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Urban Planning

Everybody Wants That East Van Cross

Ken Lum’s iconic art sparked a duel between ‘hoods — and questions about civic identity.

Christopher Cheung 16 Feb 2023The Tyee

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter @bychrischeung.

No, Ken Lum has not tried the local lager that bears the image of his iconic East Van cross on the beer can.

Nor has he sniffed the soy candle that’s supposed to smell like Strathcona, one of the East Vancouver neighbourhoods where he grew up, described as “Fruity and tart with floral overtones: white tea, black currant, lavender and thyme.”

He has, however, received a baby onesie as a gift with the East Van cross on it.

The identity of Vancouver’s east side has come a long way. There was once a chasm between the city’s two halves, which officially split at Ontario Street, two blocks in from Main. That line drew everything from political and racial divides to the price and prestige of real estate.

“One was the ruling class, one was the underclass,” said Lum, the artist born in the city in 1956.

As Vancouver chased aspirations to be an international destination, the million-dollar property line swept from west to east. And Lum unveiled his iteration of an old East Van symbol in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

His city-commissioned work monumentalized the cross — a vertical “East” sharing an A with a horizontal “Van” — as a 57-foot sculpture at the intersection of Clark Drive and East Sixth Avenue.

Ever since it went up, the cross associated with the rough part of the city has been embraced as a marker of cool.

These days, everybody seems to want a piece of it.

Aside from the beer by Parallel 49 Brewing, Lum’s East Van cross design has made its way onto T-shirts, hats, mugs and Christmas ornaments. Look on Etsy and you’ll find it on pendants, posters, prints, keychains, magnetic bookmarks and tea towels, the designs adorned with everything from crows, cannabis leaves, cherry blossoms to bats.

Four years ago, the city said it was considering relocating Lum’s cross after conditionally approving the 10-storey headquarters of the organic food company Nature’s Path to go up beside it. The building would block some views of the cross, which faces downtown from the top of a slope.

In the wake of that announcement came a real-life game of capture the flag, with two neighbourhoods vying to claim the Clark Street cross.

The “good-natured” duel has prompted some reflective questions about authenticity of place as the city gentrifies.

Among them, how did a stigmatized, working-class, largely immigrant neighbourhood transform into one that’s desirable enough to be branded as a soy candle?

East of east

Lum didn’t just grow up in an east side neighbourhood — he grew up in the east side of an east side neighbourhood, he said.

Strathcona was very much a working-class place, but comparatively speaking, residents of the western side of the Vancouver neighbourhood bordering Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside were better off than the people on the rougher, eastern side near the railway tracks where Lum lived. Because of the families’ transient poverty, he remembers returning to Admiral Seymour Elementary after the summer break to find that some classmates had uprooted and moved elsewhere.

There were schoolyard “rumbles” and strict teachers who were British expats, carrying out detention, strappings and humiliating punishments like forcing students to stand at the front of the classroom with hands clasped on their head. That said, the education offered students strong fundamentals.

Lum’s childhood was emblematic of the blue-collar east side in many ways.

His father cooked and waited tables at restaurants in nearby Chinatown like the Smilin' Buddha Cabaret. But he was never able to keep a job and would be unexpectedly absent for long stretches of time.

“It’d be like a year and a half and then he could call in and say, ‘Hi, I’m at the Seattle World’s Fair,’” said Lum. “He was someone I didn’t get to know very well. And I contrasted that with my mother’s very difficult life.”

His mother worked in Chinatown too. Lum remembers her stitching fabrics in “sweatshops” and working in a noisy industrial laundry, saving “every penny” from overtime hours and working Saturdays to make it into homeownership.

“There was a time when you could actually save just enough to put a down payment on a house, which is ludicrous to imagine today,” said Lum.

That house was a Vancouver Special — the classic boxy, roomy, two-storey design popular with east side immigrant families — which Lum would later recreate a miniature work of in 2015.

Like many other multigenerational households, Lum lived in the family special with his grandparents.

The buried cross

In the landscape of the east side, the East Van cross wasn’t something that was graffitied on every surface in town.

It was more elusive than that, disappearing and reappearing after periods of time. Lum recalls seeing it on sidewalks, on school desks, drawn in chalk behind grocery stores and markered and scratched into bus benches. In some cases, it was accompanied by the word “rules,” which could have many meanings: that you must play by “East Van rules” if you entered it, that East Van was excellent or that East Van ruled the city.

That elusiveness came out when Lum conducted an informal poll as he was working on the cross. Very few people recognized it, though some senior citizens recalled seeing it in the late 1940s.

The origins of the cross might be linked to the east side’s Catholic roots at the time, as it was the home of many Italian, Greek and Eastern European residents. Lum rounded the corners of his cross to “mute” the religious connotation slightly, though the renditions he saw over the years always had angular corners.

In the early 1990s, a gang called the East Enders had adopted the logo, police shared.

While he can’t prove it, Lum did feel that the receding of the symbol happened as the city “gentrified, for lack of a better term.”

But a curious thing happened when his cross went up on Clark Street.

“Everyone seemed to believe that they had remembered it,” he said. “It was almost like a buried memory, a collective memory that welled up.”

Working-class love

With the cross having become so beloved, it’s hard to imagine that some Vancouverites were iffy about the work when Lum completed it in 2010.

The head of the city’s cultural department acknowledged that the cross would “take time [for some people] to warm up to it.” One reviewer in the Vancouver Sun wrote, “It’s bad. It’s rad. It’s a bit mad.” Also, that it’s to be “applauded, controversy or not” as a “tribute to a rich, rough and fading local past.”

The public ended up warming to it fast. It proved to be the perfect time for an east side symbol to be resurfaced just as its neighbourhoods were emerging as hip destinations for coffee, creatives and clothing — not to mention garnering more stars at last year’s Michelin restaurant selection ceremony than the west side.

“It’s close to the latest moment when questions about east and west as two differentiated bodies of geography were still extant,” said Lum.

Vancouver is not unique in having a working-class area take on a new life in the wake of gentrification. Brooklyn is perhaps the most famous example, exemplifying that timeline of how cheap rents in old buildings attract artists, which then create appeal for creative businesses, which lay the economic and cultural cachet for condo development.

As East Vancouver goes through this evolution, its working-class identity and spirit is viewed by well-educated people — from underpaid cultural producers to yuppies with good jobs — moving in as “authentic.”

The prominent urban sociologist Sharon Zukin, who researched this idea, talked about how the presence and tastes of upwardly mobile newcomers displace lower income people in places like East Vancouver as housing and shopping are upscaled.

These newcomers can cause the look and offerings of a place to be homogenized too, she argues. In East Vancouver, that might manifest in immigrant grocers and local boutiques eventually sharing the landscape with Jim Pattison Group-owned supermarkets and chain stores, albeit higher-end ones, like Aesop body care products. Despite dramatic changes like these, Zukin says gentrifying newcomers will still celebrate the very working-class identity they’re displacing.

Lum has since left Vancouver, calling Philadelphia home instead, where he is the chair of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design.

On the transformation of the east side, he said this:

“I don’t think any culture of a neighbourhood should be congealed in time. Then basically, you just have an urban museum occupying geographical space. I think neighbourhoods should always be open to change and open to new immigrants and so on.

“But I think the one thing that was salient to the East Van identity was its proletarian spirit. I’m not even asking that there should only be working-class people working and living there. But I do think East Van was defined by creative solutions to survival because of privation and poverty and hard work. I think if that area could retain, and maybe it does to a degree, the kind of empathetic culture to the less privileged — then it’s fine. But of course, it’s constantly being cancelled out by rising real estate prices.”

Capture the flag

With this love for authenticity, it’s no wonder that the business improvement associations of two different Vancouver neighbourhoods want the cross in their backyard. Thanks to Lum, the symbol has come to represent the soul of East Vancouver.

The association of the so-called East Village — a controversial rebranding of the Hastings North BIA that covered the Hastings-Sunrise and Grandview-Woodland neighbourhoods — launched a petition for it to be relocated there, claiming to be “the only thing more East Van than Ken Lum’s East Van Cross.”

But Mount Pleasant was also interested. The executive director of its BIA told the Vancouver Sun how nice it would be to be “driving up Main Street from downtown and you see this beautiful iconic work and know you’re in East Van.”

You can imagine the traffic of selfie-snappers the cross would draw if it relocated to either neighbourhood.

However, the city made the final call earlier this month that the cross would stay put.

Lum isn’t pleased with how the city has “compromised” the cross by allowing a 10-storey building to go up beside it. While it’s in a pedestrian-unfriendly part of town, he likes what the location stands for.

“It’s almost like a pilgrimage,” he said. And if you are someone who wants to snap a selfie or a picture of the cross, he likes the idea that you have to “make an effort” to get there.

“And when you get there, you’re immersed in incredibly polluted traffic and noise. It’s not like there’s park space around it. The piece of ground it’s on is very narrow. You’re right by the Grandview cut, which is an ecological, engineering feat from a much earlier time of extending the railway. But from there, you get a vantage of the centre of the city core. There’s a sense of pathos because it’s quasi-industrial, it’s interstitial, it’s marginal.... There’s a lot of things there that make the site work.”

As for the symbol itself, Lum says he doesn’t take credit for its popularity, even though the East Van cross that people use nowadays is almost always his streamlined 2010 version.

“Obviously, I couldn’t have anticipated it,” he said. “What I am gratified by is that the public has taken it as their own in a deeply affective way. And that’s rare for any public work with a civic context.

“We live in a capitalist society. So some people use it for their T-shirts — I’m not claiming royalties for any of that… I didn’t want to be the person policing every request. Otherwise I’d be getting so many from bubble gum to whatever.”

Lum says he relinquished control of his particular version to the city, as long as it’s not being used by a major company or anything that could be licentious.

“I think it’s a democratic symbol in the sense that it’s always generating public dialogue,” he said.

The East Van cross was, after all, born on blue-collar streets streets and passed through the hands of many. The symbol’s survival raises new questions about civic aspirations.

“Who are we at this point in history? How did we get from wherever we were to this present moment?”  [Tyee]

Read more: Art, Urban Planning

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