The bungalow at 1450 West 64th Ave. in Vancouver's Marpole neighbourhood is neither very large nor particularly distinguished, and improvements over the years have altered its original character. There are many houses like it in the city, although increasingly they are torn down to build bigger abodes.
Its claim to fame lies not in its architectural history but in its hold over the imagination of writer Joy Kogawa and by extension over the minds of her readers. It is the childhood home from which she was evicted when her family was interned, along with thousands of other Japanese-Canadians, during the Second World War.
Here is how she describes her relationship with the house in her 1981 novel Obasan, a fictionalized account of that internment.
". . . the house, if I must remember it today, was large and beautiful. It's still there on West 64th Avenue in Vancouver. Phone Langara 0938-R. I looked it up once in the November 1941 inch-thick Vancouver telephone directory. I wrote to the people who live there and asked if they would ever consider selling the house but they never replied. I don't know their names. I don't know what they've done to the house. It used to have a hedge and rose bushes and flowers and cactus plants lining the sidewalk, and the front iron gate had a squeeze latch. The backyard had a sandbox and an apple tree and a swing, and I could dangle by my knees from a branch thicker than my father's arm . . ."
This is the house that a group of activists have been fighting to save since they discovered the property was for sale again, failed to raise enough money for its purchase and then watched a new owner start renovations without a permit. The City of Vancouver put a stop-work order on construction last week, and on Monday city officials emerged hopeful from their second meeting with the new owner, who they say wants to live in the house but didn't know its history.
If the house is worth preserving, it's because it represents another few bricks in the Canadian literary psyche. That's a small and relatively recent monument. Perhaps the foundation could be considered to be Mordecai Richler's descriptions of the streets of Montreal, and the cornerstone the pages in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion set during the construction of the Bloor Street viaduct in Toronto. They are moments that gave Canadian readers and writers permission to imagine their cities as potentially mythic places, like London, Paris or Rome, and so in turn sent Canadian fiction out into the larger world.
Saving this kind of psychic civic history is an uphill battle in an era of condo developments, monster homes and urban sprawl, and it isn't made any easier by Canada's backwardness on issues of heritage conservation.
Both federally and provincially, Canadian laws are decades behind the United States and most European countries in blocking demolitions or insensitive renovations, and it often seems for every step forward there's another back.
Winnipeg preserves the Exchange District but can't stop the demolition of the century-old Eaton's building on Portage Avenue, a structure that could easily have stood another 100 years, to make way for a new arena slated to open next fall and designed to last a mere 50. Toronto has to fight tooth and nail to get Ontario to preserve the site of its first Parliament buildings on Front Street East.
Still, citizens are demanding more sensitivity to urban renewal these days, and Vancouver certainly rejoices in a particularly sympathetic city hall that is now negotiating a solution for the Kogawa house so that renovations don't further destroy its character.
Nationally, the good news is that last month, with little fanfare, the federal government unveiled its Commercial Heritage Properties Incentive Fund. The three-year, $30-million fund to be administered by Parks Canada encourages taxable Canadian corporations to preserve heritage buildings for commercial purposes by reimbursing them for up $1-million in renovation costs. Eligible buildings will be drawn from the new Canadian Register of Historic Places, a collaboration between Ottawa and the provinces that will be launched on-line early next year and is part of a $24-million commitment the federal government made in 2001 to preserve built heritage.
The feds are going very cautiously here with this three-year pilot program, but heritage advocates are cheered that finally, after years of lobbying, the government is recognizing the principle of preserving old buildings through incentives to their owners. However, they argue that a broad program of tax credits, which have been in place in the United States for 30 years, would work more effectively than direct grants, which are painfully subject to budget cuts.
Here's hoping that the government, now that it has dipped a toe in the water, starts swimming in that direction soon. It would be nice if, for once, a piece of Canadian heritage could be preserved without the usual flurry of last-minute interventions that have characterized the case of the bungalow on West 64th Avenue.
Maclean's Magazine: December 22, 2003 issue
Saving the house that history built
Vancouver residents are striving to preserve Joy Kogawa's childhood home, one of the settings for her book, Obasan, reports ALEXANDRA GILL
By ALEXANDRA GILL
Tuesday, December 9, 2003 - Page R3
VANCOUVER -- Joy Kogawa's childhood family home, a culturally significant Vancouver site made famous through her acclaimed novel Obasan, has been saved from destruction.
The city's district building inspector issued a stop-work order last Friday, to prevent the current owner from carrying out illegal renovations. The emergency measure came as a result of pressure from an ad hoc group called the Joy Kogawa Homestead Corporation, which wants to have the house officially designated as a historic site and converted into a cultural centre.
On Friday, officials with the Vancouver's planning and heritage departments met with the current owner, Su Shen, her property agent and a translator to explain the residential building-permit process and open up discussions, which some are hoping will lead to a more conciliatory relationship among the various parties involved. "It's great that they've had the meeting," said Kogawa, reached Friday at her daughter's home in Hawaii. "And it's wonderful that they're not going to tear it down, because that's what we were all afraid of."
In 1942, Kogawa, her parents and brother, Timothy Nakayama, were forcibly removed from the house at 1450 West 64th Ave., which they had owned since the mid-thirties. Under the War Measures Act, the federal government seized the property and interned the family, along with thousands of others. The house was auctioned off. And at the end of the war, Kogawa's family was relocated to Coaldale, Alta.
Obasan, published in 1981, recalls this shameful episode in Canadian history through the eyes of its six-year-old central character, Naomi Nakane. Based on Kogawa's own experience, the novel takes readers back to the A-frame bungalow in Vancouver's Marpole neighbourhood, recalling the moment when her tightly knit family life was torn apart.
Named the 11th most influential novel of the 20th century by the Canadian literary magazine Quill & Quire, Obasan gave impetus to the National Association of Japanese Canadian redress movement, which won government compensation for lost property in 1988.
"The house is not an architectural tour de force," says Vancouver city councillor Jim Green, who sits on the Vancouver Heritage Commission and supports the Homestead Committee. "It's a typical house from the period. But what makes it important is the cultural component. It's essential to the history of the Japanese internment and the history of Vancouver."
The campaign to save the house began earlier this year when Kogawa visited Vancouver and discovered that it was up for sale.
When Shen put an offer on the house, her original plan was to tear it down and redevelop the property. Kogawa's friends jumped into the fray by forming the Kogawa Homestead Committee, headed up by Toronto lawyer and writer Chris Kurata. The group's immediate goal was to raise enough money to buy the house or persuade someone else, perhaps the city, to purchase it.
The committee has been keeping a close eye on the house, while urging the city council to nominate it to the heritage register, the first step toward designation. If designated as a heritage site, an owner can make little to no renovations that would alter the original character of the building without first consulting city officials.
Last week, committee members realized the new owner was tearing out the front sunroom windows and doing some serious renovations to the interior. They called the Vancouver Heritage Commission and the city's heritage staff, which went out to inspect the house. When city heritage planner Terry Brunette discovered that the owner didn't have a permit for the work, he called the district building inspector, who issued the 120-day stop-work order.
"She seems to genuinely care for the house," says Brunette, who met with the owner on Friday. "She would like to live in the house and wants to make it habitable. She told us she simply didn't know about the historic value of the house."
Shen's property agent, however, tells a different story. When asked if Shen, who does not speak English, was sympathetic to the Homestead Commission, Shirley Kuo brusquely replied "no." She added, however, that the meeting with city officials went well.
"We are only partly going ahead with the renovations," said Kuo. "For security reasons, we have to do some. It's not good enough to live there right now. The windows are broken and the energy is not good."
Brunette says the heritage office is now awaiting direction from city council, which is required before the house can be evaluated for nomination to the heritage register. He adds, however, that it would be difficult to take that first step without the cooperation of the owner. "We want to work with her for the long-term protection of the house. We're hoping to engage in what will be a collaborative process."
Kogawa says she's somewhat surprised that the owner said she didn't know about the heritage value of the home, since her property agent was well aware of the situation. And while she's disappointed that the house will not be turned into a cultural centre right now, she's not giving up hope altogether.
"My happiness is based on the fact that so many people cared enough to do something. The fact that the house is still there and might be designated, that's enough.
"We had a dream. If that's not to be, it's not to be." With a laugh, she adds: "You can't go in there and take somebody's property away."
(The National Forum for Japanese Canadians)
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Last December, when it was discovered that renovations were being done on the house without a permit, the Joy Kogawa Homestead Foundation contacted both the city and the media in order to increase the pressure to have it preserved.
When the stop work order was issued, the new owners complied and also donated the three doors and 12 windows that they had removed to the city for safe keeping.
"I think the owners have found the intensity of both the media coverage and the intensity of the opinions that were being expressed very challenging and I don't think that some of it was quite fair," said city heritage planner Terry Brunette.
"People had not realized the position that these people were in," he said, adding that the new owners did not know the cultural or historical significance of the house when they bought it, but have a great appreciation for the house and have no plans to demolish it.
That's good news for the Kogawa Homestead Foundation, which is made up of members across the country. The foundation plans to continue raising money with the goal of buying the house sometime in the future.
About $30,000 has been raised since Christmas, and the foundation will continue to raise the rest of the approximately $480,000 potentially needed to buy the home, said member Anton Wagner, a filmmaker and cultural historian at York University in Toronto.
"Apparently, [the new owner] is reading Joy's novel, Obasan, to find out what all of the fuss is about," said Wagner. "So hopefully she would be able to appreciate the emotional and historical significance the house has for the Japanese-Canadian community and anybody else [...] who thinks we shouldn't forget about [the interment of Japanese-Canadians], which a lot of people have."
If the owner, who doesn't speak English and has declined to be interviewed, ever wants to sell the house, the foundation hopes to buy it and use it as a memorial to Japanese-Canadian experiences during World War II, and as a writer's retreat, said Vancouver heritage conservationist Michael Kluckner.
"We are losing these places that are connected with significant individuals in our past, so I'm pleased that the Kogawa house is standing at least," he said.
People interested in learning more can visit the foundation's web site at http://kogawa.homestead.com.
New owners of the Marpole house where author Joy Kogawa grew up were issued a stop work order by the city when they began unauthorized renovations on the property at 1450 W. 64th Ave. Photo by Dan Toulgoet.
New owners of Marpole house caught up in heritage controversy
By John McCrank-Contributing writer
A modest 1920s bungalow in Marpole has been the subject of a lot of controversy over the past few months, with a group fighting to have it designated as a cultural heritage site against the wishes of the owner, who wants to complete renovations and settle in.
"New owners moved in and started making renovations, which caused all hell to break loose," said Coun. Jim Green. "The city ran in and put a stop work order on the house because they didn't have the proper permits."
The house was once the childhood home of Canadian author and member of the Order of Canada, Joy Kogawa.
During World War II, Kogawa and her family, like other Japanese-Canadians, were forced by the federal government to leave their home and relocate to an internment camp. Their Marpole house was then auctioned off at a bargain price by the government's "Custodian of Enemy Alien Property."
Kogawa wrote about the house in her 1983 autobiographical novel Obasan, which tells the story of the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the war. That book has been called one of the 10 most important Canadian novels and is mandatory reading in many Canadian schools.
When Kogawa visited the house at 1450 West 64th Ave. last August and saw that it was for sale, she and supporters tried to raise enough money to buy it, but another buyer came forward with the money first.
JANUARY 18, 2003
Lit landmark threat
Joy Kogawa's home likened to Anne Frank's
By Jeremy Hainsworth
Fri., Nov. 21st 2003
A Toronto-based group wants to preserve the Vancouver childhood home of a Japanese-Canadian author whose family was interned and the house seized by the government during World War II.
The home, which is for sale and could be demolished to make way for a new house, could become a place to educate people on freedom and human rights, they say.
The Joy Kogawa Homestead Corporation wants to have the home at 1450 West 64th Ave. designated as a historic site and converted into a cultural centre.
The group says the Kogawa house can be equated to the preserved Amsterdam house where the Jewish girl Anne Frank and her family were hidden from the Nazis from 1942 to 1944. Of the eight people in hiding there, only one survived after their arrest. Anne died in Bergen-Belsen camp after surviving a month in Auschwitz.
The Joy Kogawa Homestead Corporation says the preservation of the Vancouver homestead is important in two ways - because it is a historical entity marking an a significant historical period and because it is a literary landmark of which Canada has precious few, the group says.
The loss of the Kogawa home, and the suffering caused by the forced evacuation and internment of Japanese-Canadians is recounted in Kogawa's classic Canadian novel, Obasan, and its adaptation for younger readers, Naomi's Road.
In her second novel, Itsuka, Kogawa chronicled the struggle by Japanese-Canadians to win government compensation for their loss of property, disenfranchisement, detention, restriction of movement and loss of their democratic rights.
Obasan, and Kogawa's active participation with the National Association of Japanese Canadians, were instrumental in winning government compensation 1988 for the internments and loss of property.
Anne Frank's posthumous book, The Diaries of Anne Frank, has become a classic tale of resistance in the face of political terror.
Kogawa returned to the house Sept. 27 to do a reading. More than 100 people attended.
Joy, her brother Timothy Nakayama and their parents moved from Kitsilano to the Marpole house in the mid-1930s. In 1942, under the War Measures Act, the federal government seized the family home as well as the property of 21,000 other Japanese-Canadians.
Along with thousands of others, Joy's family was forcibly evacuated by the Canadian government and interned at Slocan City deep in the mountain forests of the Kootenays.
The government's "Custodian of Enemy Alien Property" auctioned off the homes, farms, fishing boats and other property of Japanese-Canadians seized during the war at rock bottom prices.
In August of 1945, thousands of Japanese-Canadians were deported to Japan. Kogawa's family was uprooted again and relocated Coaldale, Alberta, where they lived among the Japanese-Canadian sugar beet workers. Restrictions on travel for Japanese-Canadians were not lifted until 1949.
"History is fragile and always in danger of being rewritten or forgotten. In preserving the Kogawa home, we can teach future generations about the suffering perpetrated by our society in dispossessing and disenfranchising vulnerable minorities," the group maintains.
Kogawa's brother, the Rev. Timothy Nakayama suggests the house become a centre where Canadians can learn about freedom and human rights.
"Our experiences as people of Japanese ancestry in North America need to be known so that these tragedies may not be repeated," he says.
Joy Kogawa's home should be recognized as a heritage site so that it can provide a strong symbol of what so many families lost. It is a lesson about the insidiousness of racism, a lesson that Canadians must face in the light of day so that our vision of a harmonious multi-cultural society has a chance to be fulfilled, the group says.
"Time is of the essence," author Roy Miki has told Senator Joyce Fairburn, a crusader for things literary, "mainly because the house is up for sale. Some members of Vancouver City Council have expressed support for saving it but are unable to generate the necessary funds."
More information on the campaign to preserve the home can be found at kogawa.homestead.com
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Historical home is Joy's dream
Novelist envisions writers' retreat in childhood home seized during Second World War
Wednesday, February 11, 2004
Author Joy Kogawa in 1992 in front of 1450 West 64th Ave. in Vancouver, her childhood home until her family was interned.
CREDIT: Denise Howard, Vancouver Sun
All homes hold memories. But the dilapidated house in Vancouver's Marpole area, known as the Obasan home, particularly stands out. The memories contained within its walls are so strong they alone are the reason this simple house is considered an unofficial heritage resource for Vancouver.
Canadian novelist Joy Kogawa lived at 1450 West 64th until the age of six when she and her family, like thousands of Canadians of Japanese descent, were interned during the Second World War.
They were taken by train to a shack in Slocan. After a few years there they were forced to move again. This time to a one-room hovel in Coaldale, Alta.
But Kogawa never forgot her childhood home, seized under the War Measures Act and auctioned off by the federal government. She wrote about the house in the 1981 novel Obasan, which tells the story of what happened to thousands of Japanese-Canadians through the eyes of six-year-old Naomi Nakane and again in the child's book Naomi's Road.
In Obasan, named the 11th most influential novel of the 20th century by the Canadian literary magazine Quill & Quire, Kogawa would lovingly describe her childhood home.
"The house, if I must remember it today, was large and beautiful. ... It used to have a hedge and rose bushes and flowers and cactus plants lining the sidewalk, and the front iron gate had a squeeze latch. The backyard had a sandbox and an apple tree and a swing, and I could dangle by my knees from a branch thicker than my father's arm ..."
Twelve years ago the author, then 57, visited the house with Vancouver Sun reporter Mia Stainsby, who obtained permission from the owner.
"She moves trance-like through the living room, then the kitchen. She peeks into the room, that 51 years ago, was her bedroom. She stops at a spot, swollen with once-tender memories -- a corner in the kitchen that held [a bin] of her dolls," Stainsby wrote.
"This is where the piano was and the grandfather clock. There were Indian rugs and lots of dark wood and beautiful furniture," she says, a tour guide to her past.
"It was a wonderful home. Opulent. Full of gifts and lots of people around. I had lots and lots of toys and tons of books. We didn't have books after that and I missed them badly. Seeing the house reminds me of the sadness and the years when I wanted to go back home so badly."
As a child Kogawa sent letters to the address that was once her home and dreamed of the day her parents would be able to buy back the house. No one ever responded to her letters.
Last August Kogawa, on a visit to Vancouver from her home in Toronto, once again went to her old neighbourhood. She didn't expect to find the house because so many of the older homes had been torn down and replaced with large modern residences. But to her surprise Kogawa not only found the house intact but there was a for sale sign posted out front. Here was the opportunity for which she had waited a lifetime.
"I had no idea how strong the yearning for the house was until the day, Aug. 27, 2003, when I found it was for sale through a chance drive-by," says Kogawa. "But the asking price was out of sight. Over $500,000. Still it was amazing that the house was still there, when all around it, the old houses were gone and replaced with new ones."
During her visit, Kogawa was able to visit the house more than once, thanks to a sympathetic realtor who also took pictures of her beside the old cherry tree.
"I haven't driven by it in so many years, and that's why coming across it when it was for sale seemed so magical," says Kogawa. "I am moved by trust, and I trust that coming across the house in the way I did was no accident. I trust in the people that have arrived 'out of nowhere' to share our dreams, to remember our history, to love this country well, to labour together, to journey together, to learn together, the ways of trust and friendship and reconciliation."
The people who arrived "out of nowhere" are such strong supporters of Kogawa's dream they have formed a fundraising committee dedicated to buying and preserving the house. The Kogawa homestead committee's 15 core members include Roy Miki, a Governor-General's Award winner for poetry, and Lois Wilson, former senator and moderator of the United Church of Canada.
Their hope is to establish a writers' retreat in the house, which Kogawa envisions as a symbol of friendship and reconciliation.
"I also dream that it could be a place to know and remember that a grave injustice was done to loyal Canadian citizens who lost properties, community and a way of life, although in Ed Broadbent's words we 'had done no wrong,' " says Kogawa, in an e-mail to The Vancouver Sun from Thailand, where she is visiting her son.
The Kogawa homestead committee has set up a Web site that has attracted over 600 people nationally and internationally and now plans to launch a public membership drive.
The group has also secured a commitment from the Vancouver Heritage Foundation to oversee its fundraising venture, allowing tax receipts to be issued to contributors.
"It's an important building from a historical and cultural point of view," says Vancouver Heritage Foundation executive director Diane Switzer.
"It's the kind of home the Japanese were taken from in 1942. It should be saved given the significance of Joy Kogawa. She is a national author and there is significant cultural heritage value to the home."
The foundation is the only agency to offer small grants to residential homeowners with property deemed to have heritage value but the purchase price of the Obasan home was too deep for its pockets.
Considering that neither the provincial nor federal governments provide heritage grants to residential projects it's no surprise a house rescue fund doesn't exist in Canada.
"It would be fabulous to have a rescue fund," says Switzer. "But I don't know of any place that has those kinds of resources to rescue buildings threatened with demolition. You would need half a million dollars at a drop of a hat."
The City of Vancouver, however, recently approved a program of incentives to facilitate conservation and rehabilitation of heritage buildings in Gastown, Chinatown and the Hastings Street corridor (between Cambie Street and Heatley Avenue). Called the Heritage Facade Rehabilitation program, heritage business owners can apply for 50 per cent of eligible costs to repair, restore or enhance the building facade to a maximum of $50,000. The program, done in conjunction with the federal government, also gives business property owners accepted under the program a property tax exemption for up to 10 years.
While lauding the city's new business heritage building program, Switzer says there is a need for more to be done to maintain residential heritage homes in the city.
That is echoed by Anton Wagner, spokesman for the Kogawa homestead committee. Without any government financial support the organization has the daunting task of trying to raise $500,000 in cash through donations. Their efforts to do so began in December but time and Vancouver's hot property market were against the group.
It only took three months for the house to sell -- but not to the committee.
On Nov. 21 the property, assessed at $426,100, sold for $475,000 to Vancouver resident Su Shen.
Rumours soon circulated the new owner planned to demolish the house and fears were heightened after members of the Kogawa homestead committee noticed 12 windows had been removed.
The city was contacted immediately and after officials discovered the new owner did not have the proper permits, a 120-day stop-work order was issued. That order remains in place while Shen completes the necessary building permit process for future house upgrades.
Shen declined to be interviewed by The Sun although a representative, Shirley Kuo, said: "She does not want to be bothered again about the house."
According to city heritage planner Terry Brunette, Shen had no idea about the community's interest in the unassuming-looking house when she bought the property.
"The intensity of media scrutiny was very challenging and caught them unawares," says Brunette.
He says Shen has no plans to demolish the house but simply wants to make it habitable. He says she removed the single-glaze windows in order to replace them with heat-efficient windows and the work done inside to date has been minimal.
The windows, along with three doors that were also removed, were donated to the city and are in storage at the Japanese heritage centre in Burnaby.
"The work is reversible. If the building at some future point becomes the property of a non-profit society the original windows could be returned. The change is reversible. The owner is not stripping out any of the major detail. It's the character of the house they appreciate," says Brunette.
On one hand Brunette is dealing with the rightful owner of the house and on the other members of the Kogawa homestead committee, which continues to solicit donations for a house no longer on the market.
Although Shen has made it clear she intends to occupy the house, the group is preparing for the possibility she may wish to sell in the future.
Wagner says it could be a number of years before the group is able to raise enough funds to buy the house. By that time its value will likely have increased again, but Wagner says the group is "prepared for the long haul."
He estimates it could be as many as five years before it raises enough money to buy the house. In the meantime, the group is keeping a close eye on the property and will try to stop the owner if she ever decides to demolish it.
"It's not a good situation in terms of laws to protect structures like that. We had hoped the city on an interim basis would purchase the house and hold the mortgage until we were able to take over the responsibility," says Wagner. "Unfortunately, the city wasn't willing to put in any dollars."
City Councillor Jim Green, who represents the city at the Vancouver Heritage Commission, says to his knowledge no one has ever asked for a nickel from the city.
However, Green concedes it would be difficult for the city to contribute financially because the property's value is so high.
The city, like the committee, also appears to be keeping a close watch on the house. Green says he personally sees the value in preserving the house.
"It has a great deal of value," says Green. "The true value is the fact of the novel [Obasan] and the importance it has in the minds of so many Canadians highlighting what happened to Japanese-Canadians."
Since the issue received media attention, Green says he has received about 100 e-mails from the public and only one was negative about preserving the house.
If the house was to receive a heritage designation that would mean it could never be demolished or changed substantially for all time.
"Owners usually do this because they can get other incentives," says Green, giving the example of a property owner being allowed to build a second structure on the same site.
In extreme cases the city has the power to designate a residential property a heritage building without the owner's consent but Green says at this stage that option is not being contemplated. Instead, Green says, city officials continue to work with the new owner to the best interests of both parties.
Kogawa remains optimistic the house will not be lost again and sees an opportunity for "friendship, understanding and mutuality" with the current homeowner.
"The story of the house ... is that it was lost to us. It has now been found again. And whether it is lost again is a matter for the city and the rest of us to discover," she says.
"There was a time when Japanese-Canadians were isolated as enemies. Today we are joining in friendship [with] so many people. In this new day of new privilege, we are no longer victims and need to be vigilant about becoming victimizers," she says.
Author Joy Kogawa in 1992 in front of 1450 West 64th Ave. in Vancouver, her childhood home until her family was interned.