Connaught Bridge, 1913 (City of Vancouver Archives)

In November 1984, the month Vancouver’s old Cambie Street Bridge closed, my friend and fellow photographer Brian Hay scaled the span before sunrise. We set up our Mamiyaflex cameras on the swing span tower to catch first light on a landscape in transition from industrial hub to condo city.

Crossing by Bike

The “Connaught Bridge,” a name that never stuck, was the second crossing over False Creek — the first being a simple timber trestle, built in 1891 at a cost of $12,000.

The steel bridge, built at a cost of $740,000, opened to traffic on May 24, 1911. it also carried streetcars between southern neighbourhoods and the downtown core.

Just 4-years-later, a fire on the creosoted wood deck sent a 24.4-metre (80 ft) steel side span tumbling into False Creek. By the time I used the wooden sidewalk, seen in the historic photo above, 70-years of footfall and weather had worn its surface into washboard. Crossings by bicycle were enough to loosen fillings … or lens caps.

The present $52.7 million concrete bridge, was built to a tight schedule, between 1983–85, in order to coincide with the May debut of transportation and communication themed Expo 86. The 1,100 metres (3,600 ft), 6-lane span opened on December 8, 1985.

Photographs from my Eighties Vancouver series document various stages of its construction. I recall many days peering over the old bridge onto the hardhats below, and meandering along the nearby shores of False Creek as the concrete structure, monolithic compared to the Conaught’s airy girders, advanced across the inlet.

It’s hard to believe that the “new” Cambie Bridge is now over thirty-years-old.

New Cambie Bridge

Construction, Cambie Street Bridge, 1985

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False Creek, 1890

Up the creek

Along what is today known as Vancouver’s False Creek, ringed by condominiums and coffee shops, aboriginal villages once flourished. Skwachàys was established along the productive marshes that covered its eastern terminus. Senakw occupied an area on the south shore rich in elk, bog cranberries, wild rice, sturgeon, and salmon.

The natural wealth of these environments supported the great artistic traditions of Coast Salish civilization.

Colonization

Following the arrival of European explorers and settlers, Admiral Sir George Henry Richards (13 January 1820 – 14 November 1896), hydrographer to the British Admiralty from 1864 to 1874, gave the waterway its present name. Exploring for coal, the engine of the industrial revolution, Richards discovered that the inlet, falsely attributed on earlier charts as a “creek,” hid greater prospects.

In 1869, the colonial government set aside a small reserve at the creek mouth, allotted in 1877 to the Squamish people. The next 100 years saw the reserve bisected by railway lines, the Burrard Street bridge, and other development. By the mid 1960s, the entire reserve had been sold off.

False Creek, 1983 (Photo: Gerry Duncan)

Industrial Zone

The “creek” was soon transformed into the industrial heartland of Vancouver, home to sawmills and factories. A massive fire in 1960, fought by every piece of equipment and firefighting personnel in Vancouver, destroyed the BC Forest Products plant and lumber storage yard on the south side. The area deteriorated over the following decades, eventually a sclerotic artery, blighted by toxic soils and polluted waters.

By the time I documented the landscape from the top of the old Cambie Street Bridge in 1984, only a small portion of that southern industrial zone remained, Granville Island having already been converted into the popular market and artists’ haven enjoyed by residents and tourists today. The “golf-ball” geodesic dome of the Expo Centre (now home to Science World) was nearing completion.

False Creek dawn

Dawn, False Creek, Vancouver, 1984

Play Zone

The idea for an exposition in Vancouver was first floated in the 1970s. The plan got the green light from the Bureau of International Expositions in November 1980.

Life Support, Expo 86

Billionaire Jimmy Pattison, famous in his car lot days for weekly firings of the least-performing member of his sales team, was tapped to head the Expo venture, first as CEO, then as the president of the Expo 86 Corporation.

Expo 86 featured 107 provinces, countries, and corporations, with a transportation and communications theme. It attracted 22 million people over its May to October run. The original budget of CAN$78 million ballooned to $802 million, with a deficit of $311 million.

The construction came with an agreement hammered out with BC’s notoriously fractious labour sector to allow non-union labour alongside union workers.

Bill Bennet’s Social Credit government of the day, eager to include as many Pacific Rim countries as possible, including those balking at the price of admission, agreed to subsidize the China Pavilion, which was also allowed to run its own knickknack shop.

For several years, during construction of Expo 86’s pavilions and attractions, overseen by architect Bruno Freschi, I included the shores of False Creek in my photographic explorations of the city’s fast-changing urban landscape — much of it driven by the impending fair.

I wasn’t a great fan of some of the “urban renewal” plans that went along with the clamour to tart up the city in time for her unveiling to the world, especially the greed-driven expulsion of low-income residents from Downtown Eastside hotels. My 80s Vancouver portfolio is filled with architectural victims of the gold rush fever that accompanied preparations.

No one would now deny that the Expo 86 relationship came with benefits. The fair itself brought us the extraordinary treasures of Ramses II (the pink granite colossus took my breath away), the music and dance of Indonesia, the United Nations message of “Peace Through Communication” and hope for nuclear disarmament; the California Pavilion touted its part in “creating the future” through such advances as geothermal energy, space exploration, bicycle design, and computer to computer communications — which now bring you these reflections.

Today, the inlet is in better shape than the place we see in many historical photos — a scene of utter despoilment, the foreshore littered with the refuse of unregulated industrial activity.

Remediation of land along False Creek, led to the formation of BC Contaminated Site Regulations (CSR)

City artists and entertainers enjoyed a boost in their fortunes, including my late father Ray Parker, 57 at the time, who, among other “walkabout” roles, played The World’s Oldest Gas Pump Jockey for Esso’s Corporate Day. The guest passes Dad gave me assured that I attended the fair more than once. It was a jolly good party.

The playbill of the open air, 1500 seat Xerox International Theatre was eclectic — from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Miles Davis and Loverboy. I recall attending an evening performance of the German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, who may have been channelling the tortured sounds of False Creek’s ghost factories and mills, some of which still survived on the south shore and to the east, on False Creek Flats.

Gm Pavilion

GM Pavillion, False Creek, 1985

The GM Pavilion

Getting into the General Motors Pavilion, arguably the most popular attraction at the fair, usually required a long wait — in the rain that marked the start of the fair, or the hot sun that accompanied its final weeks.

Predictably, the ground floor was dedicated to GM’s latest collection of automobiles, but the upper reaches of the 30-metre-high wedge-shaped building, accessed by external ramps, housed a “Spirit Lodge” where a storyteller in traditional aboriginal costume recounted a mythological story of a magic canoe, precursor of the Yukon SUV perhaps, that bore his ancestors to their destinations.

The storyteller conjured memories from a campfire, his dreams materializing in the shadows of the theatre by the magical illusions of a Pepper’s ghost hologram.

After dark, the pavilion’s outer facade, lit with red lights, threw a shimmering reflection across False Creek, just as it did pre-event, lit by the sunset, in my black and white photograph above.

Outer space

The Minolta Space Tower (left of GM Pavilion in photo above)) was the tallest structure on the Expo grounds. Where the tower’s revolving “Observatron” and 12-person parachute capsules once treated fairgoers to a panoramic view over the city, tenants of Park West condo tower now enjoy the scenery, albeit from whatever fixed direction their unit faces and at a much higher ticket price.

Expo 86 construction

Expo Construction, False Creek East, 1985

Post-Expo and the “Toigo affair”

I briefly mentioned in a recent post the “deal of the century” sale of Expo lands to Chinese real estate tycoon Li Ka-shing (whose surname reminds of a cash register recording a sale). His net worth of US$27.1 billion ranks him as one of Asia’s richest men.

According to the Vancouver Sun, “He bought the Expo lands in 1988 for $320 million, to be spread over 15 years. But the real price is generally considered to be about $145 million, in part because the province paid the staggering cost of remediating the soil.”

Wheeling and dealing over the coveted lands led to accusations of influence peddling and an RCMP investigation (that found no wrongdoing), involving sitting premier Bill Vander Zalm and real estate developer buddy Peter Toigo.

Boom … or going for bust?

Expo 86 constituted a giant “For Sale” sign, flown above the ocean and mountain-girded city. Students of Vancouver history agree that the deal was the icing on the celebratory cake of Expo 86; it sent out a follow-up message that Vancouver was open for business, or perhaps ripe for the plucking.

As veteran broadcaster Stuart McNish opined in a recent interview, Expo 86 marked the beginning of Vancouver’s transition into “an Asian city.”

If the fair’s success can be judged merely by counting the number of new towers on Vancouver’s skyline, as breathlessly suggested by Michael Meneer, then the fair truly did “put Vancouver on the map.” But, in the same interview, Expo CEO Jimmy Pattison himself admits that the downside has been the stratospheric inflation of city real estate prices caused by the flood of offshore money. Pattison complained last year, in another interview, that Vancouver’s high cost-of-living was making it hard to retain staff.

The adage “be careful what you wish for” springs to mind.

The consequences of this unnatural bubble — one of the greatest in history — has been to shut out young people and new, homegrown business. These unintended but predictable effects may yet lead lead to a creative decline in the city that might undo any benefits claimed by the condo counters.

Historical documents

My friendship with Gerry Duncan at Action Reprographics specialty black-and-white lab and gallery had exposed me to the photographic documentary record of Vancouver through the wonderful reproductions his company was making from historical negatives.

Using a giant enlarger mounted on rails embedded in their darkroom floor, Gerry and his partner Bob Abbott created panoramic prints that graced the walls of bars and restaurants around the city. Accordingly, I was aware that the visual record I was making of contemporary upheaval and transformation existed within that documentary tradition.

R.V. Winch Grocery Store, 66 Cordova St, 1888 (VPL collection)

Gerry recently reminded me, “We were doing all the work for the Vancouver Public Library historical photo section at the time. We printed various widths depending on the size of the negatives, but around 24″ to 36″ or so. They were contact prints from negs made with a “circuit camera” owned by the Dominion Photo Company.

“The circuit negs were much too wide to project but we did have that 8″ x 10″ enlarger which allowed us to enlarge the library collection of 8 x 10 glass plate negatives.”

One amusing anecdote perhaps encompasses a certain arc of British Columbia history.

“Remember that beauty of the R.V. Winch Grocery with the wild game hanging behind the grocers?

“At 4 foot by 6 foot you could see the individual hairs on the deers’ tail. [Vancouver hand-colouring specialist] Cliff Baldwin coloured that one for me and I sold it to Mr. [then-premier] Vander Zalm.

“‘Lillian [the premier’s wife] will love this,’ he cooed.”

80s Vancouver prints are available in limited and open editions.

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Tugboat, False Creek

Captain Cook Tug Passes Granville Island, Vancouver, 1985

Captain James Cook, explorer, navigator, and cartographer, was born in Yorkshire, England, on 7 November 1728. His life at sea began in the merchant navy (as did my grandfather’s), transporting coal along the English coast, graduating to the Royal Navy in 1755.

His first Canadian adventures came during the Siege of Quebec and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. Cook’s mapping talents, which were vital to the British victory, drew the attention of the Admiralty. He went on to map the coastline of Newfoundland, followed by commissions to explore the Pacific Ocean.

Cook’s third voyage (1776–79), was intended to seek the western entrance to the fabled Northwest Passage.

Though the expedition sailed under express orders “to proceed northward along the coast as far as latitude 65°, taking care not to lose any time in exploring [other] rivers and inlets, or upon any other account,” his explorations led him to the Mowachaht summer village of Yuquot, in Nootka Sound, where, on March 31, 1778, landing parties from Cook’s ships Resolution and Discovery became the first Europeans on record to set foot upon what is today known as Vancouver Island.

The hospitable meeting there is remembered with the European name of Friendly Cove.

Later in the expedition, Cook had a less-benign run-in with Hawaiian islanders, where he was bludgeoned and stabbed to death on February 14, 1779.

This historic note is by way of introduction to the humble namesake tugboat, workhorse of the BC coast, built in 1966.

In this photograph, made on a rainy day in 1985, the 124 ton, 21-metre Captain Cook is seen towing a load of coal into Vancouver’s False Creek. Behind lies the recently-established public market, and other attractions of Granville Island, including Bridges Restaurant, and the Emily Carr Institute of (later, the University of) Art and Design.

Buildings that once housed False Creek industries now served as artists’ studios and retail stores. The Arts Club Theatre still produces top-notch plays and musicals.

On the horizon, the view (via my Mamiyaflex camera’s 80mm lens) from Granville Bridge includes (L-R) new development along Creekside Drive, Fisherman’s Wharf Marina, the BC Credit Union Building (1441 Creekside Dr.) and the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge. Softened by moisture-laden air, the horizon includes peekaboos of Seaforth Armoury, Molson’s Brewery (its clock shows 5;29), Burrard Inlet, Kitsilano condos below West Broadway, and the misty outline of Point Grey.

As far as my seafaring days are concerned, I used to enjoy renting kayaks at Ecomarine, poking around False Creek and further afield, out into English Bay and over to Stanley Park. Eventually, after an ocean kayaking course or two, I landed a guiding job, on Vancouver Island, taking clients to many of the history-steeped locations along coastal inlets and islands.

Prints are available in open and limited editions

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  • Ron Waller - You must know Ken Gay and knew his father. Has has some fascinating stories…April 27, 2017 – 4:30 pmReplyCancel

    • Raymond Parker - Hi Ron. I’m not sure that I know Ken Gay. Where would I know him from?April 27, 2017 – 4:44 pmReplyCancel

  • Terry Rea - The “Arts Club Theatre” was the site of the Pacific Bolt Company
    that moved to Marine drive after a fire destroyed the building in the ’50’s.April 25, 2017 – 7:05 pmReplyCancel

    • Raymond Parker - Thanks for that bit of history, Terry. Lots of it on False Creek, some of which I’ll tackle in an upcoming post.April 26, 2017 – 7:07 amReplyCancel

28 Bastion Square

Spring has arrived in Victoria, BC. The temperature rose to 17 °C yesterday. In fact, many of the early blossoming trees have already shed their petals in storms of white and pink. Outside my window, buds are bursting on broadleaf maple and Gary oak. The mock orange, favourite of bushtit and chickadee, is leafed out, readying its fragrant blooms.

Having the latest renovations to home and office under control, on Saturday I hauled my Nikon D800, tripod and lenses down to the heart of old Victoria. I started out along the Inner Harbour, pausing at the soon-to-be-demolished Johnson Street Bridge and the Northern Junk Building, the fate of which is yet to be decided. A 12-storey tower has been proposed for the site.

I’d hoped to have the impressive display of cumulonimbus clouds boiling up behind my chosen subjects but the light, buildings and the meteorological phenomenon did not coincide. I moved further north, to Government Street, lined by sculpted European hornbeam trees (Carpinus betulus) capped in verdant green.

My original previsualizations were in black and white. I set up on the corner of Langley Street and Bastion Square to make a panorama, including 28 Bastion Square, the original Victoria law courts built in 1889. For nearly 50-years — from 1965 to 2014 — the building housed the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, and was a central draw for tourism in the square. It has lain empty since the museum relocated to 634 Humboldt Street, 3-years-ago.

It would make a great studio and photo gallery …. What do you think? 🙂

Just a few doors away, I set up in the road to frame the buildings on the next block. I noticed that the empty foreground, included in the levelled camera view, was nicely filled by passing cars. Shooting manually, the shutter speed was set at 1/40 sec (@ f9). With the mirror locked up, I had to squeeze the button of the remote cable twice to release the shutter. It took a bit of anticipation to get a car where I wanted. In post production (Lightroom, Nik, and Photoshop), I cropped the bottom, rendering the image at 5:4 aspect ratio.

Deluxe (Langley Street)

At the same time, my plans for any successful photograph changed — from monochrome to colour. Though the speeding car that made it into the best shot was a sleek, black sedan, the brickwork called out to be rendered in its glorious rusty shades.

As is often the case, the photo you end up with is not always the one you set out to make.

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Raymond Parker Photo
230 Menzies Street,
PO Box 39029,
Victoria, BC,
Canada V8V 2G7

PH: (250) 896-7623

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