The Story behind the East Van Cross

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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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