Preserving a History of Protest

Posted by Daniel on Aug 19, 2010 - 5 comments

There is a battle being waged in Vancouver these days for control of Larwill Park, the last civic-owned piece of property in the downtown core. Located at Cambie and Georgia streets, east of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the site has been a parking lot for years. Now the Vancouver Art Gallery wants to get hold of it to erect a new facility; others have suggested that the "park" should become the focus of a downtown "cultural precinct".

Whatever happens to the property, I hope some attention will be paid to respecting its long history. Vancouver Sun reporter Jeff Lee wrote a piece about Larwill on his blog last month (here). As Lee points out, the park, named in 1943 for local sports figure Al Larwill, had a long history as a parade ground, sports field and bus depot before it was left empty as a car park. But Lee doesn't mention the park's importance in the city's long history of political protest.

Known originally as the Cambie Street Grounds, it was a convenient spot for large numbers of people to gather to make their voices heard. It had been cleared originally in 1888 by work parties of chained inmates from the local jail and served more or less the same function for the west side of downtown as Oppenheimer Park, also known as the Powell St. Grounds, did for the east side.

The march that culminated in the infamous anti-Asian riots of 1907 began at the park before winding its way down into Chinatown. During the Dirty Thirties the Cambie Grounds were the focus of large scale protest by the jobless against government unemployment policies, or lack thereof. During the winter of 1934-35 thousands of young men descended on the city to protest conditions in the federal work camps that had been set up. Demonstrations on the Cambie Grounds attracted thousands of people. The city was in an uproar.

On April 23, following an afternoon demo at the park, protesters crowded into the Hudson's Bay Company Store at Georgia and Granville and refused to leave. Driven from the store, the men marched to Victory Square to continue their protest and eventually Mayor Gerry McGeer had to read the Riot Act to clear the streets. The following month, on Mother's Day, members of the Women's Labor League, led by a marching band and four women pushing baby prams, gathered at the Grounds to begin a parade in support of the jobless down Granville Street to a rally in Stanley Park.

Following World War II the Cambie Grounds was turned over to BC Electric which used it for many years as a bus station and the site lost its prominent role as a focus of public protest in the city. Today, very few Vancouverites know about the rich history of this desolate piece of pavement. I hope whoever gets the chance to develop it in the future will find a way to commemorate its key role in the political life of the city.