City Living: Grandview comes alive on heritage walking tour

Neighbourhood history includes stolen statues, park skeletons, Belfast Spider

The park on the corner of McLean Drive and Charles Street has a long mosaic path in a flowing shape like a stream. The aptly named Mosaic Creek Park slopes down to nothing particularly exciting, evidenced by the din of trailer truck traffic a block away on Clark Drive, which 100 years ago used to be the banks of a waterway at high tide until it was filled in.

While waiting for stragglers to show up for Saturday’s Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s 10 a.m. tour of the Grandview neighbourhood, guide Maurice Guibord showed he has a knack for making anything seem interesting as most of the group were engrossed in a mission— to count how many cats and skeletons they could find in the patterns of broken tile.

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“This is a typical example of what this neighbourhood is all about, and that is community projects,” said Guibord of the 18-year-old mosaic, adding that the Grandview neighbourhood, which runs as wide as Burrard Inlet to Trout Lake and as tall as Clark Drive to Nanaimo Street, had the least amount of parks per capita up until the 1990s.

Next stop on the walk was in front of a house near the oldest remaining high school in the city, Britannia secondary. The house, a rather plain character home with grey siding, was where boxer Jimmy McLarnin lived during the 1920s. “Anybody know him?” the guide asked of his tour of 10 who in return looked at him blankly. “That’s so Canadian of us, we don’t know our own heroes!” exclaimed Guibord in mock exasperation.

McLarnin, also known as Baby Face and, as a nod to his Irish roots, the Belfast Spider, was paid a dollar for his first fight and made $60,000 per fight by the end of his career. In between, he was a two-time welterweight world champion who spent some of his time on the golf course with his buddies Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

“He was the Rocky of the neighbourhood,” Guibord added. “He used to run around in this neighbourhood and all the kids would run after him. He was a legend — he truly was at that time.”

The two-hour-long walking tour meandered through a few blocks of Grandview. Not a great distance was covered but a great deal of history was. Housing styles and modern-day development challenges were topics with fascinating bits of history thrown in. (Did you know the interurban, which used to run up Commercial Drive in 1891, was the first intercity electric railway in North America?)

The tour was not without its neighbourhood mysteries. Guibord told the story of the Christopher Columbus statue that went missing in 2000 from the Piazza Italia Park at Clark and East Fifth Avenue only to turn up months later in Hastings Park when unidentified masked men reportedly stormed out of a van and quickly bolted Columbus to the base of another monument in front of stunned Vancouver park board staff.

At 1050 Odlum Dr. stands a gold Edwardian heritage home built by John L. McKenzie in 1910, and Guibord was so taken with the place he sprang up the steps to knock on the door to see if anybody was home.

The group on the sidewalk shifted nervously in their shoes, but it turned out it was a planned visit and homeowner Rob Mitchell welcomed the group inside his lovely restored home. (Guibord pulled the same trick on a previous tour and one fellow, refusing to partake in such rudeness, stalked down the road only realizing he had his leg pulled when he turned around and saw an empty sidewalk.)

“I’m a public historian,” said Guibord, who is involved in several historical groups including La Société historique francophone de la Colombie-Britannique. “And a public historian’s mandate is to make history interesting, to tell you the cool stories every neighbourhood has and then trick you into learning the hard stuff!”

Even if it starts with finding approximately six cats and one skeleton in a mosaic path.

The Vancouver Heritage Foundation hosts several tours of Vancouver neighbourhoods. Guide John Atkin leads a Strathcona tour this Saturday while Guibord takes his group to Japantown. For more information, or to register, go to vancouverheritagefoundation.org.

 rblissett@telus.net

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