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Writer Eve Lazarus has made a career of chronicling the city’s darker side. Murder by Milkshake is a haunting true crime story based right here in Van; ditto Cold Case Vancouver: The City’s Most Baffling Unsolved Murders and Blood, Sweat, and Fear. But in her latest tome, historic tales of Vancouver’s seedy underbelly are mixed with a fair bit of warm whimsy, too.
Vancouver Exposed: Searching for the City’s Hidden History touches on the iconic architecture and long-lost characters who built our city, with rare archival photographs and surprising revelations. In a time where we haven’t been able to venture too far from home, the book is a welcome reminder of the complex, resilient city that’s still out there.
As the book hits the shelves this month, we reached out to Lazarus to learn more about what she calls a “love letter to a complicated city,” and her never-ending curiosity for Vancouver’s hidden stories.
VanMag: You’ve obviously spent a lot of time thinking about the city and its stories over your career and through your blog: was there a moment or one particular fascinating fact you uncovered where you decided it was time to make another full book of stories?
Eve Lazarus: I started the blog after my book At Home with History came out in 2007. People would write to me and add to the stories in the book and I had nowhere to put them. So the Every Place has a Story blog became a sort of repository for other people’s memories and photos not seen before outside the family album. So, no, there wasn’t a particular moment, it was more like the realization in early 2019 that my blog was coming up to its 10th anniversary, that I had amassed hundreds of stories and it would be nice to have a book to put them in.
VM: What is it about Vancouver’s “sleazy underbelly” that appeals to you?
EL: That our history isn’t all about forestry and fisheries and streets named about old white guys. That when you scratch Vancouver’s surface there are all these stories of marginalized people struggling in the face of poverty, racism, misogyny or corruption and doing whatever they needed to do to survive. That might be running a brothel or a bootlegging joint such as the Iaci’s Casa Capri. It’s amazing to me how many of our iconic buildings and mansions (the Marine building, the Commodore Ballroom and the Vogue Theatre for instance) were built on the proceeds from rum running in the 1920s and early ‘30s.
VM: What do you think people get wrong about Vancouver’s history… or identity?
EL: That we are a city without a history, or that we just have one history worth telling. Vancouver’s past is packed full of legendary women, incredible immigrant stories and a rich Indigenous history that has often been ignored. I’ve tried to bring out a few of these stories in the book. There’s the residential school that was in North Vancouver for 60 years, the livestock building at the PNE which [interned Japanese Canadians] during the war, the former Industrial School for Girls on Cassiar Street that’s now a condo building, as well as truly inspirational women such as Jean Mollison, Maxine MacGilvray and Ivy Granstrom.
VM: You’ve said that the book isn’t meant to be read start to finish. How should I read it?
EL: Like a newspaper. Start at your favourite section or flick through and find a headline or a photo that connects with you and read the caption. I love the way designer Jazmin Welch picked up on this idea and chose the headline typography and body font from newspapers in the 1990s to give the book a kind of breaking news, historical feel.
VM: Was there anything you left on the cutting room floor — a nugget of a story that intrigued you but just didn’t fit?
EL: The structure of the book seems really simple now, but it took a lot of time and reordering to figure it out. In the end I organized the material into six sections—the downtown, DTES, West End, then North Vancouver. The other two sections were anything that fell either east or west of Main Street. That let me include stories like the BC Ferries crash of 1970 which actually took place in Active Sound, the Royal Hudson travelling up the Arbutus corridor, and the 1959 meeting of Olympic Athletes Percy Williams and Harry Jerome.
VM: What are your favourite resources for finding these stories and photos?
EL: People. Those who are either old enough to share personal memories about places, events and people, or who are multi-generational Vancouverites and can pass down family lore. Their memories and photos provide enormous depth to the stories from the ground up rather than from the top looking down that forms the basis of most traditional histories.
VM: As a history enthusiast, what current Vancouver moments, places, or people do you think will be part of our city’s story. In other words, what’s making history right now?
EL: When COVID-19 became overwhelming earlier this year, I went to newspapers.com to read as much as I could about the Spanish Flu and how we dealt with it in 1918. Out of a population of just over 100,000, around 30,000 contracted the disease and 900 died. It hit everyone. And here we are again. What transpired in the first days, weeks and months over a hundred years ago seems eerily familiar to what we are experiencing now. I think when we look back to 2020 it will be about how we dealt with COVID and its aftermath.
VM: How did you know when to stop? When does a book about a city’s history come to an end?
EL: The great thing about having my blog Every Place has a Story is that I never have to stop.
Once I hit my book’s deadline, I just kept adding stories to my blog, alternating between history one week and my true crime podcast (Cold Case Canada) the next. I can already see recent blog posts like the House on Yale Street that was built by a bootlegger during the Depression and Burnaby’s Top Secret Submarine Yard in another book a few years down the road.