What You Don’t Know About That Dumpy House On the 3900 Block of Knight St.

October 27, 2013 at 10:24 pm (Other) (, , , , , , , , , , )

On the night of Thursday, October 24, 2013, residents of Vancouver’s Cedar Cottage neighborhood and commuters using the very busy Knight St. were shocked to find a militaristic scene unfolding between Kingsway and King Edward Aves.

Apparently, police arrived shortly before 5pm to conduct a search of the residence at 3943 Knight St.  It was believed that the house contained stolen property.  The VPD had a search warrant, but the occupants of the house refused to let police enter the premises; nor would they come out of the house.  The stand-off lasted several hours and traffic on the six-lane trucking route was halted throughout rush-hour and into the evening.

Pictures and videos of the incident show a turret-topped armoured ERT (Emergency Response Team) vehicle stopped in the front yard (apparently having jumped the curb and crashed through the pollution-stained white picket fence).  There were dozens of police on the scene, with K-9 units.  Residents of the area were startled by the detonation of several “flash bang” devices used to confuse and distract the occupants of the house.  Still, they did not come out.  Police eventually resorted to firing tear gas through the windows of the house in blasts that sounded like shotguns being fired.

News sources say that four people, two men and two women, finally exited the house through the rear and that no one was injured.  Details have not been released as to the identities of the four or what charges may be laid against them.

Why am I summarizing this news story?  I wasn’t there; none of this is first-hand… Except that I was there.  I lived in that house.  My family lived in that house until just six months ago.

Those pale green living room walls now coated in chemical tear gas residue–I painted them when I was eight and a half months pregnant and nesting.  I laboured in the bathtub of that house, surrounded by speckled plastic faux-tiles and brought my baby boy home from the hospital to that house.  And when, as an infant, he wouldn’t stop crying, my husband sat on those concrete steps–mere feet away from where the armoured vehicle pulled up) and calmed him with the whooshing sounds of freight truck traffic.

The bedroom at the back of the house belonged to the children.  It was in scary bad shape when we moved in three years ago, but my daughter and I repaired the cracks in the walls and painted the room a bright and cheery shade called Merry Pink.  I never could get the window in the children’s room open; it had long-ago been painted shut.  And now it’s boarded up because the police apparently were firing shots into the back of the house as well.

The octagonal window by the front door was in the closet and provided the only natural light to the master bedroom because the other window was completely blocked by the building with the Hoang Video store, in front of which the police took cover as they fired shots into the octagonal window.

The only room in that house I didn’t paint was the kitchen, because it already sported a nice splash of color when we moved in–a vintage green and blue flower wallpaper from the 60’s.  The refrigerator was in the basement and we liked it that way.   Also in the basement was a wood-burning stove that was very likely original to the house and, whether it was functional or not, the look of it was the definition of cozy.  There was a room in the basement–we called it the “murder room” because if ever a murder was to occur in that house, that would be the room to do it in and hide the evidence.  It was a windowless cold storage area with a meat hook hanging from the ceiling and an open sump in the corner that lent the air a thick, dank feel. Where once someone lovingly put up their homemade preserves and fruit wines and hung their sausages to cure, I imagine the suspects in this recent incident would have been hiding out.

That’s what I really liked about the house–the original character hadn’t been altered and renovated away by multiple owners.  The original–I mean, very first!–owner lived there until just four years ago.  His name was Frank Russo.  He and his wife, Yolanda, moved there in 1947 (we even found newspapers from that year in the basement when we moved in over 60 years later).  Yolanda passed away some years ago and the house obviously fell into disrepair as Frank became too old to maintain it.  A garment bag with her name on it and which contained a fancy blue cocktail dress was still hanging in the closet downstairs when we moved in; we left it there when we moved out so as not to vex the dead.  Maybe it’s still there…

Some of what I know about Frank comes from clues left in the house, but much of it comes from the next door neighbor and the tenant who lived there immediately prior to us.  Frank’s family moved him into an assisted-living facility around four years ago and sold the house to a real estate development company, which planned to buy up the whole block from 23rd to 24th Aves. and put up a mixed-use development of several stories.  We knew all of this when we decided to rent it, but were told that it would be several years at least before they could do anything with the property.  The company did buy the adjacent house, but their plans faltered on getting other owners on the block to sell.  So, after we’d lived there for just one year, they sold their parcel with the two dumpy little white houses to a smaller real estate company which immediately sought development permits from the city.

It was a very public residence with a lot of traffic–pedestrian as well as vehicular–so I’m sure people in the area are familiar with the development application sign in the front yard; probably less well-known is the fact that four hens moved into the backyard of the house just days before that sign went up.  The backyard was a paradise compared to the front.  In fact, if you’re wondering what on earth two normal, educated, family-type people were thinking to move into such a dump, it was the potential that we saw in the backyard  (oh, and the fact that it was a whole house that we could afford and it was in the catchment for a great school).  There were mature plum trees, a veggie patch with beautiful soil, a hand-made greenhouse that needed some TLC, and herbs gone wild amongst the weeds that had taken over in the years since Frank had gardened there.  When old-timer neighbors saw me starting to bring Frank’s garden back to life, they would stop and regale me with stories of how he grew tomatoes the size of melons and how he would give away bunches of carrots and heads of lettuce to passersby.

As a gardener and as a dreamer, I could see what it must have been at one time and what it could be again, if only briefly before the ultimate end.  Our intention with Frank’s house was always to give it a noble and dignified end, to breathe new life into a dying house.  It may not have looked like it from the front because our early efforts at keeping it litter-free were quickly thwarted by passersby who didn’t notice or care and continued to inundate us with their garbage, but the inside was comfortable and solidly-built.  And, the backyard was an experimental permaculture playground that people frequently stopped to compliment me on.  To add to Frank’s gardening legacy, we turned half the lawn into a veggie garden, planted a berry patch, built a hugelkultur bed, built a raised bed out of scraps salvaged from Frank’s own stash, turned his covered patio into a chicken enclosure, and completely rebuilt his greenhouse using materials salvaged from the dilapidated one he left behind.

I regret that we didn’t stay in Frank’s house until the very end, but with kids, chickens, and a garden, it isn’t easy to find rental housing in a specific area of the city on short notice, so we felt we’d better go ahead and move if we found a great place, rather than wait to receive the official notice to vacate and have only two months to find another house as well suited to our needs as Frank’s was.  Also, as a gardener, I didn’t want to plant a garden in spring just to be told we have to move in the middle of the summer and lose the harvest.  So, we moved out in April.

The roof was in really bad condition for such a long time, the owners knew they couldn’t rent it to “normal” people for a market price, and they certainly weren’t going to re-roof a house slated for demolition.  But, not wanting to lose money every month before the redevelopment could take place, they agreed to let the tenant of the adjacent house move some of “his girls” in.  The adjacent house has long been suspected of various criminal connections by pretty much everyone in the neighborhood, but the residents kept a low profile.  Of course, if you mapped the density of discarded condoms around the neighborhood, it would be greatest in the lanes immediately surrounding the Knight St. houses (and I know they weren’t coming from our–Frank’s–house)… I’m just saying…

The man who lived next-door (we’ll call him Hank) had been there for twenty years, since the days when a flea market operated across the street in the parking lot of a run-down Safeway.  The Kensington Library that’s now in the ground floor of King Edward Village, was once a small store-front on the west side of the street, just two doors down from Frank’s house.  Long before  that, the south-east corner of Knight St. and Kingsway was the site of a little cedar cottage–the cedar cottage, the one for which the neighborhood is named.  How times have changed…

I don’t know if there were ever any other single-family houses on that stretch of Knight St.  If there were, the two remaining have been the only two for a long, long time.  Maybe the city re-zoned the properties such that improvements couldn’t be made to keep them as residences, preferring long-ago to upgrade the whole area to commercial or higher-density uses.  Certainly, long-term ownership by old-timers content to stay put resigned these two houses to an interesting fate.  I don’t know who lived in the house next to Frank’s before the current tenant, but Hank had been friends with Frank in his later years.

From what we could tell, Hank hosted many characters (he introduced them as “his bums”) in a halfway-house, room-for-rent situation that was never entirely revealed to us.  At one time there was actually a man living in a tent in the backyard.  That’s when we put up some lattice fencing for a little privacy.  Hank may have “run a tight ship,” as some who came and went claimed, but those who came and went were obviously of an unseemly bent, their awkward gaits and hunched backs belying a history of questionable recreational choices.  I hesitate to pass judgement on people I never knew very well; most of the people that came and went, sketchy as they were, were friendly enough.  Whatever they were into, we assumed it was small potatoes, petty crimes whose only victims were themselves.  I never witnessed violence as long as I lived next-door to these people; nor did I ever see evidence of criminal activity occurring outside the home.  I never saw the inside.  They kept a low profile and covered every window so heavily that not a crack of light could be seen, even at night.

The police had a warrant to search Frank’s house for stolen goods.  I don’t doubt that there may have been stolen property in the house, but the police response seems to indicate a threat that, if real, was not reported on.  The turret-topped armoured vehicle would seem to imlpy that the VPD believed the occupants of the house to be armed and dangerous.  There’s a lot about this incident that doesn’t make sense.  If the police had a search warrant, why didn’t they just kick the door down and enter the premises?  To get the warrant, they likely had been investigating these people for some time; why did they stir up this incident during rush-hour?  Why the excessively macho display of force?

I, for one, will be anxiously and sadly awaiting more details of this case.  I can’t even describe the feeling of seeing this militaristic scene play out on the same stage where some of the most memorable and intimate experiences of my life occurred.  It’s not exactly sadness, more of a sense of tragic irony tinged with humor.  Living there and fixing it up on a shoestring budget, especially the garden, was a joy.  Discovering things about Frank and the neighborhood as it existed for him, was an adventure.  I always knew it was destined for the bulldozer and, of course, it still is (perhaps sooner now than before), but I thought it’s demolition would go down like that of every other 1940’s East Vancouver bungalow–unnoticed by the rest of the city and perhaps celebrated by concerned neighbors.

But, no!  Frank’s house was not destined to go out with a whimper, but a distractingly bright bang!

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Im-Permaculture: Hospice Care for a Dying House

March 10, 2012 at 7:29 pm (permaculture, Vancouver) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

Looking out my kitchen window, I see a lane full of litter and a biggie-size Vancouver Special–the kind with terracotta roof tiles, where a compact fluorescent light is left on by the gate all night.  I wonder what the view was like out that very window in 1985, when I was the age my daughter is now, and that house was just recently built.  If I let my mind wander another generation back, I imagine a view of 1950’s semi-suburbanism, the vacant lots as grassy fields where neighborhood children must have played.  I wish I could’ve seen the greenhouse as Frank built it, before it was partially demolished to make room for a renter’s over-sized vehicle.  I can hardly envision the garage as it was before the paint peeled and the leaky roof was covered by an orange tarp whose tattered remains still cling to rotting batten boards.  This is life in a dying house.  The improvements we’ve made inside and out to make it livable and beautiful once again, we think of as a kind of residential hospice care, affording a bit of dignity to a well-built home in its final years.

The house roof was looking really soggy in a few places, so we copied Frank and covered it with a tarp. When summer comes, the landlord will have to decide how extensively to repair the roof on a house destined for destruction.

From the living room window, I see rush-hour commuters, city buses, and eighteen-wheelers barreling down a highway and I can’t help but think it must not have been like this when Frank moved in.  Back then, Knight St. would have been busy with now-defunct American car brands sporting tail fins and chrome, but the mass transport of consumer goods from Asia to North America had only just begun.  These days, Knight St. doubles as highway 99, a six-lane trucking route connecting the port of Vancouver to all points east.  Night and day, truckloads of cheap consumer goods roll down our street, the traffic and pollution making for some really urban homesteading.

The view from the living room. It's not so loud in the evenings and on weekends... and statutory holidays are pretty quiet.

The irony is two-fold, however: our crumbling house and backyard mini-farm may contrast sharply with the retail and high-rise condos that surround us, but we owe a debt of gratitude to the busy Knight St. for preserving this house in its original state.  If it were on a quiet residential street, this house would surely have suffered the fate of other bungalows in the area, many of which have been demolished for new construction.  Even when they’re merely gutted and renovated, Vancouver’s EcoDensity plan would see a laneway house where a garden once grew.

A house forgotten by time: Carl and Ellie's house in the movie Up, surrounded by high-rise construction.

What we have is a true gem in Vancouver: there aren’t that many affordable single-family homes (sans basement apartment) left to rent in the city.  This house is also unique in being owner-occupied for over half a century; this fact alone probably accounts for it not being torn down a long time ago to make way for commercial development.  When his family moved him to a nearby senior’s center, Frank’s house–or rather, the lot–was sold to a property development corporation.  Their long-term plans include razing the house and a few other properties on the block to make way for a mixed-use development of several stories.  The company already owns the house next door, but their plans have so far faltered on purchasing any more of the block.  So, they wait… and we wait… not knowing how long we’ll be able to live here.

In the meantime, no one cares what we do with the house or the yard–we were literally told when we moved in that we could do anything as long as we leave the house standing for them to tear down–so I continue to experiment with various (impermanent) permacultural projects without fear of reprisal by a disgruntled landlord.  It will be a sad day when we’re told we’ve got to go; I don’t think I’ll be able to watch with dry eyes as a bulldozer rips through my (Frank’s) garden.    But, the experience and what I’m learning from working with this property will always be with me.


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