Tyee Books

Chuck Davis's Farewell Gift to Vancouver

His final magnum opus dives into the historical wrinkles and folds that make the city unique.

By Crawford Kilian 21 Dec 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian, a contributing editor of The Tyee, blogs about Chuck Davis at Mr. Vancouver.

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Chuck Davis passed away last fall. Photo: Jason Vanderhill.

Chances are that any Vancouverite around my age has some memories of Chuck Davis. He had long stints as a TV reporter, radio host, and newspaper columnist, so his face and voice were familiar.

I first met him in the early 1970s, when he learned that a colleague and I were going to team-teach a course in science fiction at Capilano College. Fascinated with the idea, he invited us on his CBC Radio afternoon show, broadcast from a dank and dingy studio in the basement of the Hotel Vancouver.

We ran into one another again a few years later, when our mutual friend Ernie Fladell put some municipal money into Chuck's new project, The Vancouver Book. That book was a success, and set him on a new course as the Lower Mainland's historian.

As education columnist for The Province in the 1980s, I often ran into him in the newsroom; he was doing a kind of trivia column for the paper, mostly about Vancouver places and people. It was addictively readable. I often invited Chuck in to talk to my article-writing students. He was great at showing them the potential for story ideas in what we take for granted: Who, he wondered, produced the sticks for ice-cream bars and Popsicles? And why didn't they put ads on them?

That kind of curiosity led him to find many offbeat stories, and he had a talent for telling them in the style of a standup comedian: a simple premise, a bizarre twist, and a punchline.

Clearly he loved that kind of storytelling, and Vancouver gave him thousands of examples. Long before the web, he surfed the microfilms of Vancouver Public Library and the Pacific Press clippings library. His notes and files accumulated in a home office that had to be seen to be disbelieved.

When he produced The Greater Vancouver book in 1997, Chuck departed from his standup-historian mode: he commissioned other writers (including me) to write about various Vancouver topics, and sold the pages to various corporate sponsors.

It was a wonderful update of The Vancouver Book, but a financial disaster. Most B.C. publishers printed their books in Hong Kong where prices were far lower, but Chuck loyally printed it here and took a brutal financial beating. He spent years working on histories of local communities, just to pay off his debts.

He also got into the late-'90s dot-com boom, writing text for some of the earliest commercial websites in Vancouver. Chuck enjoyed learning the new technology -- especially while ensconced in an ancient brick warehouse in Yaletown, with fellow-workers less than half his age.

Building the magnum opus

When his employer imploded in the dot-com bust, Chuck was as philosophical as ever. Using the skills he'd mastered, he began building his own website on Vancouver history, which would be the foundation of his magnum opus.

Again he managed to find some corporate support, but it was never enough to let him work uninterrupted on a book version of what he was posting to his website. He was now well past retirement age, and skirmishing with cancer.

Chuck didn't dwell on his personal problems. At the Fladells's New Year's Eve gatherings, he preferred to tell jokes and play word games than to talk about the disasters of the year gone by. He was no Pollyanna, but he kept his grievances to himself. I once asked him if he'd ever like to go back to being a radio host with CBC. His answer was a firm "Never," with no explanation.

His announcement last year that he was dying of lung cancer stunned everyone. In Chuck's case that was a lot of people -- he had accumulated astounding numbers of friends and supporters. All of us had succumbed to his infectious love of Vancouver, and many of his friends were ready to help take up his last and greatest project.

Chuck's year-by-year chronicle had reached 1994, and he very much wanted it to reach the present. When I thought about his office, organized by a system that would stump Google itself, I could well imagine the shock and awe that his successors would feel.

Well, they survived the shock and pulled it off. The Chuck Davis History of Metropolitan Vancouver is a cross between a family scrapbook and a box of chocolates the size of B.C. Place. You'll be surprised by what each year brought to Vancouver, and what it teaches you about your city -- and yourself.

Vancouver: Half a bubble off plumb

One thing it teaches is that we've always been about half a bubble off plumb. Right from the start we've behaved like jerks (rioting against Asians, rejecting the immigrants on the Komagata Maru) and like saints (our Chinese residents helped fund Dr. Sun Yat-Sen's revolution against the Qing dynasty). One of the themes in Chuck's book is our continuing racism; another is our amazing and unlikely transformation into a wonderfully multicultural city.

We've also been class warriors. A general strike shut down Vancouver in the summer of 1919, and in the summer and fall of 1983 we teetered on the edge of another one. The Occupy Vancouver movement, just too recent to be included, is an echo of those earlier conflicts.

But we had a lot of fun in unexpected ways. The first Vancouver Folksong and Dance Festival took place in 1933, a portent of many festivals to come. (The Vancouver International Children's Festival launched in 1979.) On July 19, 1937, sliced bread came to Vancouver at eight cents a loaf. The UBC engineering students kidnapped the Nine O'Clock Gun in 1969, returning it on payment of a ransom to the Children's Hospital.

I could go on, but I'd have to repeat everything in the book. It's enough to say that for old-timers, Chuck's book will bring back memories: Has it really been that long since Pavel Bure played for the Canucks, or the student radicals took over Simon Fraser, or Pierre Trudeau and Margaret Sinclair were married in Lynn Valley?

For younger readers, the book is almost like an illustrated family tree, enriched with the kinds of scandals we usually don't tell the kids. They may learn more than they want to about their ancestors' follies, but they'll also learn about the sheer pleasures of life in the olden days: learning to swim in English Bay under the careful eye of Joe Fortes, going to the Orpheum on Granville for vaudeville or a movie, screaming at Empire Stadium over Elvis in 1957, The Beatles in 1964, and the Whitecaps in 1974.

Vancouver in the olden days was as funky and grimy as Fred Herzog portrayed it in his amazing photos. We are clearly a better city than we were -- more equal, less racist and sexist, more humane. Yet even at our worst we were recognizably ourselves. Chuck's stories and photos can induce a kind of nostalgia, but it's misplaced: the Vancouver he so lovingly chronicles is still here.  [Tyee]

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