Trace(s): Devonian Harbour Park
1984: Somewhere vs anywhere, early Coal Harbour reverberates through Devonian Park
Is this somewhere?
In Vancouver's Coal Harbour we found a cluster of stories around what’s now known as Devonian Harbour Park. The park is a build-out of the original shoreline, created in part to put to rest a welter of competing arguments about land use that had been raging for decades. And, it gave the city, and public, a more elegant sight line to Stanley Park. It’s particularly visible to motorists as they navigate bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic off Georgia Street to the Stanley Park Causeway.
The development of a waterfront park did have another, perhaps unintended, consequence, it wiped a richly scribbled slate clean. Gone from the shore was the humming chaos of upstart industries, rail yards, not quite legal floating homes and empty lots where sports and entertainment palaces once stood. Visually pleasing, yes, but with this tidy-up, all the cultural significance was pushed underground, buried under lawns, a grand esplanade and a nest of glass towers. The lore of Indigenous place names, of squatters’ pop-up communities, the dreams of land speculators, and the struggles of newcomers are not readily apparent. Neither are the accounts of industrialists and athletic champions, and the victories of “ordinary” people. The whole package has been inadvertently elbowed out of a picture perfect tableau. Yes, there are the occasional plaques noting a person or event, but they are few and far between. It feels as though the community that used to be somewhere, was turned into just any other place. It could be anywhere.
It’s curious, though: even when a slate is wiped, old and new grit insists on marking the pristine surface. It’s inexorable, and it’s heartening.
We found one clue to this fortunate persistence in the middle of the Devonian Park lawn, courtesy of the Vancouver Biennale folks – a bold, modernist sculpture. From a distance it’s statement wasn’t clear, but after walking around it, wondering at its meaning, we found the name of the artist and the idea informing his work. He had created a tribute to the untidy, uncontrolled tale of early Coal Harbour. Here was a reminder that lots of stuff had happened. We were grateful.
‘Home by the Sea’ by Luis Fernando Peláez speaks to the shoreline, the boundary between sea and land, and the potential of space. But we think Peláez’s piece could suggest something else too: that this place was once so much more than what you see now.
While we stood there, it also struck us that the stylized structure looked and felt like a tuning fork, wedged into the earth, channeling centuries-long chronicles. This romantic notion appeals because, as you gaze across Devonian Park, the artwork is about the only thing around that cues Coal Harbour’s history. It suggests to passers-by that right here, this spot, is somewhere.
We’re not done with Coal Harbour, yet. In fact, we’re just getting started. Over the past few weeks, we’ve shared some of the headlines that shaped this neighbourhood. Stories about ambition, invention, sporting victory and some pretty hot entertainment. But that’s just the surface of this complex patch of land. We’ve found so much more.
Now, we have more work to do; to run down facts and interview a few experts. We’ll return shortly to share more about Coal Harbour. And if you’ve ever stood on the seawall in awe of the landscape, we promise you’ll enjoy the stories of some interesting people who stood there before you.
See you soon.
Watch the full Playlist of our Coal Harbour Trace(s) so far
Written by: John Wellwood and Todd Smith
Researched and Edited by: John Wellwood and Todd Smith
Visual Design and Photography: Todd Smith