May 5, 2011

A City Transformed

My parents met in the late 1950's in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia, and even though they had left the city long before I was born, they maintained a strong connection to it and thought they may retire there one day.  Both sets of grandparents lived near Vancouver and any holiday visits were spent exploring the beautiful city on Burrard Inlet. 

The Vancouver of my parents' day was very different from the Vancouver of today.  Back then it was a big town full of bridges they talked about walking across late at night without reservation, a town full of culture and buzzing with activity, but with an expansive sense of space and community as well. I had a taste of that Vancouver on several occasions during my childhood, but even I, at the tender age of sixteen, sensed the city would never be same after Expo 86. 

At sixteen I had been invited to join TheatrePeace, an existing teen theatre group that was to travel to Vancouver on two occasions to perform a play written by the group of kids from the Kootenay area where I was from.  Four of the original writer/performers had moved away and I was one of the newbies who was asked to fill their shoes.  The play was a comedic take on the hot-button issues surrounding Ronald Reagan's 'Star Wars' policies of the Cold War era, and the question of peace in general.  We held regular rehearsals up at the Student Union Building of the former David Thompson University campus in Nelson with two formidable women as our directors.  In late spring of 1986 we travelled to the central Kootenays to audition to perform in the British Columbia Pavilion at Expo 86.  We were accepted and a short time later we were off to spend a week performing our play for the world.

I remember watching Prince Charles and Princess Diana, with a huge crowd of spectators looking on, open Expo 86 on television in May of that year and hearing about all the concerts and performers who would be on stage every night of Expo, Annie Lennox and Julian Lennon among them.  The theme of Expo 86 was 'Transportation and Communication,' which frankly didn't capture my imagination at the time, although when I arrived at the site and spent my free time visiting pavillions with my theatre group friends, I became utterly fascinated by the imaginative installations by many of the countries represented;  visitors to the Switzerland Pavilion, for example, were greeted by a 25-metre-high watch. At that time, the Swiss made Swatch watch was the must-have accessory and I bought a bright blue one.  Once inside, exhibits included a diorama of the longest tunnels in the world. Built in the 19th Century, Switzerland's Alpine railway opened a much needed route between northern and southern Europe.  (The Swiss Pavillion also had a cool game to play called Jollyball).  I was equally fascinated by the thousands of daily visitors to the exposition.  I came from a small town and had never seen anything like the crowds of people lining up to visit the pavillions.

The giant Swatch

 May 2nd marked the 25th anniversary of the opening of Expo 86; I was reminded of the fact when my husband and I were dining last week at our favourite east Vancouver pizzaria, Lombardo's, and our waitress gave me a little questionnaire to fill out.  Lombardo's is also making the most out of their own 25th anniversary by having a little contest:  they asked customers what we were doing twenty five years ago.  When I saw the question I immediately thought of my time spent at Expo. 

The Expo 86 site was a former industrial wasteland on the waterfront. It has since been home to the trendy False Creek neighbourhood and Concord Place.  I remember busing around Vancouver with my friend and theatre mate Molly.  It seemed that everything was under construction.  The city had finished the first line of its light rail transit, SkyTrain in time for Expo.  Condos were sprouting up everwhere and the roads were lined with brightly coloured temporary fencing guarding the construction zones.  Molly and I were billeted at the home of some family friends of hers.  We came and went as we pleased, taking the last bus home at 11 pm one night and receiving a scolding.  Our host family may have worried about us, but we felt perfectly comfortable navigating our way through the city independantly. There were still hippies in the Kitsilano district then, occupying funky, run down Victorian houses, which are now all restored and selling for a million dollars each. Kids in studded leather jackets, Doc Martens boots and red mohawk hairdos still hung around the fountain downtown near the Hudson's Bay department Store back then, and though Molly and I were slightly less exoticly dressed, we felt at home and completely at liberty.

Bill Bennett, who was British Columbia's premier at the time was quoted in a article yesterday. "We all grew together. Business got better, people were having fun, but they were also making more money."

And according to Darcy Rezak, who was on the Vancouver Board of Trade during Expo, Expo also changed physical aspects of the city: "The SkyTrain, infrastructure, port facilities, the cruise ship business came hard on the heels of Expo," Rezak said. "So, a terrific transformation."

I was there when it was happening, but Expo 86 was just another teenage adventure for me. In fact, I went on to write a rather scathing speech about the exposition for a French language competition because I had heard about the one thousand downtown eastside residents who had been made homeless by the new construction.  Now, however, I look back and think the growth of Vancouver was bound to happen, and Expo 86, just like the Vancouver 2010 Olympics was a reason to build some needed infrastructure for the growing city.

Although they still love the city where they met, my parents never did retire to Vancouver.

The top photo is of a Belgian bumper sticker from Expo, which I found online.  I remember seeing that picture at Expo.


  1. nice bit of history.neat the things that prod us on...cities w/fairs and olympics, turning points, much like our own sound good...smiles.

  2. To be honest with you the 80's are a set of ten that I'd prefer to forget. I don't think there was anything good about them at all.
    It was a decade when even the prettiest girls looked like boys and the boys looked gay. :-)

  3. The Expo 86 sounds like a huge event as well as the 25th anniversary. I like the giant "Swatch". : )

  4. Brian: the pizza is cooked in a stonefired oven and the sauce has homemade pesto in it. It really is delicious!

    Vince: I know what you mean :) But, it was a good time for me. I felt like I was living in a John Hughes movie sometimes. Think the character Watts from Some Kind of Wonderful. That was me...or very much like me.

    LadyCat: It really was huge! The event and the watch both :)

  5. What a vivid description of an event which brought the world to your doorstep. Your participation in that play sounds perfect for an impressionable young lady. Often events like this involve huge government expense, but there are fiscal rewards later with all the development and attention....something like the past winter Olympics in that fair city.

  6. It’s like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pictures to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is great blog. A great read. Ill definitely be back.

  7. What an exciting event and time to have been a part of! We arrived in Vancouver almost a decade after Expo and so have enjoyed all the benefits that followed. I owned a number of Swatch watches in the 80's. I loved their colours and unique designs.

  8. Paul: that is very true. My friend who is a professional artist was determined to be against the Olympics in Vancouver, but she spent a lot of time working in the city that year and couldn't help raving about the beautiful structures and new waterside walkways created for the occasion. I was in Richmond recently and walked to the Richmond Oval. It is quite a lovely building and I believe the rafters are made from beetle ruined pine.

    Luxembourg: It's great to hear from you and thanks for dropping by with your comment and suggestions. I use a lot of photos if I have taken them, but am a bit hesitant to use photos that don't belong to me...maybe I should get over it!

    Diane: I would like to have another Swatch! I bought another one in the 90's but after a few years their plastic straps snap. I've been wearing Timex Ironman watches for years now - they are good for running :)

  9. My swatch was bright blue too. I am sure I still have it somewhere. Funny, how 25 years later, kids don't wear watched at all.

    I loved the 80s, though feel no need to repeat them, or even be nostalgic, beyond the personal. They really were silly and gaudy times. Remember all that neon clothing. Heehee. Good times. Did I say I loved them? Just wanted to be sure I didn't leave that part out.

    As for pictures, if it weren't for google image searches, coming to steel the pictures I stole from someone else, there would be now traffic on my blog at all. (Though I do try to limit myself. A photo of Ronald Reagan is one thing, but if it is obviously a photographers "work" I don't take it.)


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!