Thirty-five years ago, Don Larson had a dream. The Downtown Eastside activist noticed an unused stretch of shoreline at the north foot of Main Street. The beachfront boasted spectacular views of Burrard Inlet and the North Shore Mountains. That such natural beauty could exist so close to the mean streets of Main and Hastings stuck with Larson, and soon the C.R.A.B. movement was born: Create A Real Available Beach – a waterfront park for the residents from one of Canada’s poorest postal codes.
Two years later, protesters took over the land in dozens of tents, occupying the otherwise empty site once known by the First Nations as LuckLucky, or “Grove of Beautiful Trees.” For two and a half months the campers remained, demanding that the area become a park for the neighbourhood to enjoy.
Many local musicians and politicians came down to join the campers in solidarity. By some miracle, the feds and the port eventually relented. The Vancouver Port Authority handed over seven acres of waterfront to the park board in the form of a long-term lease. By the summer of 1987, a beautiful oasis was created: Portside Park, which in 2004 was renamed CRAB Park at Portside, in honour of Larson’s miraculous grassroots movement.
On the eve of CRAB Park’s 30th anniversary, Larson, age 70, once again finds himself in a scrap to maintain the jewel he fought so hard to create.
Announced over a year ago, the Port of Vancouver has plans to extend their existing terminal westward, creating land where there was none, with seven acres of infill into the ocean directly offshore from the park. That doesn’t sit well with Larson.
“The park board seems to be in collusion with the Port of Vancouver, which doesn’t seem to be accountable to anybody. The port just does what they want, when they want”, says Larson. “This is a place where people from the wasteland of the inner city can go and clear their heads, not find more noise and pollution and industry, which is what this expansion will bring, in direct view from the beach.”
Barb Daniel, the president of the nearby Four Sisters Housing Co-operative, has been extremely active in the recent battle over CRAB, and she agrees.
“The port claims the expansion won’t impact the park because it won't touch the park. That’s like saying I'll put a steel mill across the street from your house, but it won't have any impact on you.”
Daniel doesn’t put much faith in the public consultations the port has been hosting for the past year, either. “The ‘consultation’ process is no more than a show. From pre-design to the present, the port has never wavered in its plan to proceed with zero regard for the dire consequences to the community”, says Daniel, who presented both the port and the House of Commons (via MP Jenny Kwan) with a petition of over 12,000 signatures against the expansion.
When I asked Robyn Cristanti, the port’s director of public affairs, for her reaction to the protests surrounding their expansion plans, she had this to say: “It’s to be expected that not everyone will be satisfied with our process or its outcome, but we are completely committed to a thorough, robust, science-based project and environmental review that incorporates community concerns, and ensures the project will not go ahead unless it can be demonstrated it has no significant adverse impacts that cannot be mitigated.”
It remains to be seen if the concerned citizens of the Downtown Eastside can once again pull off a seaside stunner and keep their view and park as they like it, but Larson isn’t holding his breath.
“We’ve already placed a commemorative boulder in the park for the murdered and missing women of the Downtown Eastside”, says Larson. “If the expansion goes ahead, I’d like to see the port donate $125K for a totem pole also dedicated to those women. And I’d like the port to contribute a further $250K to renovate the caretaker’s building and turn it into a cultural facility. Most of all, I want the park deeded over permanently to the City of Vancouver.”
You have to hand it to Larson and Daniel. As their historic plaque in the park at the foot of Main Street reads, their “perseverance, resistance, and the struggle for inclusion in the Downtown Eastside” refuses to die.