Granted, Oppenheimer Park is not the prettiest of Vancouver Parks. True, drug deals appear to happen there, and homeless people live there. But then homeless people have to live somewhere in a city that lacks adequate low-cost and rehabilitative accommodation.
Oppenheimer Park is, however, a park of great historic interest, the home of the annual Powell Street Festival and a park I have visited many times without coming to harm -- to attend the festival, to read the historical information posted on utility poles and depicted in mosaics surrounding the park, and to visit and show to others the memorial totem pole dedicated to those who died too young on the Downtown East Side -- of which Op Park is a part -- and to those who survive. A moving monument to the resilience of the human spirit and a demonstration of respect for human beings of all conditions and fates.
Probably the best time of year for the tourist to visit Op Park, or Powell Ground(s) as it is also known, is during the Powell Street Festival, which occurs on the first weekend of August. Then Japanese Canadians take back the park for a weekend celebrating Japanese food, art, culture, and performance, including the tea ceremony..
For Powell Ground was the heart of old Japantown which was devastated in 1942 when the Canadian Government removed Japanese Canadians from their homes and moved them at least 100 miles from the sea. This event is memorialized in a sidewalk mosaic in front of the Japanese Language School on Alexander Street, one block north of the NE corner of Op Park and the Buddhist Church at that corner. The tea house on the roof of the language school is open to the public during the Powell Street Festival, and possibly during other events throughout the year. Check with them for details.
Oppenheimer Park was the home of a famous baseball team, the Asahis. Their story is told on a plaque posted on a pole near the NW corner of the park. The team, and the park, also appear in Wayson Choy's novel The Jade Peony, available at Vancouver bookstore and through the Vancouver Public Library. Choy, who grew up in neighbouring Chinatown, used the Asahi practices and games as background to recount territorial conflict between youth of Japanese and Chinese decent at Powell Ground during WWII.
Oppenheimer Parks neighbourhood is the original Vancouver. It is replete with history, as sidewalk mosaics around it attest. For those interested in local history, these are a good place to begin researching Vancouver's past, as they mark key events that occurred in and around this park.
In 2009 renovations were in progress in Oppenheimer Park, so I suspect that it will be showing a prettier face to the world once the surrounding fences come down. But the history remains the same. And by the way, if the Japanese tea ceremony isn't of interest, the view of Burrard Inlet from the roof of the Japanese Language School is spectacular.
I first went to this park while researching the addresses at which my grandparents, great-grandparents and great-uncles and aunts lived and worked. I suspect that if many Vancouverites were to do the same, they might well find their roots in this neighbourhood, which at one time was home to people of all ethnic orignins -- this was Vancouver.
On my most recent visits to Oppenheimer Park, I encountered, at the corner of Jackson and E Cordova, two girls, about 8 and 10 years old, one playing the violin, the other the cello. I enquired, and learned that they lived in a co-op (?) of restored homes along Jackson Street facing the park.
This park and this neighbourhood is both a historic gold mine and a testament to optimism and community spirit.
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