Newlyweds Millette’s keeping a journal of their life at Woodward’s – 128 W Cordova

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

A resident writes of the attractions of a home where talent, and sunrises, are the neighbours

Suzannah Millette

Newlyweds Suzannah and John Millette’s Woodward’s apartment is located on the 30th floor of the taller of the two towers, with views to the east and south -and of the revolving ‘W’ turned on a week ago today. Suzannah is keeping a journal of their life at Woodward’s. Photograph by: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun, Special To The Sun

I live in a Woodward’s home because I love a good story. I only know through legend and hearsay how this one started and I don’t know how it will end. But I do know I am here for its most intriguing chapter.

I get to live among the most dynamic and talented people in this city. I knew the area is home to Vancouver’s creative companies: design firms, production houses, architectural firms, boutiques, independent restaurants, and at least one famous recording studio. What I didn’t know until I unpacked was how many like-minded people I’d be sharing a roof with. And I certainly didn’t know there would be an unofficial art gallery at my doorstep. At any given time, there is usually at least one artist selling his works on the corner of Cambie and Cordova. So far, we have two Ken Foster pieces. The second was bought when he came up to the apartment: he really wanted to see inside Woodward’s.

I was happy to share it with him. The world outside my door is intriguing, but waking up in this apartment is the best part of my day. If the sunrise is bouncing off the glass towers of downtown, I jump out of bed and onto the deck to see the day turn on behind Mount Baker. If it’s overcast, I watch the city wake up; my view stretches from the helicopter terminal by the SeaBus station, up the Inner Harbour and around to Victory Square.

Soon SFU will open and a series of world-class shows will be an elevator ride away. Even the obnoxious, flickering “W” makes me smile, although I admit I live above the reach of its LED light show. The sign represents what’s possible when a group of people takes on a seemingly impossible task. This block was the city’s first hub; now, it is the last interesting place to live in Vancouver.

The Woodward’s development takes up most of a city block. On its northwest corner, you can see tourists taking photos of the Gastown steam clock. On the southeast corner, you can buy stolen bikes. This block is where four distinct communities meet: Gastown, Chinatown, the Downtown Eastside and Vancouver’s financial district.

It’s always been the geographical fulcrum of the city. This is where Vancouver was first established. Loggers and miners frequented beer parlours, while the well-to-do came to the theatres along Cordova Street. Over time, the wooden walkways gave way to concrete, and in 1902 Woodward’s was built. At its height, it was 60,000 square feet of retail, employed hundreds of people and attracted thousands to the area. The glory days didn’t last. As former Woodward’s employee Lou Lasner said about the end: “When they closed the store, I felt very bad about it. Most employees could not comprehend what actually was going to happen to the store. The whole castle came down. It feels like the end of a beautiful film or a book. It is there, but it is not there any more.” I picked up the tale later in the plot, during its most tumultuous chapter. In 2003, a local filmmaker wrote, “Woodward’s has been usurped as a symbol for everything that is wrong in this part of the city. And there is a lot wrong here. . . . The corner is now known for drug deals and overdoses, prostitution, insanity and murder.”

Like a hot potato, the building changed hands multiple times. Nobody wanted to hold onto it for fear of being burned. While developers and politicians debated what to do with it, community activists took up the ”W” as their flag, while the homeless took over the building as their home. It was decided the answer was an experimental mix of commercial, retail, market, and social housing — supposedly an unworkable concept. Before a single brick was moved, countless hours and millions of dollars were spent figuring out who would have the balls and ability to pull it off.

The new Woodward’s is a small miracle performed by gamblers like the politicians and developers who bet their careers on it. They backed the creative minds who made the concept a reality, the architects and activists who figured out the details. Now I get to live in result of their efforts, surrounded by the physical proof that being unreasonable is the only interesting way to live.

It was pulled off by the sort of people who have made Gastown vibrant, the sort of the people who understand the distinction between surviving and creating.

Mark Brand, owner of Gastown haunts Boneta and The Diamond, says the sense of community preceded Woodward’s. “When we opened Boneta,” Brand says, “people thought we were insane. We slept there during power outages and after break-ins to make sure everything was safe.” It’s been worth it. He and his fellow foodies have created a family of sorts. They cost share and, in his words, “look out for each other.”

Why is the creative class drawn to this area? Brand has a theory: “People just want to go out without five guys hitting on them. They just want to find a place with like-minded people, where they can strike up a conversation.” Vancouverites will soon have more choices. Brand says he knows of seven restaurants opening up around here in the next six months.

I’ve been both questioned and congratulated for moving here from Yaletown. Yaletown, a community that also has homelessness, begging and prostitution, used to be interesting. Now a few small blocks host four major chain restaurants. That’s not interesting; that’s Sim City. Main Street used to be the community with a pulse. Now, Slickety Jim’s has burned down and is being replaced by a Tim Hortons.

So how will this story end? Well, it could go one of two ways. It could go the way of Yaletown, if a lack of ingenuity combined with apathy allows money to push out creativity and community. Or it could continue as it began -filled with an eclectic mix of gamblers, cowboys, artists and storytellers. It could remain as it is: the last interesting and independent part of our city.

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