Jacqui Cohen has been on the vanguard of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside renaissance, investing in the troubled area for over a decade when everybody else told her to walk away. Now, with the planned redevelopment of her flagship Army & Navy store, Cohen has even bigger dreams for the city’s historic core.
There was a story the newspapers used to tell about Army & Navy. It showed up a number of times during the late ’70s and early ’80s. It involved pointing out what was then considered to be a central irony about the company. That is, the fact that the iconic Vancouver discount department store – opened on Hastings Street in 1919 by Samuel Cohen and still owned at that time by his fashionable, sports car driving, glamorously good-looking descendants – was in fact run and controlled by a teetotalling Baptist counting pennies in a dingy converted stockroom in Regina.
That old story is easy enough to parse today. The implication was that selling seconded clothing and fishing tackle might make you very rich but that the very rich themselves (certainly two generations later) didn’t have the right mental culture to sustain their wealth by the same method. To actually take care of business, to think strategically about the future, to be engaged with the here and now, they needed to bring in a man with a discount frame of mind. They needed that penny-counting Baptist in his poorly lit Regina stockroom.
That man’s name, incidentally, was Garth Kennedy, and he’d worked his way up to president over a 50-year career that started in the warehouse. And as distant as he might be from the company today (he died of a heart attack 12 years ago), he’s on my mind as I stand in the Coal Harbour studio of Shaw Television, watching the current president and CEO of Army & Navy going through her paces. The current president, who came on after Kennedy’s death and who is familiar to many Vancouverites from her high-profile charity work, is Samuel Cohen’s surviving granddaughter, Jacqui Cohen.
To think of Garth Kennedy while watching Jacqui Cohen is to hold two very different things in your head simultaneously. Cohen, to state it mildly, doesn’t have a teetotalling Baptist air about her. She is effusive, enthusiastic. She has a hearty laugh and likes to touch the arm of the person she’s talking to when making a point. Just now, in fact, she’s doing something one suspects Kennedy would not have been able to pull off: she’s sitting with Michael Eckford and Fiona Forbes, hosts of Shaw’s Urban Rush, talking about shoes.
Enjoying it too, it’s easy to see. From the darkness behind the cameras, I watch the three of them kibitz about which celebrity wears which pair or why exactly Eckford seems unwilling to let go of a leathery studded shoe the straps of which go high up a woman’s calf.
“You’ve picked out a sexy one there, I see,” Cohen says to him, deadpan. Then, to Forbes: “You’re freshly pedicured.”
So they talk about pedicures for a while. And then, because it’s television, they swirl through several other topics – Cohen’s Face the World Foundation (which gives to a wide range of non-profits in the Vancouver area), the recent involvement of Cohen’s daughter Kasondra in the family business – before landing on the more critical issue of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and its restoration.