L.D.: Mayor Louis Taylor and the Rise of Vancouver
November 4, 2013
Review By Robert McDonald
MANY NORTH AMERICAN cities have had great civic leaders. Fiorello La Guardia, New York’s Depression-era mayor, is considered the father of modern New York; Metro chair Fred Gardiner put his distinctive imprint on Toronto in the 1950s; and Jean Drapeau is the larger-than-life mayor who brought a subway system, Expo ’67, and the Olympics to Montreal. Where, one might ask, is someone of comparable stature from Vancouver? The question is unfair, of course, because New York, Toronto, and Montreal are bigger than Vancouver and, thus, historically have offered greater opportunity for creative municipal leadership. Nonetheless, the comparison serves to underline the perception that Vancouver’s mayors have been an undistinguished lot. Beyond the two recent mayors who moved from municipal to provincial politics (Mike Harcourt and Gordon Campbell), and Gerry McGeer (Vancouver mayor in the mid-1930s), little has been written about our civic leaders and less is known about them. It is this gap in the city’s history that Daniel Francis, editor of the highly regarded Encyclopedia of British Columbia, has set out to rectify by telling the story of Vancouver’s longest-serving mayor, Louis D. Taylor.
Taylor provides plenty of material for a compelling story, and Francis makes the most of it. Taylor’s eight terms as mayor, for a total of twelve years in office, spanned three decades of the city’s history. Born in Michigan and a resident ofVancouver from the late 1890s, Taylor died in 1946 a lonely and poor old man. Along the way he was elected licence commissioner in 1902 and mayor in 1911, 1915, four times in the mid-to-late 1920s, and twice again in the early 1930s. He also lost electoral battles sixteen times, once for licence commissioner, four times for alderman, and eleven times for mayor. Yet L.D. is about more than elections. What made Taylor an important figure in Vancouver’s history, Francis tells us convincingly, was his understanding the city’s character. The book features lively digressions into city life, including narrative explorations of the prewar boom and collapse, the race riot of 1907, and the plight of the homeless in the 1930s. Family papers recently uncovered in California illuminate hitherto unknown aspects of L.D. Taylor’s private life, including the fact that he spent time in jail for embezzlement before coming to Canada and that he lived in a bigamous relationship for eleven months after his second marriage. This new research adds depth to our understanding of Taylor and colour to the author’s story. What results is not just a history of politics and city-building but the story of how life on the western edge of the continent allowed immigrants to rebuild their lives out of the mess they had left behind. The author concludes that Taylor “arrived as an accused embezzler on the run from the law. Vancouver gave him the opportunity to remake himself” (202).
Apart from its longevity, L.D. Taylor’s political career was marked by his empathy for the “plain people” rather than for the elites of Vancouver, an ideological orientation symbolized by his ever-present red tie. Taylor’s enemies accused him of being a socialist, but Francis is correct, I think, in discounting such a notion. He was a populist, a man whose sympathy for working people and support for trade unions and working-class culture and deep commitment to the local community tied him politically to the working- and lower-middle-class areas of the city, especially on the east side. Indeed, it is here that one of the limitations of Francis’s “popular” approach to his subject reveals itself. One might argue that Taylor’s significance as a historical figure lies less in his role as Vancouver’s mayor and more in his place as a representative of the populist impulse that formed a powerful component of the province’s political culture in the early years of the twentieth century. At the provincial level this current attracted into political life the likes of former coal miners Tom Uphill from Fernie and Sam Guthrie from Cowichan-Newcastle, and, at the federal level, Vancouver’s Henry H. Stevens, a Conservative who had no use for Taylor’s relaxed attitudes towards moral issues but whose own anti-elitist tendencies led him to oppose the corporate-friendly policies of his leader in the Conservative government of the early 1930s, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. By limiting his analytical framework to the City of Vancouver, Francis has, perhaps, left unexplored the broader political context that best explains L.D. Taylor’s significance as a political figure in BC history.
Certainly, while Daniel Francis’s well-written and informative history of L.D. successfully lifts the veil of obscurity from an important figure in Vancouver’s civic life and contributes significantly to a fuller understanding of Vancouver history, it is questionable whether we can conclude from the book that Taylor was a great mayor. Francis does not claim that he was, and rightly so, because at times one senses that Taylor was a man who had very little in his life except local politics, and who, in the latter part of his career, kept running for political office mainly because he needed an income. While the author does not see Taylor as “a visionary mayor” (200), he does suggest that Taylor could claim a number of achievements, including his encouragement for the scheme to fill in False Creek east of Main Street; his support for the creation of a town planning commission and the amalgamation of South Vancouver and Point Grey with Vancouver; his assistance in the establishment of Vancouver’s airport, the building of the first Second Narrow’s Bridge, and the construction of a major new railway hotel (the Hotel Vancouver); and, in the 1920s, his leadership in the creation of a very important new administrative structure for the city, the Greater Vancouver Water District Board. However, we are told little about the politicians and civil servants around Taylor and how he interacted with and influenced them. Such interaction was important to the successful operation of Vancouver’s “weak-mayor” form of civic government. That story, indeed most aspects of Vancouver’s political history, remain to be told. Daniel Francis’s L.D. should encourage other writers to begin that task.