The VHS Speech

I had a great time last night delivering the Vancouver Historical Society’s monthly lecture.  It was standing room only and I really want to thank everyone who came out for it. Thanks!

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Review of “The Drive”

BC Studies has published a review of “The Drive.”

On the morning of April 8, 1949, a nattily-dressed crook named Robert Harrison visited the Bank of Commerce at the corner of First Avenue and Commercial Drive and relieved it of $3,000. Armed with a 9mm pistol, the agitated Harrison sprayed the interior of the bank with gunfire, wounding the manager and an accountant. Stepping back into the street, he was making his escape using a young boy as a human shield when Constable Cecil Paul, a member of the Vancouver Police Force assigned to the motorcycle squad, dropped him with one shot to the middle of the forehead.

This scene does not conform to our modern image of Commercial Drive as a place where progressive politics, ethnic diversity, and coffee-drenched hipness converge. But it is clear from Jak King’s excellent history of the Drive, that in its origins the neighbourhood was a much different place than it is today, much more Main Street  (and occasionally Mean Street) than arty bohemia.

The Drive began to take shape as a distinct neighbourhood with the arrival in 1891 of the interurban streetcar line linking New Westminster to Vancouver. There was a stop at Largen’s Corner (Venables and Glen) and a scattering of houses appeared. Development was stalled by the economic downturn of the 1890s but resumed its steady pace during the boomtime that preceded the Great War until by the time King picks up the story in 1935 the area was a settled neighbourhood with its own identity in the constellation of Vancouver “suburbs”.

The book’s subtitle promises retail, social and political history and King delivers on all three. His encyclopaedic cataloguing of every storefront between Venables and Seventh Avenue may try the patience of some readers, but generally he keeps the story moving at a brisk pace. The social is epitomized by the Grandview Lawn Bowling Association, whose greens were at Victoria Park. Among its members, the Club counted everybody who was anybody in Grandview. It was the glue, remarks King, that kept the local elite together.

As for the political, King argues that the good burghers of The Drive invented a master narrative to get the improvements they needed for their neighbourhood. According to this narrative, Grandview was the victim of discrimination on the part of the City Fathers who habitually neglected the needs of the east side in favour of the downtown and the west side. “They positioned Grandview as the neglected colony of the indifferent Vancouver empire,” writes King, “and pitched their demands as requests for deserved equal treatment.” King does not always agree with this point of view but he argues that it usually worked, especially when it came to obtaining important communications links to the downtown.

King explores several subjects that impact the larger city. To take an example, now that the future of the viaducts has come up for debate, it is interesting to read about the role that Commercial Drive boosters played in the planning of the First Avenue Viaduct in the 1930s. As well, King’s description of the end of the ward system, abolished by the voters at the end of 1935, adds useful background to another perennial debate in the city.

The Drive is the first of a projected series of books about the neighbourhood. If this one is anything to go by, residents of the area are lucky to have found such an intelligent and entertaining guide as Jak King.

Many thanks, folks. I appreciate it!

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Early Morning Radio Date

In advance of my talk for the Vancouver Historical Society tomorrow (Thursday) evening, I am being interviewed on CBC Radio 1 at 8:15 tomorrow morning by Rick Cluff for the Early Edition.

I’ll be giving away a copy of the “Encyclopedia of Commercial Drive to 1999” as part of the show.

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The Books Have Arrived!

Bravo to our printers — the first run copies of “The Encyclopedia of Commercial Drive” have arrived!

That means we will definitely have copies available for the Vancouver Historical Society talk on 26th January.  It also means I will happily take orders via and, I believe, Amazon will start making them available online this week.

The official launch is February 6th and we’ll make the formal announcement at that time.

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Waiting … Waiting …

We are waiting for the final proof copy of “The Encyclopedia of Commercial Drive” to be dropped on our doorstep by UPS. Today? Tomorrow? Waiting … waiting.  As soon as we get it and approve it we can push the button for the publication printing.

We are confident about having books for the February 6th launch date, but we would love to have at least a few pre-pub copies for our lecture at the Vancouver Historical Society on the 26th.  That’s why we are keeping a sharp lookout for the UPS guy.

Waiting … waiting.

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Final Touches

A few days before Christmas, and just six weeks before “The Encyclopedia of Commercial Drive” is published, we are rushing around with all the final details: proof-reading; last-minute fact-checking, finalizing the cover design; scheduling proofs and print runs — and trying to fit Christmas shopping in between everything else. It’s hectic!

But we love the end result!


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Release Date: “The Encyclopedia”

With the proof copy in hand, we can now announce a firm date for the publication of “The Encyclopedia of Commercial Drive to 1999”. The book will be released on Monday 6th February, 2012.

The physical environment of the Drive, the streets and buildings, are important elements of our neighbourhood, but they cannot compete in importance with the people and the companies that have lived their lives on the Drive. Collected from every available public directory and with substantial additional material from newspapers and memoirs, there are more than 11,000 biographical entries in “The Encyclopedia” covering about 15,000 people and businesses. The volume weighs in at 584 pages and will retail at $40.

We hope to have some pre-publication copies available for Jak’s evening with the Vancouver Historical Society at the Museum of Vancouver on 26th January 2012. It’s worth marking the date on your calendar!

This is the second in Jak King’s four-volume series on the history of Commercial Drive. The third volume, “A Biography of Buildings” is scheduled for publication at the end of 2012.


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The Brandon Block Moves!

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the Brandon Block — that most elegant wide building on the west side of Commercial between First and Second — is damaged and it appears the owners are going through a serious rescue effort. But this is not the first time the building has faced an issue.

Back in 1913, City Council decided to widen Commercial Drive south of First Avenue (you may have noticed that the north end of Commercial is more “intimate” than the south with two lanes less traffic). To achieve the width they wanted, a number of pre-existing buildings had to be moved; in August 1913 it was the turn of the Brandon Block (as reported by the Vancouver World on 15 August 1913):

“Complete success attended the moving back of the large two-storey brick building on Commercial Drive, between First and Second Avenues, which undertaking was carried out this morning in connection with the Commercial Drive widening scheme.

This was the first time that such a thing had been attempted locally and the task was watched by a large crowd of interested onlookers. The structure contained three stores on the ground floor and seven suites of apartments on the upper floor. Many of the latter were occupied during the time of the setting back of the building, but so gently was the work carried out that the movement was all but imperceptible.

The building weighed, at a careful estimate, 550 tons, and the whole of it, from the very foundation, was set back seven feet. During the operation, the water supply and the sewerage system was not interfered with for a moment, the occupants of the apartments being able to continue their domestic duties without let or hindrance.”

That would have been amazing to watch!

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Getting To Know You

One of the really great things about being a full-time historian of the neighbourhood is the opportunity I get to meet people with fascinating stories to tell; folks who have lived here forty, fifty, sixty years and more, and others who have access to interesting material.

This last couple of weeks has been particularly fruitful and I feel honoured to be welcomed by these older residents into the world of their memories.



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Updated Release Schedules

We had hoped to publish “The Encyclopedia of Commercial Drive” in October. this month.  However — for the best of reasons — we have had to delay that release date and we now hope to publish at the end of January or the beginning of February.

Part of the reason for the delay is that we have become involved in the Story Gallery Festival, in preparation for my Vancouver History Society speech in January, and in matters concerning the Grandview Heritage Group. More importantly, though, and on the positive side, is that we keep finding new sources of data for the “Encyclopedia” — and, if it is to be encyclopedic, these new resources have to be incorporated.

This delay in the publication of “The Encyclopedia” will, of course, also push the date for “The Biography of Buildings” until later in 2012.

Hang in there:  we are slower than expected but the resulting books will be so much better!

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