When his daughter told him that their family home in Oakridge had been torn down, Gordon Phillips didn’t want to see what remained.
The 94-year-old, who’d built the house by hand in 1947, chose to stay at home in Cloverdale while his daughter Mel Radom, 59, drove into Vancouver to see what was left of their old home. On a stormy day before Christmas, she stood looking through a link fence at a gaping hole filled with the remains of the house she’d shared with her siblings and parents. She could see the No. 1 Oak inlaid flooring and No. 1 fir planks, torn to pieces in a pile. She could see the fireplace in a tumble. Her father had built a solid house in 1947. He’d built another one nearby in 1945, but that house had been torn down years ago.
“One of the wrecking crew guys came over and said, ‘Are you building here?’ And I said, ‘No, this was my family home,’” Ms. Radom recalls. “He said, ‘This house was solidly built. The wood was in great shape.’
“He gave me two of the glass door knobs from one of the bedrooms. That was the only thing he could salvage. Nothing else. You think, of all that waste.”
Demolitions have become the norm in Vancouver, with the issuance of 1,084 demolition permits last year, according to the city. It’s as if the history of Vancouver is being sent to the scrap bin, a disposable city. The house that once stood has been torn down in exchange for a bigger, flashier house that won’t be occupied by more people. In fact, many of the new houses stand vacant for several years, creating a ghost streetscape feel. If ecodensity is the city’s goal, then sending solid houses to the landfill in exchange for bigger ones would seem to be the contradiction.
As well, for residents who have a long history with the city, the impact is felt not just in the physical change to the old neighbourhoods, but at a deeply personal level. For many Vancouver seniors who’ve had no choice but to move, it’s been emotionally devastating to see their homes torn down after they sold.
“People think that this is just older people selling out and making as much money as they can,” says Jo Pleshakov, 74, who just sold her house in the 3500-block W. 23rd near Dunbar Street for $1.62-million. She is seated in her home, surrounded by boxes, ready to be out in two weeks.
“But I don’t need $1.6-million,” she says. “I would have preferred to have negotiated with a family.”
She only got offers from seven different builders who all had plans to tear the house down. The modest house, built in 1928, is on the standard 33-by-120-foot lot. It is on a street alongside eight new houses that were built in the past two years.
“In the last three or four years, it’s turned around,” says Ms. Pleshakov. “The whole neighbourhood is changing. This is also about family and neighbourhood and history, and memories. It’s very complicated,” she says. “Usually you leave your family house, and someone else owns it. That’s one loss – but to lose it completely? That’s a whole other kind of loss.”
Ms. Pleshakov has no objection to higher density, but she doesn’t understand how it’s sustainable to tear everything down to build bigger. As well, her house has been updated and maintained. It has character built-in glass doors and oak floors.
Because she needs to move for physical and financial reasons, she had no choice but to let the house go.
“Most of my life, I’ve done everything to recycle, and yet my own house is going to the dump.”
When Mr. Phillips built his first house, he didn’t have a car. He walked everywhere. He was in the army, and he knew that once the Second World War ended, he’d be in competition with other veterans for properties.
“I knew I needed to hustle, so I bought in January or February, 1945, and then I started building in April, 1945, even before the war was over. I had to get special permission, you see, because building material was scarce, and they were allowing it only on a priority basis.”
He lived in a rooming house in the West End, close to where his parents had a store at 1080 Denman St. He’d take the streetcar up Main Street to 39th Avenue, then walk the half-mile to the site, with his tools in an army kit bag. There was no transit to the forested Oakridge area back then, and 41st Avenue was a gravel road.
“It was the boondocks,” he says.
He worked on the house weekends and every weekday evening and return home around 10 p.m. When he finished that house, he sold it and made a little profit to finance his second house, where he and his wife, Bea, raised their family. He built the house at 5578 Elizabeth St. the same way, mostly by himself, every weekend. When the basement was finished, he moved his family into it and finished off the top half of the house.
Mr. Phillips paid $400 for the first lot and $900 for the second property. To put it in perspective, he made $1,900 a year as an elementary school teacher.
“It was high, yes. I could have bought a lot on the east side of town for $200 easily,” he recalls.
He moved out of the house in 1986, but he and his kids have often driven by the house, to make sure it was still there. Ms. Radom got the call from a neighbour late last year that the house was about to be demolished, and so she drove out.
“It’s tough going,” she says. “Nat Bailey lived two blocks away. He gave us vouchers for hamburgers at the White Spot. I went to school with his grandson.”
Aside from the history, the other loss is to the integrity of the community when bigger, newer houses get built, says Angie Morris. Ms. Morris, 78, lives a few doors down from Ms. Pleshakov. She tells realtors that she’ll only leave her home “when they carry me out.” In the meantime, she’s trying to re-establish a sense of community in the face of massive change, by getting to know her neighbours. The challenge she’s finding is that she doesn’t even see her neighbours. The new houses have big garages to the rear and no front porches for lingering. It makes for a dead street.
“I used to sit on my porch and when they parked out on the street they’d walk by and we’d chat. Now I wonder, ‘Is anybody living next door?’
“We have to adapt to change, but maybe there could be more thought to it on the part of the city,” she wonders. “Perhaps they could think about the community – rather than just rebuilding.”