Princess, just off Powell

The project ends with the name it all began with. I can't really say that I knew her, but for a long time, I used to see her almost every day. And then one day, I didn't see her ever again.

The first time we met it was dusk, almost dark and I'd been combing the alleys behind Hastings Street looking for scrap lumber, abandoned clothes and other interesting bits and pieces (i.e. art materials) and I stumbled out of the alley with a load of stuff on my back and abruptly turned the corner on to Pender and almost collided with her. She'd been coming around the corner from the other direction and was as lost in her world as I was in mine, and suddenly there we were, staring at each other, face to face, frozen under the glare of the corner streetlamp.

We both gasped aloud and for half a second, we thought we were going to turn right around and disappear back the way we'd come from, but instead, we stood still in our tracks, just quietly looking at each other and then she broke the awkward silence with a giggle and the biggest smile I'd seen in a long, long time. We said a tentative hello and then she bounded off around the corner and disappeared into the twilight, like a deer slipping into the forest.

Whenever we'd meet after that, passing on Hastings or wandering along the fringes of Chinatown, we'd say hi and maybe share a few words. She'd wonder about the backpacks full of junk I'd be carrying, I'd comment on her outfit or compliment the current stuffed animal she'd have clutched under her arm and we both probably looked a little strange to anyone zipping past us on the bus, but that didn't matter. What mattered was that for a minute or two we were not alone anymore in our own worlds, we'd accepted each other's presence and the street was not such an empty or challenging place. Our lives were connected in a very simple way; we were neighbours. There were days when she looked lost or disturbed by things that only she could see and there were days when it was all I could do to catch or hold on to another person's gaze, but every time we bumped into each other, her face would break into that huge, beautiful smile, which would stay with me for the rest of the day.

All this was years ago, when my studio was down on Cordova and I spent a good part of each day walking back and forth through the neighbourhood, searching the backstreets for supplies, going to Army and Navy for dollar packs of hardware or the old Save-On-Meats for day old bread. My new studio space is up off Powell Street now and I still spend a fair amount of time wandering the nearby alleys, looking for more odds and ends or just looking and remembering.

It took too many years to find out what happened to her and it will take a long, long time to accept the way she was found.

Across the street from my old studio space, there's now a stack of condos, a wedding shop, a salon/day spa and a designer clothing boutique and right next door, is a fancy Italian restaurant. Army and Navy is still Army and Navy and Save-On-Meats has re-opened and seems to be trying to bridge the gap between the old and the new phases of the neigbourhood, but some things about the area have changed forever. And some people are still missing.

I've put off writing this for a couple months now, it's been hard to figure out what to say or how to sum things up. With this post, the Evergreen project is officially complete and while I'm hoping that people will keep stumbling upon the site and remembering the names, I know that sooner or later, traffic will drop off and people will stop looking for new garlands or stop seeing the ones that are out there still. As the Downtown Eastside continues to be developed and the area keeps changing, some feelings will fade, it's inevitable, and there will be new people, moving into the neighbourhood, who don't know or want to know about a past they haven't been a part of and I suppose there's no way around that either. But in doing this project, I've also learned that there are a lot of people who won't forget, people who cared for and still care for those who are missing and many people who are working hard to make sure that what happened, never happens again.

It took me a long time to install the last garland. I wanted to find the perfect spot, somewhere that represented everything that Evergreen was about. I searched the neighbourhood for a long time, looked everywhere, but in the end, I hung the garland somewhere close to me. It's in a place where I see it almost every day and each time I walk past the garland, I remember her big smile and hear her voice in my head and I speak her name aloud - Angela.


Main, between Terminal and Industrial

About 10 years ago, when I first noticed this lot being put up for sale, the real estate signage bolted to the fence claimed that this stretch of Main Street received exposure to over 50,000 cars a day. That's a lot of traffic. I remember thinking at the time, that the number seemed incredibly high, but the site was a car lot, so I figured somebody must have known what they were talking about. I imagined that if you added in the occasional carpool passenger and factored in all the commuters packed onto buses, wandering pedestrians and the occasional, virtuous cyclist, you'd have, what, a total of 75,000 sets of eyes passing by that spot every day? That's a lot of witnesses.

Behind the lot and across Quebec Street there used to be a large patch of scrubland, which concealed a number of modest living structures; a refuge for old timers who combed the shores of False Creek and migrated back and forth between the bush and the McDonald's on the corner of Main and Terminal. A number of warehouses and manufacturers were still in full swing and the city works yard underneath the Cambie Street Bridge, kept a steady flow of dump trucks and garbage trucks rumbling along 2nd Avenue during the day. At night, women worked in the deserted industrial areas just off Main and the residential alleys that sloped down towards the foot of Mount Pleasant.

Gradually the scrubland got cleaned out and paved and over the next few years the area was used as a pit stop for the Indy, an impromptu in-line skate park, a gathering place for Dragon Boat races and a location shoot for various film productions. Construction cranes started to dot the surrounding skyline and before long most of the remaining industry between 2nd Avenue and False Creek was squeezed out or trickled away. Access to the water was almost completely closed off and for a long time there wasn't much more to the area than a fenced in bike path running the gauntlet of excavators and soil remediation equipment. As towers and box stores began to take shape in the near distance and as the city got ready to invite the world to the Winter Olympics, a narrow strip of the foreshore was replanted with indigenous species to mimic the area's original ecology, rehabilitated with boardwalks, promenades and public art and reopened, this time as a designated green space.

Cut to the last few years, with the Downtown Eastside becoming a gentrification hotspot and more and more people funneling up Main Street and into the old city core to eat, party and live and you could maybe plan on somewhere around a 125,000 people a day passing by that identical place? That's a lot of bodies.

It was towards the end of March, when I hung the garland up on the car lot fence. It was the second last garland of the Evergreen project and the second garland I'd made for this particular name; the other one was placed on another fence, in another location, for a different person, but for the same reason. I considered the new traffic numbers and I wondered how many other people would share the name I'd spelled out and what were the odds now that anyone passing by would have known the person the garland was made for?

The car lot changed hands, was emptied, re-opened, scaled down, subdivided and despite a brief spell as a Winter Olympic transport depot, just over a year ago, it's now vacant again, though some new on-site signage hints at a major real estate development coming soon. Residential, Retail, Industrial. Not far away, beside a re-tweaked False Creek, the post-Olympic Village is starting to fill up and every day the lower slopes of Mount Pleasant become pitted and dotted with more holes and the hoardings that signify new condos.

Given this latest round of activity, I'm willing to bet you could now bump up the daily drive by figures for the car lot fence to at least 150, 000 a day. Which would mean that even though this one particular garland only stayed up for about 3 1/2 weeks, say 25 days, it's possible that some 3,750,00 people got a chance to read the name. That seems incredible to me.

And I guess, by extrapolation, you could say that, averaging it all out, in the 10 or so years that the fate of this one car lot has been in question, roughly 270 million pairs of eyes passed by this very same spot, while not that far away, in the neighbourhood just up the road, more than 60 women went missing. I find those figures and what they imply more than incredible, they're hard to contemplate, especially since one of those pairs of eyes was mine.

So many people passing through such a small piece of real estate. So many potential witnesses, victims or innocent bystanders. So many names. So much hope and growth and change, so many things abandoned, repurposed or still waiting to be reclaimed. So many friends and strangers and people we wish we could have known and only one who was exactly like - Andrea.


Just east of Clark Drive, below 6th Ave.

I squeeze past the fence and drop down under the bridge and onto the slope of the Grandview Cut. It's early evening, New Year's Eve, a few hours before the fireworks and cheering, the resolutions and regrets. The night air is hushed and the traffic up on Clark Drive is light and I hope that no one can see me as I trip over a patch of blackberries and go shooting down the steep incline, the frozen, matted grass making a perfect toboggan path, hurtling me towards the edge.

I manage to grab hold of the branches of some young evergreens and stop myself from disappearing into the darkness. I find my feet and then start angling my way further down the slope, cautiously moving from tree to tree, until I reach the fence that clings to the edge of the man-made ravine. It takes me a little while to untangle the garland, pull out the twigs and dead leaves that have got caught up in the letters during my tumble downhill, but then it goes up quickly and afterwards, I sit for a few minutes on the edge of the drop, catching my breath and listening for the sounds of the old year ebbing away.

When I started Evergreen, over a year ago, I thought the project would go faster and I hoped I'd be able to keep some distance from the tangle of emotions and politics that surrounds the tragedy. But of course, things turned out differently. The more carefully I considered everything that I was doing, the more time I needed to take and the more I had to feel.

The construction of each garland couldn't be rushed, the process became a kind of meditation on the identity and the absence of the individual behind each name. A personal one, bound up with the makings of my own identity and woven together with some of my own losses. Each name needed to be fully honoured, each spot, that the garland would eventually occupy, had to be carefully sought out. Some spaces, after long consideration, just weren't right, other places revealed themselves in an instant, seemed to call out to me as I walked through the streets, searching. For whatever length of time each garland stayed up, I imagined that the marginal space it adorned seemed a little less neglected, not entirely abandoned. And every time a garland disappeared, the sadness and sense of outrage I felt, for the loss of the person behind the name, got deeper.

While the project I've set out to do is almost complete, with only two more garlands to install, two more names to acknowledge, you and I both know that there's a lot of other work that needs to be done, many more names that need remembering. But for now, this is all I can do.

I look out and across the darkness and catch a brief glimpse of nearly empty train cars flashing by on the other side; it seems that almost everyone is already where they want to be on this last night of the year. The air is getting colder, I can see my breath and I'm stiff from sitting on the frozen ground. I pull myself carefully back up the slope and head off to ring in another year.

Much later, in the first tentative hours of 2011, I'm riding in the back of the Knight St. bus, heading along Clark and as it passes over the Grandview Cut, I look over my shoulder and out the window, but can't see anything, just flickering streetlights and the dark outlines of silhouetted evergreens.

This garland is placed in a pretty secluded spot, it almost feels like a private space, even though it's on the edge of a number of very public thoroughfares. But I know it's there and now, you know too. It may be hard to read the name through the trees, especially in Spring, when things start growing again, but you might catch a glimpse of it one day, when you sail by on the Skytrain and look down, just past the giant cross, on the other side of Clark, where the road spans the ravine. Or you might not, the garland may be long gone by the time you read this. But the name will never disappear, from one year to another it will always be - Dianne.


Terminal and Western, just behind Main.

Another vacant lot, quarantined, waiting for the past to leach away. Another cold morning, black sky threatening snow. It's the day before Christmas Eve and I'm up early, way before dawn and on my way to work. I pass the spot where Kerry was and the corner where Cara used to be. I move past Inga, whose almost gone now, see Debra and then cut across National and over to Station Street, not far from where Cynthia still is. And all the way along, I walk past women whose names I don't know, still at work in the shadows.

Just over a year ago, the first garland with this same name appeared. It was only the second garland that I'd installed and it stayed up throughout the winter and spring and right into early summer, before it disappeared.

I cut through the darkness of Thornton Park and look across to the lights on Main Street and see silhouetted figures, huddled under the arcade next to the Skytrain station. Men in small groups, moving in and out of the shadows, smoking and spitting, waiting for the temporary labour office to open and daybreak and other kinds of work.

As lone commuters trickle off buses and stumble towards the station, I creep across Terminal and sidle up to the fenced off lot that backs onto Western Street. Bristling green strips of PVC, probably the same material that's used to make the garlands, are threaded through the chain link, screening three sides of the lot from view, though there's really nothing left in it to see. The side that faces away from Main is uncovered and headlights from the first few cars coming up Terminal seem to flick over and past me and peer into the void of the deserted lot for a second or two, before quickly glancing away. The garland goes up fast and the lot no longer feels quite so empty. I take a couple of hurried photos and then rush off to catch the first Skytrain for my last day of work before the holiday.

A week later, at dusk on the day after New Years, I'm on my way home from work and I look down from the station platform, into the lot across the street and the garland is no longer there.

The holidays are over, another year has passed, seasons and other people have come and gone. More abandoned spaces, other names that need to be remembered and another empty place, where I'll always look and expect to see another - Heather.