Community Builder: Paul Phillips has left his mark on Fernwood

Biography by Ben IsittPaul-Phillips-bio_Community-Builder
FERNWOOD, BC—The corner of Balmoral and Camosun may resemble a disaster zone some days, but the owner of the 1890 yellow character home that rises out of the rubble has earned his place in Fernwood history.

“I’m always astonished by the gentleness and the niceness of the people here,” says Paul Phillips, age 73, whose recollections are coloured by his sharp Welsh tongue. “The spirit of this place— through all the mess-ups, all the interference from outside sources—they’ll all fall by the wayside and sooner or later this place will demonstrate its spirit.”

He should know. Thirty years ago, Phillips was a key player in Fernwood’s Neighbourhood Improvement Program (NIP), leveraging a million dollars in federal money that spawned both the FCA and FCC buildings, and ‘pocket park’ street closures on Queens, Chambers, Grant, Pembroke and Gladstone. As a co-op organizer, Phillips helped build the first curbside recycling box, forerunner to today’s Blue Box program. He prevented the demolition of heritage buildings and helped form the Spring Ridge Housing Co-op. Later, Phillips ran the Fernwood Solar Farm, which survives today as the Compost Education Centre. The owner of three Fernwood properties, Phillips provides housing for over a dozen low-income people. The process may be messy, but the results are widely felt.

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Paul Gwyn Phillips was born in Gloucestershire in 1933 and raised in Builth, Wales (pronounced Bilth). The son of market gardeners who later operated a small hotel, he was raised Baptist but migrated toward an anarchist philosophy.

“The status quo didn’t quite do it for me,” Phillips says. “It was more than obvious that your accent defined who you were.”

He left England for Toronto in 1958 and worked at odd jobs, including a stint at Weston’s Bakery that fueled his later involvement in the food co-op movement. He moved west to Vancouver, returned to England for a while, then settled into the folk music scene in the United States.

Phillips was exposed to folk music as a young man in London in the 1950s, stumbling across a performance of the protest song ‘The Banks Are Made of Marble.’ He acquired a five-string banjo and was hooked. He played at the Seattle World Fair in 1961, and toured the folk circuit, performing with Pete Seager and Phil Ochs.

At Joliet, Illinois in 1967, Phillips was invited to address a protest rally against the Vietnam War. Motioning toward the rail tracks leading out of the town’s arsenal, he told the crowd, “If you want to stop it, you’ve got to put yourself on the lines.” Two months later, at his home in the countryside south of Los Angeles, Phillips was arrested by two FBI agents and charged with sedition. Due to a technicality and considerable luck, Phillips was kicked out of the country and returned to Vancouver.

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Phillips flirted with the Kitsilano scene, then came to Victoria where he helped found the Amor de Cosmos Food Co-operative in 1970. The St. John Divine Church served as the distribution centre, with six zone houses spread throughout the city. Flower power flourished at the time, and Phillips lived in coop houses in Fairfield, Vic West and James Bay, before he and three friends purchased a home on Mason Street, in Fernwood, for $16,000.

Phillips applied for, and received, a federal grant to expand food co-ops, and worked in Vancouver for the Fed-Up Food Co-op, which developed a food distribution network extending up to the Queen Charlotte Islands, with weekly trade exceeding $80,000. At its height, the co-op ran a bakery, newspaper, honey-making plant, three retail stores, and a cannery. By 1975, however, years of activity were taking their toll.

“I’m a small-time guy, really,” Phillips says.

He returned to Victoria to focus on community work in Fernwood. Controversy was brewing over land development. The area bounded by Pembroke, Gladstone, Fernwood Road and Stevenson Park was slated for a major federal housing project, which later became Blanshard Courts.

“These were the days when houses were getting smashed down all over the place,” Phillips recalls.

Meanwhile, at Fort and Foul Bay, 17 houses were slated for demolition to make way for seniors’ housing. BC’s deputy minister of housing, George Chatterton, challenged Phillips to find a better solution for the 17 houses. He did.

In an elaborate plan supported by the NDP government of the day, facilitated by the National Housing Act (1973), Phillips helped form the Spring Ridge Housing Co-op Association. The province purchased land on Pembroke Street, and four of the condemned houses were relocated, raised, and converted to duplex suites. The remaining houses were recycled for building material. Over time, other buildings were added. Today, 36 people are housed at the Spring Ridge Co-op.

But the Spring Ridge Housing Co-op was just the beginning. In the mid-1970s, federal and provincial politics created a climate ripe for innovative social policies.

“You could pick up the world and run with it,” Phillips recalls fondly. Fernwood residents mobilized behind the federal Neighbourhood Improvement Program (NIP), and in a few short years transformed the physical and cultural environment of Fernwood.

The NIP legacy began with the closure of Queens and Chambers Streets behind George Jay Elementary, and the construction of an adventure playground. Other street closures followed at Grant, Pembroke, and, finally, Gladstone, today’s Fernwood Square, where a gazebo was built by marginalized youth that still stands today.

When the NIP era finally ended, the Bakery building at 1923 Fernwood Road had been acquired by the City for $89,000 (25% paid by the city, with the remainder covered by provincial and NIP grants). Pressure from Phillips, the FCA (formed in 1972) and the NIP committee also secured funds for a community centre in Stevenson Park, despite a confidential memo from the City manager stating “we should…do our best to divert the residents from the idea of a community centre.” The FCA was prevented from running the facility, however, because civic leaders feared the group was too “radical.”

Phillips later served as a director of both the FCA and FCC. “I think it’s tragic,” Phillips says of tension between the two groups. “You have people with good ideas and they just don’t have the will to really behave decently. They see each other in adversarial positions.” He remains optimistic, however, believing things “will always get better… I’ve got that much faith in people’s abilities.”

In the 1980s, Phillips headed the Fernwood Solar Farm at Chambers and North Park, securing school-district land and employing young offenders sentenced to community service. He worked on the side as a landscape gardener, but in 1988 suffered a severe head injury while at work. Since then, he has focused on converting his properties for affordable housing, and restoring Fernwood House at the top of Rudlin Street.

Phillips was married briefly in the 1960s, and has a daughter from that marriage, Olwen, who lives in Los Angeles. He considers his family to include close friends and their children, including a second daughter Sylvia.

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Whoopies, Red Tide, Amor de Cosmos Food Co-op, Fed-Up, Coop Resource Society, Tunnel Canary, LEAP, Spring Ridge Housing Co-op, Neighbour-Aiders, Bench Bunch, NIP, the Fernwood Solar Farm.

All these projects benefited from the unorthodox energy of Paul Phillips, and changed Fernwood for the better. When asked about the unkempt state of his Camosun Street property, Phillips refuses to mince words. “Maybe it could be done faster, and maybe I’m not as efficient as I should be. But it’s just like an ancient dig. You’ve got to go at it with a paintbrush,” he says, citing the discovery of intricate original woodwork on the exterior of 116-year-old building, and the installation of new electrical, plumbing, heating and fire-safety systems in the 6000-sq.-foot house. “If you could do it better, dynamite! Get over here!”

Remember this unique slice of history the next time you pass the chaotic corner of Balmoral and Camosun. More important, take action in Fernwood to build on Paul Phillips’ impressive legacy.

The Paul Phillips Walking Tour  as a PDF, shows a map of Paul’s various achievements in the Fernwood community.