It has become something of a cliché to think about Vancouver as a place without history. Young, dynamic, open to the world, it is seen as a city that constantly reinvents itself, chasing world fairs, Olympic games, and “most liveable city” titles; a busy, forward-looking place with little time for time past, the vestiges of which are bulldozed to make way for sleek glass towers and slick name-brand coffee shops. As author Charles Demers astutely points out in his portrait of some of the city’s still heteroclite neighbourhoods, “long memories don’t go well with either consumerist or colonial societies, and Vancouver’s both, often at the same time.” The books presently under review go a long way to deepening that memory. All three were published in 2011, a year marked by quasquicentennial celebrations in Vancouver, and during which perhaps more attention than usual was paid to its history. Each, in very different ways, reminds us that beneath the self-consciously cultivated, resort-town image lies the messier, sometimes violent, sometimes touching, and often entertaining story of a city that has much more history, and perhaps even more personality, than it sometimes lets on.
Chuck Davis was a highly popular writer, columnist, and broadcaster who spent decades accumulating all matter of historical tidbits about the city he loved. Troubled that the children he met on school visits systematically mistook George Vancouver for George Washington, he set to work on a book that would instil in Vancouverites more understanding and passion for their city, a book he promised would be “fun, fat, and filled with facts.” That it is, but Davis’ massive History is, technically speaking, not a history at all. It is a chronicle in which notable events, personalities, and stories are recorded for each year of the city’s existence. Predictably, the volume takes the arrival of white settlers in the region as its starting point (the birth of George Vancouver is the first recorded event), but a lengthy sidebar describes the diverse Aboriginal groups they encountered. From here, Davis takes us on a year-by-year trip through Vancouver’s fast-paced development, honing in on the way major historical events shaped the destiny of the city and its region, peppering his account with pithily captioned images and humorous anecdotes, coincidences, or mishaps. Davis, sadly, passed away before he could complete his opus, but a number of private sponsors and ghost writers stepped up to complete the project.
The book will regularly make readers smile or shake their heads in amazement. But the drawback of this layout is that stories develop over several years, giving rise to much repetition as the same events and people are referred to many times over. The stringing together of facts gives the book a somewhat disjointed feel, and it can be disconcerting to see points of trivia (the first of this, the largest of that . . .) given the same billing as matters of arguably much greater social, cultural, or political import (evidence of changing racial or gender dynamics, for example). Though there is no thesis or analytical standpoint, the objective is to make the non-history reader love and care about the city. As a result, the book is largely celebratory in tone. Darker moments and attitudes are acknowledged, but hastily given a more positive spin. While this is not the book for those seeking a critical perspective on Vancouver’s history, it is successful in piquing the readers’ curiosity about the city and fostering a sense of continuity with the past. Even the most seasoned Vancouverites will feel all the more at home after reading it, knowing the origin of a particular street and imagining how it might have looked and felt before their own time.
The stated intention of Diane Purvey and John Belshaw in Vancouver Noir is also to help overcome the city’s collective amnesia. Vancouver’s reputation as “guarded, polite and somewhat boring,” they argue, has been “assiduously cultivated by journalists, historians and politicians,” intent on papering over its hard-edge past in order to impose bourgeois norms of thought and behaviour. During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Vancouver’s unique racial mix, industrial economy, and flashy neon made it the ultimate noir city, where illicit drinking, gambling, corruption, and murder were the talk of the town. Plunging into newspaper coverage and police reports, the authors regale us with a wide array of sordid dramas played out by shady or glamorous characters. The narrative is entertaining but sensitive to avoid sensationalizing the tragedies and suffering it recounts. Scores of photos snapped with the “speed graphic” cameras of the day make the book a visual delight as well, though some of the images, particularly in the chapter on murder, are not for the faint of heart.
Some may find reductive the idea of analyzing the complex and shifting class, race, and gender relations of the period through the lens of a Hollywood genre. But the authors are careful to explain how the era’s distinctive tone and style were as much popular culture’s reflection of reality as its creation. Their broader point is that the tantalizing features of noir were to a large degree the fabrication of a reform-minded bourgeoisie, holding it up as a “dark mirror” that served to articulate the ascendant middle-class values that have deadened Vancouver’s image of itself. The bootleggers and bandits were the ideal foils to the discourse of civility and respectability. Analyzing this period of transition, argue Purvey and Belshaw, forces us to challenge our view of normalcy as we “reorient” our “mental map” of the city. The rough and tumble east end is presented as the authentic Vancouver, while the west side rings “faux,” a putatively homogenous wasteland of manicured lawns that embody conformity and restriction. While there is something essentializing about the rigidity of this social and physical divide, it is nonetheless a telling symbol of the tension between the lively city of social protest and roaring good times, and the dull, individualistic and profit-oriented bourgeois city they suggest Vancouver was becoming. By the 1960s, Purvey and Belshaw conclude, “[t]he battle for the city was over. The city lost.”
In that sense, Claudia Cornwall’s biography of Curt Lang offers some consolation, showing that a spirit of rebelliousness and iconoclasm stayed alive and well in Vancouver, at least through the end of the twentieth century. In this book too, Vancouver is presented as “a city that dwells more on the future than on the past,” which is why, according to Cornwall, the poet, painter, photographer—and later fisherman, boat builder, and software designer—felt so at home there. Lang was born and raised in the midst of East Vancouver’s noir era, keeping something of its grit in the “brash, kick-ass attitude” that characterized him. Cornwall’s account is moving, portraying Lang as a man possessing enormous talent, but in some ways unable to handle it, as evidenced by his troubled interpersonal relationships and tendency to rush into another pursuit just as he mastered the previous one. The author’s sympathy for her old friend is evident, though she does not shy from discussing his flaws as well.
While Lang’s life is the focus, told through his poetry and diary as well as countless interviews with people close to him at various times in his life, Vancouver is also a key character in the story. “It was either art or crime,” noted painter Bob Sutherland of life choices available in 1950s East Van. Lang chose art, and through Cornwall’s fluid narration, we follow him amid the highs and lows of the beatnik scene of the following decade. Always scraping to get by, Lang left the city to fish along the west coast in the 1970s, before returning to build boats and finally dive head first into the high tech industry that boomed in Vancouver during the 1990s, applying his smooth, streamlined aesthetic to all of his projects. The city’s rising bourgeois mentality described by Purvey and Belshaw notwithstanding, Vancouver deeply inspired Lang. To him, it was a place where art, poetry, and debate flowed, where insouciance bred creativity, where improbable encounters, like his teenaged friendship with the much older and renowned writers Malcolm Lowry and Al Purdy, blossomed. A stunning set of 1972 photographs by Lang showcase a bustling, working-class city, which, if no longer coloured by the noir mystique, certainly held on to its rugged and ragged edges. In the end, it was also this city, “at the world’s edge,” that owed much to the poet, and to his unbridled imagination and artistry. “His life,” muses Cornwall, “was like a great wind that blew through Vancouver, a great, mocking, laughing wind . . .”
An agreeable hint of nostalgia pervades all three of these books. The stories they tell are at once enthralling, romantic, and tragic. More than providing a snapshot of Vancouver’s growth and transformations throughout the twentieth century, they tease out the city’s nuances and temperament. To a city that seems so little preoccupied by its own past, Davis, Purvey and Belshaw, and Cornwall offer an opportunity for introspection, a chance to look beneath the shiny, postmodern patina and to ponder much rougher surfaces. In their engaging style and intimate perspective, they create a sense of place for Vancouver in a way that most scholarly studies cannot. And they make the reader want to know more, to experience this past directly, to step into the streets, to look behind the trendy condos and cafés, and to see how much of that history, troubled as it was, is really still there.