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 CBC.ca 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.