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City manager poem, many jokes to send off Vancouver’s housing director

May 14th, 2009 · 3 Comments

In the steady march of the 60s generation out of city hall doors the last couple of years, two more left or are leaving this month. One was Trish French, the scarily smart senior planner who terrified more than one councillor, I am positive, with her incisive answers to their wandering questions. Her last day was May 1. The other is Cameron Gray, the head of the city’s housing centre, who will be leaving at the end of the month.

Cameron’s retirement party was last night at the Heritage Hall on Main and the who’s who of the housing world showed up to say goodbye to the guy who has made Vancouver a petri dish of experimental ideas in creating affordable housing: BC Housing’s head guys, non-profit housing operators like Karen O’Shannacery, Janice Aboott, and Mark Townsend and Liz Evans, Terry Hui of Concord, along with lots of city staff and quite a few Vision politicians.

There’s probably not another city in the world where a developer has agreed to put in a residential hotel for singles on welfare as part of a luxury condo and hotel development. But the Maleks did at their Millennium Developments L’Hermitage project on Robson, thanks to Cameron’s eagerness to help them understand how it could work. As people said during the evening, he was innovative, a risk-taker, and someone who could just make things happen.

MC’d by the ubiquitous Michael Geller (awaiting your comments on this blogpost, Michael), there were lots of stories — some of them from Cameron himself — about Cameron’s strong opinions, inability to take instruction, legendary enthusiasm for what he did, and his skill in driving projects through that required only a little bit of creative interpretation of the city’s land-use policies. Unlike the Judy Rogers’ retirement party, there were no digs at the current council — well, hardly any. Geller did point out to a memo Cameron wrote where the long list of cc’d people included most of the names of those who have left recently. But Cameron graciously said the city has been a great place to work. “Some councils were a little off the wall, some a lot of the wall, but all of them were 100 per cent committed to the city.”

The biggest dig of the night, in fact, came from Mayor Gregor Robertson, who gave one of the more relaxed and charming speeches I’ve heard since he took office. (More often he looks as though he’s been coached to within an inch of his life to FOR GOD’S SAKE not say anything that will get him into any trouble, which makes him seem a bit like the rabbit with its leg caught in a trap as the hunter approaches.) Robertson, who presented Cameron with a 25-year pin and certificate that unaccountably hadn’t been given to him at the proper time four years earlier, said: “I apologize on behalf of previous administrations. But then I’m having to do that a lot these days,” which provoked a long “ooh” from the crowd.

Robertson praised Cameron for his work in helping getting the moratorium on demolition of low-rise apartments through — the issue that helped the one-time MLA become a figure on the city scene. (Interestingly, I’m told that Cameron has always been a committed NPA supporter.) He also praised him for his stupdendous sweater collection that set “a new direction for bureaucratic fashion” at city hall, noted that his diatribes at the city’s homelessness task force were only outdone in temperature by the exchanges between police chief Jim Chu and housing advocate David Eby, and commented on the excitement created at those meetings “as we got to see Cameron’s annual haircut.”

I can’t capture all of the speeches — I’m sure they’ll be out in a boxed DVD set soon — but one notable contribution to the evening was a texted-in poem from city manager Penny Ballem, who had to be at a meeting and couldn’t make it. Here, from the candidate for next poet laureate of Vancouver, who would have thunk it, is the administrative verse that was read out by real-estate services director Michael Flanigan:

Ode to Cameron from CM

There once was a staffer named Gray
Housing was his passion by day
But his strength was at night
When he worked on the plight
Of tenants – a diverse array

He schemed and he wheedled for years
And the housing he “built” brought to tears
All those disposessed
and mightily stressed
As well as a lot of us here(s!)

So Cameron we all wish you well
We will miss all your work which was swell
Your legacy will grow
And we hope that you know
Without you, will just be like hell!!

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  • I’M SO CONFUSED The grand march for housing the continious marches generated for the plight of the homeless,the gathering together of all the neo non profs of the dtes. This guy gets a party and a poem how is it that you march against in representing the homeless then you throw these people a freakin party is everybody bending over forwards or am i just confused

  • gmgw

    Well, no one else has jumped in here, so I guess it’s up to me. This is going to be a bit personal and I’m feeling self-conscious, so I was really hoping someone else would go first…

    More years ago than either of us would probably care to remember, Cameron Gray and I were good friends in elementary school in North Vancouver. Cameron always had a serious air about him and nowhere was this more apparent than when the two of us were enrolled by our parents in a public-speaking course sponsored by Optimist International, which I gather is some kind of do-gooder organization devoted to helping kids develop to their full potential, bla, bla, bla. At the end of the several weeks of the course we happy few (no girls were in the training sessions, naturally; it *was* a long time ago) were each required to write and deliver a valedictory speech in front of a gathering of proud parents, Optimist officials and assorted invited guests, in the banquet room of a restaurant on lower Lonsdale. The topic of said speech, we were told, was to be “Optimism- the spirit of youth”. (Gag.) An intimidating prospect for almost anyone, especially for a shy pessimist like myself.

    Well, I rehearsed and practiced, and my mother helped me write my speech. Came the big night and I did OK, although apparently I didn’t speak loudly enough (an affliction that occasionally plagues me to this day, I’m told). Cameron’s speech, however, was a revelation. For some reason– nerves?– he decided to deliver his speech at top volume. Which he proceeded to do; standing rigidly erect, he bellowed his entire speech as if he was addressing the Italian Army on the eve of its departure for Ethiopia. He even threw his fist into the air now and then to emphasize a point. Everyone in the room was astonished at his volume and projection; less so at its overall effectiveness.

    Not long after that Cameron and I went on to different schools and lost touch, as kids will. I encountered him again in the early 70s when he was working at the Duthie’s branch that was then located on west Pender (that was not only back when Duthie’s had a branch on Pender, but when they actually had branches). After that, I heard no more of him until decades later, when a “Cameron Gray” emerged as City Hall’s housing czar. It took me a while to realize that it was indeed the same Cameron Gray I’d known long ago; I certainly don’t recall him ever predicting such a career for himself when we were kids, and I have no idea how he got where he is, or rather, was.

    A few years ago I encountered Cameron at City Hall when I was part of a neighbourhood delegation meeting with his department. His name had come up in many a discussion in our neighbourhood association. It would be the first time we’d met in nearly 30 years. Preparing for the meeting, I realized we might both be faced with that familiar, embarrassing situation one often faces when meeting someone one knew long ago in another lifetime: Do we publicly acknowledge the ancient connection, however tenuous, and if so, how? I figured I’d take my cue from him. In the end, at the meeting, all I got was a dramatically cocked eyebrow as we were were all sitting down, which could have meant anything. The hell with it, I figured; the past is long past. Our career and life arcs have been so wildly divergent that there would have been little point in reaching out. And Cameron seemed to have turned into a blowhard bureaucrat, anyway. Learning that he’s “always been a committed NPA supporter” makes me even more grateful I didn’t push the issue.

    Have a pleasant retirement, Cameron Gray. I’m pleased to hear that praises were heaped upon you at your retirement bash; but if I happen to think of you I will remember an extraordinarily tense 12-year-old ranting like Mussolini at a roomful of sympathetic but startled grownups. No wonder you fitted in so well at City Hall.

  • Frances, none of us can ignore a request from you!

    For those not there, Frances shared a personal anecdote about the time she was taken aback by Cameron’s somewhat philosophical attitude towards a particular issue. When she questioned him on it, he responded “well I do have a graduate degree in philosophy!”

    Cameron deserved his party since he put in both a lot of time and a lot of commitment to the cause of housing in Vancouver. I must say, I never thought of him as an NPA supporter…I always thought of him as a bit of a communist, or at best Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor. He did have a ‘can do’ attitude that was highly appreciated by those with whom he worked. He was a deal maker.

    He was also a very decent and honourable public servant, and although we had many heated arguments over the years, I was delighted to be asked to participate in his retirement party. It was great to see so many people from government, the private sector, and the ‘third sector’ in attendance.

    I will conclude with one thought…it will be difficult to end homelessness by 2015, and accomplish many other proposed housing initiatives, with Cameron leaving, and a hiring freeze at City Hall.