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Review

Opening Doors in Vancouver’s East End: Strathcona

By Daphne Marlatt, Carole Itter

November 4, 2013

Review By John Belshaw

In 1978 the Provincial Archives of British Columbia added a pair of volumes on early Vancouver to its series of aural history publications.  These were subsequently brought together as a single monograph in 1979.  It quickly became ubiquitous on the bookshelves of Vancouverites, particularly those in the east side neighbourhood whose stories it shares.

Opening Doors has always been a book into which one dips. Marlatt and Itter were much more than editors; they interviewed with patience and persistence, listening for the tone, the accents, the nuances of each voice.  They interviewed a handful of luminaries such as Angelo Branca, and many more people in and of the community such as Strathcona School teachers and grocery store owners.  They augmented the interviews with photographs, including portraits of the interviewees, archival photos of Strathcona, and family photos from their personal albums.  And they prefaced the collection with an introduction each.  Marlatt, the poet and novelist, provides an historic context to the collection, while Itter, the artist, speaks to the process of the interviews.  Each encounter with the nearly 60 interviewees remains fresh and authentic, more than thirty years on.  And, because many of these voices have now fallen silent, the collection serves to extend memory across generations.  Clearly the City of Vancouver’s 125th anniversary committee thought so: they funded this new edition.

Apart from the brightly written forward by James Johnstone, this is very much a reprint of the original.  It is slightly larger physically (that’s okay) and the pagination has changed (that’s annoying).  Otherwise the book remains a wealth of information about the community, one that will be tapped again and again by students of the city’s history and residents alike.  Indeed, we have used our own earlier edition so aggressively that, like Johnstone’s, “it is falling apart.”(9) 

Without delving into the contents and currents of the interviews, the nature of this text merits consideration.  This was the product of a 1960s and 1970s enthusiasm for recording first-hand accounts of the past – typically on cumbersome reel-to-reel recorders or on more portable cassette machines that consumed dry-cell batteries at a fearsome rate.  What set the PABC’s Aural History project apart from many others was its delight in sound in addition to data. 

Could something of this order be attempted now?  Ethics review boards would likely flinch at the thought of an army of microphone-bearing scholars descending on the homes of the less privileged.  And yet recording devices are more widespread, more reliable, more portable, and more affordable than ever before.  Anyone could assemble family and neighbourhood stories.  Then again, Marlatt and Itter were much more than just anyone.  There’s a place for the light and consistent touch, the guardianship that the editor assumes over her collaborators’ tales, and the intimacy each had with her neighbourhood . 

The book – that is, the bundle of sequentially-ordered papers bound together at a spine – is also in some jeopardy.  Of course one could read Opening Doors on an electronic device but it is very much one of those volumes that cries out to be dog-eared and bookmarked, to be read very physically.  In this regard, too, a project like Opening Doors might be less likely to find its way into print today.

Lastly in this respect, the Sound Heritage initiative of which this was a part is long gone.  It was, in the 1970s, a visionary undertaking supported by a government that had just celebrated the province’s centennial.  Good on the City of Vancouver for recognizing this book – and many others – as deserving of reproduction, but initiatives aimed at capturing the fragile and fleeting stories of our experience are still needed.

Why?  Johnstone provides the answer.  Three decades on from its publication, Opening Doors serves to give strength and succor to the East End.  It is a portal through which newcomers may pass into the community’s shared experiences.  This book is not a litany of events.  It is, read properly, a contract with the past.  In its frankness, its celebration of piety and misbehavior, and its multiple-patois, it says to other Vancouverites and to those who come to Strathcona to live that they have an obligation to know something about their community and no excuse not to do so.  It makes locals.

Opening Doors: In Vancouver’s East End: Strathcona edited by Daphne Marlatt & Carole Itter

Madiera Park: Harbour Publishing, 2010  pp. $24.95