For several days and counting, the new Safeway at Granville and 70th has been stuck with half a sign. All safe and no way. I walk by the first time, amused at the delay. We see buildings mid-construction but we don’t often see words. We don’t read an author’s half-finished manuscript. We read the published book with the illustrated cover on display in Chapter’s. We don’t listen to a half-done speech from a president, sports star, or other figure in the public eye. We are used to whole words, even though we think in half words and half-finished sentences all the time.

Last week, I talked about reading the city through text on buildings, and asked are we reading them or are they reading us?

Text reads differently when it’s separated from what makes it familiar. When it’s disconnected from its usual reality.

I know what the text on this building should have said. Everything I know from growing up in urban environments tells me this building should read “Safeway.” But because it didn’t, it made me stop. Smile. Pull out my camera. Read the building in a whole new way.

The funny thing is, SAFE isn’t a half word. I think that’s what struck me so much—that it made sense in and of itself. That it is such an ordinary word displayed so visibly, so unusually, so as to render it extraordinary.

“Protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed.”
Baseball: “having reached a base without being put out.”

I like the baseball definition better because it doesn’t imply that you’re not in the game, that you’re not taking risks. No, you are playing, you are hitting, you are running. And when there’s so much set against you that can take you out (balls, bats, opponents), you’ve landed on a base that is holy ground so to speak—sacred because it’s safe. Nothing can harm you while you’re on it.

The building isn’t “Safeway” until it gets its name. Naming is everything. We name our cities, neighbourhoods, children, pets, cars, boats, computers. Naming says you have an identity. You are worth something to me. You are personal. You are mine.

Right now, the building is SAFE.

It is not a grocery store.

It is a glass rectangle with a swoosh across its façade.

It is a four-letter word on a building.

It is poetry.

It is telling me, making me Safe. A reminder that in a city—any city—where there is so many things and so many people who aren’t safe, that Safe still exists. There is no prescribed Way to find it or to find it without confronting danger first, but it is there. There are places and people who are Safe. Safe has a reality beyond its sign.

I walk by a second time on Monday, Vancouver’s first snowfall of the 2013 winter season. To my delight, SAFE is still there. I hope the construction workers have trouble finding the WAY so that SAFE can linger a while more, reminding me and other city-dwellers through the liminal state of a grocery store what we all long for.

the people are the city

The Wall on the CBC Plaza, Vancouver

“the people are the city” by Paul de Guzman, 2013


red letters by Charlene Kwiatkowski


on Hamilton Street in Yaletown

red letters on a concrete wall

reach me with their lower-case lives


not big enough to record in history books

but big enough to stop me

a traffic light on the street


that’s me on the ladder

that’s you measuring the frame

that’s him showing us where to lay the beam


we are building on a building

stories in a story

texts on an architext


isn’t this an image of us all

working on our lower-case lives

carpenter clothes like lab coats


experimenting with an idea

incomplete, we can’t see

but we dream dream dream


the excitement is building

the building is excitement

we are the building


but look at all the walls

we don’t touch, talk about, or share

and this image is not at all like us


people work together

people work together

people work together


is this real or wishful thinking?

is the city plural?

are we together or are we alone together?


say it three times

the holy trinity of incantation

that makes the imagined real


read the red letters

again and again

and again


Description of The Wall. Click the picture for a bigger view.

The artist’s statement, which ties into my poem. Clicking on the picture will take you to a website where you can also read it.