The impacts of Expo 86 – 30 years later

by Bruce Mason

Expo 86 button• It’s three decades since Vancouver sold its soul. Threw future generations out with dirty False Creek water.

If you’re 30-something, you missed the mega-party, so it’s ironic, or pathetic, that you’re now paying more than your fair (pun intended) share of the tab. The more you know about ‘then,’ the better you to understand ‘now,’ and our new reality of tragic unaffordabilty.

Older readers may recall that glorious Expo 86 summer exceeding all expectations. When buses were emblazoned with “don’t miss it for the world.” Simpler times; a house was a place to live, starter-homes and handyman-specials cost five, maybe six figures, but much less than millions.

It all happened in 173 acres of glitz and coloured zones, along the north and east banks of False Creek, from the Granville Bridge to Quebec Street, after a century of heavy industry, a smelly, polluted, ramshackle, rundown eyesore of old rails and urban blight.

The south side, in stark contrast, had housing communities, – such as the False Creek housing coop, inspired by the Habitat 1976; UN Conference on Human Settlement – parks, Granville Island Public Market, and other products of the ‘70s “city beautiful” movement on the sand-spit originally named Industrial Island.

BC was suffering – stuck, as always, in the vise grip of resource dependency’s boom and bust cycles – through seven years of bad luck, the awful ‘80s. But post secondary tuition was about a grand, a little sweat in a summer’s wages. And interest on savings was near, or at, double digits. Some citizens wished for -and got- a big stadium, some rapid transit, a trade and convention centre, a high-priced hockey team, etc., etc.

Expo 86 expert and University of Wisconsin urban geographer, Kris Olds, wrote about the “perfect resolution” for the lust of B.C.’s political and business elites to forge links with wildly successful Asian economies and become a centre for Pacific Rim commerce.

“In many ways it was more of an accelerator, than the cause of Vancouver’s transition to a more global, metropolitan and cosmopolitan identity,” he opined.

An ‘accelerator’ on speed and steroids, at the edge of the rainforest, a new possibility for a post-industrial parking lot of portable capital. Pave a bit of contaminated paradise with something shiny, eye-catching; a sleight of hand; attraction, distraction and hidden costs, real costs, now you see them, now you don’t.

Lance Berelowitz, author of Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination, moved here, back then, and like others was wowed by natural physical beauty and relatively undervalued property.

Archie comic book Expo 86He recalls watching nightly fireworks from a Mount Pleasant apartment balcony: “ It was like Vancouver was coming out at a debutant ball: ‘Hi guys. We’re here, we’re sexy and we have this to sell. What do you want to buy?’”

Later, Mayor Mike Harcourt – while trying to rid that particular neighbourhood of prostitutues – would describe ‘solicitation’ as “somewhere between a wink and a half Nelson.” Expo 86 was that kind of sales pitch. It worked wonders, world-wide.

Back in the day, when gutsy journalists – rather than bubbly, chatty, cheerleading careerists – worked in media, the delightfully caustic Sun columnist, Marjorie Nichols, described it as a “big, glittering, attention-riveting, reality-deflecting untruth about BC.”

Fearing huge deficits – like Montreal’s Olympics (1976) and world expositions in Knoxville (82) and New Orleans (84) – Mike Harcourt first opposed the fair, a major plank in his 1980 mayoralty run and first term at 12th and Cambie.

But organizers created a lottery – 6/49 (still very much with us) – and cut multimillion dollar corporate deals, adding numbers, including zeros.”To stop moving is to die,” advised a character in the highly popular Spirit Lodge, at General Motors Pavilion. Coke, CN, CP, Royal Bank, Minolta, McDonald’s and more signed on for on-site monopolies, built amusements. The dawn of global corporations, a handful of gimme and a mouthful of much obliged.

This was all before cell phones, which is almost impossible to imagine today; back then, just a gleam in someone’s eye. Everything at Expo was billed as innovative and folks went Ga-Ga over an IBM touch screen. Imagine – just put a finger on a screen and voila. Cameras were ubiquitous and Kodak – the only film available on-site – paid for the picture-perfect, nightly fireworks and the Musical Ride venue.

The crowds grew exponentially from May 2 to Oct. 13

“They didn’t go home,” Harcourt observed on the 25th anniversary. “They’re still comin’! Your east side home is now worth what a castle is in France. But your kids have to go to France to be able to afford to live.”

The fair’s first president, American, Michael Bartlett, set the pace, and tone, as a relatively modest Transpo 86 fair morphed into the 1986 World Exposition on Transportation and Communication, “World in Motion – World in Touch.”

“If you get 180,000 people and there’s only 160,000 things to do, you’re going to have 20,000 pissed off. You get ‘em on the site, you feed ‘em, you make ‘em dizzy, and you scare the s— out of ‘em’,” advised Bartlett. He was fired by Jimmy Pattison, who took over the reins.

Entertaiment trumped educational content. Jimmy prowled in a checkered jacket, picking up litter, famously offering to be chief executive officer for $1 a year and paying for personal expenses. His current estimated worth now exceeds $7 billion.

Expo 86 is the acknowledged prototype and case study for the phenomena of escalation. The avowed “purpose” was to celebrate Vancouver’s centenary, rather than turn a profit (although, obviously, massive private fortunes would be made at the public’s expense). Expenditures were justified as short-term urban renewal and economic development, in a long-term urban housing plan, predicted to be realized in far-off 2016.

Any Vancouver history must include always-volatile average house prices, in this case, pre- and post-Expo. The median price had more than doubled, from $86,000 (January, 1980) to $177,000 (January 1981). But when the Bank of Canada rate hit 21 per cent in August, the average house price had fallen back to $110,000, by summer, 1982.

After Expo 86, (January, 1989), it was way up, to $220,000. Modest 1,000-square-foot heritage bungalows were bulldozed into landfills. “Monsters houses ” were all the talk – four times the size – and the city would be dubbed “Hongcouver.”

An elaborately staged, mega-event had been designed to attract property investors to park (or launder) their money. In the meantime,Vancouverites would have more-than-enough entertaiment, and venues, inlcuding free non-stop ‘street’ attractions and unlimited late-night booze. The genesis of a city as a luxury hotel.

Afterwards, Hong Kong’s richest tycoon, Li Ka-shing bought the site for $320 million, so son, Victor, would have a high-profile project to develop his expertise and to establish a North American base for his empire. Taxpayers would pick up the cost of shufflling around toxically contaminated soil – 70 million and still with us, still climbing.

Olds believes the purchase had more impact on Vancouver’s future than the fair. It attracted off-shore investment, unlocking massive real estate development and Asian dollars, including Ka-shing’s Concord Pacific, the project developer.

UBC geographer David Ley is a leading expert on how world “gateway” cities are changing through rich in-migration. Last month he published a peer-reviewed paper in The International Journal of Housing Policy.

Expo 86, was a key event in government strategy to market the city to Asians, Ley notes in “Global China and the making of Vancouver’s residential property market.” He concludes that most politicians accept skyrocketting prices and mortgage debt as “collateral damage” from ‘growing’ the B.C. economy. Coin-operated government for global elites.

Expo 86 opened floodgates through Canada’s immigration polices, including the business immigration program, and BC’s laughably lax, but deliberate, property investment legislation.

The real, ongoing, long-term costs are highlighted in a recent Vancity report. It predicts massive worker shortages and a looming out-migration in search of affordable housing, including the most poorly paid university grads, compared to 10 other major Canadian cities.

Wages from 85 of 88 local, in-demand jobs will be insufficient for anyone who seeks to own a roof over their heads in Vancouver. In this housing market – first uncoupled from economic reality and stagnating incomes during Expo 86 – future nurses, firefighters, police officers, family doctors and others, SOL.

Legacies include the promise of a public park on nine acres of pavement. Also: the 10,000 demolition permits between 2004 and 2015 as the city began to bulldoze three houses per day into landfills. Towers – endless towers – began rising, phallic-like, obliterating the view of nature, with fewer and fewer places to live, play, raise kids and community.

Wasn’t that a party? How about the brutal housing hangover?

To be continued.

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Expo 86 by the numbers

Bad press for the on-again, off-again fair included evictions from Eastside hotels and rooming houses. Long-time resident Olaf Solheim committed suicide and Pete Seeger staged a free concert in his memory.

Taking part: 54 nations, 12 provinces/states, 14 corporate or specialized pavilions in the largest gathering of entertainment for the biggest party in BC history; 4,000 children (and 587 adults) were Lost and Found.

Charles and Diana opened it. She fainted, which attracted additional global attention. There were approximately 150 other performances each day – some 43,000 in total – from La Scala opera, to street jugglers, a still-revered Bill Cosby, and uncrowned ‘Queen,’ Liberace.

Early rain made some exhibitors homesick, but 130 of 172 days were uncharacteristically dry.

The final count: 22 million visits exceeded projections of 13.7. Average daily attendance was 120,000; the largest,341,806, was Sunday, October 12, a fever pitch for a fond, last look and the challenge to push up attendance as far as possible.

There were 158 structures; 52 restaurants in which $94 million was spent on food, $4.2 million on hot dogs alone.

$20 million was dropped on amusement rides: the Space Tower, Cariboo Log Chute, Looping Starship, Scream Machine, and 1907 Toboggan Co. Carrousel.

Total cost; $1.5 billion, shared by Ottawa, Victoria and corporations. Lotto 6/49 – now a feature of west coast life – was invented to cover the $311M deficit.

25,000+ full-time jobs were created. A special unemployment office was set up, post-fair, added again to BC’s 12.2 % unemployment.

“Residuals” include the Inuktitut on English Bay, China Gate, on Pender Street, the restored Locomotive #374 inside the Roundhouse, the world’s largest hockey stick in Duncan and Folklife on Gabriola.

Park benches, planters, and furniture were auctioned off and strewn from the PNE and White Rock, to Cultus Lake.

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