Vancouver Vanishes documents a city pulling its past apart

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      Vancouver Vanishes: Narratives of Demolition and Revival
      By Caroline Adderson, John Mackie, Kerry Gold, Eve Lazarus, and others. Anvil, 160 pp, softcover

      For Michael Kluckner, what started in 1980 as an art project turned into “an angry book called Vanishing Vancouver”, published in 1990. In it he confronted the wholesale way freestanding homes were being razed and replaced by single- or multi-unit structures that “were too large [and] ugly (to me)”. The fact that they were also shoddily put together “just compounded the outrage”.

      The hysterical rise in land prices so escalated the problem that Kluckner followed up with a second book, Vanishing Vancouver: The Last 25 Years. Now he has written the introduction to a less angry but even more despairing book, Vancouver Vanishes: Narratives of Demolition and Revival, in which a broad spectrum of local writers bring love and logic to the rapid disappearance of our domestic architectural heritage.

      Family housing from the years between the world wars—in styles such as Queen Anne, Craftsman, and Tudor Revival, not to mention simple vernacular dwellings, homespun and handmade—is disappearing rapidly because the lots are so alluring to callous developers who make fortunes from cramming larger (often soulless) buildings into the vacant spaces they have created. In 2013, for example, 866 old houses were taken to pieces and hauled to the dump.

      Novelist Caroline Adderson, who conceived the book and also took many of its photographs, deals with the Two Dorothies of West 41st, twin cottages of great charm, which, as a result of public protests, were moved to a new address two blocks away. Kerry Gold, who covers Vancouver real estate for the Globe and Mail, writes (very well indeed) about the attraction of such houses and about the human loss we suffer when memories of them and of the lives of the people they once nurtured slip away. John Mackie, the Sun’s resident historian, writes of one such situation in his own life. So does poet Evelyn Lau.

      Of course, no one believes a city can stand still. Author and Heritage Vancouver cofounder John Atkin writes that “constant development and renewal [is] not bad in and of itself,” but that horrible consequences result from too rapid a rise in real-estate prices. He traces the history of such change in, for example, the West End, which went from beach bungalows and such to a high-rise forest once the city rescinded its six-storey height limit in the 1950s.

      Decades ago, the late, great Jane Jacobs of Toronto and New York brought many of these concerns about the changing cityscapes to the world’s attention in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In Vancouver Vanishes, Gold calls attention to a present-day prophet, Steve Mouzon, author of The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability. “His argument is contrary to the fashionable one that an old house wastes energy and is therefore replaced by a new one. He counters that there is a sustainable wisdom to the old traditions, a common sense that explains why the old buildings have endured.”

      Vancouver Vanishes grew out of Adderson’s Facebook page of the same name. About half of the pieces have appeared previously. Brought together this way, they make a compelling statement.