Cranky crows are common in Ambleside. When we first arrive at our apartment on the seventh floor overlooking the outer Vancouver harbour, we pull the drapes, slide open the window to the balcony and step outside to enjoy the view. Inevitably, there are one or two crows sitting on the banisters, squawking wildly because we have invaded their domain. Obviously, in our absence, they have taken to using our balcony as an observation post over the neighbourhood.
Last year we noticed what we thought was an owl on the balcony of an opposite apartment. We were totally intrigued until, with the help of binoculars, we realized that the “owl” was one of those fake birds people put out to deter pigeons, seagulls and, undoubtedly, crows.
This year, we are developing a curious relationship with the crows that come to visit our balcony. They have become increasingly bold the longer we have been here. Now they sit on the banisters even when we are on the balcony, often two at a time, cawing at each other. They seem to have no fear of us whatsoever, quite willing to carry on their conversations as we watch inches away. They jump onto our chairs and walk around on our floor almost, but not quite, approaching the door.
When I watch closely, I have observed that they are attracted to the green plastic wires which attach our Christmas lights to the balcony all year round. And then I noticed that they can spot scraps of food on the floor which I had not even seen. Of course. We eat on our balcony regularly, usually three meals a day, and our crumbs are probably inevitable. Trust the crows to show us what sloppy housekeepers we are.
A crow is a crow is a crow, and we have no idea if these are the same crows that come visiting daily, or whether our balcony is just a popular way-by on the local community route. Whatever. We are enchanted by them, and think of them as pets. In the first year of our marriage, my husband said we should have a bird. He knew nothing about birds, but put out the suggestion to counter my desire to get a kitten. It has taken nearly 45 years of marriage and we finally have our pet bird. And it’s not one, but several crows. Who would have thunk it?
Today would have been my father’s birthday. He was a bird lover who kept a fully stocked bird feeder hanging from his clothesline to watch from the kitchen window. It provided endless pleasure for years. He would have liked this post.
As several readers are planning visits to Vancouver this spring and summer, I have decided to do a series of posts on sights to see in the city.
If one only has a couple of days to spend, a second priority should be Granville Island, in False Creek, under the south end of the Granville Street Bridge. False Creek is the large inlet which runs from English Bay under the Burrard Street Bridge, the Granville Street Bridge, and then the Cambie Street bridge, east to the Olympic Village and the Science Centre. Formerly the site of sawmills, railway yards, and hundreds of small businesses serving the maritime, forest and fishing industries, the area became a derelict brown land and a blight upon the city. In the 1970’s, with local leadership and federal funding, Granville Island was reclaimed to what it is today. Among other things, it became the heart of multiple urban renewal projects featuring a mix of low-rise housing, houseboats, co-operatives, condos and public housing on the south side of the inlet, and tall high-rises on the north side on what had been the site of the Expo 1986 World’s Fair. This north shore of False Creek, around David Lam Park and the Roundhouse Community Centre, is Yaletown, all new in the last twenty odd years. False Creek has its own seawall which provides ample scope for meandering along the water beside the parks, gardens, sculptures, townhouses and high-rises which make up this vibrant core of the city.
At the heart of False Creek is Granville Island, which retains the original machine shop and concrete plant of times gone by, and many of the original buildings. Now it houses a thriving community of craft studios, art galleries, artisan shops, printmaking studios, a marina, boat rental facilities, marine suppliers, outfitters, many theatre companies, the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Granville Island Brewing, Kids’ Market, children’s playgrounds, a boutique hotel, restaurants and cafés. The daily farmers’ market is extensive, colourful and up-scale: with quality butchers, numerous fish-mongers, purveyors of vegetables, fruits, soups, spices, pasta, baking, candy, coffee, condiments and flowers. In addition to the regulars, there are over 100 day vendors from elsewhere selling their homemade crafts and foodstuffs on rotation. The food courts in the market offer an array of choices: fresh fish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Mexican, soups and salads. You name it, they have it. Visitors can sit inside or outside, enjoying the buskers who fill the air in the courtyard between the market and the water, or on the other side of the market beside the bakery.
A visit to Granville Island is always upbeat and, on sunny days when it’s easy to linger, positively enchanting. There is no more comfortable place to people watch, or to enjoy the buskers, the birds and the boats. Granville Island is a community and the locals love the ambiance of which they are a part. So do the visitors who take the time to sink into the scene, talk to the locals and make the island their own.
Driving, the island is accessible east from Burrard Street and north from Fourth Avenue. There is pay parking on the island and, in some areas, parking free for three hours. Best access to the island is to take one of the little ferries operated by False Creek Ferries or Aquabus and which run back and forth from various points along the downtown Vancouver seawall to Granville Island. Both lines dock right in front of the farmers’ market. The Granville Island webpage has a map of the island, and highlights things to do and see. Don’t forget to take a look at the mechanical display in front of the cement plant. It’s a delight. And if you have never seen boat houses up close, check out the floating real estate moored west of the Granville Island Hotel. Can you imagine living there?
There is nothing I like more than showing friends and family around Vancouver. If it’s not raining, of course. Fortunately, press reports of “rain in Vancouver” often refer to nothing more than a Scottish mist which the locals ignore. Whatever the weather, Stanley Park is the place to go, the number one attraction for newcomers to the city and natives alike.
Stanley Park is the evolving product of an urban vision, conceived by a particularly wise and far-thinking City Council, assisted by a thoughtful and equally prescient federal government in 1886. City Council voted to ask the Dominion Government to lease the 400-hectare Government Reserve lands on the tip of the city peninsula to the city for a park, for one dollar per year. The federal government agreed, and the park, named after Governor General Lord Stanley, opened in 1888. One hundred years later, it was designated a National Historic Site and the lease became “perpetually renewable [with] no action required” by the local authority. Today, it is the third largest urban park in North America, and rated by Travel & Leisure Magazine readers as “one of the most beautiful city parks in the world,” with over eight million visitors annually. Vancouver Parks and Recreation provides a readily accessible web-history of the park, which is fun to read as an introduction.
There are many ways to visit the park and enjoy its amenities. Among the most popular: running, walking or bicycle-riding around the 8.8-kilometre seawall. The seawall, built initially to protect the Burrard Inlet shoreline from erosion caused by large ships entering the harbour at speed, took 63 years to complete. Visitors now travel around the periphery of the park on the seawall in a few hours. Several shops near Denman and Georgia rent bicycles and helmets, and provide maps of the park (and the downtown core of the city). A bicycle path links Denman to the park, a short two blocks west.
Coal Harbour starts the counter-clockwise seawall trip, with its yacht club, rowers training in the bay, the downtown high-rises, Canada Place, and the cruise ship port. After you pass the naval reserve on Deadman’s Island, you will see the red cranes of the port beyond, Burnaby Mountain and the Second Narrows bridge in the distance, as well as the sprawling North Vancouver heartland on the north shore. Brockton Point features the Vancouver Cricket Club pitches, and the newly refurbished stand of brightly painted totem poles and Coast Salish gateways. Passing the “girl in the wetsuit” statue in the water a bit further west, Lumberman’s Arch and the children’s water pad, you will be facing the Lions Gate Bridge, the North Shore and the coastal mountains. Crossing under the Bridge and rounding the corner leads to iconic Siwash Rock and then Third Beach, a hidden gem of a beach in the heart of the city. It is nice to stop for lunch at the Ferguson Point Tea House, which faces west across the freighters riding at anchor in the outer harbour to Spanish Banks and the University of British Columbia. The Tea House offers a sophisticated menu in the Solarium and more casual fare in the front lounge. Heading south and east leads to the freshwater swimming pool at Second Beach, the children’s playground, and on to English Bay, or through the gardens back to Lost Lagoon, the Nature House, and Georgia Street (another 1.8 kilometres).
In the spring and early summer months, a natural highlight not to be missed is the heron colony near the English Bay exit from the park. South of the tennis courts next to the Fish House Restaurant, turn east and look up into the tall trees overhead. The beautiful herons which you may have seen fishing on the shoreline along the seawall nest in this area from March until July. They are huge birds, with long beaks and necks and a wide wingspan. It is utterly breath-taking to see them flying into their nests at the tops of the trees and then sitting on their perches. There are so many, it is hard to count them all.
A trip around the seawall is a marvellous introduction to the city and a balm for the soul. Many use the seawall for their exercise; others linger to watch the marine life of the city and the natural sea life on the sand and the shore. Do not be surprised if the many other amenities in the interior of the Park may need to be left for another day. Enjoy.
Nothing is more fun than browsing in a huge Asian supermarket. In West Vancouver, we have the Osaka Market on the south side of the large Park Royal shopping centre. Osaka is part of the T & T chain, which originated in Burnaby and Richmond in 1993 and has now spread to 22 stores in B.C., Alberta and Ontario. It is the largest Asian supermarket chain in the country. T & T was set up initially to offer a modern and efficient shopping experience to allow Asian immigrants to find their favourite foods in Canada. Increasingly, the stores are attracting segments of the mainstream market, nowhere more so than in this particular Osaka store on Vancouver’s north shore. I have visited the T & T on Canary Street in downtown Toronto on occasion, but because I don’t speak any Asian languages, my experience was not the same. I also understand that the two Osaka stores were originally owned by Japanese interests so their style of operation is somewhat different. Whatever the difference, I like it.
Osaka has a range of departments which are outstanding. It has a huge bakery, produces its own fresh sushi, and a ready-made Chinese food counter offering dim sum, barbecue and other Chinese dishes. There is a fish counter with fresh fish, lobsters, crabs, shrimps, and clams in holding tanks. And a full range of western and oriental produce, plain and organic, which appears to change quickly. The aisles are stocked with an endless array of products I know nothing about. But all seem to be labelled as required by our laws, so you can check out the calorie counts, fat levels, cholesterol and sugar content. The flavoured milk tea I fancied had very high calorie counts and sugar levels, so I passed that up. But I found some seasoned seaweed (kimchi and wasabi flavours) which only had 15 calories per package; there are eight packages in the bag, all for under $2.00. I brought those home as a treat. We opened up a package and found inside several very thin, light slices of dried seaweed, highly spiced, which were quite tasty. It occurred to me that maybe Asians stay thin by having snacks which provide taste but no substance. Not a bad idea, that.
But it is the service at Osaka which delights. Lineups at the cash registers are non-existent. Back-up people seem to swoop in should there be any delays. The electronic equipment has the latest swipe technology. Staff routinely pack groceries. Such a contrast with many mainstream supermarkets at which “check out and pack your own” is increasingly the norm. I noticed a staffer carrying groceries out to a car. There is staff all over the place who answer questions. If someone does not speak English, they find someone who does.
In my visits to Osaka this week, I have had the most memorable experiences. When I asked a young man in the produce department how to eat persimmons, he took one he considered too overripe to sell, went off to wash it and came back offering me a half to eat. He said, with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips, “You shouldn’t eat more than three persimmons a day.” Another young man was stocking the bakery shelves with red bean, walnut, coconut and natural rice cakes produced by the bakery itself. I was carrying some prepackaged rice cakes I had found on another counter. When I asked him how to eat them, he told me I had to put a few drops of water and some parchment paper over the top to make sure the crust does not burn, and then cook them in the oven for about twenty minutes. Then he said, “But you might like to try these rice cakes baked in-house, they are already cooked.” I said I’d take one and try it out at home. We then learned that a rice cake sampling was scheduled for a little later. When I said I’d come back, he took the cake I had chosen and said I should buy one at the sampling: “That cake will be fresher still.” When I suggested that maybe I should buy one of the large cakes with fruit and cookies being offered as a Chinese New Year special, he seemed positively disappointed. “Inside it is only an ordinary sponge cake,” he said. “It’s rice cake that we eat at Chinese New Year which brings good luck.” How could I resist?
I left the store with the sensation that someone cared. What a treat!!!!!
Wintertime in Vancouver may mean walking the Seawalk in the rain or the drizzle. Whatever the weather, many do. This week, thirty-foot logs and other driftwood littered the shore more than usual. The Vietnamese crab fishers were still there, but there were several changes.
Most significant is the revitalization of the foreshore habitat between Ambleside and Dundarave which continues apace. Several years ago, a major storm in early January drove the logs and the waves over the Seawalk, washing out parts of the stone wall which protects the walk from the sea. Over the years, the waves, the tides and the currents have eroded the sediment and vegetation which formerly protected the beach and absorbed the water pouring into the sea from the many streams. The City of West Vancouver has put in place a Foreshore Protection and Management Plan to widen the beach, create a reef, and restore the sediment and natural habitat that existed before. Huge boulders now sit on the inter-tidal beach as part of the project. When the tide is in, many of the boulders disappear below ripples in the water. It’s quite the enterprise, undoubtedly necessary to secure the Seawalk, which is so central to the life of the local community.
The renewed children’s playground in John Lawson Park is now finished. It has a large pirate ship apparatus, a little train with several cars, a huge train station climber, two water pumps (one leading into what simulates a sluice box, the other over a stream), a fancy new splash pad, a “kids only” playhouse, new swings, new tunnels cut out of branches, a nice mix of the most modern with natural materials. Situated among the trees beside the sea, it is delightful.
There are also new allotment gardens in the park beside the beach. Thirty tiny new gardens, each designated by wooden four-by-fours, have been created for urban gardeners. What is remarkable about this development is the placement of the gardens, smack dab in the middle of an area which formerly was nothing but grass. It looks like they are preparing to add another set of gardens of a similar size next to the first.
Allotment gardens are not unusual. The City of West Vancouver has a right of first refusal on all the private properties which line the beach in the area of the park. When the city buys individual houses, some are converted into park facilities. Others are demolished and allotment gardens installed to fill the twenty-five or so feet of land between the remaining private homes. There are also allotment gardens further west between the railroad tracks and some high-rise apartments.
But allotment gardens, in the middle of the grass in what is already public park land, is something new. To my mind, it is a healthy development. There is ample common space in this park. Providing more space for urban farmers to grow their own food and flowers is a contribution to well-being in the community which should be encouraged. Good gardeners such as my neighbours in Toronto can grow a great deal in a small space. Some apartment-dwellers have prolific balcony gardens. Allotment gardens bring pleasure to those who till them, and to everyone else who enjoys the beautiful flowering plants that bloom in the gardens, thanks to the efforts of their fellow citizens. There could be no better use of a public park!
A morning flight from Toronto to Vancouver is not a good idea. An evening flight gets you into the city late and it is easy to go to bed and get up with the locals.An early flight means an early rise in Toronto, early to bed in Vancouver, and then several days catching up.
The downside of jet lag is that it seems worse as we grow older. The upside is that the morning quiet can be very productive. At the moment, listening to Classical 96.3FM from Toronto and typing on the computer, I remember an earlier visit I made to Vancouver years ago when my mother-in-law still lived on the north shore.
Up at 4:00 am, I had driven to Ambleside village near the waterfront and walked the popular Seawalk which hugs the beach and the rocks from Capilano River in the east to Dundarave village in the west. It was the summer and, even at this ridiculously early hour, the outer harbour was full of activity. The images from that morning stay with me years later.
I was first intrigued to find Vietnamese crab fishers tending their traps off the wharf, directly opposite the Lions Gate Bridge to the east. When they pulled up their traps, they were full, but they were mostly smaller crabs that had to be thrown back. Larger crabs above the legal limit of six inches are harder to catch, and for the group to get their quota of four crabs each takes all morning. Then there were several speeding motor boats full of Native Canadian fishermen. They came from the reserve at the mouth of the Capilano RIver and were heading out to the salt chuck for some fishing. The fishing industry on the west coast is highly regulated with relatively few days each year of commercial fishing. These Native Canadians have special access to the fisheries for their own use and were up early to take advantage of the tides at dawn.
Then, from the same wharf, I became aware of the silent passage of three large cruise ships gliding directly in front of us, from the west towards the Lions Gate Bridge. It was the return of three liners from their cruises up the coast to the Alaska Panhandle. In the dark, their decks were aglow with light, their two thousand odd passengers in each ship undoubtedly at breakfast or preparing to disembark at the Vancouver cruise ship dock in a matter of minutes. What a contrast! These modern mammoths that loom so large.
After a coffee while reading the newspaper at one of the many local cafés in Ambleside, I wondered back to the car. The sun was long up, and any dew on the grass was dry. Then I saw a group of South Asians, from India or maybe Sri Lanka, all dressed up in their colourful saris and suits. They were scurrying around a pond in the nearby park, setting up for a wedding. Whether for photographs, a ceremony or a reception, I don’t know as I did not linger to watch. I was just amazed at their energy and purpose so early in the morning.
By this time, I had been at the waterfront for many hours, fascinated by the diversity of the people and the wealth of their activities. Who would have guessed what goes on at the outer harbour so early in the morning? The jet lag had made me a gift that has endured for years.
Vancouver’s Mayor, Gregor Robertson, was the keynote speaker at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Ottawa last month. Robertson brought to the national scene the experience of the Vancouver City Council: Mayor’s Roundtable on Mental Health and Addiction, a coalition of 140 community leaders to target the homeless with severe mental health and addiction issues. See their report, released October 22nd, and discussed by André Picard in the Globe and Mail.
For all its natural beauty, Vancouver has a continuing problem with the homeless, some of whom are hard-core street people with untreated mental illness and chronic additions. In the wake of an increase in violent attacks, emergency room visits, and Mental Health Act nonconsensual hospitalizations, Vancouver police report that they now spend 25 percent of their time dealing with severely mentally ill street people. Where psychiatric facilities are closed, local community services underfunded or cut back, and a “law and order” justice system no more than a revolving door, more homeless is inevitable. Vancouver is not alone. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, an estimated 300,000 Canadians live in the 1,096 shelters and on the streets across the country each year. They cost $1.4 billion in additional health care, justice and social services costs, annually. Vancouver has decided to do something about it. And homelessness is the key.
Reading Picard’s account of the Vancouver initiative, I recall similar attention and similar strategies in Toronto not so long ago. Homelessness was a big issue in Toronto. Apart from the Toronto Community Foundation Vital Signs Report, I haven’t heard much about it in recent years. Does that mean the problem has been solved? Or only that it has been drowned out by other issues and by other styles of municipal governance?
How Robertson went about dealing with the homelessness issue is what I want to focus on. He identified a big problem, gathered together all the affected agencies and institutions, researched the current situation, learned from the experts, and developed a comprehensive strategy to address it. He recognized the extent to which it is a national problem and is now seeking a national strategy, and federal funds, to deal with what has now seen as a “public-health crisis.” His is a model for the development of intelligent and effective public policy.
Compare the current Toronto scene where transit has been identified as the key public policy issue of the day. Globe and Mail municipal reporter, Marcus Gee, has produced a video on the history of how transit policy has been made (or not) in Toronto in recent years. It is hilarious and, alas, totally true. Maybe as a public service, the Globe and Mail should post the video on YouTube. It would go viral. You can click on the hyperlink and see if you agree.