On a gorgeous Sunday in early May, friends and family of Al Clapp gathered at the Granville Island Hotel to remember an unlikely hero.
In a thousand years, one guest mused, who will remember Al? Perhaps the brass plaque that the Granville Island Business and Community Association plans to dedicate along Cartwright Street in June will help us properly acknowledge this blessedly persistent eccentric—who may just be the reason we have Granville Island at all.
“Al was always first,” said George Chapman, influential film-industry veteran and IATSE union leader. “Just stand where Al was standing and you’ll be right in the middle of it.” The several dozen people who were listening stood more or less where Clapp once had his first Granville Island shack, in the early 1970s, when the area was a hive of light industry.
Clapp, who died in April at 83, had another vision: a mix of industry, artists and artisans, and a farmer’s market. He had it first for the north shore of False Creek, in the former home of Canadian Wood Pipe and Tanks Ltd., until the building was destroyed by fire.
So Al turned his eye across the water, to what is now one of Vancouver’s greatest assets. Of course, the machinery of the federal government’s Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation made it happen, but Clapp was always the gadfly who whispered in the politicians’ ears and who put wonderfully crazy ideas in the public imagination.
Granville Island was just one of those ideas. Chapman and Dianne Neufeld, who was once Al’s assistant and became the second head of the B.C. Film Commission, told those assembled that Clapp’s agitation was critical in developing the film industry in the province. In 1971, director Robert Altman had made McCabe & Mrs. Miller among the waterfront shacks of North Vancouver’s Dollarton Flats. Clapp, who had friends in the shacks and friends on the crew, believed the province had the potential to host more American film productions. So he lobbied for that and got the attention of Grace McCarthy, then the Social Credit government’s minister of tourism.
McCarthy, who cancelled other plans to attend Al’s wake and sat smiling and laughing through several expletive-laden stories of wretched 1970s excess, confirmed Clapp’s influence. She said that when the government’s minister of economic development showed no interest in the idea, she decided it could be justified as a tourism initiative and established the commission herself.
Don Rosenbloom, a prominent Vancouver lawyer who sparred with many a petty bureaucrat on Clapp’s behalf, said his influence might not have been possible elsewhere, because fewer people would have listened. And although those who listened also deserve credit, Rosenbloom added this: “Al’s impact in this city, and in British Columbia, cannot be overstated.”
Clapp grew up in Grand Forks as the son of a troublemaker: his union-organizing father once ran for a seat in the provincial legislature on the Communist party ticket. Clapp’s neighbour Milton Morris remembered that his teenaged friend once asked him if he’d ever built a barricade. And together they did—across the highway. Then they hid in the trees. “Al was always building things,” Morris recalled.
Most people remember him as the guy who built the Habitat Forum in five derelict Royal Canadian Air Force hangars down at Jericho Beach. With a secondhand portable sawmill, some horses to haul driftwood from the shoreline, wharf railings that came from the Lions Gate Bridge, and a crew of employment-grant rehab cases, he built a people’s forum to parallel Vancouver’s landmark 1976 United Nations Habitat conference on human settlements.
The forum attracted 15,000 people a day and hosted Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa, building visionary Buckminster Fuller, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (along with his wife, Maggie, and their trail of children hungry for ice cream). Curiously, Vancouver’s famously progressive mid-1970s city council at first staunchly opposed the Habitat event.
One speaker at the Clapp remembrance argued that the Habitat Forum—assembled with scrounged materials on a shoestring, with $26,000 left over when it was all done—helped to teach Vancouver that it could do great things on the global stage. Yet that was just a couple of years in Al’s restless professional life, which took flight in the late 1960s when he was a groundbreaking producer with the juggernaut BCTV News Hour.
Of course, many of his wonderfully loopy ideas came to nothing. Clapp wanted illuminated Olympic rings on Grouse Mountain in 2010 and a peace sign visible from the air on the roof of B.C. Place during the 2006 World Peace Forum. He had a vision of Granville Island’s Alder Bay as a floating village of shops and maritime activities. There was a fruitless decade-long quest to find a new home for the massive Challenger relief map of B.C., which once had its own building at Hastings Park and now languishes in storage in Richmond.
His vision of the old False Creek railway trestle as a pathway for pedestrians and cyclists—to connect Granville Island and Kitsilano to downtown Vancouver—was frustrated by politicians and technocrats worried into permanent paralysis by concerns over legal liability and tidal dynamics.
The Vancouver park board ultimately demolished three of Habitat’s seaplane hangars, while two others burned to the ground in 1979 in mysterious fires that ended controversy over whether they should be preserved for some sort of public use.
Clapp’s disappointments, however, pale beside the successes, big and small. He was a key figure in the occupation of the parkland that was once slated to become a hotel at the entrance to Stanley Park. He suggested to Grace McCarthy that she illuminate the Lions Gate Bridge at night—and so she did, with a string of lights that some now call Gracie’s Pearls.
“Al was the most creative person I’ve ever met,” McCarthy said toward the end of a long series of tributes. “The things he dreamed of… Don’t have small dreams. He had big dreams.”
Al Clapp gave our city inspirational spark. If we’re smart, when others honour that example, we’ll let that spark start the right kind of fire.