General Articles

Sea-borne Shantytown

Vancouver would dearly love to cut the hawser on its 1,800 tax-free houseboat colonists— but where else could they live?

HAL MASSON November 15 1947
General Articles

Sea-borne Shantytown

Vancouver would dearly love to cut the hawser on its 1,800 tax-free houseboat colonists— but where else could they live?

HAL MASSON November 15 1947

Sea-borne Shantytown

Vancouver would dearly love to cut the hawser on its 1,800 tax-free houseboat colonists— but where else could they live?


ABOUT 1,800 people in Vancouver have whipped the housing shortage, the dollar shortage and the tax collector all at once. They have homes but they pay no property taxes, mow no lawns and don’t have to pack when they move. Like turtles they take the whole house along with them when they go.

They’ve built their homes on boats, on scows or on floats of husky cedar logs bolted into big rafts. They don’t form a compact village but are strung along the water front the way you get poison ivy— a patch here, a rash there and a bunch of blisters up on the back of your neck. The biggest colony— about 230 houses—is at the foot of Cardero Street right in the harbor within gunshot of the post office and almost in the shadow of the tall fir trees in Stanley Park. The next largest, close to 200, is on the beach of False Creek, that long and knobbly finger of the sea that divides Vancouver’s business and residential districts. Another 170 or so are away across town, sprawling along the miles of Fraser River all the way from Sea Island to New Westminster.

The colonies grew as the city did. But it was the depression years that saw them sprint to their present size. Ten years ago an alarmed city council started a campaign to “clean up” the water front, but before they could do much a war and a housing shortage tied their hands.

Like Bohemia anywhere, it is almost impossible to make a general statement that will apply to all of these people. Are they poor? Are their houses good? Some of the people are poor; others have comfortable salaries. Some of the houses are built strongly enough and prettily enough that they

could be lifted to the mountainside and make a honeymoon cottage for any bride. Others are so dingy and depressing as to be almost beyond description.

Unlike the Mississippi River houseboats, which travel up and down to the Gulf, these seldom leave their moorings. They are all tied in some way to shore or to a long floating dock. When the tide is in they float with perhaps as much as 12 feet of water under them. When the water runs out, most of them—not all—drop down until their scows

or floats sink into the soft ooze of the foreshore, usually level, sometimes not.

Have the ho use boaters any right to the space they occupy? They are in the happy position of living in Vancouver, using its streets, parks, schools, fire departments and other services and not paying a cent in city taxes. The city fathers don’t like it and would dearly love to pull the rug from under them, but they can’t, for the city’s authority stops at the high-tide mark.

Between high and low-tide marks the foreshore is sometimes hundreds of yards wide. Along the Fraser this land is within provincial jurisdiction; in Vancouver Harbor on Burrard Inlet it’s the responsibility of the Dominion, acting through the National Harbors Board.

Many of the foreshore squatters have no more right there than they would have in the middle of Granville Street, but neither the province nor the Dominion is anxious to make them move. No doubt they would co-oj>erate if the city made a determined effort, hut Vancouver finds itself in a very weak moral position; it has no alternative housing to offer. You just can’t shove 1,800 people out to sea and let them drift.

If city authorities did decide to get tough they have various weapons.

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Sea-borne Shantytown

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They claim the colony is an eyesore. They claim that it is a potential fire hazard. They say it’s a potential health hazard because of improper sewage facilities; and they stress the word “potential” because they red-facedly admit that houseboaters and their kids are embarrassingly healthy. When you remind them that the city itself pollutes the waters of Burrard Inlet with sewage, they are likely to retreat into an angry tirade about “water rats” and why should they live in the city and sponge off the city’s services and pay nothing?

And since they are completely right we’ll leave the city fathers and get back down to the foot of Cardero Street where this colony, known as the “Shaughnessy Heights” of houseboaters after a swank residential district, actually has a right to its floating and resting space. When any company or person owns a piece of shore property he can ensure the unobstructed use of his own water front by taking out a lease with the Dominion Government covering the water rights to his frontage. Then he can do what he chooses—kick people off or invite them on. In this case the owners of the land have put wharves out far into the water and made their water front into floating streets. They charge docking fees of 20 cents per foot per month for boats and about $10 a month flat charge for houseboats. Sometimes there is an additional charge for pipedon water and electricity. Not even indirectly does the city collect any of these charges, yet the city truant officer must force houseboaters’ kids to go to schools which their parents don’t help to support.

Life On a Float

Finally, are these people happy? And this time we can say, “Yes, probably they are more contented than most people.” Some of them, of course, don’t like it—they’re on the water front solely because they can’t get a house in town or because they can’t afford present rentals. But by and large the houseboaters are as contented as sunning suckers. And why not? They have all the advantages of the city, yet they’re as free as Arabs.

Mil Smith of the Cardero Street colony, whose windows look up at the sidewalk at low tide and down at it at high tide, puts it this way, “When I lived in an apartment in town I

listened to the neighbors’ quarrels, and I didn’t like it. And if I came in at two in the morning somebody opened their door and peeped at me. There’s none of that nonsense out here. Everybody minds his own business and everybody gets along.”

Mil is 61 years old and still works part time for a canning company. Part time is enough—his expenses aren’t high. His living room is 18 by 14 feet, bedroom and kitchen both 13 by 9 feet. A water pipe from shore serves his toilet and bathroom (sewage goes into the harbor). He has an electric refrigerator, radio, oil-burning stove. Heat costs him one dollar a month in summer and five a month in Vancouver’s mild winters. He and his wife haven’t any family. Mrs. Smith has flowers growing in 60 (I counted) pots around the veranda railing and others inside.

“Two years ago somebody offered to buy my floathouse for $2,200. That’s a lot for one of these. I said jokingly to my wife, ‘I’m going to sell the house.’ ‘You can’t!’ she said. ‘It’s in my name.’ We’re in no hurry to move.”

On one side is a cannery with its smell of ripe fish. All around at low tide are mud flats heavy with the smell of human refuse and decaying mussels. But turn your back and raise your eyes, and there’s the salty blue of the Inlet and the green giants of Stanley Park, and behind that is Grouse Mountain steep-sloping down to the sea.

It’s the sea they’ll tell you— especially the old sailors who live here —the salt chuck that you can never forget once you’ve known it.

There’s Angelo Sarcia who’s never known any life but the ocean. He went to sea in sailing ships when the world’s supply of oranges and lemons came from Sicily and southern Italy and California was the frontier. In 1894 he sailed around the Horn from Genoa aboard a German sailing ve.ssel carrying salt to San Francisco. It was his first trip to the fabulous land of America and other Italians ashore persuaded him to forget his back pay —$13—and stay in this place where nobody worked hard and nobody was ever hungry. Angelo had just endured 10 starvation days at sea and he listened willingly. Then he came up the coast to visit friends in Vancouver, stayed to fish and he never did get away. He built his first house on a raft on the beach of Deadman’s Island in Vancouver harbor, where the Indian tribes buried their dead. And he lived side by side with Mariano Caruso and Portuguese Joe and Portuguese Pete and their families—names

which make your spine tingle because they are part of the history of this new country.

Angelo stayed on Dead man’s Island until 1931 when he was forced to move to the mainland. I found him at the foot of Cardero Street in a tiny float house just big enough for his bed, a stove, a chair, a table. In this colony whose standard of living most closely approaches shore dwelling, his hut is about the least imposing. But it is clean and dry and wears an air of quiet contentment that it borrows from Angelo. He’s a little guy scarcely five feet tall and pushing 80 years old. He gets the old-age pension and spends his time keeping fed and clean and puddling about the water front where he has spent the last 53 years of his life.

The Unpolitical Mayor

A few years ago a newspaperman dubbed Angelo “the mayor of Deadman’s Island” and the name stuck. It’s a misnomer and causes him a lot of embarrassment because people wanting to know about the colony’s affairs always come to Angelo and are always disappointed. Angelo is no politician. He likes to live in peace with his neighbors without locking his door and he has never been curious enough about politics even to find out his own legal position. He knows he was moved from Deadman’s Island after 37 years but he doesn’t know under what law, nor by what right he continues where he is. He believes it has to do with an ancient British ruling about the right of fishermen to dry nets and repair gear anywhere ashore, but he isn’t sure.

1 met one of Angelo’s neighbors when everybody rushed out of their homes to watch an oil fire a few blocks away that was threatening to blow up the whole harbor. Her name is Mrs. Marie Saniger, a dark, pretty woman with four grown daughters. Her husband is a mechanic and she adds to their income by coloring snapshots, big ones and little ones, of the scenery of British Columbia.

What I’ll remember longest about her, though, is her floor. You could drop a marble anywhere in her house and it would immediately roll down the clean linoleum toward the centre partition. Some of the logs of the float need to be replaced but houseboaters are no great shakes at hurrying. Mrs. Saniger says she never notices; she’s just got used to walking about the house one leg short.

The inside of the house was cleanpapered, comfortable, and even frilly. Outside it was weather-beaten and decrepit. And since the tide was out the black ooze stretched a hundred yards to the carinery. Tin cans, a mattress, barnacle-encrusted piling and broken glass littered the mud flat, but there was a feeling of health in the air. Mrs. Saniger doesn’t mind the water but no longer lives there by choice. Her daughters would like to live like other people—in a house ashore. But the few hundred dollars they’d get for the float house wouldn’t, make a down payment ashore at today’s prices.

Another street over, I exchanged the time of day with a little grey-haired lady who asked me if I was responsible for the fine weather. I admitted I was, and it started a conversation that lasted three hours while we watched thousands of tiny shore crabs waltzing crazily sideways on their daily excursion to the beach. She lives alone in her floating cottage and formerly worked uptown for the Wartime Prices and Trade Board. She refused to tell me her name but admitted she was a grandmother. Her finances won’t allow her to live uptown and she’s

happy where she is. “And it’s here I’ll he till they move me or I die!” she says with firmly planted feet. Her cottage was everything it should be and included even a hot shower. Flower pots splashed the living room with color and bright boxes of blossoms looked in the windows. It was hard to real¡7.e that there just 100 yards away a young man gaffed a baby octopus at high tide.

Not all of the dwellings are houses built on floats. Some are quite frankly boats. Down at t he end of the wharf where the tide never fully runs out is the Sal Lai. She’s 50 years old and, the story goes, was once the scene of a murder. She was a mission boat in those early days and somebody didn’t like the pastor. So he poked a gun in the porthole and boom! no more missionary. The Sal Lai never goes anywhere any more—her engine has been taken out—but her roomy cabin is one of the cosiest homes afloat. Mrs. Elizabeth Sharp got tired of paying $55 a month for a couple of rooms uptown, so with her son-in-law who likes boats she went exploring. Now Mrs. Sharp is a grandmother with a home of her own that cost her so little she refuses to tell; and come depression or war, hell or high water, she will sit it out in her sturdy Sal Lai.

On the other side of the “street” is the Kia-Ora. Owner Bob Godard says that means good luck in Maori. Bob has been a shipwright for 37 years, and always wanted to live on a boat. In 1943 he recognized something good in this one, bought it and sold the engine for almost his purchase price. She was built as a ferry in 1913 and used to carry 60 passengers from New Westminster to Fort I^indley, up the Fraser River. Sixty feet long, 13 feet amidships, she provides Bob with a sumptuous home afloat. He pays roughly $12 a month for tying up there and isn’t much concerned where the money goes. School taxes and the city fathers are a long way from Bob’s water front.

But we’re still in “Shaughnessy Heights.” What about those other colonies? Are they as colorful? Do t hey pay wharfage and have city water piped aboard? The answer is no, no and no.

I looked down at the False Creek settlement from the end of the old Kitsilano bridge and I searched my mind for words to describe the squalor of this floating Tobacco Road. Weather - beaten boards, broken shingles, and rusted tin signs covered Ihe shapeless houses, the whole conglomerate assembly vaguely joined together by a tangled line of floating walk and shaky handrail. The sun was bright over False Creek but the colony had an air of sodden melancholy.

Washing Machines, No Water

I stepped down to water level and was surprised to find a bright spot, among all the squalor. It was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Penny. Not old enough for the old-age pension, and not rich enough to buy retirement on solid ground, they live down here and wish they didn’t have to. Their float is sound and the house is bright with fresh paint and contrasting trim. A bright picket fence contains the whole. The flowers in the window boxes ignore the surrounding slum and poke bright heads up into the sunlight. Mr. Penny still goes to work each day and each day they save another dollar against the days ahead. “In town,” says Mrs. Penny, “we would barely get by. This wav we can live comfortably and think of the future. If they’d only let us have city valer!”

These j^eople live on the foreshore but pay no wharfage to anybody. Therefore the city can refuse to give them running water, although the B. C. Electric has no objection to running power lines out to their float. So we have the paradox of people carrying fresh water 100 yards in pails to fill up their slick new electric washing machines. People here are not so happy about their existence as those at. Cardero Street. Many of them would leave if they had a chance.

Outside, a cool clean breeze hurried in from English Bay and the salt, tide raced in through the narrows. I hiked across the bridge over False Creek to the old Kitsilano Indian Reserve. Here was a mixture of smells, all pleasant. A lumber mill screamed intermittently and sent the aroma of fresh cedar and fir out into the loaded sunlight.. From another factory came the odor of biscuits cooking. And they bot h came down to the shore and mingled with t he crisp tang of the salt chuck.

But the houses on floats along this shore spoke only one thing—poverty. Some were on floats, some on boats and some sitting brazenly above the water mark. Here I found Hart Field and his wife and baby. He’s a short, broad little guy who runs a news stand uptown. In his spare time he salvages boats and repairs them for sale.

A Volcano on a River

Hart isn’t very sure about his right to remain here (he’s lived afloat for 15 years) but believes it has something to do with the right of a mariner to pull up anywhere if he is in distress or in urgent need of repairs. “As long as I drive in a nail a month, nobody will bother me,” he stated. Actually, nobody is counting the nails he drives. If anyone were pushing the point he could remain only long enough to effect reasonable repairs and he would have to go. However, this is Crown property standing idle and growing a crop of plums and blackberries. Over here the living is primitive—no rent, no wharfage, no electricity, no running water.

Many of the houses seemed deserted because their owners—bachelors—were at work. But one man stood at the railing of a shack no larger than a double bed and he ignored me purposefully the way a cat ignores a dog. I hesitated about speaking to him and he disappeared into the shack. When I moved off he poked his head out again warily and I knew he didn’t want anyone prying into his secrets.

You can multiply all this by two or three and you have the Fraser River colony and another one up Burrard Inlet at Boundary Road. Ten miles out of Vancouver, at Dollarton, Malcolm Lowry formed the nucleus of another. He travelled the world studying men and their ways and searching himself for the things that he wanted to say in a book. He wrote in England, and he wrote in Mexico, and in the quiet of a lonely houseboat on the north reach of Burrard, where he could live on no budget at all, he wrote again. This time he clicked with “Under the Volcano” which turned the gaze of the critics and the reading world north and westward. He’s out there now working on another book.

Vancouver folk as a whole don’t seem to mind these happy trespassers. Being something of romanticists they even like this little parasitic Bohemia that fastens like barnacles to their shores. Westerners are a proud people and prone to remember that it’s a poor millionaire indeed who doesn’t support some indigent relatives. And the houseboaters accept, this tolerance philosophically as their due. if