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Poverty pugilist Green in the fight of his life

Jim Green seen here in Vancouver, February 17, 2009.

John Lehmann/ The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/ The Globe and Mail

Jim Green has been a fighter for most of his life.

The poverty advocate, housing developer, culture lover and former city councillor battled homelessness on Skid Row, various city councils, former mayor Gordon Campbell, the negative impact of Expo 86 and everyone who told him for 20 years that turning the derelict Woodward's department store into a new heart for the Downtown Eastside was a pipedream.

Mr. Green is now in a fight for his life. The lung cancer he thought he had beaten two years ago suddenly re-emerged much stronger two weeks ago.

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In his trademark style, Mr. Green is still charging ahead, even though he has to take pain medication and sometimes can't leave his bed in the art- and memento-filled Woodward's condo that has become his home.

Asked what he's tackling in his uncertain remaining time, he delivers a small soliloquy, pausing occasionally for breath, on how beautiful Vancouver could be without the downtown viaducts – a project he's working on with former city planner Larry Beasley.

And then a second one on how important housing is for the young native guys who get work through the job-training Bladerunners program he started more than a decade ago for street kids in the Downtown Eastside. That leads to his current work on the planned transformation of Vancouver's former remand centre into low-cost housing designed specifically for them, something he's working on with architect Gregory Henriquez.

What he's not at war with is himself.

"I'm 68 years old. I had some hard stuff in my life. I've had a whole lot of bad," says the Alabama-born Mr. Green, who grew up in a tough family on a series of military bases. "But somehow I've been involved in putting together a fabulous family. I've tried to make the city better. I don't feel sad. I feel kind of happy. Philosophical."

Indeed, the facet of Mr. Green that has been notorious in the city he adopted in 1968 as an American draft dodger – pugnacious, quick to anger with people who criticized him, harshly judgmental – seems to have been stripped away as he reflects on his life.

He doesn't talk about what might remain unfinished or express any bitterness about things he didn't accomplish, like never being elected mayor despite two tries – one against Mr. Campbell in 1986, one against Sam Sullivan in 2005.

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Instead, he talks with pleasure about what he sees as his greatest accomplishment: helping turn Woodward's into a block-large project that includes social housing, market housing, stores, a heritage restoration, a unique work of photo-conceptual art and Simon Fraser's School for the Contemporary Arts.

And he savours the smallest triumphs, like persuading the city's engineering department to stamp designs by local artists onto new manhole covers, which has resulted in city streets studded with bubbles, frogs and tadpoles.

"Think about having art surround you," says Mr. Green, who often looks out his window along Cordova Street or over to the North Shore mountains.

While he is philosophical about the short time he may have left, the surprise recurrence of his cancer has been a painful blow for those who have admired his contributions to Vancouver.

"He was a strong voice for those who didn't normally have a voice," Mr. Henriquez said.

Condo marketer Bob Rennie says the city is "standing on a foundation he built. We're trying to solve homelessness today because he brought it to the surface and got corporate people involved."

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A small group is gathering at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on Sunday for an invitation-only event to celebrate "art and culture" in Vancouver; Mr. Green intends to speak.

He always defied easy categorization. He was a hard-nosed advocate from the Downtown Eastside who adored the opera. Two men he worked with closely were NDP premier Glen Clark, seen as the embodiment of socialism in his time, and arch-capitalist and developer Rob Macdonald. He loved the business of building, worked as a longshoreman and taught anthropology.

He made many enemies. But, Mr. Green says, he never really cared what people thought of him.

"I'd rather house one person than please 1,000 critics," he said.

And, on the whole, that has worked well in the end, he thinks. "In all honesty, I believe I've made the city a better city," he says. "And it's been such a pleasure for me."

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