Vancouver artist Stan Douglas reinterprets a violent street clash and
the early days of the Downtown Eastside's long decline
By Robin Laurence
December 30, 2009
An old guy with a bald head and grey beard is standing in the middle
of the Woodward's redevelopment. He's smoking a cigarette and looking
up at the huge photo mural on the glass wall that divides the site's
outdoor courtyard from its indoor atrium. "That's not a scene that
people in Vancouver want to remember," he declares.
The mural, created by internationally renowned Vancouver artist Stan
Douglas, reimagines aspects of the 1971 Gastown Riot. Also known as
"the Battle of Maple Tree Square", the riot occurred when city police
violently broke up a peaceful, pot-smoking demonstration on Water
Street. Douglas's monumental work, which bears the title Abbott &
Cordova, 7 August 1971, shifts the action a couple of blocks away
from the site of the "Smoke-In", as the crowds are forcefully
dispersed. It shows police officers in riot gear and on horseback in
scenes of confrontation with hippie youth while uninvolved others look on.
Was the old, bearded guy there? "Yeah," he says, "I was there." But
he's not about to disclose what role he played 38 years ago, whether
cop, hippie, local resident, or tourist. He throws his cigarette to
the ground, picks up his grocery bags, and walks away.
Whatever his actions or inactions in 1971, this fellow is wrong about
one thing: some Vancouverites do want to remember the scene, Douglas
foremost among them. And not for obvious reasons. Widely acclaimed
for his film, video, and photographic installations, he often uses
his art to probe unexamined elements of history, and to demonstrate
parallels between the past and the present moment.
At first glance, it looks as if Abbott & Cordova is about a violation
of human rights, framed by the clash of values between longhaired
members of the counterculture and baton-wielding defenders of the
establishment. What Douglas sees in the events he has depicted,
however, is one of those turning points that interest him. The riot
"was critical in changing the Downtown Eastside from what it was to
what it is today", he asserts.
He's sitting in his spare and spacious office, in his three-storey
studio building on Cordova Street, a few blocks east of the scene
depicted. Archival photos and test shots hang on his walls, as does a
print of Abbott & Cordova. The image, he emphasizes, "is about the
transition of that neighbourhood from one condition to another". It's
about the beginning of the decline of the Downtown Eastside. It's
also about how public space is used, and who controls it.
Douglas talks about the meanings and origins of the term skid row. He
recounts some of the mid-20th-century history of the area, which was
then home to working men, many of them employed in resource
industries. Loggers, fishers, and longshoremen, he says, lived in
single-resident-occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside, and
congregated in local bars and cafés.
"That was the general character of this neighbourhood up until the
'70s," Douglas says. "And suddenly…you started to have hippies coming
from 'hippie central' on 4th Avenue to the Downtown Eastside and
squatting in unused industrial buildings in Gastown."
Not only were these youth living in unsanctioned spaces, they were
also hanging out in local bars and, the police at the time charged,
dealing drugs. "They may have been," says Douglas, "I don't know. But
there was an intermingling of cultures, which I think was more of a
problem." Hippies were seen by local lawmakers and law enforcersand
especially by Vancouver's then-mayor, Tom Campbellas being
dangerously anti-establishment. Highly threatening to the status quo.
That hippie-hating mayor also loathed the Georgia Straight in its
early days, considering it, as Dave Watson once wrote in this paper,
"a scurrilous left-wing rag". From the Straight's founding in 1967,
Watson reported, its creators were slapped with multiple charges of
obscenity, libel, loitering, gross misconduct, and "inciting to
commit an indictable offense" (for an article on growing marijuana).
Straight writers actively promoted the Smoke-In in Maple Tree Square
as a way to protest the city's use of undercover narcs to crack down
on hippie dope dealers in the Gastown areaand to advocate the
legalization of marijuana. They couldn't have anticipated the
consequences of what was to have been a peaceful event.
After the cops so violently busted up the demonstrationbeating
protesters, charging crowds on horseback, arresting dozens of
peoplea commission of inquiry was called. "The police were
reprimanded for getting out of control," Douglas says. But perhaps a
more significant outcome of the riot was that the city subsequently
zoned Gastown as a strictly commercial district, banning residential
use there. "If this neighbourhood had been allowed to have a
mixed-use designation, with people living there, I believe it would
have a very different character," he says. Instead, it has been in
decline for more than three decades.
It's a decline that the Woodward's redevelopment seeks to redress.
Within its reconfigured block of low buildings and soaring towers,
there are or will be both market and nonmarket housing, retail and
food outlets, offices, a bank, a childcare centre, an art gallery,
and Simon Fraser University's School for the Contemporary Arts.
Designed by architect Gregory Henriquez and developed by Ian
Gillespie, it's an enormous social experiment. How Douglas's
controversial mural, which is to be officially launched on January
15, will play there is yet to be seen.
If the bearded guy with the grocery bags is any indication, the work
will generate some controversy, perplexity, perhaps even anger.
Douglas cites some of the provocative, history-based, public artworks
produced by the Mexican muralist painters of the early 20th century.
Then he says, "In the last few decades, murals have tended to be
affirmative things." They've been designed to celebrate communities
and places, not critique aspects of the inequitable past. Douglas
sighs. "In a way, I've returned to this idea of historical memory,
because in my opinion, this event was crucial."