Sam and Joan Chang don’t live at Little Mountain anymore.
For 40 years, they loved and cared for each other at what was once the oldest public-housing project in Vancouver. Although both were blind, they managed on their own in a familiar community where many knew each other.
Two years after the province and city agreed to redevelop the land east of Queen Elizabeth Park, all but six of the 224 homes were demolished, in 2009.
The Changs refused to leave. With three other households, they stayed in one building that was spared. Three years later, in 2012, they fought off eviction, forcing the province, city hall, and developer Holborn Properties Ltd. to come up with a plan to construct the first of the replacement homes for the social housing that had been lost.
The five-storey building with 53 apartments is expected to open this fall. But the Changs will not be among those moving in.
On February 26 this year, the former Joan Petrichenko died of natural causes, five days before her 71st birthday.
Less than two months after his wife passed away, the Chinese-born Sam Chang followed, on April 12, nine days before he was to turn 77.
In their last years, the Changs lived next door to Ingrid Steenhuisen and her elderly mother.
“That whole fight to be able to stay here at Little Mountain definitely had an impact on both of them,” Steenhuisen told the Georgia Straight outside her home.
According to her, the Changs were offered another place on Hastings Street before the public-housing development was bulldozed in 2009.
“That would have stripped them of every last shred of independence,” Steenhuisen said. “They were fully independent, living on their own without any help. They cooked and cleaned for themselves. When you move, it’s not just a case of one unit to another.”
She noted that the friendships built by the Changs “epitomized the atmosphere and kinship and support that everyone had for one another that was here before”.
“When they destroyed the buildings, they destroyed more than buildings. They destroyed a well-functioning community,” Steenhuisen said, fighting back tears. “I think you can compare it, like, to a very large family. You might not get along with every single relative you have, but they’re still your relatives. For me, I just saw it as so many of my friends being taken away.”
The Little Mountain experience has provided lessons to residents of Heather Place, a mixed-income housing project operated by Metro Vancouver. On April 29, Vancouver council approved the redevelopment of the almost one-hectare site near City Hall.
Tamara Szymanska, chair of the Independent Residents of Heather Place, told the Straight in a phone interview that her group negotiated a phased development, allowing tenants to stay in the area.
Barry Growe, spokesperson for Community Advocates for Little Mountain, noted that unlike Little Mountain, Heather Place wasn’t sold to a developer.
“It’s a qualified victory,” Growe told the Straight by phone about what happened with Heather Place.
Over at Little Mountain, where Holborn has yet to start construction of the other social-housing replacements and 1,400 condos, filmmaker David Vaisbord dropped by at Steenhuisen’s place.
Vaisbord is launching a crowd-sourcing campaign for his film about Little Mountain. The last scene he had planned was to have the Changs moving into their new home.
“It’s really hard to imagine Little Mountain without them,” Vaisbord told the Straight.
Having known the Changs since they settled at the social-housing project in 1974, Steenhuisen saw how much they adored each other.
When Joan’s health worsened, she underwent a tracheostomy and couldn’t speak. Steenhuisen would take Sam to the hospital to see his wife almost daily.
“The first thing he would ask was, ‘Hold hands,’ ” Steenhuisen recalled. “He would want me to give his hand to her hand. He felt that he could, by squeezing her hand…let her know that he was there and somehow, willing her through his grip for her to get better. And she would either squeeze back or she’d stroke the back of his hand with her thumb.”