Sunday, December 8, 2013

441 Powell Street

On Friday I attended a press conference regarding the City-ordered demolition of a 122-year-old building at 441 Powell Street. The conference was organized by Instant Coffee, a "service-oriented artist collective," who, at present, rent the building's storefront and a portion of its rear space from the Ming Sun Reading Room, a benevolent society who, among other things, operate in the upstairs portion an eight-room boardinghouse for recent immigrants.

What has hastened this demolition is concern that the building is unsafe and could collapse at any moment, much like the building that once stood directly to the east of it (451 Powell), which was torn down rather quickly this past summer based on a structural problem that the City, in a fit of operative hysteria, deemed irreparable. Of course another version has it that the City is eager to get rid of these two-storey non-profits so that it can issue building permits to developers who will build in their place a larger denser form of market housing, and thereby supply the City with wealthier tenants who will presumably consume more high end products and contribute more money to the local economy.

From 1987 to 1994 I lived in a somewhat comfier version of the space that Instant Coffee currently occupies, and from my doorstep saw the neighbourhood through a number of changes, from an area shared by small Asian-Canadian businesses, seasonal resource workers (mostly men in SROs) and social service agencies, to one increasingly populated by those at risk (mental illness, drug addiction), to say nothing of those who prey upon them (pimps, drug dealers). Throughout this time the area also attracted artists and activists who, because their work is undervalued in our market society, cannot afford to live anywhere else.

Although much was conveyed at this one hour press conference, something that stuck with me came from current Ming Sun Reading Room member David Wong, who spoke of the cultural services that his organization and its building provide, which he likened to a "museum," one that, through below-market rent, "subsidizes" those who live and work there. Indeed, it was in this building's storefront that the artist Alan Storey devised what is arguably one of the most popular works of publicly-accesible art this city has ever known: Broken Column (1987). For my part, it was in this same storefront that I wrote my first two books, the first of which, Company Town (1991), is the story of a dying salmon cannery town on the northwest coast of B.C.; the second, about a punk rock band called Hard Core Logo (1993).

But of all the artists who have occupied this space, I am thankful that it is Instant Coffee who are there now. For I cannot think of anyone in the artistic community with the means and the wherewithal to bring to light what this building has contributed to the local ecology, but also to make a case for its survival and continuation in the face of a municipal government (regardless of its political stripe) who, like the provincial Social Credit government of the early-1980s, seem intent on transitioning Vancouver from a place where people live (a city) to one where people visit (a resort). 


  1. The saga around the 439 Powell building saddens me for many reasons (mainly the loss of another heritage building, coupled with the hardship it has caused the tenants), but I think that people are rushing to put the blame on the city due to a hidden agenda.

    The reality is that at the time of the initial collapse, or partial collapse, there were still tenants living in the building next door and it (439 Powell) was thought to be intact, perhaps it still was.

    Given the option of trying to salvage a partially collapsed building and risk destroying a second, the city chose to demolish one to mitigate any further damage. As it turns out, the engineering department has found too much structural damage to 439 (perhaps as a result of the demolition) and has now ordered it to be demolished as well.

    The Ming Sun society is now stuck in a bad position with the insurance companies representing both buildings arguing over who is liable for all of the damages.

    I am by no means a Vision Vancouver supporter, and do agree that they are far too cozy with developers, but to put the blame on a conspiracy rather than incompetency coupled with bureaucracy seems a bit far fetched. But who knows.

    Either way, Powell Street will not be the same without the quirky grey building that has seen more than we can imagine.

  2. It is not far fetched. The building that was demolished was sold shorty before based on promises by City Hall for the whole block. Un publicized promises, but there are many of those and they are the promises that are most often kept.

  3. I haven't heard anything about those promises. I did hear about the proposed sale. As far as I know, it wasn't actually sold, the owner of Double Happiness foods was in the process of potentially buying it, but hasn't done so yet.

    I don't see why the city would promise the whole block, does that imply that they would tear down the Marr, the Parke Place building, Pay Less Meats, and the Gorilla Foods (although they seem to be having issues)?

    Where did you get your info from?