A state of limbo in lower Shaughnessy (Human Pursuits 14/1/22)
When it was first conceived, the neighbourhood of Shaughnessy was anything but a liminal space.
First imagined in the early 1900’s, the upper crust enclave, situated in what is now Vancouver’s west side, was little more than pristine pacific northwest forest. In 1907, fifty acres of land, just outside the city limits, was marketed to wealthy industrialists and bluebloods, many of whom helped shape the city, for better or worse. Many of them were, of course, white men. Conservative chaps, with names like Richard Marpole or E.B. Osler, and, yes, even Sir Thomas Shaughnessy.
In no time flat, the trees were felled and “the ‘swellest’ and most beautiful section” of the city was lousy with the elite. And not just from BC. Behind their wrought iron gates, socialites like Aldyen Hendry and her husband Eric Hamber, the province’s Lieutenant Governor, entertained world leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth (editor’s note: Aldyen Hendry was also, apparently, Vancouver’s May queen in 1901 which is some real hot girl shit). Social circles formed around the nucleus of this new community, far from steamy Gastown and its seaport saloons. Life prospered for some of the most prosperous.
Lately, though, you might not be able to tell.
It says a lot, I think, that when Leah and I caught COVID over Christmas, the one place we were confident we could walk without putting anyone at risk was Shaughnessy. Still standing, the neighbourhood now sits in the centre of the city. And yet it feels distinctly outside of space or time. It feels like a liminal space. Somewhere you maybe shouldn’t be; a threshold in-between what is and what used to be.
The first night we walked through the neighbourhood’s empty streets, Leah called it Narnia. Heavy snow fell from an orange sky, and stuck to the sidewalks as if to remind everyone that Vancouver is still a part of Canada. There was no sound aside from our gentle whispers and the crunching of snow beneath our feet, no strangers passing by. We weaved around the neighbourhood’s winding roads, looking for signs of life within the labyrinth: 1970’s Christmas lights hanging from the gutter, or tire tracks going up the driveway. Instead, we mostly saw signs of oblivion. Security cameras watching on behalf of distant owners, a burnt out mansion hidden behind overgrown trees. The most desirable land in the city, with hardly anything worth desiring.
A few weeks later, when our illness had passed and the green grass was once again visible, I would look up and find myself in a similar sort of liminal space, in between myself and where I wanted to be. I didn’t know it as we walked home that night, but I would think about those houses and how the past was dirt beneath their foundations and the future was equity yet to be accrued. How they stood still in the present, waiting for life to return. And how it might, but never like it was before.
Leah and I went back to Shaughnessy on Boxing Day. Beneath a blue bird sky, we passed through the wardrobe of 16th Avenue. Several inches of fresh snow had fallen the night before, forcing us to walk duck footed in the middle of the still quiet streets. The long shadows cast a few nights earlier had receded with the dawn. At one point we saw a woman on skis making her way down Cedar Crescent. I snapped a quick photo. I knew any sign of her, or us, would be gone soon.