Author: Chuck Davis (Harbour Publishing, 2011).
If you ever hear someone say that Vancouver has no history, give them a copy of The Chuck Davis History of Metropolitan Vancouver.
Chuck Davis (1935–2010) devoted his life to being the expert on our city’s past. Although not a formally educated in the field, Davis became Vancouver’s unofficial historian, earning the moniker ‘Mr. Vancouver.’ His passion for history’s passion was fuelled by his innate curiosity, honed by careers as a TV reporter, radio host and newspaper columnist.
This curiosity led to a lifetime of scouring archives, libraries and people’s personal collections in search of interesting documents or artifacts that would make great stories. Davis was able to share these in the 16 books he published during his life, including Chuck Davis’ Guide to Vancouver (1973), The Greater Vancouver Book (1997) and the posthumously published Chuck Davis’ History of Metropolitan Vancouver (2011).
Davis had been working on this book—which he described as the capstone of his writing career—for decades, when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. He knew that he would be unable to complete the book, so he appealed to the community for help in the spring of 2010.
Thanks to the efforts of about 40 friends and admirers—including writer Allen Garr—The Chuck Davis History of Metropolitan Vancouver was published in November 2011, a year to the day after Davis’s passing. The team inherited a comprehensive social and economic history of the city prepared with the detail of a historian, but with Davis’s signature exuberant storytelling. According to Garr, a longtime friend and colleague of Davis who helped guide the book’s completion, their “challenge was to maintain his voice and his idiosyncratic view of the city he loved.”
This final product is a culmination of nearly two decades of work and a fitting conclusion to Davis’s literary career. The book is prepared with the care and attention to detail of a historian, but and with the exuberance and flair for storytelling that made Davis one of Vancouver’s most successful and beloved journalist/broadcasters.
Indeed, it is hard to separate the two, given how much of his life Davis dedicated to chronicling the city’s history. While I never met Davis, after spending time with this book I feel like an old friend. Although some passages in the book are no more than 50 words long, each one is imbued with Davis’s personality and passion.
The history begins with George Vancouver’s birth in 1757 and concludes with the 2011 Stanley Cup riot. In between are 554 pages of facts, photographs and maps that tell stories about the city. The book does not follow a central theme like a traditional history book, but rather offers quick and quirky insights into various events of our city’s history. Garr feels that the anecdotal style of the book ties in perfectly with the culture of the city by reflecting the multifaceted aspects of our urban landscape.
In telling our history as a series of stories, Davis avoids biases that often cloud other linear histories. To Davis, it was the individual stories that were most important, not how they fell into a predetermined trajectory. The book’s publisher, Harbour Publishing, calls the work “the city’s diary that had, until now, been scattered in archives and memories.” It is an apt description.
Despite its hefty size, The Chuck Davis History of Metropolitan Vancouver is perhaps the most accessible history book every written on the city. In the word’s of The Tyee’s Crawford Killeen, he retells our city’s stories with the style of a standup comedian: a simple premise, a wacky twist, and a pithy punchline. This folksy approach to history is reflected through his book.
Many stories included in the book end with an unexpected twist. This reflects not only Davis’ sense of humour, but also a certain ‘wackiness’ that pervades our city. According to Harbour publisher, Howard White, Davis “wanted to make us realize we have good stories here… He said our history was more colourful than anybody else’s.”
Most people will first open the book to their birth year or their first memory of their city. But as Allen Garr noted, no matter where you open the book, you’ll have a hard time closing it. It is like eating pistachios; once you start, it is hard to stop! I know from personal experience. Each time I picked up the book, I was not only enthralled by all the historical gems, but also by the fact that somebody cared enough to bring these stories to life.
As I flipped through its pages, I stopped at certain events that have special meaning to me. Along the way, I stumbled across interesting photographs and intriguing headlines. Rather than being told the official history of the city, I was able to piece it together on my own as I devoured story after story. In doing so, I became intimately connected, not only to the book, but the city I call home and a man I never met.
The Chuck Davis History of Metropolitan Vancouver represents not only an important contribution to the historical knowledge of Vancouver, but also the culmination of Davis’ life as the people’s historian. These two facets will appeal to a broad audience. Its depth, accuracy, and insights make it a must-read for students of Vancouver, while its layout makes it a great coffee table book.
According to initial sales, the book was the ‘it’ gift of the holiday season. The initial run of 5,000 books sold out in less than a month, a feat almost unheard of in BC publishing. If you haven’t pick up a copy yet, don’t worry—a second printing hit bookshelves just before Christmas.
Garr calls the book a ‘great gift to the city.’ It is also a great memorial for Davis. Here’s hoping that Davis’ view of our city will become our view. By honouring the his life and work, the team that finished the book honoured our city. I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to Davis.
Yuri Artibise is a public policy analyst and social media specialist. Through his Yurbanism brand, he explores the ‘Y’ of urbanism by sharing ways to make our cities more livable, community-oriented places one block at a time. He currently works with PlaceSpeak, an online location-based community consultation platform.