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Waldorf Hotel: When culture and condos clash, culture loses

Judging by the line-up that stretched outside the Waldorf Hotel for almost a full city block Monday night for the venue's final Ice Cream Social, masses are likely to descend on the place tonight for one final eclectic, big-city experience. Forget the return of NHL hockey: Last call at the Waldorf will be the place to be in Vancouver.

And last call it will be. In what has become a defining cultural moment for Vancouver, the operators who have animated the Waldorf the last few years are shutting down operations. It is a development that has stunned the artistic community in a city that has suffered a troubling list of cultural losses over the past year.

Pretty much a dive in a grimy, industrial part of East Vancouver, the hotel was renovated and reprogrammed as a cultural hub by three partners in 2010, opening with a splash that Halloween.

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Last week, word emerged that the hotel's owner – which leased the place to Waldorf Productions – had sold the place to a condo developer. Waldorf Productions was offered a week-to-week lease, but could not operate under those conditions.

"I think it's a huge loss," says brand and design director Daniel Fazio, one of the partners. "I think there's going to be a huge vacuum. I don't think it's going to be the same city at all. Vancouver needs places like this."

The Waldorf is a hotel, yes, but its few guest rooms are really beside the point. It was the programming here that was extraordinary: out-there performance art, multidisciplinary exhibitions and events, and a tiny gallery for emerging artists housed in a former hotel room, where even the bathroom became an exhibition space. Here you could see Douglas Coupland's interactive presentation on Marshall McLuhan and YouTube; a midway where artists reimagined carnival booths; and author/curator Michael Turner's Rolling Stones Trilogy installation, three films about the rock band recast as acts in an opera.

So cool that Katy Perry hung out here and Skrillex recorded at the on-site studio, the Waldorf has also been an important, intimate music venue. Polaris Prize-nominated musician Grimes has played here a few times, including a New Year's Eve party that included an illusionist and an indoor ice rink where ice dancers performed to the music of David Lynch.

When Grimes (real name Claire Boucher), who is from Vancouver, heard the news, she sent an angry tweet, accusing the city of destroying "nearly every piece of culture that you had."

"It was sort of a dire moment when I tweeted that tweet," she said at the Waldorf Thursday afternoon, where she was being photographed for a Japanese fashion and music magazine.

"I just feel that if we don't have the Waldorf, a lot of bands won't be able to play here and there isn't really a good place that isn't illegal for people to see live music that isn't huge," she continued. "It's sort of symbolic of a greater issue, I think, in the city, which is that it's obscenely expensive and everyone has to move and everything cool is getting shut down."

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The Waldorf shutdown follows the demise last year of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company, the closing of the multiplex that is the main venue for the Vancouver International Film Festival, the suspension of operations for MusicFest Vancouver, and the bankruptcy filing of Vancouver-based D&M Publishers.

A last cultural straw, the Waldorf news has galvanized the city – or at least a segment of it. Petitions were launched and promoted on Twitter by the likes of Glee's Cory Monteith and Once Upon a Time's Lana Parrilla; local activists started a Vancouver Loves the Waldorf campaign and organized a love-in that attracted not only distressed hipsters but the directors of institutions such as the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Vancouver Opera.

"This was a moment that Vancouver just snapped," said Sandy Garossino, one of the organizers (and, incidentally, Boucher's mother). "We've lost so much in the city."

City Council even got involved, approving a 120-day protection order for the site this week.

Wile there may be heritage value in the structure (which includes a restored 1955 Tiki Bar), it's the loss of what was going on inside – rather than the bricks and mortar – that has sparked this reaction.

As Waldorf Productions prepares to vacate the premises on Monday, Fazio says the partners are investigating the possibility of another venture with similar ideals in a different building.

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But in this city of glass, people have had enough. They're tired of swapping culture for condos. It seems that will not make a lick of difference for the Waldorf Hotel.

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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