Behind Hastings, off Commercial

A lament, a warning, a plaint. All night long, I hear the sirens calling. Outside, squad cars tear up and down alleys, fire engines barge through busy intersections and ambulances, in pools of quavering amber light, huddle around bodies, cold and still on the sidewalk. The night after the morning after the second last Wednesday of the month. December. Hard times in the neighbourhood, the temperature is dropping, Christmas is fast approaching and people are hurting.

Making my way down Hastings, I'm overtaken by a pack of Paddy Wagons. Hanging up the garland, the sirens get louder and louder and I know what's coming. Each time I freeze and for a few seconds, I'm caught in the staccato glare of flashing lights. But no one's interested in me, there's bigger and more desperate things going somewhere else. The vehicles careen past, lights pulsating, sirens keening away into the night.

The fenced off lot has been quarantined for so long that I can't actually remember what used to be there. A gas station or some kind of factory? Either way, the business and the buildings are long gone and the soil left behind, corrupted. The ground has been churned up, sifted and then smashed flat again and the whole surface punctured by a grid of white PVC pipes, venting off the toxins. In the darkness, the pipes hover low over the ground, like pale ghosts. In the throbbing red light of passing emergency vehicles, they seem to leap up like outraged demons, dancing to the distorted wail of the sirens. I'm almost done when I see trembling blue lights tracing out the tops of the surrounding buildings. A troop of police cars seem to be combing the side streets, working their way towards me, so I tie the last knot fast and drift away quickly and don't wait to document the garland. Back home, it takes me a long time to fall asleep. As I drop off, the yelping, moaning and snarling of the sirens merge and become one long, drawn out cry of protest.

After a black, sleety night, day breaks cold, clear and still. Fresh snow lies low on the North Shore mountains. I'm back at the lot early and the streets are quiet. For a little while. Long before I'm finished taking pictures, the stillness is broken by another police car screaming past and a few minutes later an ambulance follows dolefully behind. In the sharp morning light the rows of PVC pipes stand rigid like sentinels or mourners.

Some kinds of pain take a long, long time to go away. I know that the neighbourhood has had more than its fair share of tragedy, that some memories will always remain bitter and that the noise of the sirens will never fully fade, but hopefully, some things can change. Some demons will be laid to rest and some ground reclaimed. And while some people may want to, or need to, let go certain parts of the past, I hope that we will never forget - Tiffany.


Cordova and Princess

A cold rain, almost snow and I'm heading down Cordova in the dark when a woman, working on the other side of the street, angles through the traffic and runs up behind me to ask, gleefully, "Are you selling your wreaths?" I laugh, surprised, and say, "no, sorry" and she laughs, "ok" and we say, "see you later" to each other as she runs back across the street and off into the darkness. It's spitting snow as I drape the garland over a fence on the edge of a vacant lot at the end of a row of old houses on Princess. They've been pretty run-down for a long time, but over the last year or so, they've been fixed up, a little at a time. A new layer of paint, some plastic tacked over the cracked window frames, and in the night, with softly glowing light leaking out through the curtains, they seem almost cozy. Later that night there's snow and heading home, I see the woman's coat, abandoned on the ground and no sign of her anywhere on the street.

The next day I'm back on Cordova, heading to the studio. The coat is gone, the sky's bleak, the street is cold and the house that seemed warm and almost safe in the night looks emptied, the windows stare out across the vacant lot, waiting and watching for - Helen.


Prior, at the foot of Gore

At the south end of Gore, a large space sits waiting, almost empty again. Less than a year ago, new perimeter fences appeared and the ground was covered with huge white, shrink wrapped tents - a staging ground for the Winter Games. Every 15 feet or so, a sign warned the neighbourhood to keep it's distance. The space was now within the 'Secure Zone'. Before this happened, the site lay neglected, weeds and the remains of razed warehouses. A schematic arrangement of cracked concrete aprons, broken foundations and bent re-bar. In spring and summer, the space became an impromptu skate park, with the autumn rains, it turned into a shallow pond, a resting spot for migrant geese and gulls driven inland by ocean storms. A few years before that, the space functioned as a sort of refuge, with stands of rank grass crisscrossed by coyote paths and scattered groves of scrubby birches, screening the occasional temporary shelter. More recently it has served as a dumping ground, a car park and a Hollywood North film set. The future of the site? A re-located Saint Paul's Hospital complex, re-claimed riparian parkland, floodlit soccer fields, community gardens, a community centre, a shopping centre? All kinds of schemes and proposals, a long list of wants, a few pipe-dreams, a world of possibilities and some very specific needs. Right now, for the next little while at least, the space belongs to - Cynthia.


Powell, 1100 Block East

A temporary space closes down and I gather up the garland and head out into the drizzle and gloom of a late October afternoon. Further down Powell, I find a small finger of scrub land clenched tight between the curb of the road and the high security fence that cuts off access to the train tracks. Dead grass, dying goldenrod and dropping leaves. The remnants of another fence. The grey sky is turning black and a slow creeping line of traffic stretches back towards the downtown core. The drivers are invisible, cocooned safely inside and their winking taillights peer back at me through the darkness, tiny red eyes, leading the next car forward and beckoning others away from the city and further on into the night. Outside now and in another place - Diana.


Powell, at the foot of Victoria

From out of the blue, a long lost colleague, with some very thoughtful things to say about Evergreen and a request to consider installing one of the garlands as part of a public art project that he's been conducting. Every Letter In The Alphabet is the name of the space, an old storefront down along Powell, next to the tracks at the foot of Victoria. An area I'd been scouting out for a while, trying to find a place for one of the garlands. Maybe it was a sign?

I head down late in the day, get help clearing out the window wells and by the time I get organized, it's getting dark and I'm alone in the space. Red taillights slide by outside and the area feels deserted, but I know that the nearby streets and alleys are not all empty. After a while, a van pulls up out front and someone unloads a set of drums and amplifiers and then people start trickling by, in twos and threes until suddenly there's a crowd built up on the sidewalk. Everyone is laughing and talking and shouting, there's an opening underway at the gallery next door and a band is playing somewhere in the building. People wander past, looking in at me, lit up in the window like I'm part of the show and I stare back at them, clustered together on the dark sidewalk outside, like they're part of a different show.

I feel a little uncomfortable being watched, but keep focused on finding the right pieces of fake ivy and fir and soon I forget about everything, except the name that I'm weaving together. I'm almost done and standing outside on the sidewalk, checking the lighting, when a slightly drunk man separates himself from the crowd and staggers over to stand swaying in front of the window. He looks up at the letters hanging there, but can't quite figure out what they spell. The three he can make out he reads aloud, slowly - D, N, A, 'I wonder what the symbolism of that is...?', he mutters, half to himself and half to me. I don't know how to answer him.

Over the last few weeks, a number of the garlands have been ripped apart or cut down. Sometimes I'll find stray letters, randomly scattered along the street, spelling nothing. Occasionally, half a name, intact, with bits and pieces of the other letters lying nearby, crushed and crumpled into strange, suggestive shapes. A few of the garlands have been violently wrenched apart. Torn and twisted into erratic green lines. Every letter a distorted, indecipherable message left sprawling on the ground. Or else, a whole garland simply vanishes, overnight. I expected all these things to happen, sooner or later. But what I didn't plan on were all the things I would feel, every time it happened. Anger, sadness, betrayal and more, keep welling up and none of them feel related to 'art' disappearing. When I got asked to put up this latest garland, in the storefront window, I was kind of glad; this one would be protected for a while and I made it a little more delicate and decorative than some of the other garlands. I wanted this one to last a little longer. I wonder what the symbolism of that is...?

I keep thinking about being inside or outside of the glass. About feelings that last and art that doesn't and the show that we're all a part of. About what happens to people when we can only read them as symbols or signs. And about all the names and faces that will not fade.

For now, above the dark sidewalk in the light of a storefront window, five letters, put together, to spell out - Diana.


Hastings at Glen

I was up and on my way before it was light. Gulls were crying and calling to each other on the rooftops, the air was cool, almost cold and there was a heavy dew on the ground, but already the neighbourhood was hard at work. An early start to the day, a late end to a long night.

Where Hastings arches up and passes over Raymur and the train tracks cut underneath, there's a big plot of land that slopes down from Glen drive. It's hemmed in by a barbed wire topped, chain link fence and from the outside, it looks almost overgrown with scrub. Actually, there's two sides to the lot. The chunk of land on the south side of the overpass is pretty much covered over with weeds and brush, but on one edge, down towards the tracks, the brush has been cut back and someone's built a couple of raised beds and planted vegetables and a few flowers.

A thick wall of towering blackberries lines the inside of the fence that surrounds the north side of the lot. From a distance it looks sealed off, like there's no way in, but at the bottom of the slope, right underneath the overpass, the chain link's been peeled back a bit and if you duck down and crawl past the small gap, there's a tunnel that leads you under the blackberries and on through, to the inside.

Once you're in there, it feels quiet, the waking sounds of the surrounding warehouses and manufacturers are muffled and it's a bit like being in a thicket in a forest. But it's no secret garden. All around the edges of the lot, little niches have been carved into the brush for sleeping. Tucked into the dark bushes for another night, wet blankets and musty quilts, or tossed away for ever, tangles of pantyhose and socks, broken high heels and soiled jeans. Halfway up the slope, in the dead centre of the lot there's a bare scab of lifeless hardpan, where nothing grows. Even the blackberries won't take root. The only thing poking out of the ground is a stack of crumpled up computer motherboards and the half buried shell of a gutted monitor.

I make all this out in the half light. The dull whine of morning traffic up on Hastings is building into a steady roar, creeping down through the fence and the bushes and slowly driving away the quiet. I get to work and drag an abandoned home-made ladder up the slope.

Overhead, the gulls that have been dipping and skimming through the dull sky the whole time, drop down lower to investigate. The blackberries are thinner here and I work my way past and weave them back to prop the ladder up against the perimeter fence. I'm on top and starting to thread the garland through the barbed wire when dawn breaks. The sky is suddenly a bright clear blue and the joyful shrieking of the gulls drowns out all the noise of the cars and the light of the new day spills down into the lot and for a second or two, looking back over my shoulder, filled with light and warmth, it does look a bit like a sanctuary or a garden. I finish tying the garland, climb back down and leave the way I came.

At the top of the slope, facing east, in the morning sun - Sereena.


900 Block Main

Long, hot August day. No point waiting for evening to be discreet, everybody comes out at night to cool off. The afternoon sun angles down and seems to overexpose everything. I head out, cutting back and forth across corners, trying to walk in the thin strips of shade that cling to the edges of buildings. In Strathcona, a voice calls out from the overhang of a house, " Excuse me, are you the one that's putting up all those names?" I hesitate, but answer, "Yes" and then it's their turn as they ask haltingly what the garlands mean. To me. We gently sound each other out and both seem a little relieved when it becomes clear that we are talking and thinking and caring about some of the same things.

I carry on into the glare and end up on the edge of Main Street, which is hazy with the heat and exhaust of traffic. The small fenced off lot, waiting to be rolled into a bigger re-development parcel, has been empty for quite a while and the blackberries grown up and over the south side of the fence are almost ripe. I thought I was going to have to jump over the gate to get to the spot I'd chosen, but with a bit of climbing, a few scratches and the remnants of an old foundation wall for help, I manage from the outside. The sun beats down harder, pavement shimmers in and out of focus, cars and people appear and disappear, as if in a mirage and there, in broad daylight - Debra.


151 W. Cordova

A while ago a friend of mine was poking around online and she came across a bunch of sites with images from Evergreen. People who'd come across the garlands on the streets, taken pictures and posted them with comments that wondered what they were all about. There was a whole online discussion going back and forth about what the garlands referred to and whom the names belonged to. It was one of the kinds of dialogue I was hoping for, people from all over bringing their own associations and feelings to the work and deciding on their own interpretations or sharing ideas and collaborating with others to find meaning. One of the comment threads eventually worked its way back to me with an anonymous request to contact another unknown person about being involved in some kind of an exhibition. I was a little hesitant, I was heading out of town the next day, I had no idea who was behind the request or if they were being serious and I wasn't even sure that the garlands belonged in a gallery setting, but it seemed important to follow the process all the way through.

So I responded and one contact led to another and I was very generously invited to include one of the garlands in the Surge Festival, July 30th -August 28th,which is opening up the W2/Storyeum space this summer, (www.creativetechnology.org/events/surge-festival-of-urban). The festival is being dubbed the 1st annual festival of Urban Digital Culture and it seemed like it might be the right place to try and talk about what it is to be named or unknown or mediated in the DTES. It turned out I 'sort of' knew a lot of the people involved and they 'sort of' knew about me but we'd never really connected each other's names with our faces and various on and off-line identities. As each of the four components of the festival was going to include work from community activists and artists and collectives all concerned and involved with maintaining and nurturing the wide range of DTES voices, in the end, despite the short notice, I felt I should say yes.

I got back into town the day before the opening and rushed down to hang the garland. The space looked huge, dark and empty, a lot of the work still needed to be hung, but people were working hard in the shadows. I hugged tight to tall pillars, 14 feet up in the air and slowly worked the garland ropes into place.

The night of the opening the space still looked huge and dark, but it slowly filled up and from out of the shadows more people came who had seen the garlands around but not known who they were about or why I had been putting them up. I talked a fair bit about Evergreen that night, answered a lot of questions, asked some others and listened to a lot of stories. People told me about seeing the garlands and knowing the people behind the names. I felt I'd made the right decision to be involved and was grateful for the 'anonymous' support of Evergreen. At some point in the night I looked up and there, above me and out of reach, but a part of it all - Jacquelene.


Terminal, just past Thornton

On the south side of Terminal, there's a parcel of empty land that's bordered on one side by tall Lombardy Poplars. The land has been scraped level and filled with gravel and the other three sides have been demarcated by roadways and a new sidewalk and sooner or later the rest of it will be filled up. Until then, the Poplars turn the north edge of the parcel into a small slice of forest and even though there's garbage and junk dumped all through the underbrush, it's still kind of pretty. Peak rush hour and the sun off the pavement is blinding, but there's a little breeze that gets picked up by the trees and it helps to make the spot feel more restful than it actually is. Traffic streams by, commuters racing back to the suburbs and overhead, the Skytrain roars past, crammed with people heading for home and there, in the shade at the base of the Poplars - Tanya


Powell, just past the Cordova Diversion

Earlier tonight, as a friend and I were cutting through Gastown, we were noticing, not for the first time, how much the area's changing. Water Street was full of people just hanging out and not because they were going to be sleeping there later on. There was music and laughter and a lot of money being spent in the restaurants, bars and stores and it wasn't all by tourists. There's a whole new batch of people living in the 'hood, which means a lot of added pressure on the people who are going to be sleeping rough. I suppose there's a few good things that come with the changes, but I still get touchy threading my way through the well dressed drunks and angry, when neighbourhood landmarks get reno'ed for 'loft-style' condos and incensed, when unofficial resting spots and the few remaining patches of untamed green space get razed or re-purposed.

I know it's an inevitable part of gentrification and even though I've lived down here for years, I guess I'm a part of it all. I imagine it's probably not much better than what happened when the area was taken over for first time. I keep hoping that this time 'round it'll be different, the people moving here will want to support the heritage of the area, save some of the history and respect the rights of it's long term inhabitants. But some days, that kind of change seems a long ways off.

Later that night, as I left my studio with the garland, there was an unmarked police cruiser idling out front and radio noise coming from another one, waiting with it's lights off, just around the corner. I passed by a new storefront gallery with a smart-ass poster in the window that read, " There Is No Romance In Taking A Risk". Heading east, down Powell, the streets were quiet but not empty. Single figures wove through the darkness and settled in doorways or sat on the curb, watching the night. The rain held off and a row of blooming trees just before Hawks Avenue filled the street with scent.

Just past where Powell and Cordova merge, the train tracks run right up against the road and there's a fairly serious chain-link fence that does it's best to cut off access to the waterfront. Beyond the razor wire, a row of shunting rail cars rattles back and forth and past them, cranes and piers and container ships are waiting in the harbour. Across Burrard Inlet, on the other side of the First Narrows bridge, West Van climbs out of the black water and the lights of the North Shore flicker like the embers of a distant fire and somewhere beyond that - Georgina.


Hastings And Abbot

It's evening when the rain lifts and the night sky is almost bright as a gang of drunk karaoke girls spill out of the Met bar and into the alley for a smoke break. Screeching with laughter, they don't seem to notice the rats teeming all around them. I start to climb under the fence and into the empty lot that's for sale across the alley, until I notice that the rats have the same idea.

Instead, I opt for scuttling further down the alley, tossing the garland over the fence and tying it up so that it'll face out towards Hastings. The sky gets darker. Up above me and across the street, on Abbot, the newly illuminated, old 'W' spins slowly; an intellectual property. Meanwhile, good natured drunks are stumbling over the backwards letters of the garland, trying to read the name out loud and I'm trying to ignore the sound of rats, fighting and hunting in the garbage and rubble of the pitch black ground.

Early next morning, the bar's quiet, the alley's hosed down and the rats have holed up for the day.

I'm coming along Hastings and admiring the Butterfly bushes, which are doing their best to take back the vacant lot before it gets built on, when a white van idling in the alley pulls away, revealing - Andrea.


Main and Georgia

Just off Main, at the dead end of Georgia, there’s a small, fenced in gravel cul-de-sac. In the daytime, it’s a makeshift parking lot. At nighttime, it’s used for other things. At the edge of the fence, there’s a small path that lets you slip down off Main and cut through into the alley.
On the South side of the lot, surrounded by a higher chain-link fence, there’s the Murrin sub-station, a 1940’s Art Deco hydro facility that currently supplies all the power for Downtown. It’s listed as a Class B heritage building, but with a new Mt. Pleasant sub-station and a re-routing of power lines in the works, who knows what'll happen.
On the North side of the lot, there’s a half empty,1980’s commercial building that looks a bit like a neglected villa, complete with walled courtyard and patchy upper verandas. The building and most of that block in fact, look ready for a major makeover or more likely, a complete tear down.
In the space between the two structures, Fireweed, Morning Glory and Alder keep cropping up and filling in the margins. Looking over the shoulder and back up the street – Kerry


Clark Drive, 1 block North of the Grandview Cut

It was late at night when I headed out, skirting the edges of the warehouse district just behind Venables. The streets were empty except for the occasional taxi cruising into or out of the depot at the far end of Vernon drive. And almost quiet. The only sound, beside the soft wash of light traffic up on Clark Drive, was the throb of an idling freight truck backed into a loading bay somewhere nearby.

The garland was a large one and I had it looped around and over me to keep it from dragging on the ground and picking up garbage. Moving through the murky puddles of light under street lamps and caught once in the glare of a pair of headlights, I must have looked like a cedar hedge shuffling off under the cover of darkness, trying to find somewhere else to take root.

I cut up onto Clark drive, where it climbs to become a ridge, just before the Grandview Cut. A long time ago, the tidal flats of False Creek would have come right up to the base of the slope. China Creek, on the other side of the Cut, was a natural ravine where all the streams in the area converged and drained into the salt marsh. The trees would have been alive with birds and the streams full of fish.

The ground is probably still pretty toxic from years of industry and dumping.Most of the flats is a landfill, soil that was excavated from up the hill to make the Grandview Cut and provide a base for the railway lines. During the Depression, in the scrub bush that's now covered with warehouses, there was a Hobo 'jungle', a camp for homeless people. China Creek became the City's first unofficial dump site and trash from it spilled down and out over the remaining marshlands. Up until recently, there were open pits and tunnels dug in the brush along the edges of the C.N. right of way. Collectors and scavengers sifted through the layers of junk and history looking for buried treasure. The City posted 'No Digging' signs and eventually the brush was cleared and the impromptu midden paved over. But some people still dig. And some still make shelters there.

Just over my shoulder, the Skytrain swooped past, windows strobing, illuminating me briefly as it banked and then squealed away into the night, heading towards Downtown. I tossed the garland onto the top of the chain link fence and then standing on an overturned plastic bucket that I found en route, draped the garland and tied it into place. Looking out through the darkness, across the flats and even further - Patricia.


Hastings and Princess

There used to be a row of tiny little houses, just shacks really, down from the corner, fronting right onto Princess. They were old, tilting at odd angles and held together mostly by layers and layers of paint. But someone always seemed to make a point of keeping the stoops clean and covered with pots of flowers and in summer, the doorways were usually festooned with climbing Scarlet Runner beans. One day the houses were emptied. They became immediately shoddier, got boarded up and then they were gone and the site became a gravel parking lot. Next door, right on the corner of Hastings were two old cafes, sitting side by side. One closed down, then the other and after the storefronts had sat vacant for a while, the gutted spaces were turned into a makeshift women's drop-in shelter. Then about a year ago, they were both knocked down and the whole corner lot was dug up and from the bottom of a big pit rose the concrete foundations and ramparts of what is going to be the new Union Gospel Mission Centre.

This Good Friday with darkness falling, the winds rising steadily and rain squalls battering the neighbourhood, I headed out to hang up another garland. Hastings was awash with tumbling umbrellas and sodden sleeping bags. Emptied garbage bags and wet blankets sailed down the middle of the street likes ghosts. The lineup for Easter dinner at the old UGM on Cordova stretched around the block and up into the alley and hugged the wall on the lee side of the new building site. As gale force winds tore sheets of plywood off billboard hoardings and tossed branches, bottles, pillows, paper plates, melon rinds, and backpacks through the air with equal ease, I pulled myself up onto the base of the scaffolding built out over the sidewalk and lashed the garland tightly to the side of the structure. Fluttering and snapping in the wind, like a pennant on the mast of a ship turned into the face of the storm - Jennifer.


Prior, after Dunlevy and before Malkin

Spring took a step backwards into winter last night. The air was very cold and my hands were awkward as I tied, untied and then re-tied the knots. I didn't realize until later, when I had gotten home, that reaching through the barbed wire had left deep gashes all up and down my forearms. Early next morning, on the other side of the fence - Sherry.


Powell, just before Oppenheimer Park

For the last few days the constant thudding of Olympic security helicopters over the neighbourhood has been getting on everyone's nerves. Late afternoon and the sky is filled with agitated gulls, the trees all around the park alive with restless crows. A local resident wanders up and down Powell telling himself over and over again - "They want to play their games, They can keep their FUCKING GAMES!" Last night, the street was full of cruising Police cars, empty of people and the uptown spotlights and the beams from the circling helicopters overhead looked a bit like the Northern Lights, but I avoided going out. Today, just before sunset, under the watchful eyes of many crows - Marnie.


Railway, just west of Jackson

The surrounding streets are filled w/ film trucks, the night sky crackles w/ walkie talkie chatter. The corner of Gore and Powell is lit up brighter than daytime. Police are posted at the mouths of all the nearby alleys and private security guards patrol the shadowed sidewalks, keeping an eye on the equipment. I slip an orange safety vest into my pocket, in case I have to pass myself off as a film crew roadie and head away from the noise of Hollywood North. Further along Railway, it starts to get quieter and the streets feel empty. Overlooking the docks, in a gap between the warehouses, there's a small stand of fir trees. Underneath them it's dark and deserted. Almost. The warning lights flickering on top of the shipping cranes shine down through the boughs like stars, softly illuminating - Mona.