The Complications of Human Greed

Satori Dog | Friday 21 October 2016

From 2005 to 2015, I lived in Vancouver, B.C., in the West Side neighborhood of Kitsilano, right near Jericho Beach. It was a great place to live, even though decent rental housing was hard to find at any reasonable price. And if you didn't want to live in a "garden suite"—or, as we used to call it where I grew up, a "basement"—your options were even narrower.

The Vancouver of 2005 upon which I landed was something of an idyllic city, at least for me. There were decent cultural events, good restaurants, beautiful views of Nature at every glance, and a low-key West Coast sophistication for a city of its nice and manageable size. Most importantly, though, it was the people who drew me to settle in Vancouver more than any other one thing. There's a corny friendliness to Vancouverites that's nice and toasty warm, and the city has made me a bit more corny and friendly than I previously was.

The best place I lived in was a third-story walk-up to the attic of a hundred-year-old heritage house, half a block from the bay. The commercial real estate millionaire who owned the house called it a "loft" when he rented it to me (fair enough), but then upgraded it to "penthouse suite"—same views, same no heat, same cramped living, but now 40% more expensive for the next renter—when I moved out. I had a fantastic 180 degree view of the bay and the city (probably better than most of the people who owned a home in the neighborhood), with a lovely young family of three, and then four, living below me, and a couple of really great friends nearby. Life was grand.

But once the international real estate tsunami of greed hit the city, all of those great friends starting leaving town, squeezed out by the oversized circus of undocumented cash flowing directly from China into the corridors of City Hall and the pockets of well-pantalooned real estate and development clowns. The rental market became worse and worse with each passing week, and the luster of Vancouver, at least for me, grew dull, and then was off completely.

The Market Is Hot

Shortly after The Greatest Event In The History of Canada—the winning of hockey Olympic Gold by Team Canada, in Canada, in 2010—the sleazy greedy development weasels who built the god-awful Olympic Village condo "neighborhood" swarmed upon the city in Expo 86 style. City Hall became a construction site trailer for any "visionary" real estate developer. Nothing else mattered to the city (well, bike lanes, but don't get me started on that one) except tearing down neighborhoods and turning dirty money into sparkly shiny condo glass. All of this is well-documented and easily Googleable.

It was literally non-stop hammers and demolitions for five solid years in my neighborhood and surrounding environs. The Dunbar neighborhood was particularly hard-hit and ravaged (cf. "Disappearing Dunbar" and this telling Google Map.) Watching this happen in real time was like watching an autopsy in slow motion on a body that's not dead yet. But, the damage is done. "Too little too late," as our haircut of a Mayor recently said, referring to his own negligence and incompetence. The end result is a city gutted of its character and charm.

This over-development housing crunch real estate bubble phenomena, or whatever you want to call it, spread faster than herpes in a Jose Cuervo sponsored kissing booth, in cities all over the world, not just Vancouver. London, San Francisco, Sydney—they've all been ravaged, as wealthy investors buy two, three, four homes for investments, summer homes, or Airbnb rentals. Vancouver was a particularly soft target, with its lax government oversight for this most shady and corrupt of industries.

Everyone got rich; well, everyone who owned a home or was savvy enough to know how to flip one, that is. Only 48 per cent of households in Vancouver own their home, significantly lower than the province-wide 70 per cent average. With incomes averaging around $65K and the price of an average home about $1 million dollars in any part of the city, there's no need to do the math; it's all explained in this clip, "Louis CK Trying To Buy A House."

All of this happened on Mayor Haircut's watch, who personally benefited with a tidy little $400K profit for flipping a house he barely lived in for over a year. With his annoying, golly-gosh-darn-gee media face and the absolute lack of oversight or community input, His Highness's Vision party is one the most autocratic entities I've ever seen working the levers of civic governance, and I grew up in Detroit in the 1970s when Mayor Coleman Young, the self-proclaimed "Mother Fucker in Charge," lined his silk pockets and left the city a fiscal and social wreck. Sadly, this too shall be Mayor Haircut's legacy.

The worst part is that, as far as politicians go, Mayor Haircut came cheap. $400K? That's chump change in the world of corruption. I think I disrespect him more because he didn't line his pockets more than he did than I do for the way he let this jewel of a city be bulldozed under. I mean, what kind of message is he sending for future corrupt politicians? To show restraint in your graft? Egads. I don't want to live in that kind of world.

Anyway... I'm so over him. I've moved on. I wish him all the best, truly.

Buying "for fun"

During the height of the real estate frenzy, every street corner on the West Side had at least two, sometimes three or four, magazine racks stuffed with lavish, glossy, four-color brochures for new condos and other real estate. These were as plentiful on the streets of Kits as yoga studios, coffee shops, and hair salons. Every one of these magazines put out a new issue every month. I'm sure the landfill hit was ginormous. Since these guides were free, I took armfuls out at a time, first as an act of civil disobedience, and then later because I had an idea for a creative something new.

I'd always had it in the back of my mind that, once I retire, I'd putter about in some garage somewhere, with a musty, loose tobacco aroma, and make one-off collage pieces from all the debris and flotsam of the life I had just lived. Writings, drawings, paintings, props, naked pictures of exes—all of it would be fun to go through and make something out of. Collage seemed like a nice way to go gently into the night, and it gave me an excuse for being such a book and art pack rat in my present, pre-retirement life. (A Joseph Cornell exhibition I caught at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was a big inspiration.)

But then, one day, a hatred of all things film industry related, coupled with the closing of a great used bookstore at Broadway and Granville, hastened my pictorial puttering plans.

This bookstore had tons of books and magazines from the 1930s and 40s, some older, some more recent, great stuff from England and Canada that was all new to me. It was a treasure trove of raw supplies for a wannabe collagist. Ideas for pieces spouted out of my brain like a geyser. I started bringing my own boxes to the bookstore and filling them overfilled. I probably spent over $500 dollars there, and I never got a discount, not once. Bastards.

During this same time, all everybody was talking about, myself included, was real estate and the housing crisis and wasn't it all so very, very terrible. (Note to anyone who talks about nothing except the buying and selling of real estate: you're boring.) You couldn't miss the drain of talented young people who were leaving the city or couldn't be drawn here. I grew angry with the moving away of so many great friends. I really started to hate Mayor Haircut (I'm over him, seriously, I am) and every third person on the street who was a latte-fisted real estate agent moron.

Shortly after my fellow filmmaker friend Mike and I got turned down to shoot a documentary about the crisis, I thought of a way to creatively channel this anger while I was watching yet another perfectly fine house in the neighborhood get smashed down to rubble: I would take wood from a demo'd house and use that as my canvas for a housing crisis-themed series of collage pieces. It wasn't exactly Julian Schnabel buying old boxing ring canvases on the roadside in Mexico, but hey, it felt pretty inspired nonetheless.

I specifically wanted to get wood from a demo close by, on my street, so I waited patiently for the right moment. It didn't take long before this nice little corner house on Point Grey Road suddenly had the telltale demolition orange fences surrounding its trees, and it was just a matter of weeks before the buyer paid for the permits from the city to tear it down (ka-ching! another fancy cut 'n blow and "business" trip to Paris for His Royal Haircut). I went out the night after the house came down and scavenged through the pile of wood shards in the dark, picking out big ones, small ones, cool looking ones. It was a blast.

Now, there's a lot of different ways you can frame or label what happened in Vancouver: environmentally unconscious over-development; unprecedented money laundering; ginormous real estate bubble. Vancouver did all of these things simultaneously, and there's many little sub-classifications you could use to frame it up as well, such as same-day flipping, which became a specialized art form of legalized illegality.

But that last photo speaks for itself. Fortuitously, the demo'd house I grabbed those scraps from just so happens to be in the news these days as a poster child for the excesses of the mindless demolition and development craze that hit the city. That's what went in there: a big black cube. That's what replaced a really nice family home in a great neighborhood in a city where the home vacancy rate hovers near zero percent. A charming home that anyone in the city would have killed to live in was torn to shreds by an architect developer speculator, a flipper who hopes to make $8 to $10 million dollars on the deal to further fuel his visionary hubris, replacing a house with what basically amounts to a square piece of black shit. Everyone on the street hates it. The flowery way he talks about it is even more turgid and grandiloquent than the way I write.


I love antiquarian books, and have many first edition hardcovers with those cool fold-out map inserts—books about the North American forest before European colonization, travel guides from 1950s and 60s Italy, several vintage Vancouver history books. (My favorite place in all of Vancouver is my friend Ron's bookstore, Kestrel Books.) So my collage idea was to layer disparate elements from vintage postcards and historical books with clippings from contemporary real estate magazines, and fasten everything down atop the demo'd house wood scrap canvases I had scavenged.

"Take an object/Do something to it/Do something else to it. [Repeat.]"—Jasper Johns

I purposely destroyed pages and images from antique books and one-of-kind postcards, lovingly attached them to the wood, and then stapled pictures of condos and Yuppies from real estate magazines to everything with all the artistic finesse and forethought of a moonstruck chimpanzee with a staple gun, essentially ruining the vintageness in order to mirror the wanton destruction of homes in my neighborhood. I've created three of these pieces so far, and have several more chunks of wood that I want to use to make an even bigger display.

Come and See The Show

I have come to realize that all Art, no matter the form, is a storytelling medium. I am particularly drawn to the more Surreal, Impressionistic, and Symbolist artistic types, filmmakers like Terrence Malick, or painters like Neo Rauch, to name just a few, artists whose works invite you in and allow you to construct your own narrative in your mind about their work, instead of telling you what to think or what to see.

These three pieces were designed with a similar intention. Using a plane surface of overlapping layers, meaning arises from the experience of viewing, not from any one element or even from any of the words I may use to explain the work. The presentation of these elements creates a mood based on the totality of the content. I like to think the overall effect is colorful and engaging; lots of candy to catch the eye.

These pieces are not conventionally "pretty," and purposefully so (it didn't hurt to be a neophyte, admittedly). They are primitive and crude, with the real estate magazine elements hastily stapled down and poorly nailed, executed with as much thought as the city put into preserving the character and soul of its homes and neighborhoods.

Working in collage, I have found, is a lot like great sex: you need to set aside an eight-hour block of time, and you need to make sure you have a large bucket of warm water and plenty of towels nearby to keep your brushes and other tools clean. And if you're working with oils, well then… all the more fun. God speed. I really loved creating these pieces and I can't wait to make a few more.

All three of these pieces have been selected for exhibition in ArtSpring's SURFACING: EXPLORATIONS IN TWO DIMENSIONS show here on Salt Spring Island, which opens next Friday, October 28th. The pieces range in price from $930K to $1.6 million, which is the current price range of a detached house in Vancouver. Bring your checkbook.

You know, painting has given me a lot of freedom, because for some reason, I've been able to paint things, organize things in a way that I see that don't have any buffers or compromises in them.—Julian Schnabel

Take heed, take heed of the western wind, take heed of the stormy weather, and jump on the Facebook bandwagon and sign up for my mailing list! Love, Greg