Vancouver artist Stan Douglas reinterprets a violent street clash and the early days of the Downtown Eastside’s long decline
An old guy with a bald head and grey beard is standing in the middle of the Woodward’s redevelopment. He’s smoking a cigarette and looking up at the huge photo mural on the glass wall that divides the site’s outdoor courtyard from its indoor atrium. “That’s not a scene that people in Vancouver want to remember,” he declares.
The mural, created by internationally renowned Vancouver artist Stan Douglas, reimagines aspects of the 1971 Gastown Riot. Also known as “the Battle of Maple Tree Square”, the riot occurred when city police violently broke up a peaceful, pot-smoking demonstration on Water Street. Douglas’s monumental work, which bears the title Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971, shifts the action a couple of blocks away from the site of the “Smoke-In”, as the crowds are forcefully dispersed. It shows police officers in riot gear and on horseback in scenes of confrontation with hippie youth while uninvolved others look on.
Was the old, bearded guy there? “Yeah,” he says, “I was there.” But he’s not about to disclose what role he played 38 years ago, whether cop, hippie, local resident, or tourist. He throws his cigarette to the ground, picks up his grocery bags, and walks away.
Whatever his actions or inactions in 1971, this fellow is wrong about one thing: some Vancouverites do want to remember the scene, Douglas foremost among them. And not for obvious reasons. Widely acclaimed for his film, video, and photographic installations, he often uses his art to probe unexamined elements of history, and to demonstrate parallels between the past and the present moment.
At first glance, it looks as if Abbott & Cordova is about a violation of human rights, framed by the clash of values between longhaired members of the counterculture and baton-wielding defenders of the establishment. What Douglas sees in the events he has depicted, however, is one of those turning points that interest him. The riot “was critical in changing the Downtown Eastside from what it was to what it is today”, he asserts.
He’s sitting in his spare and spacious office, in his three-storey studio building on Cordova Street, a few blocks east of the scene depicted. Archival photos and test shots hang on his walls, as does a print of Abbott & Cordova. The image, he emphasizes, “is about the transition of that neighbourhood from one condition to another”. It’s about the beginning of the decline of the Downtown Eastside. It’s also about how public space is used, and who controls it.
Douglas talks about the meanings and origins of the term skid row. He recounts some of the mid-20th-century history of the area, which was then home to working men, many of them employed in resource industries. Loggers, fishers, and longshoremen, he says, lived in single-resident-occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside, and congregated in local bars and cafés.
“That was the general character of this neighbourhood up until the ’70s,” Douglas says. “And suddenly”¦you started to have hippies coming from ”˜hippie central’ on 4th Avenue to the Downtown Eastside and squatting in unused industrial buildings in Gastown.”
Not only were these youth living in unsanctioned spaces, they were also hanging out in local bars and, the police at the time charged, dealing drugs. “They may have been,” says Douglas, “I don’t know. But there was an intermingling of cultures, which I think was more of a problem.” Hippies were seen by local lawmakers and law enforcers—and especially by Vancouver’s then-mayor, Tom Campbell—as being dangerously anti-establishment. Highly threatening to the status quo.
That hippie-hating mayor also loathed the Georgia Straight in its early days, considering it, as Dave Watson once wrote in this paper, “a scurrilous left-wing rag”. From the Straight’s founding in 1967, Watson reported, its creators were slapped with multiple charges of obscenity, libel, loitering, gross misconduct, and “inciting to commit an indictable offense” (for an article on growing marijuana).
Straight writers actively promoted the Smoke-In in Maple Tree Square as a way to protest the city’s use of undercover narcs to crack down on hippie dope dealers in the Gastown area—and to advocate the legalization of marijuana. They couldn’t have anticipated the consequences of what was to have been a peaceful event.
After the cops so violently busted up the demonstration—beating protesters, charging crowds on horseback, arresting dozens of people—a commission of inquiry was called. “The police were reprimanded for getting out of control,” Douglas says. But perhaps a more significant outcome of the riot was that the city subsequently zoned Gastown as a strictly commercial district, banning residential use there. “If this neighbourhood had been allowed to have a mixed-use designation, with people living there, I believe it would have a very different character,” he says. Instead, it has been in decline for more than three decades.
It’s a decline that the Woodward’s redevelopment seeks to redress. Within its reconfigured block of low buildings and soaring towers, there are or will be both market and nonmarket housing, retail and food outlets, offices, a bank, a childcare centre, an art gallery, and Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts. Designed by architect Gregory Henriquez and developed by Ian Gillespie, it’s an enormous social experiment. How Douglas’s controversial mural, which is to be officially launched on January 15, will play there is yet to be seen.
If the bearded guy with the grocery bags is any indication, the work will generate some controversy, perplexity, perhaps even anger. Douglas cites some of the provocative, history-based, public artworks produced by the Mexican muralist painters of the early 20th century. Then he says, “In the last few decades, murals have tended to be affirmative things.” They’ve been designed to celebrate communities and places, not critique aspects of the inequitable past. Douglas sighs. “In a way, I’ve returned to this idea of historical memory, because in my opinion, this event was crucial.”