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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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