Academic journal article The Geographical Review

A Felt Geography

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

A Felt Geography

Article excerpt

Looking out, there is no longer any separation between sea and sky. A dozen shades of gray are seamless as gusting winds drive rain and send waves cresting over English Bay in Vancouver, Canada. The rough sea batters the coast. Mist droops heavily over the coastal mountains that rise up from the rolling slate of ocean. Such a day evokes the not-so-distant city: a frontier town of sawmills and log booms, shipyards and wharves, opium dens and distilleries, relief vouchers and vagrancy laws, improvised laundry lines, crowded rooms, shovels, rail spikes, and rope pulleys heaving freight. This is the terrain of "Gassy" Jack Deighton, Frank Rogers, and Mary Ellen Smith; of the Asiatic Exclusion League, the Chinese Immigration Act, labor camps, and Indian reservations. This is a requiem of scows and wooden dories; of oars cutting water, Union Steamships steaming along a promised Gulf Coast Riviera, and the Number 14 streetcar; of the sitdowners rioting in their occupation of the post office; (1) of a colonizing town and a city of toil and sweat; of mud and timber walkways slicing through wilderness; of wood and fish; of immigrants and settlers: Chinatown, Little Italy, Japantown, Shaughnessy, Sikh gurdwaras [temples], and Ukrainian churches; of neon signs along Granville and Hastings Street illuminating "President's Suspenders," "Capitol," "Paradise," "Johnston's Big Shoe Store," "Army and Navy," "Woolworth's 15 Cent Store," "The Hudson's Bay Company," "Woodward's," and "Spencer's." Here we catch a glimpse of canvas shacks--"hobo jungles"--and English gardens; of workers getting their hands dirty in the turning of soil; of rowing clubs, racing Indian canoes, and women's archery competitions, ships christened with the union jack; of crowds on Kitsilano Beach (named xwupxpay'em [having red cedar] by the Coast Salish) in the days of summer, children leaping off creosote pilings, contorted gymnasts; of troops storming the shoreline, rehearsing the exercise of war.

My grandfather came from this place. With squatters' rights, his family settled on the Vancouver waterfront, establishing the first boathouse along the Kitsilano seashore during the 1920s. In the shadows of Spanish Banks, his parents, usurping beach, built a small marina to look after a makeshift fleet anchored off the water's edge. The ocean loomed in my grandfather's imagination. When the northeasterly winds howled down the Georgia Straight, we'd sail out into perilous swells, seas and winds whipping at us. I now wonder at the wisdom of these forays in his 14-foot sailboat, aptly named the Id, which tossed around a watery landscape in the winter months. My grandfather's life was tied to the sea; his youth was spent navigating the waters around Vancouver in a time when the Sylvia Hotel provided the brightest navigational beacon guiding voyages back to the city. The Kitsilano shoreline remains haunted by the past. Specters whisper and linger over a site imbued with story. It is a setting of enduring memory.

Some years ago my mother and I recorded my grandfather's reminiscences. We wanted to capture memories of the city before they eroded in the passage of time, before my grandfather's body was consumed by the tremors and shakes of Parkinson's. Whether I would ever work with these materials was unclear. I had no plan to do so. They were collected as a family archive--a museum, if you like, of personal memory.

In 2009 I was asked by the Western Front (one of Canada's first artist-run collectives) to collaborate with a musical composer to create a site-specific work in Vancouver; which is to say, a work informed by a specific geographical space and urban history. The piece was part of Intersections, a new music series of collaborations between writers and composers. We were guided by a curatorial statement that asked for artistic inquiries into "social and economic convergences, geographic landmarks and reminiscences about current and historical thoroughfares. …

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