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Paradise Makers: The Neighbourhood Activists

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SFU City Program

Friday, March 7 at 7pm Harbourfront Centre

The Activists

Photo by Jason Vanderhill

No history of Vancouver could be written without acknowledging the role of the neighbourhood activists who led the fight against freeways, out-of- scale development and whatever other atrocities were threatening their communities. Jacques Khouri from Kitsilano and Margaret Mitchell, a pioneer of community development, tell their stories.
The format of the evening was not a lecture but an informal interview, with Gordon Price asking the questions. (This man should have his own tv chat show.)

Audio podcast

Jacques Khouri – born in Israel, he came to Canada in 1963 and moved to Vancouver in 1964. He enrolled at UBC but in 1968 he dropped out and drove a taxi. He had been a reporter for Ubyssey (the student newspaper) and eventually became a Vancouver Sun business reporter. He had been required to go to a meeting at City Hall as part of one of his university courses. “It looked like a circus, and these people were running the city!”. His first project, while at university, he had refurbished a frat house as a co-op. In 1972 “the feds were spending money” and one was the Local Initiatives Program, for job creation for young people which employed him to promote the program. Eventually he bought a house in Kitsilano only to discover a plan to build a high rise next door. The whole area was zoned for high rises but so far none been been built. There was a proposed 13 storey seniors’ housing project of a Jewish community group. Although he upset that group, and the ruling clique at City Hall as well as the developers, he organised the neighbourhood, and managed to get the whole area of Kitsilano down zoned to stop highrises in February 1974. Since then, this feat has not been duplicated.

Margaret Mitchell arrived here in 1972 and was a Social Worker in community development. She worked on area development projects the content of which depended on the wishes of each community. The intention was to help citizens to bring about change in their lives and was different from the current model of client based social work. The method used was to discover the concerns of the community and provide neighbourhood services to meet them. It was Pierre Trudeau’s idea, and was administered and funded by Canada Assistance under the Welfare department. Initially the money was sent to provinces who distributed to community projects. “While we were solving problems, we also rocked the boat and the powers that be didn’t like it. The Province and the City at that time were both right wing conservative.”

She worked with women in Little Mountain, listening to complaints from single moms on welfare: they had no access to child care, and not enough money to feed themselves. The women decided to confront the agencies who each sent representatives to a meeting, which included the MLA and the MP, who had to listen as each told their personal stories. “They had no reply.” They started getting money for child care as well as an “opportunities allowance” which allowed for confidence and skills building.

Prior to this experience she had worked for the Red Cross in japan and Korea, as a welfare worker in a leave centre. She also worked with refugees from Hungary in Vienna. She was born in small town Ontario to a conservative family and attended a school of social work in Toronto. They saw themselves as change agents. “We didn’t just want to put band aids on. We saw the need to get at root causes.” She was the first community worker in Little Mountain working from a “hang out, drop in shack, with red door”. She worked closely with the local schools who were very supportive.

The United Way was also engaged in setting up the local area plans and had 22 “Citizen Councils” but these were professional organisations who “scared off the locals”. In Grandview is was not a professional council but high school students started their own group ATTAC which took over the citizen council and formed a group to oppose the freeway. Eventually this group established the Britannia Centre. Again they were supported by their teachers. They were mainly from Chinese and Italian families, and the children acted as interpreters for their parents. “The City asked us to start Community Development Department”. Norah Curry worked with public housing tenants, who took over the management of the their housing and also set up a food co-op.

The motto was “Don’t rest in peace – organise” One neighbourhood group in a housing project was upset that their kids had to cross the GN tracks to get to school. They camped on the tracks, stopping the trains to the port for a week and they got their overpass. They also went on to develop a food co-op and took over the local housing office.

Jacques pointed out that these were disenfranchised people, from the bad part of town and had been left out of the process. The West Side was organised but East Side wasn’t. In Kitsilano they found that a citizens group “needs a spark plug” and that person needs to be paid. The issues – real estate changes and high local unemployment – the housing crisis which is being ignored again – have been same for the last 35 years.

One community organiser, Nathan Carmel , thought that altruism had no place in social work: he said “go for the self interest, find the hot button”. He started the West Broadway Citizens Committee, to oppose a City scheme to “improve” the area. The big idea was to take people’s homes, tear them down and turn the land into parking lots. While this would have served the interests of the businesses, the owners and tenants of the houses opposed the plan.

While there was unanimous opposition by the people in Kitsilano against highrises, the City did not want to down zone, as that would expose them to lawsuits from those who lost development potential. The solution was to keep the density but reduce the height, by “laying the high rise on its side”. Ray Spaxman was hired by the city to deal with rapid change and that has not happened like that since. A 2,300 signature petition was presented. The area from Burrard to Alma from 16th to the inlet was affected. Mike Harcourt proposed a one year freeze and made it permanent one year later. They had avoided law suits by not devaluing property.

In 1974 the funding was cut by both City Council and the feds, but a lot of groups continued. In 1972 a TEAM council and an NDP government were elected and they transferred community development into a more structured form. The politicians thought they could use these groups to just let off steam, and they had no intention of listening. Consultation is not the same as delegation of power.

The story of Stratchcona is very important and it was unfortunate that Shirley Chan was unable to attend. In that area Chinese and other immigrant groups were to see their houses bulldozed so that public housing in large blocks could be built. This was described as “cultural genocide”. Organising techniques were developed which had to be bilingual, and the neighbourhood formed an association to protect their homes. Block captains were appointed, in a way similar to China, to ensure that everyone was kept informed and mobilised when needed. The federal government was supporting urban renewal, but the community wanted federal help with rehabilitation first, and then renewal.

Grandview, Strathcona and Hastings combined to stop the freeway from coming through their areas. This followed the successful campaign in Toronto that stopped the Spadina Expressway.

Jacques became a developer because he became tired of listening to his opponents saying “You have never built anything.” He showed them what to do with the Kitsilano Housing Society which at 1st and Maple built an affordable housing development which is still there. He was working at the time for the federal government and didn’t wait to be fired. He became real estate agent so that he could earn a living and he blagged his way onto the official plane, and went with Trudeau to Cuba to see Castro as a “freelance” journalist. The consensus on the platform was that Jacques has “chutzpah”.

Margaret went into politics “as an extension of what I was doing”. She ran for Vancouver East for the NDP and became an opposition MP. As far as she was concerned this was just more neighbourhood activism – “making it up as you went along”. She had hoped that as organisations gained official recognition that it would lead to greater local control with the establishment of wards and so on.

Jacques pointed out that as groups grow they become more mainstream, and many of the revolutionary ideas they introduced to Vancouver, like organic food, have now become established and common. Gordon Price raised the question of the legitimacy of community representatives: “when someone using the first person clams to represent an area, by antennae go up. And aren’t community groups naturally conservative? They just want to keep things the way they are.”

Jacques agreed that NIMBYism does play a role. He gave the example of a development ha has done at 22nd and Cambie: a housing co-op on a “pocket park”. George Puil (to his credit) supported it saying we have a city wide problem and we have to deal with it, while we have plenty of parks in the area. It has to seem fair. If there is no neighbourhood group the area gets projects dumped on it. Margaret said that False Creek was not a conservative group, but Gordon responded that was a “blank slate” – a former industrial area with no established community.

  • Momentous changes are coming but we have to deal with housing affordability.

  • A man from Norquay said “We don’t think we are the nimbys. We are saying no to mass rezoning.”

  • Robert Gardiner spoke about live work space being lost. This is actually a much larger issue than can be dealt with here and will the subject of a separate post

  • Gordon Price compared what happened in the West End and Kitsilano. The former was now 65% rented, mostly high rise, and as a result houses a wide range of incomes. Kits has become gentrified, and is now unaffordable to the students who had originally rescued it

  • Mel Lehan said that activism was against gentrification. “You only get NIMBY when you force stuff down people’s throats”. Ecodensity has got nothing to do with the environment. There is now a coalition of 30 neighborhoods opposed to the EcoDensity Charter. But he emphasised that “we want to work with the process” to allow growth but build in affordability and amenities.

Jacques responded to Mel’s request for advice: “Follow the money and follow your heart”

  • “What we are doing is not a shining example. City Hall does not have the right to rezone without regard to neighborhoods.”
  • A woman from Little Mountain said community input based on knowledge and history is important. The community there created a “Visions plan” but the province wanted “vacant possession” of the public housing, while the community would prefer on site relocation of the remaining families. “Socio econmic diversity is important and what is happening on Little Mountain is still urban renewal by another name.” The province wants to do all its housing stock this way. The community is not against an increase in density but it has to respect the community and provide an equitable increase in the number of affordable units

  • Karen Fung spoke about bar camps or transit camps. She grew up in Riley Park and asked how to inspire youth now. Gordon Price suggested she stay and talk to SFU staff about a similar project they are interested in.

  • “We want a role in deciding what happens in our city. There is now a new generation of planners and a new coalition of groups. Where can we go for advice?

Jacques did not feel that there was much he could point to in the literature that would be as useful as first hand experience. “Books you can read later to see what happened to you.” At which point, Gordon closed the meeting by presenting both speakers with a book.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 8, 2008 at 11:46 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] sure enough, here is Stephen’s transcript of last Friday’s interviews with Margaret Mitchell and Jacques […]

  2. I want to thank Jaques Khoury for talking to me today and helping me to make an important correction to this piece. I had carelessly conflated two of his points which lead to a false impression that I have been pleased to be able to correct.

    Stephen Rees

    March 10, 2008 at 1:27 pm


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