Lost Cities: The Archeology of Metrotown

Essay in Vancouver Review, October, 2006.

I. THE LIVING AND THE DEAD

Even when we were kids, we knew we were living at the end of an epoch of some kind. Creeping through the dank, subterranean passageways underneath the Oak Theatre and climbing up through the buckled and rotting parquet floors into the vast blackness inside, you just knew. Burnaby’s landmark art-moderne dream palace, on Kingsway, had become a place with bats flitting in and out of it. And rain pouring down through the roof.

One day, the jam cannery on McPherson Avenue where we used to beg pop bottles from the women on their lunch hour was silent and empty and listing like a sinking ship. Then the sawmills along the railroad tracks, one after the other. Then the broom factory shut down, and then the jute plant, and then all the houses in a whole block on Burlington were torn down. Three-storey apartment buildings went up in their place. The same thing happened on Marlborough. Then on Dunblane. And on it went.

Something was ending. We’d figured out that much by ourselves. But early on, we also came to realize something else. There had been something before us. We could see we were living in the ruins of some lost city. Its plinths and flagstones were everywhere.

Smokestacks rose up out of the brambles, and mountains of morning glory and blackberry had taken the shape of things that had gone long before. There was the sprawling and long-empty Ford Assembly Plant at Kingsway and Silver. Stretching out behind it was a craggy and forbidding landscape of broken glass, chain-link fence and barbed wire. It ran all the way to the tracks. If you tunnelled deep enough into the salmonberries behind the high walls of the bailiffs’ yard, you’d find old Buicks and Studebakers down there.

Even the names of our streets had been changed. Half a block from our house on Jubilee, you could just make out the old name in the broken cement sidewalk in front of a mysterious building called the Labour Hall. It was Maple Avenue. A lot of the streets had those secret, ancient names. Willingdon’s old name was Guichon, and the little streets that ran parallel to the railroad tracks were all called Beresford, but they’d had other names before. Jutland. Kinnee. John, and Firgrove.

Then there was that strange hieroglyphic power that the letters C and G held in the neighbourhood, at least in the chatter of the old men at Jubilee Billiards. The only place I ever saw the letters was on a faded board, with CG Co-op written on it, above the loading dock of an empty warehouse on Telford Avenue.

Once, on Kingsway, we saw a spectral procession from that former age pass by. It was a slow, dismal parade of Volkswagen beetles, each one grey, and each decorated with a red and silver yin-yang insignia on the side—the symbol that was on the Technocracy building at Battison and Kingsway. It was the last we ever saw of them.

There was another thing. All the streets between Patterson and Nelson ran at odd angles, not north-south, like everywhere else, but southwest-northeast. We didn’t know why. And Jubilee was like a little town in the middle of everything, with western-style, false-fronted buildings. There was the Dry Goods Store, and the Jubilee Laundry where my mother worked, and McDougall’s sheet metal shop, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and the Trading Post.

Now the Oak Theatre is underneath London Drugs at the 5000 Kingsway Plaza. A Hilton hotel looms over everything, all green glass and curvy, where the Ford Assembly Plant’s cracked art-deco façade used to be. The jumbled wilderness that was behind it is now underneath the Burnaby Public Library and a whole new street called Kingsborough that runs straight into the underground parking lot of the Real Canadian Superstore.
It’s all Metrotown now.

It happened in 1986. Expo year. The Metrotown Centre opened, the SkyTrain Expo line started running, Jubilee got bulldozed, and there was a sudden eruption of high-rise apartment towers and office buildings, department stores, movie theatres, boutiques, food courts, grocery stores, restaurants, recreational complexes and banks. At least 30,000 people came to live within Metrotown’s precincts,and the core of it all is Metropolis, Canada’s second-largest mall. It’s fronted by a giant neon tower that looks like a skyscraper out of a Batman movie.

Metropolis is Urban Behaviour, Sears, The Bay, Zellers, Chapters, Toys R Us, T&T Supermarket, Old Navy, Winners HomeSense, Real Canadian Superstore, and nearly 500 smaller stores. It’s all connected by esplanades and atriums and skyways to the Metrotown SkyTrain Station and to the adjoining mall of Station Square, which is adjacent to the Crystal Mall, where there are 200 more stores arranged in a site plan that’s like an archaeologist’s rendering of the ruins of the Roman Coliseum. Everything about it is tubular and weirdly dizzying, and in the middle there’s an open courtyard with a statue of Aurora, the Goddess of the Dawn, in a kind of pond. The inscription under the statue reads:Dedicated to an Angel, a Racing Car Driver, and a Large Tuna. Beneath all this, the parking lots are vast catacombs that go on forever.

I went to Metrotown to look for traces of the lost city where I grew up, and to see if I could maybe find some evidence of those earlier lost cities, so it was a bit melancholy, like you’d expect. But I’d also come to know something about the sorrow embedded in that older cartography we’d only glimpsed when we were kids. And I had that Tom Waits’ poem, “Time,” going through my head.

Just close your eyes, son. This won’t hurt a bit.

II. BYZANTIUM

The oldest structure in Metrotown is a thing Don McIntyre discovered in his basement, at 7038 Nelson Avenue, in 1969. He was doing some minor excavating, and whatever it was, all that was left of it was a “semi-circle of large stones.” Its record number on the provincial archaeological-site registry is DhRr T6. No one carbon-dated it, so nobody can say how old it was, but if you extrapolate the semi-circle to a full circle it would have been about 13 metres across. Not exactly Stonehenge, but still.

The only other known material evidence left behind by the ancestors of the Musqueam, the Tsleil-Waututh, or the Kwantlen people, or whoever it was that left it, is a lovely hand maul, the kind that was used as a hammer in the splitting of cedar shakes. It was found around a house that used to be at 6076 Wilson Avenue, which is now an apartment building just northeast of the Patterson SkyTrain Station.

Right around that spot, a party of Royal Engineers started pounding stakes into the ground in 1861. A trail had been blazed between False Creek and New Westminster, and the Engineers were marking out three district lots, at the height of land along the trail, for a strategic military reserve. They were worried about an invasion by Americans. Everybody was, back then.

From that military reserve, the provincial government carved a series of “small holdings” of the kind working people could afford during the great depression of the 1890s, which was a precursor to the better-known agony of the 1930s. The small-holding lots were laid out at right angles to the Interurban Electric tram line, which was up and running in 1891.

The tram line ran more or less northwest to southeast. That’s why the streets between Patterson and Nelson ran at odd angles to the north-south grid of all the streets everywhere else. And Jubilee grew up around the Jubilee station, back when Jubilee was called Maple, and Imperial was known as Jubilee. That’s why Jubilee was like a little village.

To find my way back to the small holdings, I’d brought along a series of maps and things that Jim Wolf from Burnaby’s planning department kindly found for me in the city archives. In the Upper Level food court of Metropolis I sat down, lost. But while I was studying the maps over a perfectly nice bowl of Korean wonton soup from Kim Bo Ting, I realized that I had more or less stumbled upon the homestead that W. Hoffmeister settled in 1893.

Directly below where I was sitting, the land commission officer T.E. Julian came upon Hoffmeister’s place in June, 1895, and found “about five or six acres slashed, about three acres clear of all small stuff, 1/3 acre planted, good shack, first-rate two-storey stable, two horses and colt. Some fencing done.” It’s the Bay Optical now.

On the mall’s ground level, in the Grand Court halfway between Zellers and Sears, right around Seibold’s Optical, Julian came to G. Keefer’s 7.48 acres and found Keefer in a bit of a funk. “Price too high. Land too poor. Cannot compete with Chinamen,” Julian noted. All Keefer had managed to do was put in about one-and-a-half acres of potatoes and build himself a shack.

I followed the small-holding settlers this way, from W. Coulter’s 8.46 acres and J.W. Weart’s 8.22 acres, slowly moving west through streams of people pouring in and out of Mimi McQueen and Josef, and Bebe and La Senza and Accessorize. I triangulated off things in the outside world, like street corners glimpsed through an atrium window, and then went by dead reckoning, and by the time I came back out into the light at the HSBC Bank at the western edge of the Crystal Mall I was at the spot where W. Bailey was building a cabin in 1895.

Bailey was content enough, living in a small shack while he worked on the cabin. He’d put in the foundations and most of the first floor. He had about a quarter-acre planted, and two years later, an assistant government agent named Arthur Shepherd found Bailey. His 7.82 acres had been cleared and were being “diligently cultivated.”

Among and between these small holdings, the angled streets of my childhood were surveyed and named. The settlers raised chickens and played cricket, and they danced quadrilles and opened shops, and their villages took shape around the tram stations at Patterson and McKay, and at Jubilee and Royal Oak. Everyone built great towering bonfires to meet the 20th century. You could see them for miles around. The people had every reason in the world to say to themselves:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

III. THE AGE OF FLAGS

Then everything started to fall apart. The militia was sent to Steveston to put down a fishermen’s insurrection. There were cavalry charges against the strikers at Fraser Mills. From the villages of Jubilee, McKay and the rest, 1,200 men set off to fight for Empire, and while they were in Europe poverty moved like a night fog through the streets. There was a general strike in Vancouver, a general strike in Winnipeg, and an uprising of railroad crews that made the countryside from Hope to Kamloops a workers’ republic.

Out of the smoke and ash arose the young Socialist Party orator William Pritchard. He’d been jailed for seditious conspiracy in 1919, but you could still find him signing up members at the old Federated Labour Party Hall, at Jubilee, in 1927. The hall burned down in 1935, so a new one was built that year, and that new hall was the mysterious building at the top of my street when I was a kid. It’s still there, right by Synergy Computers. It’s the Elks Lodge at 6884 Jubilee Avenue, for the Burnaby Elks Royal Purple # 260 and South Burnaby Elks # 497. The Burnaby Floral Arts Society meets there the second Monday of every month.

Another of the buildings from that lost city, the warehouse on Telford with the CG Co-op sign, has also survived. It’s now the Burnaby Store-All. The sign above the loading dock is gone, and the letters, CG, occur only in the cartography of memory and archival records. They stand for the Army of the Common Good, which set out to build a new economy from the ashes of capitalism, which collapsed, thoroughly and utterly, in 1929.

The Army’s soldiers toiled in their common fields, raised hundreds of tons of produce, and logged Burnaby Mountain and built furniture. They arose from the overflowing ranks of the destitute of Burnaby’s Ward 6, which is now Metrotown. They even printed their own money. Their notes were called labour units, but most people called them lulus.

Times got harder. Window smashings were attributed to “red elements,” almost a third of Burnaby’s residents were on the dole, and close to half the landowners were unable to pay their taxes. The people started marching on Burnaby’s municipal hall on Kingsway, down by Edmonds, and they all sang “The Red Flag.

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, they sang, we’ll keep the red flag flying here.

By then, Pritchard was the mayor . He put the jobless to work. He paid them well, from municipal funds and credit and loans, and they built the great north-south thoroughfares of Willingdon and Sperling and Cariboo Road. On it went like this, then the money ran out. Years later, after everything that had happened, after the provincial government took Burnaby’s municipal charter away and imposed direct rule, Pritchard accounted for himself by saying:

 I would do the same thing again. I had neighbours, and I could see their children’s faces becoming more drawn.

But the world moved on. The Digney family built the Oak Theatre in 1937, and in 1938, the Ford Assembly Plant arose from the land the settlers lost because they couldn’t pay their taxes. Then there was another war in Europe, and the vines engulfed the tumuli once again.

IV. OUT INTO THE LIGHT.

It turns out there really are two parking stalls numbered P1 D15.

I discovered this after having lost my car in the catacombs. I was starting to worry, let me tell you. It wasn’t quite the intensity of a malaria delirium during a 19th-century transect of Angkor Wat, but still. There’s always a rational explanation, I kept telling myself. And there was.

In January 2002, the Ivanhoe Cambridge corporation, which owned the Metropolis mall, bought the Metrotown Centre, which was owned by Manulife Financial. The merger required a tremendous fusion of infrastructure. But they kept their old parking-stall numbers.

Another discovery I made was the location of the old Simpson’s-Sear’s bargain basement, from the late 1970s. It was the place that sold tents, guns, boots, cheap guitars, and things like that. I had no charts or photocopied archival material to go by, but I found it, just north of the Grand Court, towards Sears, between Urban Planet and the Lorenzo Collection.

I could tell by the stairs, and also, on a wall just inside Sears, below a fancy-looking Sensermatic motion detector, there was an antique red “pull-in-case-of-fire” alarm. I remembered it from when I was a kid. I’d always had the urge to pull it and run.
The thing about Simpson’s-Sear’s, which became Sears, is that it defined the post-war period and establishe d the pattern for the rest of the 20th century. When it opened, on May 4, 1951, it was one of the biggest retail stores in Canada. It was also the provincial distribution centre for the Sears catalogue. Everything that anyone from Prince Rupert to Kelowna ordered came through that place. The parking lot could accommodate 1,500 cars. Within seven years, the Interurban line, which used to run all the way out to Chilliwack, was out of business.

It was all about the suburbs and the internal combustion engine.

The other key contributor to the necessary detritus of that age was Kelly-Douglas, a cavernous place with rail spur-lines coming in and out of it, right next door to Simpson’s-Sear’s. It’s where the main Metropolis entrance is now. It was a food processing, canning, packing and distribution centre. Its most famous brand was Nabob, which began with a Klondike outfitter in Vancouver, in 1896. The brand is now owned by Kraft Canada. You can still buy Nabob coffee. And tea.

On the roof of the Kelly-Douglas building there was a huge billboard depicting a nabob—a provincial governor during the Mughal Empire in India. He was a cartoon character in a turban and baggy pantaloons, sitting on a cushion. It was behind Kelly-Douglas that I was arrested, charged and convicted on a count of breaking-and-entering a train, when I was 16.

It’s true that we used to steal food out of those boxcars. We used to carry off huge boxes of Quaker Oats and unglamorous booty such as that. But on the night in question, as they say, I was just trying to get out of the rain, and there was a boxcar with an open door, so I jumped in. Still, it’s allowed me to refer in passing to my conviction for train robbery. I got six months’ probation and a suspended sentence. All very glamorous.

That was then. This is now: Since 1986, a dynamic, increasingly Asian entrepreneurial culture has eclipsed the old white working-class culture I grew up in. Almost half of Burnaby’s 200,000-or-so people are from visible minorities. Most of those people are Chinese, South Asian and Korean, and a great many of them live in Metrotown. Greater Vancouver’s Chinese population nearly doubled during the 1990s, and Metrotown tends to cater to their tastes. It’s why the whole place ends up with a decidedly Asian character to it.

But the pattern of settlement and enterprise—the basis of Metrotown’s conversation, say—was established in Byzantium, and later, during the Age of Flags. Certain lines were drawn, around the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, child labour, and that kind of thing, and out of that arose a standard of civility among and between the people. Commerce flourished, unguarded by beefy old cops and railroad bulls and other such white guys with hands like bags of hammers. Now it’s flocks of young, smiling Asian women, Concord customer-service staff in helmets and red T-shirts. On rollerblades.

The Crystal Mall is Metrotown’s newest eruption. It’s completely Asian. Fully a third of it is about food, with restaurants and an astonishing Asian-delicacy grocery store and a huge food court with Northern Meixi cuisine and Japanese waffles and everything in between. And then you’re out into the air again, at Willingdon and Kingsway, where the famous buzzing neon dragon of the Dragon Inn used to be when I was a boy.

On my last visit to Metrotown, I ran into Nick Petrovas. I couldn’t believe it. He was the barber who used to cut my hair when I was a teenager in a torn jean jacket. Back then, Nick’s place was on the other side of Kingsway, near McKay. He’d opened for business in 1962. Nick’s 71 now. He runs Athens Hairstyling, at the Kingsway Entrance, near The Bay.
Nick said that as far as he knows, he’s the only one from the old days who’s survived. Sure, life is good, he said.

It is. There are actually more trees in Burnaby now than when I was a kid. There are more parks. The air is cleaner. The streets are safer. There are great libraries. People are healthier. There are more birds.

The life of the people is better.

Copyright © Terry Glavin, 2006

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