February 4, 2015
Review By Lani Russwurm
Rumrunners, writers, aviators, architects, crooked cops, and killers are just some of the motley cast of characters populating Eve Lazarus’s Sensational Vancouver. This is her third local history book and a welcome addition to the growing collection of popular histories responding to a recent surge of interest in the city’s past. It’s not a history of the city, but rather a series of vignettes ranging from local-boy-makes-good stories (Michael Bublé, Michael J. Fox, and Bryan Adams among them) to grisly homicides. As with Lazarus’s previous work, Sensational Vancouver introduces readers to both the people who made Vancouver’s history sensational and to the built legacy they left behind.
Three chapters are framed around specific characters. The first two are Joe Ricci and Lurancy Harris, respectively the first non-WASP and one of the two first women officers hired by the Vancouver Police Department in 1912. Although the majority of Vancouverites at the time were male and traced their roots to the UK, the department hired Ricci and Harris to help monitor women and the city’s many ethnic communities. More specifically, prostitution and the “Black Hand,” an Italian mafia-type crime network, had inspired a moral panic in the city. Chapter six looks at flamboyant journalist Ray Munro, whom Lazarus describes as “good-looking, outrageous, arrogant, and perhaps a touch insane” (78). Munro broke the biggest local news story of the 1950s, a police corruption racket that went all the way up to the police chief.
Lazarus’s journalism background shows in her approach. Besides published sources, she incorporates insights from an array of informants, including the protagonists themselves, descendants, contemporaries, experts, and current occupants of Vancouver’s storied homes. In the chapter on Detective Joe Ricci for example, Lazarus’s primary source is his daughter Louise, who still lives in the house her father built. Louise vividly relates the ire her father’s crime-fighting drew by describing the chicken blood splattered as a warning through her kitchen and porch during the Tong Wars of the 1920s, and how he narrowly escaped death in a shootout that claimed the police chief in 1917.
The chapter on women, who still sometimes get short shrift in Vancouver historiography even at this late date, is one of the most satisfying in the book. One of the more remarkable is Nellie Yip Quong, a white woman from New Brunswick who married into a wealthy Chinatown family, learned five Chinese dialects, delivered hundreds of babies, and effectively became a one-woman social service agency and advocate for her adopted community.
Sensational Vancouver closes with a chapter on West Coast Modern, showcasing Group of Seven painters Frederick Varley and Lawren Harris, who inspired many of the innovative architects whose work fills much of the chapter. As with the rest of the book, Lazarus highlights threads that connect many of her subjects, such as B.C. Binning studying under Varley at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art + Design), and who in turn mentored the likes of Ron Thom, Fred Hollingsworth, and the most famous of them all, Arthur Erickson.
The book ends with Erickson and his little house on Point Grey that, curiously, he didn’t design and which faces an uncertain future. Like Joy Kogawa’s childhood home, an important setting in her classic novel Obasan, the Erickson house isn’t significant on its own merits. (“Architecturally,” he once said, “this house is terrible”) (148). Which brings us to the main point of the book: when we think of heritage conservation, we tend to evaluate built heritage solely on the aesthetics and artistry of physical structures and streetscapes when much of their true worth lies in the stories they have to tell.
Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2014. 160 pp. $24.95 paper