The b-sides of Vancouver

CMYK-Moon Glow Cabaret 331 East Georgia 1960s

When Vancouver Was Awesome first made its way onto my desk, a couple of questions immediately formed: 1) Are they implying that Vancouver is no longer awesome, that we have done something to it to make it no longer as great as it once was? And,  2) why is it that no other city has ever had to try so hard to prove its awesomeness?

The coffee table book — part historical account, part celebratory tome — is authored by Lani Russwurm, writer and regular contributor for the blog by the similar name, Vancouver Is Awesome. In a forward, VIA founder Bob Kronbauer recounts the driving force of the blog, and its subsequent offshoot, Vancouver Was Awesome: “The rules were simple . . . only post stories about what makes Vancouver awesome.”

The manageable 159-page account is separated into three chapters, distinguished by particular moments of historical importance in Vancouver: “The Wild Old West: 1910 and Earlier,” “Terminal City: 1911 – 1939,” and “Modern Times: 1940 – 1972.”

Though framed by Vancouver’s vivacious but short timeline, the photographs and stories are a mixed grab-bag, or, as described by Russwurm, “a mix-tape approach to history.” Defining historical events, like the arrival of George Vancouver, are bookended by “B-sides,” like “The Wreck of the Beaver,” a tugboat that was grounded, and eventually sunk, by its drunk crew in 1888. The British Columbia Archives, City of Vancouver Archives, and CBC — among other notable organizations — have helped supply archival material to accompany the stories, bringing history to life on each page.

What Vancouver Was Awesome does well is create accessible, bite-size content for those who think 150 years is too short for an awesome history to emerge.

The second chapter does a particularly good job of illuminating the little-known and short-lived jazz age of Vancouver, creating a narrative that starts with the implementation of prohibition in 1917 and runs into a detailed account of the Patricia Cabaret’s boasting of “Real Jazz Band Music.”

The following pages feature black and white photos of Jelly Roll Morton and Ada “Bricktop” Smith. Jelly Roll played at the Patricia on occasion, and later returned to form the house-band for Patty Sullivan’s club on 768 Granville Street; and Ada spent two years performing in Vancouver before establishing, with the help of Cole Porter, the famous Chez Bricktop in Paris.

The book is peppered with such accounts of celebrity, but is not bogged down by it; these details — from Charlie Chaplin’s visit to the Orpheum Theatre in 1911 to Hunter S. Thompson’s appeal to write for the Vancouver Sun in 1958 — illustrate a city drawing the world into its own slowly-forming identity — one that is still in the works.

It is not a comprehensive history, but what Vancouver Was Awesome does well is create accessible, bite-size content for those who think 150 years is too short for an awesome history to emerge. Russwurm is aware of the metropolitan city’s controversial past, and does a good job of noting the kind of subtleties long ignored by history books: the long-time establishment of Musqueam and Squamish communities, the razing of Hogan’s Alley (Vancouver’s black neighbourhood) by the construction of the Georgia Viaduct, and the efforts of workers on the On to Ottawa Trek with the theme of “Work and Wages.”

The book, visually and narratively mapped like a patchwork of emerging moments, mimics the very city it represents: richly diverse, eclectic, contradictory, and determined — it is a box of forgotten photographs under your grandfather’s bed, a postcard tucked away in a dusty memoir. In an age of rapid gentrification and rising real-estate prices, Vancouver Was Awesome asks us to grapple with what we had and what we might have done instead; it defiantly proclaims awesomeness, then and now, despite the naysayers.

And that’s pretty awesome.

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