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Surfing is Surfing:
an essay on Grant Shilling
by Clayton Webb
Don't Care What You Say
in the Woods
off Main Street
& Play & Adults
People, Vulture Culture & Cars
of the Fittest
Travel & the Dead
& Roll Road Kill, Kill, Kill!
Exile Off Main Street
by Grant Shilling
I like to walk near a swamp I discovered near my studio. I pick wildflowers
near the swamp and see birds whose names my friends teach me, or I know.
It is part of a familiar route I take almost daily to go from the east
side of Vancouver to the west. It is a break from and part of my routine.
A nature walk. And like all nature walks it is threatened with extinction.
Which is the least interesting thing about it.
The area behind the Pacific Central Terminal once was the eastern portion
of False Creek. The swamp I walk along is presumably ( with the exception
of the nearby swamp in Strathcona Community Gardens ) what remains of
the False Creek Mud Flats.
In 1918 the spacious ( but at the time commercially useless ) tidal
flats east of Westminster Ave. ( renamed Main Street that year ) were
filled in and had become the site of the CNR and Great Northern Railways
passengers stations, freight sheds and rail yards.
The original marsh lands and water surface of False Creek were reduced
in size by at least one third by the landfill project at the east end.
Too shallow for a skiff at high tide, the east flats were once habituated
by sturgeon, perch and carp. Along their shores were muskrats, porcupines,
chipmunks, flying squirrels, bats, moose, deer, moles and voles. In
the area I walk I have seen a pheasant, killdeer, a coyote, red wing
blackbirds and raccoons.
The area I walk along probably survived because it ran between two sets
of tracks. It is located behind the produce buildings on Malkin Ave.
and is distinguished by white birch and bullrushes.
The area I walk through is defined by the south end of Glenn Drive to
the east and to the west by Station Street, behind the terminal.
I took my friend Anne behind here and she told me, “You know,
it’s a funny thing, most developers and architects don’t
usually walk on the sites they develop.” A simple, extraordinary
apparent statement of fact. Anne’s boyfriend is involved in the
development of the site. Hmmmm.
My wish is to see the swamp remain.
The east and west entrances to the area are counter-balanced by the
activities of two men who dig. To the east, at the end of Glenn Drive,
is a man who brings a shovel, knapsack and lunch. A middle aged guy,
he wears a dirty toque, dirty flannel shirts, and yup, dirty suspenders.
He is here during working, busy produce terminal hours and on weekends.
I’ve seen other rail guys digging here, shirts off, looking like
convicts in a Cool Hand Luke movie. Digging holes as if a loader weren’t
invented. Digging holes is primitive work. I leave the man who digs
to it. It’s as if he is digging his own personal archeology; he
puts things in bags and labels them. Maybe he’s just nuts, but
I don’t think he is a developer.
On the west side a man digs on the corner of Atlantic and Malkin on
a hill. He works with a wheelbarrow and pitchfork and wears green gardening
pants, a ripped flannel shirt and a cap with thrush feathers in it.
The first time I saw this man work I couldn’t tell if he was doing
an artsy thing or not. But I decide I should leave him to it without
talking to him. There seemed to be some character to what he was doing
and he should be left alone.
The next day cutting through the swamp and coming out a hole in the
fence, I checked the work out.
He had cut bramble bush and put it in one pile and gathered tail pipes
and pans in another (this pile he made square and tight) the piles were
about five feet high and five feet around. In the middle of the auto
parts pile he put an actual “No Dumping City of Vancouver”
sign. The piles with the sign in them struck me as humorous conundrum.
(I still couldn’t tell if it was an artsy thing), but I knew it
would attract more garbage. A simple rule of garbage is that garbage
attracts more garbage. Which it did. The no dumping sign quickly had
an “H” spray painted over the D and so it read “No
Humping”, appropriate for this condom slick area.
The walk is all very Gordon Lightfoot-ey “ once was a time in
this fair land when the railroad did not run.” The events here
and my moving through them bring to mind another great (well, neat at
least) Canadian, Marshall McLuhan who has commented: “ It was
not until the advent of the telegraph that messages could travel faster
than a messenger. Before this, roads and the written word were closely
interrelated. The term ‘communication’ has had an extensive
use in connection with roads and bridges, sea routes, rivers and canals,
even before it became transformed into ‘information movement’
in the electric age.”
This makes me think of the architects and developers – or anybody-
who doesn’t walk through it all. Did you know car is a Celtic
word which means war chariot?
Anyway, my friend describes this site as a place where “wild everybodies”
live or travel through. He lived in a car on Malkin near this swamp
– at a cop’s suggestion. Living on, or above the road in
this neck of the woods, my friends felt that he was in the last true
public space in Vancouver. A public space which belonged to everybody
but not in an official supernatural-nowhere-BC-fun run-tourism brochure
kind of way. A place for those on the margins.
There seems to be a historical precedent for this. In the city archives
I found a 1918 photo with the cutline, Shacks on reclaimed eastern False
Creek flats, near city dump between Campbell and Heatley Avenues.”
In the last few weeks, three green tents and a big, white one (with
a General Paint, Rainbow People rainbow on it ) have sprung up on the
site where the Burlington Northern storehouses once were. Before the
Burlington Northern buildings were destroyed, they were squatted.
A few years ago I went to a Kitsilanoish meeting about making this area
into an artist/live/mortgage subdivision.
I guess the tent people here will be displaced like the Burlington Northern
squatters before them and Voila! Where there once was sturgeon will
soon be steel.
My friend thinks of this area as a “power spot” and romanticizes
the notion that the area near Malkin and Atlantic which sees many native
campers must have been home to natives. Actually, this doesn’t
appear to be the case.
There was the Squamish Indian Village of Snauq on the south shore of
Kitsalano Point, on a site directly under the Burrard Street Bridge.
Here, the Natives worked fish traps which had been maintained for centuries
on the nearby sandbar (Later Granville Island). The village had been
established early in the nineteenth century by Chief Chip-kay-m of an
Upper Squamish band to harvest the abundant food resources in the False
Creek basin. In 1880 about 50 people lived there in 12 dwellings.
Perhaps in choosing this Kitsilano site, the natives had a feeling for
the character of the eastern mudflats which were described in the very
un-native sounding Bartholomew Report in 1928 as; “dreary, unsanitary,
rat-infested wastes. Property values in residential and business districts
surrounding the creek, including the section of Main Street near the
expensive new Railway Terminal were declining. In short, while still
a valuable and active industrial waterway, False Creek--no longer on
the outskirts of the city, but nearly in its centre--posed a serious
East of the swamp hidden behind the produce buildings is an Atco trailer
that houses a fire department trainee site. Behind the Attco are long
40-foot piles of ashphalt which has been removed from streets in the
city and dumped here. It is soft and smells close to fresh paved asphalt.
The heat in the summer will bring that out.
If you walk along the hills of asphalt you get a ship captain’s
view of the city as you cast an eye west to the orange outlines of the
Below the asphalt and to its right are piles of sand with huge 10 foot
high by 10 foot wide steel doors framed by 2 X 10 boards. One set of
doors is open and is tunneled through the sand by circular plywood forms.
A six foot tall person could walk upright through there as I did. Sometimes
you can hear the sand shift around the forms as you walk and there are
little piles of sand which has accumulated from leaks in the forms.
It is an earth art sandbox with Province story disaster headline potential.
In front of the trailer are neatly arranged car and motorcycle wrecks;
an orange ‘70s, Ford Pinto with wood panelling, jacked up, without
hood, roof or windshield; two wasted motorcycles which look like horse
carcasses who have come a long distance to die; and a brown Chevy Nova
crushed into and under a water tank trailer-used for streets or fire
On the tracks themselves is a train wash contraption of steel and scrubber
The skeleton cars are arranged on two asphalt islands marked out by
curbs and a fire hydrant in the corner of both islands. Surrounding
the islands are paved roads. It looks like an American apocalyptic suburb-–sans
house, sans people--weed and rail isolation. Exile off Main Street.
East of the suburban apocalypse are piles of railway ties, steel warehouse
doors, cement sewers pipes and a cement trough, waist high that holds
water and offers a classical cement appearance.
Beyond this, further east toward the end of Glenn Drive are one ton
and five ton trucks and often executives in executive cars getting blow
jobs from young girls –-which always snaps me out of it; A collision
of the wasteland with the worlds oldest profession while a mouth gives
suck to the deaf flesh of hollow men--or something like that. Yucky
One day I sat on two tires in the middle of one of the asphalt islands
as an Amtrak train from Seattle pulled in behind me. The conductor leaned
out the train, was he looking at what I was looking at? What was I looking
at? The backwards lettering of the C I F I C A P L A R T N E C, the
rest a while rail park in front of the terminal with its deciduous trees
reminding me of the east and how I first came west on a train anachronism.
Which gives you the view of the land, the feel of the people, etc. A
cliché of beauty--not to be repeated?
What was I looking at? Time?
The conductor was leaning out from the train. Courteous, curious, looking
at me trying to see what I saw. We acknowledged each other with a look.
No smile, no wave, no Hey! Ho! Mr. Conductor man!
The passenger cars followed with their black sun reflective glass, flowers
in vases on the table and no passengers.
I follow the train to the terminal and as I exit through the fence at
Station Street. I notice a new sign: “Posted: No digging. Diggers
will be prosecuted.” Eventually I got to meet the digger at Atlantic
and Malkin. He was planning on planting some trees on the spot he worked.
He told me that he had attended a meeting with the Trillium (site developer)
people and “They didn’t even know about the swamp.”
All they have to do is walk over to see it.