Squatters recycled utopian dreams

Celebrating end of days on the Mudflats in the summer of ‘72

Bruce Stewart: Dollarton Pleasure Faire, 1972 photography exhibit at Presentation House Gallery until Aug. 3. Curated by Bill Jeffries. Maplewood Mudflats Tour: Sunday, July 27, 11 a.m. with Bill Jeffries and Wild Bird Trust of British Columbia founder Patricia Banning-Lover, Corrigan Nature House, Maplewood Conservation Area, Dollarton Highway, North Vancouver.

Here there is no winter. The sky is always blue at the Dollarton Pleasure Faire.

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Or at least the weather was good for the two weeks the counter-culture festival took place in late August, early September of 1972. This was Vancouver, however, and all hell could break loose from the rainforest skies at any moment.

The refinery across the water was also a daily reminder to the people of the inlet that hell was close by - especially back in the day when the luminescent Shell sign lost its “S,” giving writer Malcolm Lowry symbolic confirmation of something he already knew about living as a squatter on the edge of this world - Time was ticking.

Lowry called his Dollarton paradise Eridanus, after the river in Greek mythology situated on the far west of their world, where Heracles asked the river nymphs of Eridanus to help him locate the Garden of the Hesperides. Dadist jazz musician Al Neil, who also lived as a squatter in the area with his partner Carole Itter for more than 30 years starting in the mid-’60s, drew on Vedic literature when he referred to the area in his West Coast Lokas. It was a special, spiritual place open to all but best kept secret.

By the time of the Dollarton Pleasure Faire there were no more secrets to keep and the event, captured for posterity by photographer Bruce Stewart, was a celebration by the squatter community of the end of their days in their temporary paradise on the mudflats. Eviction notices could no longer be ignored as houses were burned to the ground by civic authorities bent on clearing the way for a shopping mall that was never built.

The squatters were part of a long tradition of ramshackle settlements that have popped up along the Burrard Inlet, the Fraser Delta and other local bodies of water since at least the mid-19th century when Portuguese and Scottish sailors jumped ship and set up house near Brockton Point in what is now Stanley Park. Of course, First Nations land occupation goes back thousands of years with the Tsleil-Waututh (People of the Inlet) annually making the rounds establishing their winter and summer camps close to water sources.

The Dollarton squatter community was initially started in the 1930s by fishermen and employees of the Dollar Mill and McKenzie Derrick shipyard, says Sheryl Salloum in her essay “Without Deed of Permits: Squatters in the Lower Mainland” published in Raincoast Chronicles 19. Lowry and his wife rented a cabin near Roche Point in 1940 and liked the lifestyle so much they stayed for 14 years, eventually settling into a shack on the beach near the present-day tennis courts in Cates Park. At one point there were as many as 90 shacks lined along the waterfront but they were all gone by 1960 to make way for the planned development of the park.

Squatters were living in the intertidal zone of the Maplewood Mudflats on and off in the early part of the 20th century but they were forced out in 1961 when L&K Lumber purchased the property, according to Salloum.

By the end of the decade some individuals had moved back into the area and when artist Tom Burrows returned to Vancouver after studying in Europe he chose to live there himself in May 1969. He moved into a partially built, abandoned structure and began adding to it over time.

In West of Eden, a collection of essays Presentation House Gallery has published in conjunction with the Stewart exhibit, Burrows and his former wife Ida Carnevali were interviewed about their “Life on the Mudflats” by their son Elisha Burrows who spent his first years there. “With no power I had to build the house with handsaws,” says Burrows. “We had candles and gas lamps that were kind of scary. But I was employed at UBC, and would spend time there doing my work and reading. I couldn’t deal with the lack of light. The person who really knows the experience of the mudflats is Ida, dealing with diapers with no hot water. She bore the brunt of living on the Flats.”

There were actually two fairs held at the mudflats during the hippie era. Carnevali arrived from Europe, wearing an Yves St. Laurent suit and carrying a baby in her arms, just in time to experience the first one. She wasn’t impressed and neither was her husband. “My pleasure in the fair was to witness an overheated debate on who got the lucrative corn on the cob concession,” Burrows says. “The 1972 fair I could avoid and did.”

Even though Burrows wasn’t too happy about having the Dollarton Pleasure Faire in his backyard he had little say in the matter as it was put together by some of his neighbours on the mudflats. The gathering was actually small potatoes compared to some of the other events Dan and Wendy Clemens’ DeLuxe Renovators and Events had hosted in the Lower Mainland.

“The North Shore became important to me well before I came to Cap because my friend David Rippner, one of those hippie refugees from the States at the time of the Vietnam War, brought the California ‘60s energy and excitement with him. Davy was famous on the Fourth Avenue Kitsilano scene, and later on Lower Lonsdale as The Leathersmithe - he made sandals, belts, vests, and artsy leather stuff, a guy with humour and the best American openness - cheerful, positive and razor smart. So when Davy and his girlfriend moved shop to Lower Lonsdale from Fourth Avenue, my family and friends finally had a reason, for the first time, to cross the bridge. And going into North Van seemed like going into the wild, a trek to some mysterious, far place, like Nepal or Tibet.” - Pierre Coupey, “The North Vandals: A Conversation” included in Moodyville (The Capilano Review/Presentation House Gallery, Spring 2009).

The Dewdney Trunk Road Pleasure Faire in 1971 is still remembered by some as one of the main events of the hippie era. “That was a big success,” remembers Davy Joel Rippner, one of Clemens’ partners at the time. “Joni Mitchell was our star. She came before the fair opened and stayed the whole time.” Deluxe also hosted a Pleasure Faire in Mission and an eight-day Christmas extravaganza at the PNE, featuring bands and craft booths.

Rippner, now based on South Pender Island (leathersmithe.com), has been creating handmade leather goods since 1957 and during the early ‘70s operated his own shop, The Good Earth, at Third Street and Lonsdale Avenue.

“Dan and Wendy Clemens were making bags at that time,” says Rippner. “That’s how our relationship started up - we would see each other now and then at public get-togethers. And when the time came and I located this other shop (on Lower Lonsdale) they were keen to go into a partnership. And they lived close by on the mudflats.”

Rippner didn’t live on the mudflats himself, preferring some of the comforts of civilization such as running water and heat in a place near Capilano Suspension Bridge. “My lifestyle was not as rustic as theirs,” he says. “I did want electricity and I wanted to be able to get away from the scene in the evening and charge my batteries. I had a girlfriend and my parents came to visit and my brother was living there and somebody was living in a treehouse outback so we had our own little scene there.”

DeLuxe Renovators was formed as a fallback business says Rippner. “Carpentry was a way to fill the time between leather season, which was warmer weather when people are out spending money. To get us over the hump periodically we were able to do renovations and teardown jobs.”

Rippner, in his mid-20s at the time, was part of the DeLuxe “disorganization” (as he calls it) from 1968 until 1975 when he left Vancouver. “Because I was involved with Dan and Wendy I was down in the mudflats too and that was the beginning of that little subculture.”

One day some of the DeLuxe crew showed up at Rippner’s Lonsdale store with truckloads of ticky tacky taken from Victorian homes in the Fairview Slopes area near Granville Island and they used it to decorate his shop. “One of the guys at the mudflats, Willie (Wilson), was a collector and he had amassed three warehouses full of ticky tacky Victorian teardowns. That was how DeLuxe got its start. They would go and tear down these places and take away whatever they wanted. That’s where all the Victorian stuff came from.”

The structures DeLuxe built for themselves on the mudflats had some distinguishing features. “They were post and beam,” says Rippner. “Big husky things and all found material. I don’t think anybody ever bought a sheet of plywood or anything like that. Most of us didn’t have that much experience as carpenters so they were rough and impractical, big and open. I don’t think anybody thought of it as anything more than a temporary stop on the way to the rest of their lives.”

As well as outfitting the Maplewood Mudflats with truckloads of recycled Victoriana the DeLuxe Renovators influenced other aspects of popular culture in the early ‘70s through Al Clapp’s Habitat Forum in 1976 and Robert Altman’s 1971 western McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

“Al Clapp was active in everything that we did,” says Rippner. “He was a frontman. We didn’t have much to offer. Everything that we did, people took us on faith, because we were very loosely knit. We were antiestablishment, clearly so, but we had some good mouths. Dan Clemens could talk anybody into anything. He was a very convincing guy and so he got on very well with Al Clapp who had those characteristics too. Plus Al had a lot of connections.”

The DeLuxe crew played a big part in creating Robert Altman’s fictional town of Presbyterian Church in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The film was shot in West Vancouver and Squamish mostly in sequential order with carpenters constructing the town set in front of Altman’s cameras as the story unfolds. The whole thing smacks of a Maplewood Mudflats ethos right down to the wood planks the actors walk over to get from one building to the next.

“A gang of DeLuxers worked on it,” says Rippner. “The film was employment for a year or some very long time, particularly for Ian Ridgway. Ian is still alive, he’s living on the Sunshine Coast. He was a few years senior to us and had been a shipwright and learned his trade in Great Britain. He was the primary guy that did all the - I don’t want to say organization, I don’t want to say design because people all played a role - but we learned our carpentry from Ian.”

The concept of Pleasure Faires sprang up in post-Second World War America as summertime celebrations of medieval and Renaissance cultures. Rippner actually worked as a student volunteer on the first Renaissance Pleasure Faire put on by radio station KPFK in Los Angeles in 1963. The event celebrated its 50th anniversary last year with annual attendance now averaging 250,000.

Photographer Bruce Stewart attended medieval fairs and hippie “be-ins” in California in the late ‘60s while he was studying at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles.

“We shot mostly street gatherings and protest marches,” says Stewart. “The Fifth Estate Coffee House, the Sunset Strip riots, that kind of stuff - also the first Easter Be-in in Legion Park. That would be in ‘67 during the so-called Summer of

Love. I was fortunate I was down there and really took in a lot of stuff that was happening.”

Stewart felt out of place when he first returned to Vancouver in 1971 to work at UBC. He became friends with photographer Fred Herzog and the two of them often worked together documenting the Vancouver street scene.

“When I heard about the Faire I went over to the Flats not knowing who I’d meet,” remembers Stewart.
“I parked my car, went into the woods and met this band of people who were having a coffee break. They had their recycled timbers and hammers and nails and whatnot and I went up to Danny and Ian Ridgway, who I knew very briefly from another occasion, and I said, ‘I’m Bruce Stewart and I’m very interested in documenting what you’re doing for myself.’ We shook hands on the deal. They said, ‘Fine you’re not selling the pictures, you’re not working for a newspaper, you’re not an undercover cop.’ These were all questions I used to get legitimately I suppose because of the nature of the pictures I used to take. Fred used to get a lot of questioning like that as well.”

Stewart shot for a couple of days before the Faire started and continued on through the event. “Nobody ever paid any attention to me,” he says. “Nobody posed for me, which was really quite remarkable. I danced into the scene and danced out again. People got to know who I was, I think, without really knowing my name.”

He kept shooting sometimes late into the night using very fast film with a Nikon FTN. Through UBC he had access to a darkroom
at Vancouver General Hospital and he would develop the film there at the end of each day’s shooting.

“I used a variety of lenses mostly wide angle,” he says. “I like to get close to people because the pictures have a sense of being there. Either they didn’t notice me or I was invisible but there wasn’t a big deal made about me being there. And that goes for the nudity as well, which was very pervasive. It was a very hot summer - it was a beautiful place to lie around in the grass.”

McCartney Creek was dammed up to create a swimming hole where people could cool off during the Faire. There were also other accoutrements of such events such as a bandstand, concession stands and a screen printer who made and sold “Maplewood Mudflats” T-shirts on site.

The photographer shot more than 700 images at the Faire with 50 of those chosen for the current exhibit at Presentation House Gallery. During the festival Terry Lyster also followed Stewart around with a Super-8 camera and some of that footage is also screening continuously as part of the show. Some of the images feature Al Clapp with an Arriflex camera shooting his own footage but the material he shot has not been found.

Stewart returned to the mudflats after most of the remaining shacks were destroyed in 1973 and took further photographs. A panoramic sweep of the area made at that time greets visitors as they enter the gallery to view his exhibit.

A distinctive sense of melancholy permeates the photographs says the gallery in its introduction and that sentiment could apply to the entire era, says Rippner.

“When you were a hippie (it hadn’t yet acquired its capital “H”) or a square, or a peacenik or a hawk, poverty was the standard for many young iconoclasts. Visiting and especially living on the mudflats meant embracing and accepting the limited economic future and wide disparity between the wealthy and those who wanted no part of corporate life, Madison Avenue, the support of the American war effort, rightist politics, established religion, and so many oppressive and selectivelyenforced laws.

“We had good relations with the local First Nations people and I think the place gave many visitors a chance to see how a life with few rules could play out in rewarding ways. It was an experiment, like Edge City, that was refreshing in those restrained and conservative times. Vancouver had the reputation even then of being a city of adventure and risk; the mudflats epitomized that freedom and hope of an alienated subculture.”

For transcripts of interviews with Bruce Stewart and Davy Joel Rippner, as well as a list of references on the history of the Mudflats, visit Knee deep in the Mudflats: Q & A with photographer Bruce Stewart and DeLuxe utopian vision: Q & A with Davy Joel Rippner. Note: The Tsleil-Waututh Nation is hosting the third annual Salish Sea Summer Gathering in Cates Park/Whey-ah-Wichen on Sunday, Aug. 10.
 

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