Vanishing Vancouver: Insights a la Kluckner

Author/artist reminds us of Metro Vancouver's amazing past

Michael Kluckner, author of Vanishing Vancouver: The Last 25 Years, spoke to a full house at the Vancouver Historical Society Thursday night.

Some insights:

Before Michael left for Australia a decade ago, he would often jump in the car and race to a site where an old building was scheduled for demolition in order to capture it in watercolour. “I’m drawn to derelict buildings like a moth to a flame.”

He was in his car a lot.

On his return, there were hardly any old boarded up houses waiting for demolition. In districts like Downtown South, it had all been done. As a consequence, he noted, we’re losing the texture of light falling on old painted wood. Modern manufactured products get old by getting moldy, not by weathering.

And that’s not the only change.

The neighbourhood movie house

The Ridge, the Dunbar, the Hollywood – they’re the last of a form that was so impacted by the rise of television that, in 1955, 14 movie theatres closed in a week. (He hinted that their might be a reprieve for the Hollywood on Broadway.) Given that TV reception really only became possible in 1953, when CBC and KVOS began to broadcast, the uptake of the technology and its impact on the Vancouver landscape were way faster than, say, the Internet.

The Toll Bridge

After showing a bucolic shot of the new Port Mann Bridge (of 1964, seen above) set in a still-sylvan landscape, he noted that it was the first major bridge not to have toll booths installed. But in the 1963 election, all the tolls were taken off bridges in the lower mainland, notably the Second Narrows, by the W.A.C. Bennett government. Now tolls are going on to the new Port Mann Bridge 50 years later, ending exactly a half-century in which vehicle bridges were free and the motoring commuter could live where he wanted.

The Corner Grocery

Michael showed an ad promoting the 84 Chinese groceries that serviced neighbourhoods throughout the city. Perhaps a half dozen are left. The traditional Vancouver corner store was much more significant than just a cute, nostalgic piece of architecture; it provided an opportunity for immigrants, mainly Chinese and Japanese who were banned from other professions and industries, to have a business that also houses their families and gave them an opportunity to establish themselves in Canada. The contrast with modern convenience stores, staffed by low-paid workers and presenting a unified corporate brand, indicates a profound social change in the city.

The buried house

Single-family houses were extended to accommodate suites and storefronts in 1920s and 30s to generate cash in hard times. There are maybe a dozen of them left, all on streets that have become completely commercial in the past half-century or so.

Church Volunteers

The sort of people who volunteer for churches can’t afford to live in Vancouver anymore.

But Michael wasn’t there just to bemoan the losses. Indeed he reflected on the yin and yang of Vancouver: the city of concrete and glass juxtaposed with neighbourhoods of medium-density apartments and restored homes, given that the quality of the old-growth wood allows these places to come back, often as condos. It’s that magical combination of different types of housing, working for different people at different periods of their lives, that makes Vancouver such a successful city.

Yes, affordability has been an issue going back to the 1910s, but so long as the city has continues to retain this mix as it evolves, then there’s hope that the essential character of this place will be retained and that Vancouver will continue to mature into the world-city status it so desperately craves.

– post by Gord Price

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  • Sandy James

    Great to hear from Michael, wonderful article Gordon!
    It would be interesting to ask readers to submit their photos of the buried single family house behind commercial shops-I know of several that are almost not readable as such from street level. It would be a tremendous pastiche of photos, and again talks of transition in our ever changing city landscape.

  • Sharon

    2800 block Granville on the east side has a buried house – mid block.

  • Everyman

    Interesting thread Gordon, but truth be told, wouldn’t the NPA have been responsible for the disappearance of many of the character homes in downtown south, when they upzoned it?

    It really worries me that the city seems to have what it calls in “inner suburbs” in its sights for redevelopment. This would mean areas like Kits, Douglas Park and Mt. Pleasant which are the repository of many of the city’s most interesting character houses. They would be better off focusing on post-war areas like South Cambie, Killarney and Fraserview which generally consist of bland stucco boxes hogging big lots, which are being replaced by bigger but equally bland stucco boxes.

  • jenables

    Only half a dozen Chinese stores? I can think of at least four in a six block radius. I hope that statistic isn’t true..I love dingy little corner stores that don’t change, I even love how some have ridiculously overpriced items, because they tend to get their goods from several places, so if they pay retail price to stock something, they still have to make a buck on it. I miss the one at Frances and Salsbury. Developed. a little off topic, but a few blocks over, on Adanac between Salsbury and Victoria is a grand old house which is so big it likely houses quite a few suites. It appears to be slated for development, a crying shame if you ask me, though someone has let their feelings about this be known on the proposal. Viva east van!

  • jenables

    Oh, and I thought this post was beautiful. It reminded me of a article I read, where people had taken pictures from the past and held them up to where they were taken originally, and took a picture of the picture, bordered by how it is now, so you could see how things changed. It was like seeing ghosts, so cool!

    • Glissando Remmy


      There is a book, called “Dear Photograph” … you may browse through, at Chapters… interesting but too personal …
      Also some more info here:

      • jenables

        Yeah, just like that! It’s such a beautiful idea! Anyone down to make a Vancouver version?

  • Bill Lee

    There are records to show that most of the “chinese” grocery stores were run by Japanese before 1942.

    And the present city has ruled them non-conforming and forces closures when changing hands.

    Some of the small stores were part of the Red and White store chain and even had butchers in the 1950s.

    See the story of the well-off-beaten-path Marche St. Georges at St. Georges and 28th (South of Tupper School…. ) and how hard it was to keep it going.

    StatsCan did a study and found that most were living off the store and its canned goods, and only made a minimal income, with 70 hour weeks with the only profit being the amount for “good will” when sold off.

  • Peter

    Check out several buried houses in Strathcona.

  • West End Gal

    I loved the book. A must have. Get yours from Costco… at a discount!
    Five stars out of five!