The Ambitious City: A History of the City of North Vancouver
The Story of Dunbar: Voices of a Vancouver Neighbourhood
November 4, 2013
Review By Meg Stanley
Each of these books contributes in important ways to the writing of the history of Greater Vancouver. Considered together they represent an interesting opportunity to compare different approaches to writing local history. Warren Sommer’s The Ambitious City: A History of the City of North Vancouver was commissioned by the city to celebrate its centennial in 2007. By contrast, The Story of Dunbar: Voices of a Vancouver Neighborhood is a collaborative project undertaken by the Dunbar Residents’ Association. Dedicated to the memory of its instigator, neighbourhood activist Peggy Schofield, its twelve chapters/essays were written by ten authors.
Sommer’s book is a chronological narrative, a stem-to-stern history of the City of North Vancouver. The Dunbar book is less consistent in its organization. It is unclear if the chapters are meant to be stand-alone essays or chapters in a narrative. The first three chapters/essays follow the classic local history formula, moving from First Peoples to early settlement and industry to community formation. Subsequent chapters/essays are more thematic, addressing topics such as education, the arts, the residential landscape, and Dunbar’s natural history. There is some repetition of content among these chapters/essays. Neither book is lightweight; in fact both are a bit difficult to read while reclining in bed or on the sofa, reducing their appeal to the general interest reader. Both books benefit from good indexes and high production qualities. The illustrations in The Ambitious City are especially well chosen and beautifully reproduced.
Both books reflect the impulse to order and record past events and ways of living at a scale that can include Jane and Joe Average as individual actors rather than as lumpen masses or instructive examples. In doing so they pay homage to personal experience, to family, and to local community. Both books are much more inclusive, especially in terms of race, than local histories have traditionally been (but I’m still waiting for the queer history angle). In fact, both have engaged with members of the Squamish and Musqueam First Nations, albeit as informants rather than as collaborators, and have included their voices throughout the story. This means that, for example, both books explore the role of the Squamish and Musqueam as contemporary land developers. Likewise, the contributions of women and visible minorities are carefully tended to. The story of Chinese market gardeners on the Musqueam Reserve is an especially interesting example of this, and it illustrates how colonialism functioned locally, with one exploited group farming another’s land and creating different racial spaces within the reserve. Neither book pretends that such nastiness is ancient history; so, for example, in The Ambitious City, Doug Collins’s “rants” in the North Shore News about immigration at least bear mentioning.
Laudable as inclusiveness is, both books suffer as a result. Parts of the Story of Dunbar are difficult to read because so much is included that the text is like an organized listing of names, dates, and achievements. It pays homage and might be a useful reference, but if your name is not there, or you do not know the people involved, it is not really very interesting. At this level, community history really is for the community or, even more narrowly, for those directly involved in the community. Sommer’s book is also quite encyclopaedic, although he tends to be a bit more event- and phenomenon-driven than name-driven. Hampered by a strictly narrative and chronological approach, and in some chapters an over-reliance on newspaper sources, Sommer misses excellent opportunities to explore prewar community organizations or postwar youth hooliganism in some depth. Instead, these recurring phenomena are dealt with in isolated paragraphs, resulting in shallow and repetitive treatments. Design can and should be used to address some of these problems. In the case of the Story of Dunbar, subheadings and sidebars signal discrete subjects and unburden the text from some of its detail. Curiously, neither of these devices is used in The Ambitious City, although extended photograph captions are used to good effect. Ultimately, the Story of Dunbar achieves greater diversity, perhaps a product of its multiple authors, than does the Ambitious City. Both books contain excellent maps and are generally clearly and well written.
Detail is not all bad; used well it can bring focus and nuance to the narrative. Informed by an astonishing number of interviews, The Story of Dunbar is especially good at evoking past ways of living by paying attention to the material world; this is a book that uses voices drawn from the interviews to take us inside middle-class domestic spaces of the mid-twentieth century, and it describes in rich detail what it was like to wash the dishes, hang out the laundry, and ride the streetcar. Changes in the urban environment, such as the switch to mercury vapour streetlights and the configuration of streetcar transfers, are lovingly described. On a lighter note, I’ve got to say that, after reading about Dunbar’s successes in resisting group homes and even a housing cooperative, I was relieved to find out about the giant Highbury Tunnel, which carries much of the city’s sewage under Dunbar to Iona Spit. It made me thinks that perhaps, after all, Dunbar does carry its share of the load.
We never really get inside the houses of North Vancouver in the way we do in Dunbar. Where Sommer is stronger is on the outside, in matters of land development (and its shadier practices) and wartime industry, both of which he deals with in some detail, using oral history quotations and booster literature quite effectively. Curiously, neither book addresses in any substantive way what it means to be either a suburban community in Canada or, specifically, a suburb of Vancouver. The relationship with Vancouver and its region is raised but never systematically probed in either book. There is an accessible literature on suburbs in Canada, including Richard Harris’s well-written and quite short book Creeping Conformity: How Canada Became Suburban, 1900-1960. Whether you agree with Harris’s argument or not, his book contains valuable information about the diversity of suburbs in Canada and the significance of factors such as the changing structure of financing in shaping the suburban environment. Work like Harris’s could be taken by local historians and used to sharpen their analysis, making it even more specific, more nuanced, and, ultimately, a lot more local.
Similarly, both books would have benefited from a bit more in the way of cliometrics, especially in relationship to class. For example, information about occupations in specific neighbourhoods or sub-neighbourhods, at different times, would have added meaning to phrases such as “working class” and “middle class.” As a public historian I am part of the audience for local history. These two books represent the better end of the spectrum, setting the bar high for other communities; but more argument and nuance, more critical dialogue with the academic literature, would certainly help me in my work as I try to contextualize the value of specific places within communities.