A Tale of Two Billboards

Broadway & the Lee Building in Snow

In 2009 the giant billboard crowning the Lee Building was ordered removed by City Council as part of a city-wide scrubbing of 300 billboards deemed to be in violation of city by-laws. A previous Council acting in a somewhat different vein had designated the Bowmac sign, 1.5 miles west along Broadway, as a heritage structure. Uneven policy between east and west is an ongoing rift in our city.

It may come as a surprise to hear arguments to preserve the iconicity of an odd-shaped and over-scaled advertising mega-structure. However, in the contemporary world we do well to take our icons of place where we find them, or risk erecting fakes in their place. Why not turn the Lee Building sign into an art installation space instead?

Clark Street bridge over the Granview Cut with East Van Cross visible in the centre.

Also in 2009 Vancouver City Council commissioned <i>”Monument for East Vancouver”</i> from Vancouver artist Ken Lum. It is a giant neon sign  in the shape of the Christian cross inscribed with the letters “Van-East”.

The scale and siting of the work piles on to the automobile domination of Clark Street, rather than hold a banner of hope that through good urban design this street too could be rehabilitated into a great neighbourhood spine. A Pop Culture icon is scaled to—what?—be seen from far away in the west city? A more clear-sighted intervention may have decried the obvious lack of human scale in this blighted urban landscape.

The cost for  “Monument for East Vancouver” is not disclosed in City literature, although it is said to be part of an $8 million art budget for the Olympics:

The work, located at the crest of East 6th Avenue at Clark Drive, can be seen from significant vantage points to the west.

“[The crossword] signifies the identity of those living in the eastern part of the city and is often accompanied with the word “rules”. [This] is ironic, as traditionally those in the west of the city have held the economic and political power, though the real estate boom more recently has rendered the boundary between east and west more fluid. The piece monumentalizes a rearguard gesture of defiance, protest, and assertion of identity.”

— Ken Lum

The tale of these two signs reveals the state of urban planning in our city. On on hand, an object that is an important part of Mount Pleasant’s history was stripped off, when the Bowmac sign just 1.5 miles to the west a similar type of object was enshrined in heritage policy. Why pick one over the other?

On the other, the art of the East Van Cross and the architecture of the Condo Towers  show the same ham-fisted sensibility toward building great neighbourhoods in the pre- and post-Olympics city. The focus is on pushing towers and hi-rise on the west side, and testing the tolerance level to do the same on the east side.

The reason why the Lee Building is not being treated with the respect due to a historic building from 1912, a beacon of the hey days of the opening of the Panama Canal, is the very stigma that the “Monument for East Vancouver” is supposed to monumentalize according to the artist. There is a blind spot in the policy that will not recognize East Vancouver as anything but a dumping ground. The duplicitous nature of the East Van Cross in its urban context plays against the removal of another structure of equivalent scale to question whose values are really being enshrined: east or west?

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