Continuing Jim Green’s Legacy

October 5, 2012

Alexandra Rutherford is walking in her father’s footsteps. Heir apparent to Jim Green’s network of social enterprise and community nonprofits, she’s following his career in a metaphoric sense, but today it’s physically true as well. It’s Father’s Day weekend, and Rutherford is rambling along the Downtown Eastside streets he knew and loved so deeply.

We start at the Harvest café on Union, a few hundred metres from the Georgia Viaduct and only three shiny new shops from Solheim Place, the housing co-op Green founded in the wake of the post-Expo eviction death of logger Olaf Solheim. Green himself toured me through this new “Viaduct” district at the end of last year, a few months before his death by cancer in February. With former city co-planning director Larry Beasley—his unlikely copilot in the winning proposal to radically reshape the gridlocked area—at the wheel, Green was visibly frail but still passionate. His vision, augmented by architects Norman Hotson and Margot Long, was architecture as metaphor: bring down the barriers, introduce pedestrian greenspace, and unite Vancouver’s historic districts with each other and the waterfront.

Rutherford, 38, looks nothing like her father, who adopted her when he married her mother, Belgian-born bookkeeper Jacqueline Henry. But she shares his commitment to the area where she spent much of her early childhood. She comes by her activist spirit naturally: her parents successfully lobbied to open Vancouver’s first francophone elementary school, École Anne Hebert, for her.

“One of my first memories of Jim,” Rutherford says as we pass the old family home at East Georgia and Princess, “was this tall, skinny guy with big hair who made pasta from scratch. I was quite impressed.”

Experiences from childhood—going to peace marches and protests with her parents, getting to stay up late listening to Motown while her dad chatted with longshoreman—have left their mark. Rutherford had a lower profile than others in the Green clan (which includes her sister Geneva Biggers, daughter of Nancy Green; his four stepchildren from his 20-year marriage to Roberta McCann; as well as many grandchildren), but when she returned to Vancouver from studying and working abroad she was Green’s choice as successor.

“He would take me out to events like architect Ron Yuen’s retirement party,” Rutherford recalls, “the Concord Pacific and Terra Housing Christmas parties, and introduce me to his network.”

What a network that was. After four decades as an activist, politician, and developer, Green was an “expert,” says his daughter, “at getting what he needed from the system, reaching the decision makers, and making things happen.”

Rutherford’s manner—soft-spoken, gentle—is worlds away from Green’s street-smart gruffness. Politically, there are also differences. “My dad came from an era when the union was the only means of securing rights for workers and was a real tool for social justice. My experience—as a consultant working for government, and as someone who designed programs for improving employee/management relations—was not the same.”

Following graduation—she holds a BA in Asian Studies from UBC and an MBA from the National University of Singapore—Rutherford took a gig helping the Japanese government “internationalize” small Pacific towns, worked as a human-capital consultant in Singapore, and in Switzerland developed and implemented business training programs. In 2010 she returned to Vancouver to be with her ailing father. Since his death, she’s taken a leave of absence from Deloitte Consulting to carry on his work through Jim Green Consulting, a firm he founded after losing the mayoral race in 2005. Joining her in the family firm—which formalizes projects Green championed since the 1970s: social and mixed-use housing, inclusivity for the economically disadvantaged, inner-city cultural programs—is her engineer husband, David Cookson.

Rutherford’s first challenge is to create stable low-income housing for at-risk, primarily aboriginal street youth in the old Vancouver remand centre at Powell and Gore. Acting as the representative for BladeRunners, which Green helped found 20 years ago to assist street youth in finding gainful employment, Rutherford is working with architect Gregory Henriquez—a Green collaborator on many area projects, from Bruce Eriksen Place to Woodward’s—to secure 37 units in the soon-to-be-converted jail. She’s also developing ideas for affordable, intergenerational modular housing as part of the city’s Re-Think Housing competition, and—subject to final city approval in late September—hopes to help implement the viaducts proposal her father co-authored.

We pass the remand centre’s closed-in concrete bunkers, reimagining them as windows that might one day open to expansive water views, then continue past the old Four Corners Community Savings. “I remember the opera nights my dad organized here.” Art was central to his life, and to so many of his projects, from the murals of Bruce Eriksen Place to the redevelopment of the York Theatre. She smiles at the memory of him, and while the pain of his passing is still raw, she seems to be doing better than when I saw her last at a fundraiser/tribute at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre planned with Green’s partner, centre director Heather Redfern. As young opera students sang his favourite arias, Rutherford looked elegant yet otherworldly—a pale Audrey Hepburn figure barely able to speak for her grief.

But her more fragile manner belies a clear determination. “He was driven by passion, while I always want everything to be ordered, well researched, in writing.” There was never major conflict between them, she says, but her father found ways to push her. “He was always challenging me, forcing me to think critically.” She remembers, as a five-year-old, walking home from school one day only to be greeted by Green saying, “Hey—think about how you would get inside if I wasn’t here or you didn’t have keys. What would you do?” Her steely response: to pick up a handy two-by-four and hit him with it.

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