TO the people who once lived there, including one of British Columbia's best-known writers, the rustic cabins built on stilts on North Vancouver's Maplewood mudflats were paradise.
Malcolm Lowry, the author of the novel Under the Volcano, lived on the mudflats during the 1940s and '50s and wrote about the experience in novels and short stories.
Now a piece of art inspired by the squatters' shacks, which stood until 1971, has found a permanent home near where the structures once stood.
World-renowned artist Ken Lum (Monument to East Vancouver) was commissioned to create the piece, called From shangri-la to shangri-la, by the Vancouver Art Gallery. The work was originally displayed outside the Shangri-La Hotel during the 2010 Olympics. Lum, who was born and raised in Vancouver and knew of the shacks from Lowry's writing, wanted to make people think about a different kind of paradise.
"On the occasion where you have a lot of dialogue about the future of the city, but almost all of it in a kind of rah-rah, optimistic voice, I thought it might be interesting to step back from that kind of positive exuberance," said Lum. "And just historicize what we've lost in terms of possible alternative ways of thinking about the city, as opposed to just gleaming towers."
The replica shacks were the last thing District of North Vancouver Mayor Richard Walton expected to encounter as he walked down Georgia Street one day in 2010, especially in front of the 70-story Shangri-La building.
"I recognized one of them right away. I have books on Lowry and I recognized it through old photographs of his shack," said Walton. "The other two I recognized through association. I realized I'd been in one of them a couple of times."
As a university student in the early '70s, Walton had gone to parties at the shacks and had gotten to know some of the more permanent residents, including an elderly man, families with small children and several artists, all "just living a simple lifestyle."
He also remembers how the shacks met their end. They were burned to the ground in 1971 in an effort by the district council of the time to prepare the way to build a shopping mall on the site. But a growing awareness of environmental issues prevented that plan from coming to pass, and today the Maplewood Conservation Area is a protected bird sanctuary.
Walton asked Ian Forsyth, the director of the district's arts office, to contact Lum to find out where the art piece would go after the exhibition was over.
Even though a private collector had expressed interest in buying From shangri-la to shangri-la, Lum readily agreed to gift the artwork to the District of North Vancouver.
"I just said to the other collector 'I have to do this.' I was very open to North Vancouver having it," said Lum, who said the potential buyer had offered what would have amounted to "a nice little mortgage."
For two years, the piece sat in a corner of a works yard while the district searched for a suitable place to display the artwork. The shacks, which are one-third the size of the actual dwellings, now sit at the edge of a tidal slough, set back from the shoreline where the original structures once stood.
Plaques telling the story of the mudflat homes will be added to the site. From the late 1800s through to the 1950s, squatting was a way of life in many parts of what is now the District of North Vancouver, including Cates Park/Whey-ah Wichen said Walton. The squatting population was especially high during the Great Depression.
But with increased development of the once-rural area and the need to provide roads and utilities to a growing population, the district had less tolerance for people who wanted to live for free. By the 1950s, the push was on to get the squatters out.
"I think it's a part of our history that's very unique to the district, and it's only through the writings of Lowry and the (National Film Board) film Mudflats Living that the story's told," said Walton. "Having these shacks back is going to be a visible (manifestation) of our history."
From shangri-la to shangri-la is on permanent display at the Maplewood Conservation Area.