Hard of Housing

Wendy Kwan

So many times I passed this site, these buildings. Located only blocks from my home, The Little Mountain Public Housing Project shared a boundary with the eastern fringe of Queen Elizabeth Park, very near the geographic centre of Vancouver, Canada. Born of advocacy efforts, especially those of returning World War 2 veterans, Little Mountain was built in 1954, standing as British Columbia’s first public housing project.

Suddenly, one gray December afternoon, plywood covered windows stared back at me from this place I had passed with only glancing notice for so many years. Talk of plans to demolish the existing structures, and redevelop this prime urban land sifted throughout the community. Although some units were already abandoned, a committed group refused to let them simply slip away. Little Mountain residents, local artists and community activists painted their expressions and recounted history upon the canvas of the tattered and empty buildings. No one moved to remove the pieces, and graffiti tags were rare.

What emerged over the months to come was a gradual depopulation of the site, and creation of a weird inner urban semi ghost town. The residents were shuffled and relocated with no concrete plan evident for the future of the site. The community continued to make their marks, hopeful for a chance to influence fate.

The stories of the walls compelled me to return time and again, my feeling growing ever stronger that somehow the messages here must endure. Hard of Housing became my personal response to the prolonged closure of Little Mountain and the resulting unique community expression.

Prowling the buildings, I regarded the ever growing cracks and thickening grime. I read the words placed so carefully in the plywood covered windows, the graphic array was intriguing, and the voices of history spoke.

Months rolled on and soon I found myself surrounded by sweet spring grass. Daisies popped, and remnant gardens too, untended and left to their wild independence. There was a suspended peace amongst the vacated buildings. The walls continued to talk, the messages becoming ever more desperate. I remained free to engage in visual play and consider the sticky and tangled layers of the tale unfolding.

The site was ever changing. Not just the seasons, but new words, new graphics, and things moved around. Iron railings disappeared, opening new views to explore. These were subtleties, but I knew this place and I noticed. The voices became less hopeful as the end appeared to be in sight, the messages increasingly desperate.

Metal posts appeared around the periphery, and soon my access to this place of solitude and retrospection was barred. This had been my space to play the graphic, the organic and the structural upon each other and connect the threads of this canvas for one last time into something more than what was obvious at a glance. It was not only about the site, the buildings. It was of the generations of people who lived here, those who now had made their expressions, and even of myself.

The fences up, I could only work from beyond the gate. The walls felt so far away, I could no longer crawl into their textures. I promised the growing army of security guards that I had no desire to climb over the top. It was important to incorporate the infuriating fence as much as possible because it was part of the perspective, a final wall of separation. Occasionally I brought a step stool, hoping to see beyond the wall for a clear view.

It was hard to watch as the component elements that were the Little Mountain Public Housing Project became slivered, ripped and destroyed. Little Mountain consumed and challenged me, and finally was gone.

I intend my photographic collection, “ Hard of Housing” to stand as a part of the unique expressive community process that unfolded around the closure of The Little Mountain Public Housing Project and a permanent reminder of the history of its evolution, and the people whom it supported.

The Photographs

The photographs for “Hard of Housing” were made with a plastic toy camera called a “Holga” and medium format black and white film between January and December 2009. The collage effects were created on site at the Little Mountain Public Housing Project, with an in-camera multiple exposure technique. Every photograph in the collection is a result of exposing 2, 3 or 4 different compositions on top of one another. The unique qualities and spontaneity of the Holga allowed this process to unfold. The entangled layers and fractured picture spaces that define these photographs best express the depth and complexity of issues I felt were provoked by the closure of Little Mountain.

All photographs first exist as silver gelatin photographic prints, printed in my darkroom on fibre based (archival) paper, and toned in sulphide and selenium for hints of colour and to further increase print longevity. The final photographs were then scanned and digitally prepared for presentation for this website.


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