Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Lighting of the "W"

There's a neighborhood in Vancouver which is kind of infamous. It's called the downtown east side (or DTES), and it has been the subject of many a news story, documentary, and, sadly, a source of fear for thousands of people who don't live or work there. The corner of Main and Hastings is the poorest postal code in Canada and the neighborhood is the site of huge poverty, a huge drug trade and a huge amount of homelessness.

It's also home to thousands of people who DO live there. At it's heart, there's a strong community and a lot of good will. There are churches that open their doors 24/7 to offer people a warm pew for the night and a place to shower. There's a community centre with a library, and chess boards, and art classes, and an inexpensive cafeteria. There are housing co-ops and community banks and art galleries and a theatre.

And there's the site of a famous former Canadian west coast department store called Woodward's which closed it's doors in the 80's. The historic building was constructed in 1903 when this area was the heart of Vancouver's shopping district. Woodward's was well known for its Christmas window displays, and the basement food floor or supermarket. The revolving W sign at the top of the building was a famous Vancouver landmark. Woodward's went bankrupt in the 90's and the building became vacant, and then the home to many squatters.

After the closure of Woodward's, the site became a huge source of controversy as people debated how best to use that slice of turf. While many saw the potential redevelopment as a step towards revitalizing the neighborhood, many thought a commercial endeavor was a mistake. Some thought it should have simply been turned into subsidized housing, and some thought it shouldn't be turned into residences at all. In the face of the controversy, a decision was made to erect a tower containing condos, as well as subsidized housing. There was also an office tower that would be home to a handful of not-for-profit organizations, as well as some government offices, including The National Film Board of Canada. And there are retail spaces including London Drugs and Nester's Food Store. There's a big atrium, which I believe will serve as a public gathering space, and the atrium is framed by a huge photo installation by Stan Douglas depicting the Gastown riots of 1971. A replica of the "W" was erected a week ago, and on Friday night, they threw open the doors and invited people out for the official "lighting of the W".

The press were there. And they were busy.

The Carnival Band were out in full, fun force.

The atrium was a-hoppin' as folks congregated under the amazing artwork by Stan Douglas.

And the band played on. (I love the lines in this photograph. How kind of them to work on the diagonal for me!)

Lookit all those cameras! Lights! And action!

We all look skyward in the moments before the lights are switched on.

And finally, the "W" was lit. Re-made with energy efficient LED lights, I hope it is a hopeful sign of times to come.


  1. hey t, thanks for the great pics and commentary.

    weird though. just watched golden globe highlights on a blog.

    seems like experiencing goings-on via blog posts is rivaling actually experiencing goings-on.

    hmmm. not sure this is good.

  2. Thanks for posting this - I had intended to be there in person (and then to go to the Jelly Roll Morton tribute at Pat's Pub - another piece of great DTES history), but plans were thwarteded by a migraine, so happy I can get a sense of it through your always fab photos. Can't wait to go check it all out in person.