Gangs reunited: a very strange East Van night

I’ve never written about the same subject in back-to-back columns, but last week’s launch for Aaron Chapman’s book, The Last Gang in Town: The Epic Story of the Vancouver Police vs. the Clark Park Gang (which I wrote about in “When Street Gangs Ruled Vancouver,” Nov. 1), was so surreal, so unlikely and so culturally unique to the City of Vancouver that I feel it’s my civic duty to share the experience with you.

Most book launches are celebratory but staid affairs. They usually involve a reading, a signing, maybe a Q&A – all relatively calm activities – in front of a quiet and respectful audience, usually made up of family and friends. And indeed, the Nov. 2 launch for The Last Gang in Town featured all of those things, but with the addition of 150 unruly former gang members who hadn’t seen each other outside of a rumble or a prison yard in 40 years.

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When I descended into East Van’s dark, subterranean Biltmore Cabaret, it looked like it was filled with a cross between the casts of The Warriors and Cocoon. The former gang members have definitely gotten on in years, but you could still sense a very raw toughness in the dank air.

I’d been given the task of MCing the night. Chapman chose the Biltmore because the venue had been a hangout for many of Vancouver’s street gangs of the early 1970s, long before it became an indie-rock venue populated by people who collect records of a different kind. The Biltmore was also the setting for what could be considered the climax of the book: the highly publicized (at the time) police shooting of Danny Teece, a teenaged member of the Clark Park Gang. Sizing up the crowd, many of whom were Teece’s friends, I made a mental note to ditch my opening joke (“What’s the best thing about gangs? They carpool!”).

Not only was the book launch a return to the “scene of the crime” for the Clark Parkers in the crowd; it also attracted retired gang members from across the city. Members of the Riley Park Gang, the Renfrew Huns, the Dunbar Park Gang and others were all there. These were guys who once regularly pummeled each other, but 40 years on they were enjoying beers together. (One of the Dunbar Park members told me that many rival gang members became friends when they were all behind bars in Oakalla Prison.)

When Chapman and I began our Q&A (clad, fittingly, in the Clark Parkers’ trademark Mack jackets), we could barely be heard over the cacophony of conversation, even though we were mic’d. Never mind that the only reason the unprecedented reunion was happening was becauseof the author on stage.

Oddly enough, it was the women who were the loudest and most obnoxious in the crowd, yelling at us, heckling, whistling, and trying to interrupt with comments. Later, we were told it was the girlfriends and wives of the Riley Park Gang who were the rowdiest (possibly miffed that the Clark Parkers were getting all the attention?). The lack of listening prompted original Renfrew Huns member and respected Clark Parker Danny “Mouse” Williamson to hop up on stage, grab my mic and state, “These guys are trying to talk about us! Everybody shut the fuck up!”

To open up our ill-fated audience question period, a woman approached with a bizarre and emotional 40-year-old grudge story against the Vancouver Police Department, which involved the cops offering her and her sister free ice cream cones that never materialized. (This complaint came shortly after Chapman paid memorial to Teece, who caught a deadly bullet from the same police force.)

Possibly the most memorable moment of the night was when all the surviving Clark Parkers were invited up on stage for a photo. Many of them seemed completely bemused that their sordid history had been captured in long-form print. Some were recognizing each other for the first time in decades right on that stage (“Chief! Is that you? Holy shit, man!”).

It was an East Van night for the ages, and it never would have happened without the publication of one of the punchiest books about Vancouver to be published in a long time.

• The Last Gang in Town: The Epic Story of the Vancouver Police vs. the Clark Park Gang is available now in bookstores and from Arsenal Pulp Press.

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