A contaminated brownfield site where a gas station was once located is being transformed into a rejuvenated greenfield garden at Commercial and East Hastings.
By later this summer, the corner lot will be covered with flowering, native pollinator plants that sway in the breeze. It will have many species including huckleberries, salmonberries and elderberries, as well as tobacco, and a nurse log with mushrooms.
Although it may resemble a community garden, it’s something different: An outdoor, Indigenous garden meant to start healing the land by building new relationships with non-human creatures such as butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and insects. Eventually, the site will become part of a new centre for the Urban Native Youth Association .
Wyss said the main focus is to use plants as remediators to help heal the site and soil. Plants are known to remove contaminants from the soil such as heavy metals.
“It’s not just about the toxins that came out from the gas station, but it’s about colonial toxins that need to be released,” she said.
The southwest corner lot at 1680 East Hastings is a high-profile location in east Vancouver.
For about 30 years, the lot has been vacant. It was formerly a gas station owned by Petro-Canada, which merged with Calgary-based Suncor in 2009.
In 2016, Suncor donated the $9.5-million site to the City of Vancouver for UNYA. UNYA is working to raise $6 million to build 180 to 220 housing units and a centre with 50,000 square feet of space.
The two Indigenous artists tried to get other former gas station sites, including the Chevron gas station on West Georgia near Stanley Park, for their project. It didn’t work out, Riley said.
“They were very touchy about the word remediation — and we’re talking about spiritual, emotional and physical remediation,” she said.
Riley sees the project as redefining the meaning of a garden and building new relationships to people and to the land. A big part of it, she said, is creating alternatives to colonial narratives.
Before COVID-19, the artists planned workshops with youths from UNYA. Instead, they’re looking to send seed packages to them so they can plant them on the site or wherever they live and ask them to document the process.
“What kind of stories do they want to tell on this land? What are their hopes and dreams for their new centre?” Riley said.
“I’m interested in work that’s about transformation.”
The corner of East Hastings and Commercial is the biggest of three sites in the project’s constellation.
The artists are also removing invasive species from a parklet at 5th Avenue and Brunswick Street, a block away from the Native Education College where they’re both artist fellows.
They’re also planting pollinators at Strathcona Park Fieldhouse in collaboration with Dawn Morrison, the Wild Salmon Caravan and Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty.
A Constellation of Remediation was chosen as one of the projects of the Public Art Program’s 2017 Artist-Initiated Public Call.
Wyss said that last fall mulch from Trout Lake was scattered on the site. When they returned this spring to dump topsoil in a horseshoe shape facing Commercial, they noticed something growing: A horse chestnut tree, just under a foot tall. It’s been transplanted to another garden to continue growing.
“It was such an amazing sign,” Wyss said.
“It only grew in the mulch, the one place we started remediating, not the dirt. That little tree is on its own little journey.
“When my grandchildren grow up, they will know that tree started here. We see that horse chestnut as resilient.”
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