ARCHIVES: Memory loss — Clark Drive plaza sits forgotten and neglected

Note: This story was first published June. 28, 2006.

Twenty years ago a monument to Angelo Holmes' grandfather — celebrated Italian-Canadian jurist Angelo Branca —  was dedicated with great pride near the SkyTrain line on Clark Drive. Now it sits forgotten and neglected.  

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A small plaque, inscribed Oct. 11, 1986, affixed to a large, but bare pedestal, hints at the origin of a long-abandoned concrete plaza on the west side of Clark Drive at Grandview Highway North.

Little else offers passersby a clue to its significance. Bits of debris and used hypodermic needles litter the surrounding area and nearby bushes, stagnant water sits in a broken-down fountain and the monument's lights no longer function.

Overhead, SkyTrain cars roar by at regular intervals, while rush-hour traffic speeds along Clark — drivers oblivious to the plaza's existence, history and ultimate neglect.

Angelo Holmes darts across the busy six-lane truck route, arriving at the plaza with a frown on his face.

"It looks like it's used by drug users. I haven't been here in years. It's absolutely horrible. I'm just getting upset coming here," he says surveying the site, irritated by both its state and a location that's both absurd and difficult to reach.

Holmes, 46, was here 20 years earlier to attend the site's christening in honour of his grandfather, Angelo Branca — a former B.C. Supreme and Appeal Court justice who grew up on the East Side.

It was one of many small parks and plazas created along the B.C. Parkway, roughly following the SkyTrain line, as a beautification project in the mid-'80s when the system debuted during Grace McCarthy's term as B.C. minister of transportation. Others include the German-Canadian Heritage Plaza across from the 29th Avenue SkyTrain station.

The Confratellanza Italo-Canadese (Italian-Canadian Brotherhood), funded this endeavour, which once featured a three-foot-tall Christopher Columbus statue — a gift from the City of Genoa in memory of Branca.

 Over the years vandals damaged the site, a plaque explaining its origin was stolen and the statue disappeared mysteriously, only to reappear later just as mysteriously at Hastings Park Italian Garden. Other than the occasional cleaning the plaza has been ignored.

That's until Laara Egan started making calls this spring. The Surrey resident, who lived on the East Side until property prices drove her to the suburbs, isn't Italian but the plaza's history piqued her interest when a friend pointed it out.

Over the past three months, she's talked to TransLink, the Greater Vancouver Regional District, B.C. Rapid Transit, the city and the parks board, as well as to Angelo Holmes, to uncover the details behind the plaza's creation, with hopes another memorial could be created in a more appropriate spot as a permanent tribute to Branca.

"It is heartbreaking that this once beautiful memorial plaza is not even a memory. All that money and energy for nothing," she says.

But Branca's grandson and other Branca family members are satisfied the Columbus statue is in the Italian Garden in an area named for Branca. With no sentimental attachment to the Clark Drive plaza site, largely because of its poor location, they also see no point in maintaining the memorial.

"I wouldn't put anything here anymore," says Holmes above the constant drone of traffic on this sunny Tuesday afternoon. "This is true, as far as I'm concerned, they can level it and put grass in here."

Angelo Branca was considered one of Vancouver's most influential Italian-Canadians of his time. Born near Duncan on Vancouver Island in 1903, the son of a coal miner, he grew up on the East Side, then moved to Dunbar in the 1940s before settling in West Vancouver's British properties in 1965.

He was the youngest prosecutor of his day, a park commissioner and an amateur boxer who won the middleweight championship of B.C. in the 1930s. From 1963 to 1966 he sat as a Supreme Court Justice, before being elevated to the B.C. Court of Appeal, a position he held between 1966 and 1978 when he retired at 75. Branca died in October of 1984 at age 81.

A devout Catholic, he was father to daughters Dolores Holmes — Angelo's mother and a retired provincial judge — and Patricia Battensby, a retired nurse.

Battensby wrote about her father for a 2004 tribute recalling, "Christmas was legendary. It was always truly a United Nations as Angelo, during wartime, would drive down the street and pick up service men who lived out of town and no Christmas with family to be with. The table proudly boasted Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of various languages. He was never happier than when he presided over his great table at home."

Admirers weren't limited to his immediate family. Yeshiva University in New York awarded him the "Reverence of the Law" honour, California State University bestowed on him the "Lincoln Reverence of Law" distinction, while the State of Israel granted him the Prime Minister honour in 1978, awarded by then Prime Minister Menachem Begin because of Branca's close association with the Jewish community.

That relationship was cited in a glowing article about Branca by writer Eve Rockett, which appeared in the Vancouver Sun in 1973. It noted he was co-chairman of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, Pacific region, and received its human relations award in 1972.

"This Roman Catholic was the second Canadian ever to receive the Yeshiva University Award, presented by the Jewish Community of Vancouver," she wrote. "Each year an Angelo Branca scholarship fund sends a Canadian student to Yeshiva, the oldest and largest Jewish university in the United States."

Rockett noted Branca defended 62 accused murderers during his career and lost only two cases: four charges were reduced to manslaughter and the rest of the accused were freed.

"Branca was indeed a performer, but underneath was a dagger-sharp mind with a magnetic affinity for law; a mind kept finely honed by one of the largest privately owned law libraries in Canada," Rockett wrote, noting many of his clients were on legal aid.

Branca was also the founder of the Confratellanza Italo-Canadese in 1966, which amalgamated four of the oldest Italian-Canadian societies in the City of Vancouver.

The club, still active today, donates to charities, hospitals, scholarships and medical research. It's one of several associations affiliated with the Italian Cultural Centre.

Holmes served as vice-president of the club when the memorial plaza to his grandfather's considerable legacy was erected. It sits on land owned by the neighbouring C. Martino Auto Centre, although it's on a TransLink right-of-way.

Norm Langerhorst, wayside manager for B.C. Rapid Transit, which operates and maintains SkyTrain, says staff drop by several times a year to clean up the site.

"We do graffiti every week, but when it comes to pavers that need to be replaced or weeds pulled we do that four times a year," he says, pointing out the German-Canadian plaza is maintained by that group but B.C. Rapid Transit takes care of all the other parks and plazas along the B.C. Parkway through its maintenance budget.

He agrees the location of the Italian Plaza is unfortunate, although Clark Drive wasn't as busy 20 years ago. Langerhorst isn't aware of any plans by TransLink to do anything with the site.

"There was some plans to extend what they call the greenway. There was going to be a bridge there that goes from the northwest corner of the Clark Street bridge over the Grandview Cut," he says. "It was supposed to connect over to Terminal Street by the Home Depot, but that's been abandoned because of cost. I'm not sure what's going there now."

TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie says about 20 different mini-parks sprung up in the '80s along the SkyTrain route, sponsored by different ethnic societies. Some, like the German-Canadian site, are well-maintained, while other societies disbanded, he says, and the plazas abandoned.

Aside from the Confratellanza, prominent private donors for the Italian Plaza project included the late ship builder Vito Trevisi, Frank Folino of McRae Electric, which did the electrical work, and Pat Baratta of P. Baratta Construction, which did the excavation. The total cost was $50,000--$25,000 from the Confratellanza, $15,000 from Trevisi and $10,000 from the province.

Holmes confesses he hadn't given the plaza much thought in years until Egan called. The former library technician used her researching skills to track information down, although few seemed clear on its history and some of the information was contradictory. Holmes, she says, proved the best source.

"This [plaza] is just where the homeless sleep. I think it's a shame because of all the energy and money that people put into it to honour Angelo Branca," she adds. "He was great. He stood for the underdog. He fought for people's rights. He was a really outspoken judge and he stood for decency and justice and earned the respect of everybody.

Egan wishes the plaza had been maintained, but concedes another location is preferable. "I'd love to see something done and people educated about Vancouver history and some of the great people in it."

Sitting on the plaza's dirty steps, Holmes clearly regrets its location. He says the club was told two decades ago that the area was to become more residential. Instead it became solidly industrial and commercial, with Clark Drive used as a major through-way for trucks on their way to the port and commuters crossing Vancouver.

"How can anybody even come near it. I'm upset because we got conned into this whole thing. It's terrible, it's dangerous. I get upset coming here just thinking how stupid the whole thing was. It was supposed to be developed differently, more pedestrian-friendly. We would never have put this here if we knew it was going to stay the same. The Confratellanza would never have financed it if was going to stay the way it looked 20 years ago and it hasn't changed," he says.

"TransLink is supposed to maintain this — that was the deal in perpetuity if we built this and they were supposed to keep the lighting going. I remember that was part of the deal. They haven't kept up with it."

He says the Confratellanza also didn't maintain it.

 Perhaps doomed from the start, the Italian plaza's problems continued over 20 years. Just ask Carmen Martino, owner of the auto centre, which opened in 1989.

"If it was mine, I would have already levelled it. You won't believe what's going on over there night and day — between drugs, prostitution, garbage and the graffiti," he says. "It's not a question of location, it's the way that thing is made — it provides a haven and hideout for people to go in and do whatever business they want to do."

Martino, who is familiar with Branca's contributions to the city, maintains the site never did justice to the judge's memory, even with the Christopher Columbus statue.

"You wouldn't believe how many times we had to remove garbage from right on top of it," he explains. "We used to leave tires in the back over there. In the morning, you would find two of three of them right on top of the statue — it was just ridiculous. I don't know why they didn't place the statue in the Italian community centre."

It might have been safer. The plaque explaining its origin was pried off the pedestal in the early 1990s, around the 500th anniversary of Columbus' "discovery" of America.

Four remaining bolt holes are the only sign of its existence. Some speculated First Nations people destroyed it to protest the controversial celebration focused on Columbus, although many plaques around the city are also stolen for the value of the brass.

But it wasn't the only thing to go missing. Years later, in the spring of 2000, the Columbus statue was stolen in the dead of night during the period when the Italian Garden at Hastings Park was being designed and spearheaded by parks commissioner Allan De Genova, now a member of the Confratellanza.

Rumour has it that prominent members of the Italian community were involved in the caper, determined to find a better home for the sculpture. De Genova says he doesn't know who took it, but points out the Italian community and Confratellanza were divided over whether it should remain at the Clark Drive site or be moved.

He recalls what happened several months after the theft, before the Italian Garden's official opening.

"A number of [parks] staff were standing at the garden as it was just being finished and this white van pulls up and all of a sudden out comes this statue. They bring it over to a podium and start bolting it down," De Genova says. "Everyone was a little surprised. All of a sudden this mysterious statue showed up. There was a police investigation, I even got called by the police wanting to know how it disappeared. It was quite the thing. All of a sudden it showed up and some guys got out of a van and they started bolting it down and then drove off."

The Vancouver Police Department couldn't track down old reports about the incident for the Courier. Holmes suspects police simply dropped the matter.

"It was buried. I think it was just, 'Shut up and let it appear.' I think the police left it alone and let the Italian community figure it all out," he says. "They have more pressing issues. Maybe they thought if nobody from the Branca family or the Confratellanza were really pursuing it, what are they going to do. So it all just came out right... The statue is now where it should be and let's just let it rest and leave it there."

Holmes doesn't know who took Christopher Columbus, nor where it was stored for four months. He says he simply hoped at the time it would end up in the right place. "It was just not appropriate to take it in the dead of night," he says.

The statue, called The Dreamer, now resides in "Il Giardino," the main entrance of which is on Renfrew at Triumph Street. It's located midway down the block between Hastings and McGill streets, through the Angelo Branca Parterre.

Egan doesn't object to Columbus's location, but would like to see more done to recognize one of the city's most highly regarded citizens.

"Off the top of my head, I'd like to see a better place, a better location and some sort of monument to Angelo Branca. I think the family deserves that — his memory deserves that," she says. "I think the Columbus statue has found a nice home in the Italian Garden and it seems to be at peace there. But it's not really related to Angelo Branca really. That was donated by the City of Genoa. It would be nice if there's just something for Angelo Branca."

Holmes, while appreciating Egan's effort and sentiment, would rather leave well enough alone, satisfied with the statue's new location and certain the Clark Drive plaza site is a lost cause.

noconnor@vancourier.com

twitter.com/naoibh

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