Exposed

by Zbigniew

Bill & ErniePhotograph: Brian Kent/Vancouver Sun, PNG

My memories of the opaquely sanctioned dog & pony show -destined to remain dormant in some atrophied cluster of neurons but reanimated by the hullabaloo of the 30-year anniversary- are not very coherent:

  • a giant hockey stick
  • an undulating highway cum hazardous concrete playground for kids of all ages
  • being coerced by a monarchist into an up-close viewing of the Prince and Princess (Too much Prince, too little Princess, from my vantage)
  • a Psychedelic Furs concert
  • a CPR exhibit that employed a mime to enthusiastically illustrate the decline in passenger rail service
  • a presentation on British Columbia’s mining industry, complete with a chorus of singing puppet minerals -featuring Molybdenum as the basso profondo (sic)
  • the Power Plant studio, where we recorded a not-too-nuanced cover of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” after a piss-up at Club ’86
  • the Philippines Pavilion -essentially a front for the sale of imported rattan furniture
  • Canada Geese in high fidelity 3D
  • gondolas
  • monorail
  • McBarge

All in all, nothing, with nightly fireworks.

*

“The urban recession of the 1980s was still closely linked to the slowdown in the lumber industry, even if its most obvious symptom was a rapid decline in real estate values. But since then, there have been clear signs that the Vancouver economy is both uncoupling from the rest of the province, and becoming more dynamic … it has uncoupled from its interior and become more of a Pacific Rim city, drawing nourishment from its direct links to such centres as Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai Seoul, Taipei, Tokyo.

“Looking at less tangible factors … we could argue that that Vancouver’s recent growth has come from a self-reflexive belief in itself; it succeeds, postmodern style, more because of its image as a place ‘where the action is’ than because of any evident material cause.”

Paul Delaney, “Vancouver as a Postmodern City,” Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City

*

By 1986 the Lower Mainland was no stranger to foreign capital induced megaprojects –witness the Guinness Family development of the British Properties.

Expo brought this dynamic in from the sticks, to the city’s industrial heart, wiping the economic and historical slate clean -a six-month psychic bulldozing by circus. Beehive burners and Sweeney Cooperage were obliterated by a giant watch and a corkscrew rollercoaster. The world was in motion and the motion was up, an elevator to an eventual stop at a circa 40th floor luxury penthouse.

So cleansed, the site’s 83 hectares were sold in bulk to Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing at the wholesale price of $320 million dollars. But wait! If you buy now, the Province will throw in soil remediation, netting the good citizens of BC a scandalous $145 million. And so: “Li Ka-ching!”

Grotesque spectacle as marketing strategy, bulk foreign capital dictating urban development and redevelopment: these are the obvious Expo legacies.

But other nasty seeds were planted in the lead-up to the World Exposition on Transportation and Communication (Class II). In the intervening 30 years these have yielded a bumper crop of bitter fruit.

*

In May of 1986 I was halfway through my undergraduate degree.

I paid my own way, thanks to an affordable tuition -about $1,000 a year for a full coarse-load- and a union job. At Vancouver General Hospital I distributed meals, collected the remains, and operated an industrial washing machine, among other tasks. If there was any “fat” in the system, I didn’t see it. The work was sweaty, dirty, odorous and honest, with daily exposure to the worst a malfunctioning or injured human body can offer, but the best of grace and resilience.

I worked full-time in summer and on-call the rest of the year to focus on my studies. I didn’t exactly live high on the hog. I earned enough to keep my 1977 Volkswagen Sirocco –no functioning heat, radio, or sex appeal- on the road (for extended periods, anyways), graduate debt-free with the vague impression that I had possibly learned something, and scrimp together enough to backpack across Europe -on the cheap.

While the Reagan-Thatcherite dogma was only recently installed by the early 1980s, in BC the neo-liberal agenda was in full tilt under the Social Credit Party and Bennett fils. Having already beaten-up the working public with its proto-austerity “Restraint” regime, Expo opened up new opportunities for the Socreds to dismantle the social safety net and pave the way for dispassionate markets.

In the immediate lead-up to the exposition: six hundred people -mostly poor and elderly occupants of Downtown Eastside SROs- were displaced to make room for tourists, the provincial government having refused to outlaw evictions; university tuition climbed dramatically, as the circus’ deficit grew from $6 million to more than $300 million; and, both against a backdrop of an on-going cold war against organized labour.

These are the other legacies: widespread housing unaffordability and insecurity, massive and debilitating student debt loads, and low-wage employment.

My old union job? Outsourced to an international conglomerate that maximizes shareholder value by limiting wages and providing the worst of goods and services; food is now prepared in Calgary and trucked to Vancouver hospitals, while the poor schmuck that took my place makes less now in relative and absolute terms than I did 30 years ago.

*

On a late summer night in 1986, I’m ‘where the action is,’ patiently enduring the overture that announces the imminent start of the nightly fireworks display.

I am obviously oblivious to the good fortune of having caught the tail end of a social economy that gives a working class kid some opportunities, but I am uneasy. My delicately balanced world of work, study, and rudimentary independence is starting to slip. I’m in the the hole for my suddenly expensive fall courses, and a pocketbook-destroying job action looms on the horizon.

The elaborate and forgettable configuration of ignited powders builds to a crescendo, accompanied by a hysterical chorus that demands, insists, “Something’s Happening … Something’s Happening … SOMETHING’S HAPPENING … SOMETHING’S HAPPENING HERE!” I look up at the tracers fading away, and as the echoes of explosions diminish and the crowd starts its cheering, I think, “There goes my tuition.”

*

It is the 40th anniversary of Habitat Forum.