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The idealistic spirit of a ragtag collective of hippie carpenters is reborn for another generation of Vancouverites.
This article was originally featured in the October 2015 issue of Vancouver magazine.
Low-hanging clouds envelop the Maplewood mud flats, a tidal plain that skirts Burrard Inlet east of the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge. Sam Clemens steps gingerly around the washed-up logs, trying to get a better view of the western sandpipers that normally reside here. The mud flats are a conservation area now, home to dozens of birds, but Clemens has been here before—decades ago, when he was a toddler and the flats were a hippie haven to about 25 artisans, their partners, and their children, living in self-built shacks and shelters. His rubber boots squelch in the mud as he edges closer to the water’s edge. “I was conceived here,” he says as he spies several pilings in the distance, the only remnants of Vancouver’s infamous squatter community. “This is where my life began. It’s part of my story.”By 1971, Clemens’s parents, Dan and Wendy, were well entrenched in mud flats society. Wendy carved out a living making leather goods. Dan, along with his buddies—a group of self-taught carpenters called DeLuxe Renovators—scoured West Side demolition sites for gingerbread trim, balustrades, and stained glass (heritage pieces nobody wanted at the time) and turned their booty into kiosks, restaurant facades, and movie sets. (Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller made use of the collective’s wares.) At night, Dan retired to his wife and child in their mud flats home. But not for long. The District of North Vancouver deemed the squats unsanitary and an eyesore, and ordered them to be removed. “There was a big protest,” says Clemens. “As a baby, I was in front of the bulldozers. But, of course, it got torn down.” In December of that year, the authorities set the Clemens house ablaze and the family relocated.Clemens grew up with a hammer in his hands, helping his dad build houses on the Sunshine Coast. He eventually became a contractor—a steady 9-to-5 that paid good money—but he felt unsettled and unfulfilled. Too young to remember those Maplewood days in detail, he grew up restless and inquisitive, steeped in the mud flats mythology thanks to family stories and photographs. “It’s in my DNA,” he says of the hippie ethic that drives him. In 2014, Clemens left the construction business and, together with his younger brother, Lenny, established his own enterprise, Hobo Woodworks, sourcing used lumber from demolition sites like his father did 45 years ago. “My dad is still my inspiration,” he says. “I’ve always looked up to him as someone who could spin something out of nothing and make things happen.”His father returns the compliment. “That little business he does, it’s really familiar to me,” says Dan Clemens, from his current home in Mexico. “It just ties together what we were thinking and how we were feeling in those days.” In essence, a DeLuxe redux.Today, Sam and Lenny work out of an East Vancouver shop they opened last year, where the duo turn reclaimed wood into kitchen islands or coffee tables. Commissions also figure prominently. “It’s probably more lucrative to open up a cabinet shop and just bang out boxes, but that’s not what we’re trying to do here,” says Sam. “What we’re trying to do is get back to a natural, organic way of living.”Clemens says it’s wrong to assume he’s simply following in his father’s footsteps. It’s broader than that. He says he represents a West Coast attitude, a reverence for nature and the environment. “People don’t want mass-produced crap. People want to be connected to where their stuff comes from,” he says, citing his practice of making handmade goods out of recycled indigenous species. “This landscape, this part of the world, completely informs what we do.”It’s this consciousness, Sam believes, that will keep both the DeLuxe legacy and the Maplewood mud flats story alive. “I’m very aware of the history of this part of the world and where I come from,” he says. “Hobo is a continuum of a story that’s still being written.”