Author Tags: Place Names

Born (1967) and raised in Toronto, Tom Snyders came to Vancouver in 1991 and took to it "like a duck to Lost Lagoon." With Jennifer O'Rourke he wrote Namely Vancouver: A Hidden History of Vancouver Place Names (Arsenal Pulp 2001 $19.95). See below.

[BCBW 2002] "Place Names"

Namely Vancouver: A Hidden History of Vancouver Place Names (Arsenal Pulp $19.95)

After more than two years of digging and almost a thousand entries, Namely Vancouver: A Hidden History of Vancouver Place Names (Arsenal Pulp $19.95) by Tom Snyders with Jennifer O’Rourke has blasted through more than 150 years of Vancouver history to win a City of Vancouver Heritage Award.

Take Adanac Street. Back in the 1920s Union Street was best known for drinking, gambling and prostitution so Mrs. Mary Anne Galbraith took it upon herself to reform the neighbourhood’s image. She lobbied to have the street east of Vernon re-christened Adanac, or Canada spelled backwards. After years of campaigning the new name was made official in 1930, and Galbraith’s descendants still live in the neighbourhood. Her efforts to cleanse the neighbourhood weren’t entirely successful as author Tom Snyders points out: “Even in the 1990s there was a boozecan operating on Union, close to Vernon and the street’s shift to ‘respectable’ Adanac.”

If you desired your name on a street sign in the Terminal City’s earliest days it was useful to be male, non-native, British, royalty or an executive of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Better yet, if you were a CPR surveyor you could name streets after yourself like Lauchlan Alexander Hamilton did, not to mention immortalizing dozens of fellow CPR employees - Beatty, Cambie, Shaughnessy and Strathcona among them. After surveying Fairview Slopes, Hamilton decided to name streets in the city’s first subdivision after trees that were being gobbled up by the boomtown’s sawmills. But the tree symmetry he imagined lost something in the translation. “Hamilton left a list of trees to use for names with his draughtsman before leaving town for a bit. Had his draughtsman remembered that they were supposed to be applied alphabetically, they would not now start at Maple and end at Ash.” Alphabet soup.

Finding material on people who weren’t famous explorers (Burnaby, Langara, Vancouver) or politicians (McGeer, Malkin, Dunsmuir) was especially challenging. Snyders tips his hat to the homesteaders who cleared land and helped shape the frontier city and nearby communities. “While real estate agents and mill owners do generally rank higher than ranchers and farmers in all the place names, there are a few reminders that lots of the folks who built Vancouver actually got their hands dirty in the process.” Examples cited include Avalon Dairy (the longest operating dairy in BC, started near the turn of the 20th century, is still based at the family home on Wales Street), Martha Currie Elementary (named after a Surrey pioneer woman noted for welcoming newcomers to the area), Joyce Street (named for market gardener and school trustee Abraham Joyce) and Joe Fortes Library (honouring the folk hero/English Bay lifeguard who saved hundreds of lives and taught thousands of the city’s children how to swim. Snyders laments the passing of some names replaced by numbers. “Wouldn’t you rather have Sweet Road than East 67th?”

What about First Nations who predate Hudson Bay Company fur traders and CPR tracks by a few millennia? The naming of Kitsilano tells the tale. “The neighbourhood was named by the CPR after the Squamish Khatsalano family, a decade or two prior to the band being coerced off their land by the pressure of white settlers.” Historically Vancouver has also been loathe to name streets after its diverse Asian population “integral to the development of the city.” This is slowly changing with the creation of new place names like David Lam Park honouring the Hong Kong-born businessman, philanthropist and former Lieutenant Governor of B.C.

There are quirky tales like that surrounding Leg-In-Boot Square. A knee-high boot with a severed leg inside washed ashore at False Creek in 1887. The police stuck the gruesome discovery on a pole in front of their headquarters hoping someone would claim it. Two weeks later, no takers.

Namely Vancouver is also sprinkled with brief historical sketches of landmark buildings like the Marine Building that opened in 1930. “No less than poet laureate Sir John Betjeman called it the best Art Deco office building in the world.” Local enterprises like Dayton Boot Company make the cut too. It was actually the Wohlford family that started this business in the mid 40s when logging was king. Its neon boot on East Hastings still kicks butt. Now Sarah McLachlan wears their handmade boots. Namely Vancouver’s saucy tone and hypertext links to related stories will keep you flipping through Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. There’s a lot more colour than our grey skies might suggest.

[Mark Forsythe / SUMMER BCBW 2002]

Namely Vancouver (Arsenal $15.95)

Worried that 10-year-old Tom might get lost walking home, Tom Snyders’ parents once asked him to prepare a map of his own neighborhood to cure him of his blithe disregard for street names.

It worked, sort of. Snyders says he still prefers to navigate with landmarks rather than look at street signs, but his orientation with avenues, streets, crescents, boulevards and wynds has nonetheless wrought a ‘hidden history’ called Namely Vancouver (Arsenal $15.95).
In Vancouver, dead white guys obviously dominate; women, Chinese and Native peoples get short shrift. No news there. But whereas Ian Chunn’s contribution to The Greater Vancouver Book edited by Chuck Davis has an encyclopedic approach to street name origins, Snyders offers critical perceptions that belie his background as a poet.

“As many wordsmiths have pointed out, the act of naming things is inherently tied to the act of owning them,” says Snyders. “Whether considering Biblical examples such as Adam giving names to the animals, or more recent examples of overt corporate investment, such as General Motors Place, those who give names are often those who tell the stories, the histories.”

Balaclava was named after the British headquarters during the Crimean War. Beatty Street is named after a former CPR president, Graveley Street for a financier, Keefer for a contractor. Bute Street owes its origins to the Marquis of Bute, a friend of King George III. Blanca Street, absurdly enough, was named after a Spanish foreign minister. Adanac is Canada spelled backwards. Norquay Street recalls a Manitoba premier. And archivist Major J.S. Matthews once dismissed Atlantic Street as ‘a thoughtless appellation without historic meaning or significance’.

“Names can tell us as much about the character of a city as that of a person,” says Snyders, “which is to say, not much, or quite a bit.” Snyders concentrates on specific locales, such as 142 East Hastings, home to the last surviving member of the once-famous Pantages theatre chain. Opened as one of the city’s first vaudeville houses, the still-standing but vacant building was last used commercially as the Sing Sing Theatre. There’s a heritage plaque on the wall, but few passers-by appreciate its links to a pioneering Greek family.

Alexander Pantages rose from Skid Road in Seattle to extreme wealth as a theatre tycoon with 74 locations in North America. He sold his chain to RKO in 1929 just prior to the stock market crash. His nephew was Peter Pantages (1901-1971) who was a founder of the Polar Bear Swim Club in 1921. With three brothers, Peter Pantages operated the once-renowned Peter Pan restaurant on Granville near Helmcken. The Pantages family name endures with Tony Pantages, a director of videos for Michelle Wright and Sarah McLachlan who has appeared in X-Files as an actor.

“Some names hold dubious claim to the positions as place markers,” says Snyders, “others have every right to be marking our lives, and many more never make the official list, and their stories have been forgotten.” 1-55152-077-X