Why does heritage matter?

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Local authors and historians explain why Heritage Week is important to Vancouver

By Monica Miller

Gastown and Strathcona are the areas that come to mind when someone says “historical neighbourhoods,” but civic historian and author John Atkin insists there is a lot of history and stories in vernacular buildings, not just the iconic. Atkin prefers to explore the city on foot, showing others interesting and offbeat architecture on his Walking Tours.

His appreciation for quirky houses that creak and groan, “houses that have a past life,” is evident when speaking with him, and his background in urban planning, development and architecture meld together effortlessly.

Each province celebrates Heritage Week in a different way to coincide with national Heritage Day on the third Monday in February. Communities are encouraged to celebrate heritage in partnership with other local groups and organizations, host special events, and connect in new ways to the annual theme. Heritage Week in BC is celebrated the third week of February, and each year Heritage BC determines a new theme. This year’s event falls on Feb. 18–24 with the theme “Good Neighbours: Heritage Homes and Neighbourhoods” to celebrate with community building events.

Events are planned in various communities throughout the province, and several are offered through Heritage BC, the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, and in conjunction with other historical groups in the Lower Mainland. Michael Kluckner, a local artist and author, emphasizes that the current pressure to increase density and redevelop is putting extreme pressure on Vancouver’s visual landscape. In our grandparents’ era, they lived in the same community as they worked, then 50 years ago, the W.A.C. Bennet government took the tolls off the local bridges and families could live the Fraser Valley dream and commute to downtown Vancouver. For half a century, this mentality has been pushed to a breaking point, and tolls are now returning to the local bridges.

Kluckner stresses the need for accountability to the landscape and our culture, to push for modest housing sizes in compact communities. He is attracted to the way history and landscapes intersect — how history is told by the landscape — visually more than narratively. Vancouver is rapidly expanding, and both Kluckner and Atkin question the city’s commitment to sustainability and the “Greenest City 2020” initiative in light of the rapid development and the business-minded focus of our municipal government.

“We can’t tear it down and rebuild every generation,” states Kluckner, “The city seems to want to tear one building down for every one that it builds.” He cites Van-Dusen Gardens as a prime example. He is helping to organize a weather-dependent artisan-style flashmob to raise awareness about the Education Centre tucked away in a back corner at VanDusen Gardens. “It has lovely mid-century modern architecture,” gushes Kluckner, who hopes to have a panel discussion about how this building can fit into Vancouver’s current art and cultural spaces.

With the loss of Pantages Theatre, and the recent demise of the Waldorf and Playhouse, re-imagining these significant cultural spaces is important. “We want to attract media attention and get people interested, inspired and involved in this beautiful but forgotten piece of history,” explains Kluckner. There is a connection between our heritage and our reuse of buildings environmentally.

“We can’t just build toward sustainability,” states Kluckner. Preserving and fixing up older structures will encourage sustainable environments and create heritage for future generations — “blend the old and the new as the city matures.” Atkin notes that part of the problem is that the bureaucratic process and severe building codes means that we’re not a conservation culture: “There is a lot of material going into the landfill,” Atkin explains. Unfortunately here in Vancouver, often the land value is more important than the buildings themselves, and the older buildings get demolished. If the city keeps tearing down houses that are “only” from 1910, we could have no century.

The relatively young age of the city is a factor in heritage preservation too. The first nonnative settlement in Vancouver was a mere 150 years ago, and when compared to a city such as Montreal, which is close to 400 years old, Vancouver’s heritage gets lost in this idea that we’re not an “old enough” city.

“We need to find a compromise,” Atkin affirms. Kluckner cites Seoul as a worst-case scenario; the city expanded rapidly and demolished older buildings instead of putting in the time and effort to maintain them, and has been left without any early monuments of their history.

Vancouver’s older homes and buildings don’t need to be maintained as immaculate tributes to a bygone era; Atkin feels those pristine buildings have “lost all their attitude” and reinventing and converting older buildings is more sustainable. Michael points out the example of Vancouver Specials, an architectural style of home that has experienced resurgence as young people convert and update them for a new era of families.

John leads one walking tour focusing on Vancouver Specials in the Fraserview area between Victoria Drive and Fraser Street, from 49th Avenue to Southwest Marine Drive. The whole purpose is to get people to look at and examine the neighbourhood from a different angle than they’re used to. Fraserview isn’t a commonly cited “historical” area, but with Atkin leading, tour attendees have to pay attention and observe the nuances and personality of different areas. He emphasizes that these “common” buildings are markers in our city that speak to different eras and are reminders of the past. If we don’t preserve them, they could soon disappear.