A Place of Worship to a Countercultural Landmark
The Cultch building started out as the Grandview Methodist Church, erected in 1909 for the Anglo working-class population of Grandview. It became a United Church in the 1920s with the Protestant amalgamation and closed in the 1960s due to the changing demographics in the area – Asian and Italian Catholic migration that created, as one example, the St. Francis of Assisi parish. In 1968, it became the site of Vancouver Inner City Services, a social agency which coordinated services for young people. The following year, it would become the headquarters of the Vancouver Free University.
Vancouver Free University
The Vancouver Free University (VFU) had its birth in a neighbourhood kitchen in hippie Kitsilano, but established itself at 1895 Venables Street in 1969, after forging a partnership with the Vancouver Inner City Service Project. Part of a larger North American movement in the mid-1960s that rejected elitist and corporate ties to higher education, the Free University offered students a “radically independent learning environment ‘free’ of tuition, competitive grading, and traditional teacher-student power relations,” writes historian Lawrence Aronsen. VFU instructors were free to teach what they wanted, and did not need professional credentials. But while free universities elsewhere in North America adopted a more overt political agenda, VFU was “a movement for itself,” designed to provide vocational training for the working poor and create a forum for Vancouver’s counterculture, writes Aronson. “VFU’s counterculture courses embraced the softer side of 1960s rebellion – the search for more meaningful sexual experience and a place to explore one’s spirituality.” Popular counterculture classes on print-making, motorcycle repair, dome building, and beekeeping were more popular than radical politics. In 1972, the school moved to a new location at 1111 Commercial Drive. With the rise of the women’s movement, it evolved to meet the needs of children and families with the Tiny Tots daycare and Kids Free U program, as well as offering courses in women’s history. When VFU closed its doors in 1974, it was at its peak of enrolment with 3,000 students. However, the school’s spirit lived on in several programs established by the Vancouver School Board and the city’s community facilities, including the Britannia Community Centre, one of the first integrated school and community centre projects in Canada.
Commercial Drive in the 1960s and 1970s
The east side of Vancouver in the 1960s was a completely different cultural landscape than that of the Kitsilano avant-garde, writes Aronson. “Economically and socially, it was a traditional working-class community and was particularly attractive to the first wave of Portuguese and Italian immigrants after the Second World War. By the early 1970s there was some spillover of hippies as they moved out of the increasingly expensive Kits area… given the availability of cheap housing, single women with children, including some lesbians, also began to appear in limited numbers. From the beginning, [Vancouver Free University] established strong roots in the eastside Commercial Drive area, which was populated by young families, and increasingly, single women with children.”
Vancouver East Cultural Centre and The Cultch
As the Vancouver East Cultural Centre since 1973, the building has been much expanded and altered and was home to the Tamahnous Theatre Workshop Society from 1971–95. Known for its emphasis on experimental theatre and collective creation, the company won numerous awards, toured internationally and notably launched John Gray’s musical, “Billy Bishop Goes to War,” in 1978. The historic theatre is celebrated as one of Vancouver’s most intimate performance spaces; Max Wyman described it as a “miniature European opera house” in 1973. “I can’t say there was a lot of neighbourhood support for us initially,” recalls Chris Wooten, founder of The Cultch. “We were not initially part of the community and our natural audience was across town. It meant we had to be particularly respectful to the Grandview Woodlands community. For our survival, we needed to be populist in our approach. We also needed to be very aggressive to attract audiences over from the west side. This gave us a special quality, which may have been the real key to our success. Within a year of opening, we were both fully booked year round, and selling out often.”
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