost no sauce, and I find myself pining for countless other less-than-stellar spaghetti houses I’ve visited. Nick’s pastas, we decide, are what chef-boy-ar-dee probably looks like before it’s stuffed into the can. Bland.

Fair enough. There’s a place for cheap pasta in this world, and both of us know and appreciate that. But funny thing is, this place isn’t cheap. We’re paying around $15 a meal here, and with the salad and two Moretti apiece it’s a $70 tab. Now we’re really not impressed. Not only can this place not keep up with the similar-looking joints that are sprinkled generously around the city, but they’re charging us substantially more, too.

So that question nags. Why? Why the fame of this place? And why is it still so busy?

Not the food.

Not the prices.

Not the decor.

Location? Walk up five blocks, and you’ll find a row of Italian restaurants charging only a few more dollars a plate, and with some really great food. Not location.

We’ve spoken to a number of people who have eaten here, and can’t really find an answer. Nick’s, it seems, is one of those spots that people keep going to simply because it’s always been there. People go to Nick’s because when you’re casting about for somewhere to grab a bite, the name springs to mind just because it is part of the collective consciousness of this neighbourhood.

History counts. Whether an idea, a practice, a form of government, or a little spaghetti restaurant – when something stays around for a while, it becomes a normalized part of the landscape, a part of the culture. Indeed, that’s exactly why we came in here. Think ‘East Van institutions’ and we both jump immediately to Nick’s Spaghetti House. We’ve both eaten here, but neither of us thinks to remember just how bad the food was. Instead, it’s “O yeah, Nick’s, pretty standard cheap food, and an important part of this neighbourhood.” The history has a life of its own, and sustains the place despite all kinds of reasons it really shouldn’t still be here.

So where does this leave us, post-meal-at-Nick’s? Well, we’re glad that a place that’s been around so long is still surviving. We’re glad that the new Yuppie eateries haven’t killed absolutely everything on the Eastside. We’re glad that Nick and Pauline have lasted so long. We’re glad that people in this neighbourhood have a sense of history, and still go to a place just because it belongs here, just because it matters to this community, just because small family shops are worth supporting, just because they want this little piece of our history to last a bit longer yet.

That’s all good stuff. For all those reasons, Nick’s is a nice place to have around. But we wouldn’t want to eat there.

Braving the Brave Bull

In East Van Institutions, Food on May 28, 2008 at 8:17 pm

In every town there are those places everyone knows but no one has ever actually been. In Vancouver, The Brave Bull’s House of Steaks is one such place. Hunkered down on the corner of Hastings and Clark, just a few steps up from the dockyards and at one end of the city’s major trucker route, the Brave Bull’s tattered banner and signs advertising steak dinners under ten bucks are worn grey from decades of exhaust and dirty rain. Not the most inviting locale to random passers-by – used condoms, old needles, and cigarette butts are ubiquitous in this part of town. And yet this strange restaurant continues to exist, the faux roman columns getting shabbier by the year and the food as cheap as ever.

What better place for us to start this blog. An East Van institution if ever there was one.

The Brave Bull opened in 1985, and is reminiscent of the basement rec-room in so many of our grandparents’ homes. Fake plants, gift-shop knick-knacks, huge wheel-shaped lights, and a back-lit picture of mountain slopes serve as the backdrop to cheap steak dinners and Chinese beer. This is where Linda and Frank Lum have spent the last 23 years, as hostess and cook. And it’s where they still are, over the protestations of their adult kids who won’t take over from mom and dad and wish their folks would just pack it in and retire.

But despite these family overtures and the restaurant’s decline, Linda and Frank aren’t done yet. They started working here together from the beginning, when the restaurant was owned by some larger company that just paid the rent and collected the profits. Then at some point the Lums’ purchased ownership, thinking this an investment for their own kids who might follow in their footsteps and keep the place running for some decades more.

We walk in with some trepidation, betting on whether we’ll be the only customers or if a lone old guy will be sitting at a corner table chowing down. He’s there, beard and all, but there’s more, too – a few tables scattered here and there. We take our place at the window and peruse the various restaurant reviews that have been photocopied and left at every table.

Reviews? Yes, the Brave Bull still gets them, every year. And they’re not bad reviews – promising a simple, no-frills steak dinner with bad décor and a consistently-friendly hostess in Linda. We read, we share comments, but we’re really not entirely convinced. So it’s to the menus we turn.

Pan-fried oysters? No. Salad with fresh shrimp? No. The Chinese-food combo of chicken chow mein, sweet and sour pork, and spring roll? No. We’re here for steak. And beyond that, sticking to the basics just seems like a good idea. Two steak dinners – 9 oz sirloins with baked potato, fried mushrooms, a few veggies on the side, and a bowl of beef-vegetable soup to start. Do we want to swig down cheap red wine with this? No – one of the pleasures of Vancouver, owing to its large Chinese-Canadian community, is the ready availability of good Asian beers just about everywhere. We’ll stick with a couple of Tsing Tao and be very happy.

The soup comes in minutes – right out of the Campbell’s can. But y’know, sometimes that’s not bad – it gives us both pause to reminisce about the canned soups of our childhoods. Break for a picture of the plastic pink flamingo in the floor-plant beside our table and we’re onto the mains. Steak, mushroom, baked potato with optional sour cream and articificial bacon bits, a couple slices of slightly-overdone carrot and two broccoli springs. Yup, it’s dinner. Baked potato is always baked potato, so no surprises here. And the mushroom-topped steaks are just what the reviews promise – simple, no-frills steaks. They are not fatty. They are cooked more or less as ordered. They are not the best-quality beef but neither are they the worst. If you ever ate at Mr. Mike’s as a kid (which Meg’s family did often, and I only dreamed about each time the ads came on TV) then you’ve had this meal before. It’s a basic, affordable steak dinner (we had the $8.95 sirloin special). And nothing wrong with that.

The Brave Bull is by no means a stylin’ place. The Brave Bull is by no means a stand-out in the world of steak dinners. The Brave Bull isn’t busy these days. But it is, without question, East Vancouver. We chat for a few minutes with Linda, who stops by regularly to make sure we’re enjoying the meal.

Time was this place was packed. They’d open for breakfast, work solid through the day and night, Linda and Frank and a couple of waitresses to get food on tables. Truckers and dockworkers, mostly, but others as well stopping , who’d stop along this busy traffic corridor leading from the ‘burbs through the eastside and into downtown. But all that’s changed in the last dozen years.

Gas-stations, including one just steps away, started selling coffee, so the truckers don’t stop so much anymore. Vancouver’s stronger and stronger anti-smoking regulations took away a central feature of what little divey places like this provided – places for working guys to sit and smoke and have coffee before the shift and beer after. Now a restaurant has to be just a restaurant. No longer can it operate as gathering-place to gab for a few hours. And without that, places like the Brave Bull and so many others find themselves in trouble – because what they do just ain’t done anymore. This is what gentrification looks like for the little café-owners – gas-station coffee-to-go and no place left to smoke a few hours away.

The waitresses left before Frank and Linda couldn’t afford them – as tips dry up, there’s better places to work. So now it’s just this couple, well-into their sixties and not yet prepared to give up what they’ve built, even if the new Vancouver isn’t interested anymore. They’ve cut back on hours – opening now from 10-2, for the dockworkers’ lunch shift, and again at 5:00 each evening for dinner – taking themselves a little break in the day. And it’s a rough go, lots of work and not much money coming in.

But it’s also home for these folks, that much is clear. And as we gather up to go, we like this place a whole lot more than we did coming in. From the post-it board where folks leave business cards to drum up work, to the old-school bar with all of eight or nine varieties of booze, to the fact we cleaned our plates in a place this whole city laughs about as it drives by en route to work. This really is the neighbourhood we love, and the one we see disappearing around us. This is something we didn’t really know we missed until we stepped back out into the evening traffic noise.

The Brave Bull’s House of Steaks, Linda Lum at your service and Frank at the grill – exactly why we wanted to start this blog in the first place.