The Story behind the East Van Cross

Photo Credit: Modernchristianart.net

Chances are if you live in Vancouver you’ve driven by the iconic cross erected at the corner of Great Northern Way and Clark Drive.  Written vertically in massive letters is the word East.  Intersecting that horizontally is the word Van.

I’ve always thought that the cross was an especially powerful monument to East Vancouver, in many ways embodying the suffering and hopes of the neighborhood.  According to a recent article in the Vancouver Sun by John Mackie, the East Van cross is indeed a potent symbol with historical roots in the area.

The iconic cross figure dates all the way back to the 1950s.  Ken Lum, the artist who designed the monument pictured above, believes that it may have originally reflected the large Catholic population in East Van at the time.

But by the 1960s, the symbol had been appropriated by rebellious teens and “greasers” from the wrong side of the tracks.  They would draw the East Van cross on denim jackets and scrawl it onto walls and sidewalks as a form of graffiti.

My roots in Vancouver don’t go back that far, but I can imagine what a statement that must have been back in the day:  a celebration of being part of blue collar, rough-and-tumble East Van, at a time when the city itself was slowly becoming more sophisticated.

Nowadays, the cross has become an important symbol of East Van’s renaissance.   According to at least one writer for the Vancouver Sun,  the cultural heart of the city has officially shifted from west of Cambie Street to east of Cambie Street.  Though problems with crime, drugs and poverty persist, East Van and its environs are home to some of the city’s most exciting new districts.

There’s Chinatown, reinvigorated with edgy new restaurants and bars.   Main Street has been a locus for hip boutiques and eateries for years now.  Commercial Drive is an alternative mecca brimming with authenticity.  Strathcona is becoming a haven for artists and creative types.  Even Fraser Street has witnessed a rebirth.

Does anyone remember seeing the East Van cross back in the ’50s and ’60s?  What do you think of the way the cross has become a symbol for the East Van of today?

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30 Responses to The Story behind the East Van Cross

  1. Tony

    I’m not that old o recall 50/60’s, but I went to Templeton High School in the early 80’s and the East Van cross was prominent on the back of many jean jackets!

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  3. mt

    i grew up in east van and personally don’t like the design as it makes van east look very cheap…if they stick with this design they should at least make it look more classy. it looks like a cheap motel sign. sorry.

  4. The EAST VAN CROSS?

    In the 50’s and 60’s the east van cross was a symbol for a “multi-cultural city”.
    Vancouver was the only city- that accepted Blacks/chinese/natives/whites.
    They were the oldest graffiti artists that tagged
    East Van cross everywhere they went.
    Read up on the history of vancouver youth crime from the 1900-1985.
    EAST VAN CROSS IS PRIDE.
    consisting of – Businessmen/lawyers/doctors/dentists/city employees/hustlers/gangsters. truly what legends are made of.

    also they pick the cross was picked because of its symbolisim.

    Vancouver is all about RESPECT.
    The East Van cross is trademarked
    By Rocco Dipopolo
    East van clothing is available at:
    http://www.eastvaninc.com/
    http://www.killa.ca

    Come by support your local hustlas!!!!!

    • ToddyS

      Do not support eastvaninc. The fact that anyone was allowed to trademark an organic symbol of community spirit is truly sad. Violate the trademark. That, my friends, is the true spirit of East Van.

      • very nice and unique monument. I wish I will see it one day. i love seeing such things.

      • Very nice landmark. I’m sure it means a lot to people and it reminds them about important things. It’s good to keep in mind the things that stood at the heart of our society.

        • bailey

          i was a gang member back in east van back in the 1970 to 1990s and i have pride for our cross and aways east van..

  5. I was born in E. Van in 1954. Both my parents and their combined 10 siblings were born and raised in the Renfrew Park area, from white working class families, and most of my (30) first cousins were born in E. Van. This is our family’s original homeland.

    As a kid growing up, I always associated the east van cross with the tougher kids… usually the ones who were in trouble with the authorities. It was usually scrawled on school walls, public washrooms or on jackets, and I’ve even seen it tattooed on people plenty of times.

    It never occurred to me that it could ever become a symbol of pride for East Vanners… but now that it has been elevated to that status, I think it’s a good idea. I certainly feel a lot of pride being an authentic East Vanner (even though I now live near Granville & 12th), and having this symbol is probably pretty cool… as long as I can detach it from the association with fear and rebelliousness, the way I saw it as a kid.

    But maybe that’s just because of my age. I’m aware that things evolve, and there are plenty of symbols throughout history that have had mixed emotions attached to them, but have, for whatever reason, become entrenched in their various cultural roots. I can’t think of any other symbol that would be more identifiable for us E. Van folks.

    In regards to the sign at Clark and Great Northern Way… the problem with it is simple. It’s just too damn big. As a result, it comes across as “in your face”… like whoever erected it is really trying too hard to make everyone notice it. That was my first thought when I first saw it, and that’s what I don’t like about it.

    The pride we have for being East Vanners is much more of a quiet, subtle thing in my opinion. Sure there are rowdy bunches who will shout “East Van Rules” at times, but if an East Van symbol is to be erected in the form of a sign for all the world to see, it needs to be more like something that you would have to look for a bit harder, and then when you actually see it, you’ll think, “hey, that’s cool. It must be cool to be from E. Van”.

    As it stands now, it’s much too gawdy and overpowering, and quite frankly, a little embarrassing. We’re generally quite cool, low-key people… and after all, we’re Canadians! Being from E. Van is largely about being cool (and a bit rough and tumble) IMHO, and having a big-ass blaring sign like this doesn’t properly reflect our spirit and who we really are.

    As for the catholic thing… that’s a bunch of baloney. That was never a thought in anybody’s mind back in the ’60s. The only reason it was in the shape of a cross is because of the letter “A” which was common to both words… that’s it, period. It had nothing to do with religion. Sorry!

    Anyhow, as for the sign, I hate to say this, but I think it should be taken down and replaced with a much more subtle version. That would make a whole lot of us East Vanners very happy.

    I’m a graphic designer (so obviously I wasn’t one of the “tough” E. Van kids, LOL), and with every type of branding situation, it’s all about finding that delicate balance between obscurity and overkill. In this particular case, the designer has gone way overboard, and that is really unfortunate. I think that sign should be about half that size at the most.

  6. It’s as tacky and vapid as the people who are not part of conservative family orientated normalcy.

  7. Albert

    I was born in 1954 Vancouver , grew up in East van . Beside Renfrew Park, Seen the Cross Sprayed at Windermere High scool in the late 60’s , guys wore it on their jean jackets …it was around ….I like it …Its very Vast Van…I like the big in your face sign ..it’s also very East Van….It’s got to be big so all the people down town can see it …not all guys in East van were tough guys …some were winps …some are posting here …

  8. Mike Parry

    Vancoroner must like scum. its a small city.
    the cross is tacky as feces pies and blasphemous.
    like vancouver. its as hoser as you can get.
    its hilariously stupid. it really is. i hope the fault line from alaska to san bernadino opens up and eats your tacky bullshot port city. same with hoser toronto. EH.

    • 1st & Commercial

      GFY Mike Prairie

    • Crimson MP

      Mike, you are a complete jerk. I ask you, what has Vancouver done to you, to make you such a hater? Vancouver is a beautiful city full of lush green space, gorgeous mountain and water views and a variety of beautiful people of multiple cultures, ranging in ethnicity and diversity. Perhaps you’re just jealous and would rather spread hate, than spread friendship

      • Speedy

        Just in response to “What has Vancouver ever done to you?”
        It has harboured the biggest drug problem in Canada for a long time. I saw countless bright eyed travellers turn into toothless zombies as I grew up here. I have seen people with just a little problem, find an easy escape…. and never come back. Vancouver hasn’t done this to me, but it has done this to too many people for me to even begin to count.

        Also, I have to leave my home town to have any chance at being a home owner.

        Not saying it’s an ugly place. It’s beautiful. But it’s far from a wonderful place. East Van is a double edged blade.

        • Hedobum

          The drug problem isn’t limited to Vancouver and Vancouver isn’t nearly the worst offender by a long shot. Sure there are a lot of drugs and drug problems, but that’s indicative of ANY city of this size.
          Vancouver can be a very wonderful place if you don’t make bad decisions. It’s very expensive, but you get what you pay for. Vancouver is a class A city.

          As an aside:
          “Please be nice, we delete offensive and mean spirited remarks. ”
          …I call BS! If this statement were true, Mike Parry’s comments would have been deleted.

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  12. Len

    I grew up in East Van (Renfrew) from 1959-82. The East Van cross was worn by the “hoods” or “greasers” in our neighborhood on the backs of their jean jackets to identify them, and to differentiate themselves from the “Clark Park Gang”. Having that symbol representing, the hard working, honest people of that neighborhood, isn’t respectful to them at all. Growing up in East Van, was at times, difficult. As a teenager you had to be street smart or tough, in order to avoid beatings or strong arming thefts.

  13. shannon

    East Van was my home, I was born there in 1964. Whent to Britania. To me the east van cross is a symbol of where I come from and my roots. A tough place, but an honest one. The cross is gritty, tacky and in your face, just like east enders. We surive and so does the cross.

    To say you are from the east end is to say you are tough enough to take what life gives out.

    Here is to you, East Van.

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  20. Aldo

    I grew up in Southeast Van in 60’s and 70s. Agree with what others say about the cross. It was mostly a gang thing and meant to intimidate. I was more the street smart type than tough guy, preferred snooker evenings to homework. But it was a rough place to be sure. At age 15 I took a kicking by 3 East Vanners on Victoria Drive late one night. Hard to say where East Van ends and Southeast Van begins. Gladstone is about as south as any kid could claim to be an East Vanner. Killarney and Thompson schools were Southeast Van I guess

    • Len

      I went to Windermere and I always considered Templeton, Van Tech, Britannia, Windermere as east Van high schools.