Althea Thauberger


The last snapshot of the Vancouver Intelligentsia. An open letter to the participants of Althea Thauberger’s Carrall Street.

Jerry Zaslove
Carrall Street, Artspeak Gallery | 2009


Intellectual currents can generate a sufficient head of water for the critic to install his power station on them.1

Despina can be reached in two ways: by ship or by camel. The city displays one face to the traveller arriving overland and a different one to him who arrives by sea.2



What follows here is an open letter. The letter is addressed to the Actors, Agents, Writers, Artists, Photographers, Bystanders, Mercurians, Appollonians, and Cultural Apparatchiks who participated in the “Scene of a Crime.” “The Search for Who Wrecked Vancouver,” “A Once Beautiful Town.” In this letter, I give names to the city blocks and common areas that describe what it feels like to be alive in this part of the former townsite of Vancouver. These names describe and reveal how the contemporary turn to the city-as-subject is related to the symptom of the crisis about art that is about the city itself.


Culture Shock Avenue: The Camel Driver

I write as someone who wandered into Carrall Street by land, like Italo Calvino’s camel driver who “sees, at the horizon of the tableland, the pinnacles of the skyscrapers coming into view, the radar antennae, the white and red windstocks flapping, the chimneys belching smoke, he knows it is a city, but thinks of it as a vessel that will take him away from the desert.”3 The camel driver sees his own city through his own culture shock. Althea Thauberger had transformed a few bocks of what has become known by the popular media and others—particularly academics looking for grants—as the Downtown Eastside into a movie set. The culture shock was the suddenness of becoming a “we” in a street theatre without a subject. Vancouver is the incarnation of a colonial dream that parades itself as modern. It is home to subjectless “subjects’ who are full of the self-consciousness of being in a Gesamtkunstwerk. What is maintained is the illusion that Vancouver is a unique city.

Thauberger’s Fellini-like street scene constructed a text on the street. It was a text that should have allowed us to continue to hear the footsteps of the ghosts of nomads of the past in this depiction of Carrall Street now. The work was something of an intervention in a city that aspired to be seen as a work of art. The primitive, raw edge of experience present in the poverty-stricken spaces surrounding Carrall Street remains willfully invisible to the city’s other borders. Most of the older neighbourhoods are now blurred by the network of streets and arteries that cut through the city like razor blades. The archaic and now invisible history becomes laced with nostalgia. The artist-as-ethnographer builds a total work of art on dramaturgical principles constructed in the heart of Gastown by contracting with small clusters of people meandering through a city block. Eddies of snapshots claimed to transform this planned convergence of people into a profane illumination of the actually existing extinct neighbourhood.

The recasting of the street as a text was a minimalist construction because it reduced “the city” to a series of random performative incidents that created the illusion of the city as a total work of art. The performance was an event without an author. The city as a “life world” of artifice dramatized itself by sacrificing art to the idea of the city. The city performs itself. City works—as they were called in the age of Baudelaire, Dickens, Kafka, and then the photographers who saw the city as a foundation of neo-modern thinking—are now a form of sociology that claims to explain the rise and fall of the urban. The idea of sacrifice is important to my analysis because, by acting out the dramatic or theatrical and subsequently blurring the boundaries of the performative through the street being enacted by interactive scenes, we valorize the mundane as the everyday without the intervention of art that will show us common situations and the commonplace that we do not recognize (which is different both historically and artistically from the documentary as a witness of the everyday). Put another way, commonplace situations raise to the power of a dialectic allow us to see artistic workings of the entanglement of surface and depth, the near and the far, and the interconnectedness of phenomenal reality with the people who build that reality. If autonomous art is sacrificed to experience as such and the framing of experience becomes a loose array of frozen sociologically interesting moments in time that are fleeting rather than memorable, then we are in the domain of another kind of artistic movement: the theatrical performance as a series of transient acts.

I refer to Walter Benjamin’s critique of surrealism by pointing out that in the Carrall Street enclave the air of the city has been sucked out by the glass ghettos of the uptown shops of the commercial centres to the west and north. This leaves the area to the “reader, the thinking, the loiterer, the flâneur […] the illuminati, just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic […] not to mention that most terrible drug—ourselves—which we take in solitude.”4 Benjamin, and before him Georg Simmel and Siegfried Kracauer, realized that the city exhausts the individual of resources of resistance. The individual is reduced to the tumbledown interior of this self whose solitude recalls those Others, in the case of Carrall Street, the Mercurians, First Nations peoples, and dead readers who possess no shrines, who once walked here on the edge of experience, the edge of the potlatch now measured not by contemplation of wealth and its origins, but by the irradiations of the consumer capital that makes those who cannot buy into its repositories—such as abandoned warehouses of mental energy—reduced to poverty or sickness.

The inconspicuous Carrall Street that exists as a threshold street rather than a thoroughfare or crossroad is a gateway to a crime: after one-hundred years of heavy investment in real estate and brutalist development, Vancouver has become a city that is not more unique than any other continental pioneer settlement becoming an urban modern place. But it is precisely modern because it has managed to become a city where most of us are the observers and analyzers as well as willing and obedient participants in a failed illumination of the historical sources of the changes. In this sense, it is no wonder that the turn of the performance as a text is a form of art as communication that turns to historical reminders that imitate historical reconstruction. The placement of Stan Douglas’ forty-four foot photo mural Abbott and Cordova, 7 August 1971 (2008) in the atrium of the Westbank Projects/Peterson Investment Group Woodward’s Redevelopment at Abbott and Cordova, for example, frames culture shock into historical idioms of riots, streets, and police intervention. Culture shock is ameliorated by the artwork.


Walter Benjamin Square

Benjamin criticized the nervy surrealists for failing to bring their “profane illuminations” into the “materialist, anthropological inspiration” promised by their orientation to the city of Paris. The strength of the surrealist Breton was that “he was the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the “outmoded,’ in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, the objects that have begun to become extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them. The relation of these things to revolution—none can have a more exact concept of it than these authors. No one before these visionaries and augurs perceived how destitution—not only social but architectonic, the poverty of interiors, enslaved and enslaving objects—can be suddenly transformed into revolutionary nihilism.”5

Benjamin is not only referring to the aging of the city as seen through the profane optics of a camera keen to see the phantasms of the past in the present. He also notes how the immediate aging of the surrealists intelligentsia that constitutes this subject will become part of the landscape of the city. Their mental energies lead to “collective innervation.”6 Benjamin’s comment should have been a banner over Carrall Street. Then I would have understood the culture shock of wandering into a street to be renamed “Hidden Dialectical Street,” where the destitution of the surrounding neighbourhood and revolutionary nihilism come together around property, boundaries, borders, and zones of contact that disappear into nothingness rather than action. But ethnography or historical narratives as art are not about action. They are about texts.


Georg Simmel: Culture Shock Laneway

Simmel, the German philosopher and sociologist of the city, money, and the inner structures of the self, used the city as the benchmark for modernity. He wrote about the countless ways in which the city was the source of modern nervousness. Being alive in the city was to experience a culture shock without end. It was as if the city spoke to the inhabitants in their sleepless sleep, perhaps in the manner of Dziga Vertov’s phantasmagorical ecstasy of the city, Man With a Movie Camera (1929), invading every nerve of the city.

Simmel’s prophecy about the depersonalized metropolitan individual who wanders nervously about the modern city foretold a future of the individual created by and through the weakness of the self who has few defenses against the revolutionary energies of the capitalism that was transforming the villages and towns of Europe into metropolises. Learning the art of relativity toward the absolute of capital was needed in order to maintain any modicum of social control over modernity. The growing traumas of the middle classes, under siege by the forces of industrialization and the struggle over private property and public space, were augmented by the industrial power that transformed the nineteenth century into the unprecedented movement of people into the city. Just as in Vancouver, migration, immigration, exile, and dislocation intensify the growing traumas of a middle class under siege by the forces of global industrialization and the struggle over private property and public space. In the nineteenth century, this created the conditions for massive migrations to the so-called “new world” that became the ecstasy of a city building that became the modern city that surround the island of Carrall Street.


The Vampires’ Picnic Grove

In 1991, Jeff Wall created a back-lit Cibachrome that is now owned by the Vancouver Art Gallery. It depicts a group of people in diverse poses and guises in a mise-en-scène that gives one pause. Who are these people? I would call them “Mercurians.” This metaphorical name refers to those persons who exist among and alongside the powerful Appolonians in civil society. We either look at them in astonishment or we turn away. They have joined the modern age only part-time. They become easily invisible. They are the modern world’s Baroque angels who harm no one and are nomads, strangers, and gypsy-types. They are, in general, those who make do within the city. They can be actors, nomads, exiles, readers, and spectators of a city.

The forest that surrounds the picnic could refer to any settlement that has been excavated again and again out of the verdant spaces located adjacent to ocean and rivers. The cast of characters—who appear like extras in a film—inhabit a mournful atmosphere. They sit on the earth in poses of ease and dis-ease and peer in various directions. Like Simmel’s characters in the city, they have been abstracted as they stare out in the bloody aftermath of a picnic. Here we have the Baroque allegory where an aftermath to a great tragic event had become a comic run that fills one with the need to know who these people are. Some economic or political process has rendered them soulful and reflective. They have been stunned by their fate of becoming vampires who must feed upon each other. What better allegory of capitalism? The exchange process that turns people toward destructive violence and invades the integrity of their insides takes place with a silent appeal to the absent gods who have ruled over individual desire. This force also transforms the individual into a money person whose desires are sublimated into the use of edible Others and the fetishistic accumulation of goods. Can dressing up for a picnic alleviate the misery of exchange value? The theatricality of the photograph remains operatic and melodramatic. The scene is well lit by floodlights.

Wall’s use of the back-lit Cibachrome photograph does two things with regards to the city: it presents the illusion of reality and it intensifies the reality through artifice by showing us how it is possible to manipulate our vision with the image making powers that extend the prosthetic technology everywhere in the city. Suspicion is built into the spectator until the flatness becomes a haptic experience of touch and depth by critique, memory, and story. The theatricality of the vampire picnickers joins with the hidden theatricality of money as blood money; both money and property are artificial constructions hidden from view by advancing capitalism and become abstractions that govern lifting communities that quickly descend into ruins. The theme could be seen as the connection between possession, value, and money, all of which can reduce Others to a stunned silence over the subjugation of desires into theatricality and social action reduced into invisible motives and impulses.

The theatrical illusion and the abstract theatricality of money have something to do with increasing the possibility of creating images that are uncanny: they are almost memory, almost real, and often sub-real in a Kafka-like aura. In effect, however, the photograph of areas of the city as settlements (but not neighbourhoods or districts) destroys the symbolic nature of formerly inhabited settlements and neighbourhoods. There is no way to see the city except via maps, architectural drawings, panoramas, or the high view provided by revolving restaurants located at the tops of buildings. We also have the photograph to create a total impression of the city. When this destruction of the symbolic occurs, certain “rescue operations” surface in order to repair the loss of experience. Staging the city for the city-builder is one stage in the aesthetic formations of the avant-garde. We reach out for the phenomenological understanding of our modern condition. Lately, this had been embodied in the search for a total work of art that the city seems to promise. The theatricality of art remains the shadow of the objects that we experience in daily situations. The street becomes a movie-like theatrical ensemble of effects without an author. Replaced are the ornamental interiors of once great movie houses—with names like Strand, Loews, Palace, Bijou, and Ritz—that existed when I was growing up in this smallish, mercantile, and industrial city.

Simmel suggests that “money provides the technical possibility for the creation of the correlation in basic social relationships. [However], the result had to be subjective in the worst sense of the word—an arbitrary, inadequate valuation that made a momentary constellation into a fetter for future developments.”7 Money flows upward and downward, he writes, in a way that ultimately forms an invisible totality, a total work of society that governs the invisibility of diverse interests. This is unless one has a theory of class conflict. The Vampires’ Picnic is about the loss and maybe even the absence of a theatre of desire in terms of the displacement of actors from the theatre, the elimination of images from the movie houses, and the removal of the roof from the shelter of the imagination. Wall’s vagabonds are exposed to the elements.

Alongside the event on Carrall Street stand the facades of new and expensive urban housing as well as ornamental lamp posts and iron gates. The mastery of the street belongs to the relationship of private property to those civil institutions hunted by the presence of vagrancy and homelessness. The Vampire’s Picnic grove embodies this location where the topography of fear is domesticated into a picnic. The built-in violence of a money economy affects the geography of perception and the experience of the city. However, the story about Mercurians and settlements displaced by the city as a force for land holding and development can be depicted, but it is difficult to tell.


Exposition Boulevard: Fairs, Clienteles, Crowds, and Architects

Do we really read Vancouver globally? I doubt it. The provincial dominates. We do not want to see how the city is “in us” through developments that hide visible and invisible contradictions of class, inequality, accumulation of wealth, incommensurable communities, and power mediated by imagery. The Vancouver photographs taken by Philip Timms and Leonard Frank in the early half of the twentieth century, and by Fred Herzog after 1950, reveal the invisible holes in the city’s streets, settlements, and common situations. These photographs do not reveal the names of the traders and investors from afar. Instead, the streets spoke the history. Today, there is Hong Kong, Iran, Holland, Germany, and the United States. There are names like Bentalls, Wosks, Blocks, Bronfmans, Marathon Realities, British Pacific, and Birks. They stare at us without us noticing. The railroad builders who built Vancouver through land speculation that ran rampant from the beginning of the nineteenth century into the 1970s and 1980s are invisible. That was the era when the Canadian Pacific Railway bought and sold land so that property values could balloon. The malls replaced settlements and the streets become a route to further land speculation. The newspapers joined in the development of a city and provided reports about the city as if it were a creature roving and roaming through unfettered land claims.8 The railroad tracks and access to the ports, all adjacent to the city where people live, are outfitted with total electronic surveillance using multiple technologies in order to conform to the United States Homeland Security laws. No surveillance, no shipping, no trade. In this sense Carrall Street brought a sense of surveillance right into the public world. Everyone watched each other with an inner eye and inner fear.

Street photography and the journalism that makes the newspaper the storytelling sponsor of the city were part of the process of building the consciousness of the city as though it were a gigantic arcade. The manias of collecting, examining, ornamenting, decorating, and re-presenting a past through the dramaturgical use of a site that never was (or could be) permanent is imagined and symbolically orchestrated by city planning gurus to produce new breeding grounds for the choir of developers who are the mediating and objectifying powers in the market place society. Photography becomes both the agent provocateur and documentary agent for showing the city in its many guises. Berenice Abbott’s photographs gave us a high view while Jacob Riis’ photographs gave us an inside view of poverty. But it is Eugène Atget’s photographs that gave us the topography of fear in the cityscape.

In the Paris of the Second Empire, commercial photography made possible the mass production of portraits as the frontal and facial landscape of the interior of the city. Important photographs of famous people attracted crowds of onlookers who looked at the personages close at hand in the image itself; these were people who they had only seen if at all from a distance in ceremonies and parades on grid-like streets. Financiers, politicians, dignitaries, social adventurers, entertainers, and businessmen could be produced in pictures that were two feet high until the photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri started making mass portraits a few inches in size. These are the city-builders.

Architects are city-builders too. Gregory Henriquez, the architect of the Woodward’s reconstruction, has spoken about his vision and finds an archetype in the development:

Woodward’s is a wonderful archetype. It is a public-private partnership in the best sense of the word. The public is representative of the public. We have a community advisory council involved in the design process. The City of Vancouver is taking a real leadership role. We also have enlightened developers who want to do the right thing—such as Ian Gillespie and Ben Yeung. Together, you can accomplish a lot because you can create inclusive communities, which aren’t ghettos. For Woodward’s, you won’t have ghettos for the wealthy, or for communities with very few resources. You have a real city. You have a city where everyone shares a common ground, while having his or her own space at the same time. Everyone is part of the same complex. What I’ve learned is that the new partnerships are really economic partnerships between communities, the City, and the developers such that we can provide mixed inclusive environments that are win-win for everyone. Developers are permitted more height which allows them to pay for more amenities which can then subsidize social housing, community benefit and cultural facilities.9

There’s that work “community” again that has been emptied of any meaning. The total work of art is the total inclusive “community.” No ghettos are allowed here.


Settlement Street 1900

Who were the workers and tradesmen who made up this settlement society? Does Henriquez’s idealism about a community governed by developers and planners’ “win-win” values tell us enough about the “other” people? I call them Mercurians. They can be seen around Carrall Street, yet they are invisible to the naked eye because they are merely stereotypes to those that do not live here. In 1900, these Mercurians were visible as immigrants, adventurers, and those in flight from persecution, famine, unemployment, wars, and plagues. They had left the “old world” but carried it within them first as strangers and then as creators of surplus as they settled in the several square miles within the vicinity of Carrall Street: Farmers, Carpenters, Tinkers, Domestic Labourers, Brewers, Druggists, Doctors, Pharmacists, Hatters, Butchers, Hunters, Fishers, Shoemakers, Loggers, Commercial Travellers, Pedlars, Bakers, Tailors, Metalworkers, Potters, Soldiers, Photographers, Typesetters, Printers, Soldiers, Brewers, Blacksmiths, Plasterers, Storekeepers, Chandlers, Surveyors, Police, Miners, Teamsters, Coopers, Carpenters, Entertainers, Accountants, Fire Brigadiers, Engineers, “Gentlemen,” Teachers, Ministers, Newspaper Editors, Bankers, Speculators, Realtors.

These individuals are the bearers of culture who put the old world to flight and arrived in the city in order to remove the settlement mentality from the wooden sidewalks and build it into an urban and worldly place. Beneath the plank sidewalks and the landscape, as the photographs of Christos Dikeakos whose us, is the land game that quickly begins to be played as the habitat was dismembered piece by piece through money exchange, Indian Agents, and the implementation of the Territorial Education Acts.


Hermetic One-Way Interchange

These are the culture shock troops for those Mercurians who exist outside the domains of the Nomads, Mobs, Crowds, and Masses. They are the rationalistic artificiales, hybrids, and composites who consisted of service workers, those of chimerical nationality, strangers, intelligentsia, teachers, ministers, ex-soldiers, students, apprentices who change jobs and become other than their pasts, exiles, who did not carry the national canons but begin to seed the cultural memory of regions an settlements with new combinations of culture. Fore example, insider/outsiders, drop outs, prostitutes, cancers, actors, opium smokers, squatters, homeless vagrants, panhandlers, land-clearers, musicians, spiritualists, promoters, anarchists, utopians, visionaries, mystics, actors. Caricaturists show them as dangerous or comic or as just plain outsider-strangers; the culture begins to be built out of popular and traditional forms of entertainment and the cross over of literacy and the public world of shifting and leaking boundaries. The dominant British, Scottish, and German population controlled the public sphere of a rapidly growing population of over 100,000 by 1900. The Chinese, Japanese, and Indian sub-continental peoples became the new foreign peoples displacing the pre-political pagans, the barbarians, the indigenous peoples, who lived by fishing, sea and land hunting, and whose houses and canoes, receptacles for food, laws and alliances, languages, shamanism, potlatches could not be understood by the settlers.

The transfer and transmission of collective memory from one civilization to another is the most difficult of all dramaturgical and theatrical processes framed by art and memory. Does Carrall Street depict a life crisis ritual the way Samuel Beckett’s plays to? Anthropologists and psychologists have described “culture shock” as a feeling that occurs when a person enters a new culture and feels disoriented, out of place, and even invisible. This sense of dislocation can happen when one moves to a new neighbourhood, country or into a new family. It can also happen when one witnesses an unusual or unexpected occurrence in one’s own city. By using an improvisational form to stimulate our social conscience, theatricality in art can draw upon the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography when political uses of art fall into an insecure relationship with autonomous art. Politically conscious art extends itself to new subject matter in the search for historical images that will reinforce the “now” as an event or performance.

This disorientation brings one fact to face with what is simultaneously near and far, as well as with the intellectual relativity associated with the money economy of the metropolis that Simmel refers to as “the wave-like motion” that extends the metropolis “over a broader national or international area.”10 This has many contemporary counterparts. In such situations, we can experience our own culture as a series of invasions into our own sense of security. Encountering new experiences in literature or art can also produce shock and make us feel transitory. The ruins and pathos of attending to the transient nature of a city’s landscape brings the “taste” or “feel” of a sharp sense of loss or disorientation. Shock to one’s memory of another photograph or another city can be induced. The person who undergoes this experience might feel anxious, uneasy and even depressed. In the process, Others may be reduced to mere stereotypes. Coming to Carrall Street might be a form of culture shock since the street camouflages those who do not share in this property based, rights based civil society that benefits the growing numbers of the few.11 Private property determines who is and is not a stranger and who gets to stay today and tomorrow based on who owns land.

The city becomes a hunting ground in the aftermath of culture shock. It becomes a place to scavenge impressions, food, clothing, and survival tools of both the tourist and the stranger to a neighbourhood. It is culture shock to be entertained by Klieg lights that blot out the sky and point to the high view that dominates the intoxicated centre of uptown Vancouver. What is reproduced here is the idea of the city in the mirrored glass and light that might have, at one time, shocked those who looked at monumental photographs of the city. It may be comforting to wander into Carrall Street stagecraft, but the boundaries are the primitive edge of the experience of the love affair with the Downtown Eastside and the claim that spectatorship can overcome the symptomatic crisis of art and politics in the post-autonomous age of art as it relates to First Nations immiseration.12 The result is that “we” spectator-agent-counterfeiters of the new become like the inhabitants of the lines of Beckett’s 1975 play Footfalls where a mouth speaks and reduces those beggars, strangers, and pedlars among us to the “Not I.” They are Simmel’s adventurers in the city, the exiles, the homeless and the wanderers of humanity. The sojourners become shoppers.

The ancient art of pedlars, who were also book sellers and experts at colportage and itinerancy, may be the origin of the intelligentsia. The pedlars knew no borders and transmitted literacy through book peddling. They lived by their wits and traded news and objects. This is a form of literacy transmission that cannot be seen in the “total work of art.” Storekeepers and the department store usurped the regime of pedlars. The pedlars, as Laurence Fontaine writes, were scapegoats that the state, according to police documents, “used to ease the tensions between divided communities […] in return, the pedlars exploited their marginal position, which protected the freedom that was essential to their continuing wealth—or even just to their survival—and tricked their way out of all attempts to register their status, evaluate their fortunes, uncover their business connections, or unravel their activities, leaving the historians battling with blank documents.”13 Carrall Street today is a ruin of a once vibrant merchant entrepreneurial culture. To ask “What happened to Vancouver?” is to call up Benjamin’s contention that such questions are based on the “humiliating sobriety” that has lost the battle of living in the city “on the morning before a battle or after a victory.”14


Not a Detour: Being Outfitted for a Topography of Terror Walk. The Built World Over the Hidden Street Scene

The contemporary city has become the most visible evidence of spectacle and masquerade in everyday life. It is the home of the living readers and artists constitutive of an intelligentsia who look into the receptacles and holes where memory might glow. At the same time, the city can be looked at as both a symptom and weapon of the crisis of present day art because it converges with popular art, mass communications, and institutions in decline, all of which reinforce our uncertainty as to whether utilitarian progressive thought can be found within the zoned of contact with contemporary avant-garde art movements.

Architectural styles and forms contribute to a cultural memory, while gentrification produces the security of construction that cannot reproduce the stately homes and public buildings that existed around the city before and after fires caused the reconstruction of cities and planning for growth to quickly cover over the land bulldozed and trucked into the outskirts. Modernity not only hides the past, but it also looks at history through the double lens of normativity and inevitability. Development transforms settlements into modern cities or “urban” enclaves. Such development has made Vancouver the city it now is. What we see are myths, spectacles, and realities marked by the illusion of permanence after more than a century of the city being little more than a resource-based market place that has become an Olympic-sized showplace for the national enterprise of nation-building. What are we to make of the promises to renew, revitalize, and reward those who live and move here?

Is there a counter to the “myth of self creation” about this city? Is it, in fact, a fictional city? It would seem that Thauberger and a young generation of artists working in the city believe that new forms of dramaturgical theatricality can show the city as a Situationist drama where the “collective drift” can outfit us with an inner resistance to over a hundred years of capital development and land grabbing. The Trickster-Mercurian existences that constitute the hidden defenses created within the city’s pathways that socialize around consumerism and development remain attractive as theatrical illusions. Vancouver, as a city trying very hard to be a spectacle, can be described, using Calvino as a guide, as “the city [that] repeats its life, identical, shifting up and down on its empty chessboard. The inhabitants repeat the same scenes, with the actors changed; they repeat the same speeches with variously combined accents; they opened up identical yawns. Alone, among the cities of empire, Eutropia remains, always the same. Mercury, god of the fickle, to the city is sacred, worked this ambiguous Miracle.”15

At one point in Invisible Cities, Calvino observes that those who arrive by sea discern in the “coastline’s haze […] the form of a camel’s withers, an embroidered saddle with glittering fringe between humps […] he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a camel […] taking him away from the desert of the sea […] Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes; and so the camel driver and the sailor see Despina, a border city between two deserts.”16 Calvino’s image not only evokes the arrival of explorers, vagabonds, immigrants, and outcasts to inland dynasties, towns and cities, but it also evokes the arrival of those who come to the northern shores of the western part of the North American continent from land and sea, those who brought with them the modernity that has resulted in Vancouver as it exists today and also tomorrow.



  1. Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London: New Left Books, 1979),225. Benjamin’s essay was originally written in 1929.
  2. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1974), 17. This novel is a dialogue between Marco Polo and Genghis Kahn on the nature of cities as the origin of dynasties, desire, and memory. Each city that marco Polo visits has the name of a woman. Vancouver is not mature enough as a city to have names of women as founding gods. So my naming uses other “emblematic concepts” by renaming the enclaves around Carrall Street with the names of authors or concepts.
  3. Ibid.,3.
  4. Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism,” 237.
  5. Ibid., 229.
  6. Ibid., 239.
  7. Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, ed. David Frisby, trans. Tom Bottomore and David Frisby (London and New York: Routledge, 1978), 317.
  8. See Donald Gutstein, Vancouver, Ltd. (Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 1975)
  9. “An Ethical Plan,” Ian Chodikoff interviews Gregory Henriquez, Canadian Architect (February 2007) (accessed 22 Feb 2009).
  10. Georg Simmel, “Metropolis and Mental Life,” On Individuality and Social Forms, ed., Donald N. Levine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 335. See “The Stranger,” “The Adventurer,” and “The Ruin” in this same volume. “Metropolis and Mental Life” was first published in 1903. Important to Simmel’s approach to the visible and invisible in the city is “The Ruin” in Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics, ed. Kurt H. Wolff (New York: Harper and Row, 1965).
  11. See Simmel, “The Stranger,” 143: “The Stranger will thus not be considered here in the usual sense of the term, as the wanderer who comes today and is gone tomorrow, but rather as the man who comes today and stays tomorrow.”
  12. See Jeff Wall, “Depiction, Object, Event,” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Inquiry (Autumn/Winter 2007):5-17. Wall discusses the “new order of confusion of he arts” in which depiction, painting, and theatricality compete with one another for the right to abandon autonomous art.
  13. Laurence Fontaine, History of Pedlars in Europe, trans. Vicki Whittaker (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 204.
  14. Benjamin, “Surrealism,” 229.
  15. Calvino, Invisible Cities, 64-65.
  16. Ibid., 17.