Jim Green was widely considered the best mayor Vancouver never had. John Lehmann photograph for the Globe and Mail.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 28, 2012
Jim Green housed the homeless, found money for the indigent, created jobs for the unemployed.
A burly, brooding presence in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood, he indisputably made life better for many of those living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Mr. Green, who died at his home earlier today, aged 68, became known as the best mayor Vancouver never had, though he ran twice for the office.
He knew poverty as a child and saw no nobility in its depredations. Nor did he see hunger and want as God’s will. Poverty existed because man created it, and if man created it man could change it. He made that his life’s work.
A prominent figure in the city’s history for more than three decades, he went from taking part in noisy sit-ins at the offices of politicians to working hand-in-hand with developers in rehabilitating dilapidated hotels and constructing shiny condominium towers.
Such alliances, as well as his willingness to play politics with his elbows up, created enemies both on his right and left.
“I’d rather house one person than please a thousand critics,” he said in an interview just five days before his death.
The landscape of the Downtown Eastside is dotted with buildings — old and new — in which Mr. Green had a hand in preserving, or constructing. The list is lengthy — Tellier Towers, Pandera Place, and Four Sisters Co-op, as well as buildings named after beloved neighbourhood figures, such as the Lore Krill Co-op, Bruce Eriksen Place, and Solheim Place. The latter was named for Olaf Solheim, an 84-year-old retired logger who died soon after he was evicted from his room at the Patricia Hotel, which was one of many single-room occupancy hotels in the area that forced out long-time residents in hopes of cashing in on tourists attending Expo 86.
Those buildings offer safe, secure housing, while also presenting to the street attractive facades, helping to make the streetscape aesthetically pleasing for all passersby.
Mr. Green’s crowning achievement was his role in the development of the site of the former Woodward’s department store, which is revitalizing an historic area. The development, a mix of market and social housing, remains controversial in some circles, as it is feared it will lead to further gentrification and displacement of the poor.
Mr. Green played a leading role in many of the initiatives that made life better in the Downtown Eastside. When a new hockey arena was being built, a job-training program called BladeRunners was founded. It continues to find construction work for inner-city youth.
As well, Mr. Green helped bring a dental clinic and a community bank to his beleaguered neighbourhood. (Dental work made it possible for some to find jobs in the hospitality industry. Before the bank opened, welfare recipients were targets for muggings, as they had no safe place to secure their money.) A program called Humanities 101 gave residents access to university courses in the arts and social sciences.
A husky physique combined with an ease in earthy expressions — he had, after all, once worked as a longshoreman — gave Mr. Green a commanding presence, which was amplified by his penchant for wearing a dark trench coat and black fedora. He had a doughy face that became jowly in middle age and it seemed as though a scowl rested more comfortably on his visage than any other expression. Critics took him for a bully, but the underdogs who benefited from his work saw him as their fearless champion. To walk the streets of the Downtown Eastside with him, as did generations of reporters, was to witness the genuine affection with which he was regarded. As a conversational companion, he was engaging, funny, profane, quick-witted and learned.
He could argue left-wing politics with denizens of skid-row pubs, while also debating the artistic merits of an overture as an habitué of the opera, a passion he found more time to indulge late in life. He also had an eye for original works of art.
Born into a military family in Birmingham, Ala., in 1943, James Thomas Green spent an unhappy childhood in the rural South. His father hailed from Tennessee coal country, while his mother was the daughter of Oklahoma sharecroppers. His upbringing was more Southern Gothic than Norman Rockwell, as his father was a drinker and violent.
“You didn’t have a relationship with a guy like that,” he once said of the man whose name he carried. “You just stayed out of his way the best you could.”
He learned to drive at age 14 so as to make deliveries for his mother’s floral shop, which she opened in a converted garage to support Jim and his younger brother, Paul.
“We had no income from my dad,” Mr. Green once told me, “because he drank it all.”
By 17, he was driving an ambulance in Sumter, S.C. “The funeral homes owned the ambulances,” he said. “The ambulance service was free. The idea was that out of good PR, you’d get the body, eventually.”
It was his job to race to accident scenes, as 17 competing firms also sought business from highway carnage.
One of his assignments as a teenager involved transporting a young girl’s body to her family in New England in winter. He needed a jackhammer to dig a grave in the frozen Massachusetts ground.
In time, he moved into the rear of the funeral parlour, a respite from what he described as the craziness of life at home.
He played varsity football at his segregated high school, moving from guard, a position that gets hit by others, to a linebacker, one who gets to do the hitting. He graduated, believing himself the first in his family to do so, moving on to university, where he registered black voters at a time and place where doing so could cost you your life. Later, he organized migrant workers for the farmworker’s union in Colorado.
When his draft board told him he was to lose his student deferment, he headed north to Montana, crossing the border near Cardston, Alta. He was disgusted by the Vietnam War and sick of bigotry in his homeland. He became a Canadian citizen five years later in 1973.
The decision to avoid the draft led to an estrangement with his younger brother, who served tours of duty in Vietnam before returning home a decorated lieutenant in the U.S. Army Rangers, an elite unit. The brothers reconciled at the funeral for their mother.
An anthropologist, Mr. Green studied at the Sorbonne in France (he was thwarted in his ambition to write a master’s thesis on Babar the Elephant as a symbol of neocolonialism) before settling in Vancouver. He worked as a cabbie and on the docks, before being hired as a community organizer by the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA) in 1980.
Years earlier, those residents, many of them retired loggers and fishermen, as well as the businesses in Chinatown and those living in neighbouring Strathcona managed to halt the city’s ambitious plans to tear down single-family houses in favour of urban renewal and a network of highways.
“We were beginning to build an American freeway city,” Mr. Green said recently. “Doomsday was knocking on the door.”
He saw his advocacy work at DERA as continuing that struggle. The dimly-lit corridor outside DERA’s office was often filled with supplicants — elderly women of Chinese ancestry, lumberjacks with bad backs, single mothers with crying children — who needed help with welfare, or a landlord, or immigration.
Mr. Green became a familiar figure in the news as an irritant at City Hall and to the Social Credit government in Victoria, where his criticisms of Expo 86 in particular generated outrage. He was forcing people to look at a neighbourhood too long and too easily ignored.
His history of the Canadian Seaman's Union, "Against the Tide," was published in 1986.
He lost a campaign for mayor in 1990 against Gordon Campbell. Six years later, he unsuccessfully challenged Mr. Campbell for a seat in the provincial legislature. Elected to city council in 2002, Mr. Green made a second run for the mayoralty in 2005, losing to Sam Sullivan by a margin less than that gained by an unknown candidate named James Green, a mysterious figure whose motive for campaigning remains unknown to this day.
In the end, Jim Green showed greater skill and enjoyed greater success negotiating with developers, politicians and residents than he ever did as a campaigner for public office.
Two weeks ago, his family announced that the lung cancer with which he had struggled earlier had returned. The news generated an outpouring of praise for Mr. Green, who made his final public appearance at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on Sunday. He was presented the Freedom of the City by Mayor Gregor Robertson, as well as a lifetime free-parking pass, about which he immediately asked, “Is it transferable?”
Mr. Green died Tuesday morning at his home, a rented unit in the Woodward development that afforded a spectacular view of the city he loved.