by Ellen Johnston | Ask any Vancouverite for directions north, and they’ll point you towards the mountains. Ask them how to get to the water, and they’ll likely give you the same answer too: north – to English Bay, to Burrard Inlet, to the beaches, to False Creek. While there are occasional exceptions, it’s fair to say that that’s how we tend to orient ourselves. Downtown is perched on our northernmost shore, and all the neighbourhoods we love to talk about – Gastown, Yaletown, False Creek, the West End, Kitsilano, Mount Pleasant, Commercial Drive – they are all located in the northern sections of our city. These places are where our heritage is located, where we go out to eat, go to shows, run, bike and shop. This is the Vancouver of postcards, of houseboats and beachfront yoga, of shimmering glass condos and funky coffee shops. As far as many of us are concerned, there is never all that much point in venturing south of King Edward Avenue. And yet, with housing prices on the rise, it’s an inevitability that unless those desirable northern neighbourhoods seriously densify, even the cool kids will have to start moving south.
There’s no reason why they shouldn’t. There’s even a shoreline down there, though we often forget that the Fraser River, so often associated with places like New Westminster and Richmond, runs along our city’s entire southern boundary. That’s why I decided to follow the river myself, and learn what it could tell me about my city, and my own ignorance concerning this oft forgotten southern shoreline. I found that it was a place rich with local history, fantastic maritime views, and an urban fabric that is on the verge of becoming very, very interesting. It’s best seen by bicycle or on foot, since much the shoreline can only be accessed by small paths.
My journey began in Southlands, at the foot of Balaclava Street, where I had heard that there were new developments being built along the water (see my route here). The place where Balaclava meets the Fraser is one of incredible juxtaposition. To the west there lies an old industrial building, and to the east a row of giant new houses. The one nearest is a mansion with a multicar garage, and two new adjoining buildings are being built on the site. Another house had two Range Rovers parked in front. It was quite clear that this development was being styled as a southern equivalent of Point Grey Road or Northwest Marine Drive, though on an even larger scale. And yet it stood across the street from an old industrial building, and just down the road from the site of the Celtic Cannery, one of the Fraser River’s first fish-packing plants, both signs of Vancouver’s fading blue collar past. The irony increased when I saw that the industrial building across from those brand spanking new mansions was the home of Smallworks, one of Vancouver most successful builders of laneway houses.
A pleasant path leads east from Balaclava, though it does not go through. It is blocked by the McCleery Golf Course, and so I had to turn back and head east via SW Marine Drive.
The waterfront cycling and walking path begins again at Fraser River Park, which can be accessed via Angus Drive. From here, it’s smooth sailing all the way to Burnaby, though occasional diversions need to be taken via side roads and for a brief period of time, SW Marine Drive again.
At Fraser River Park, there are a couple small beaches and a riverfront walkway, complete with small wooden bridges, log booms and containers lying just offshore. Planes can also be seen taking off and landing at the Vancouver Airport.
Cycling east from Fraser River Park, industrial Vancouver begins, though in a very different way than the heritage signs en route indicate. There is no more shipbuilding or canning here now. Instead, there are tech and medical companies, storage lockers and cement factories. One quickly realises that though these places are far from attractive, they allow our city’s heart to beat. This is where the buses are stored. This is where Canada Post trucks begin their days.
One giant lot filled with cars is home to all the vehicles driven by Translink Employees. Old couches have been strewn along several sections of this route, a reminder of how little we care, visit, or comment on this end of town.
At the corner of 75th Avenue and Milton St, railroad tracks appear. These are the same tracks that line Arbutus Street and follow False Creek. The possibilities for their use by transit are endless, though they remain, at present, untouched. A small path heads east along the tracks from that corner, though it quickly ends. If you are biking, it is best to continue up Milton Street to SW Marine Drive, then duck under the two bridges, before continuing east on along Kent Avenue. One of the stranger sites under the bridges is a place for people to park their RVs, apparently due to the fact that they are not allowed to be parked on regular city streets.
At Heather Street, a bike route appears. It continues along Kent Street most of the way to the Knight Street Bridge. Train tracks continue to line the route, and it is here that I began to see actual trains, or at least sections of trains. This route also passes the city’s Recycling Depot which, like the bus depot, is not a pretty site, yet vitally important. Just further on, the Howe Sound Pulp and Paper Corporation sits as one of the last active reminders of this city’s history as a resource capital. Giant piles of woodchips line the bike path, a familiar site from old British Columbia, though a new site for me (and probably most residents of present day Vancouver).
At Argyle Street, the urban landscape changes dramatically. Industrial sites give way to lovely apartment buildings with big gardens, and townhouses lining the shore. An exclusively pedestrian/bike path appears, and you could almost believe that you’re zipping along False Creek except for the fact that Richmond lies just across the river. Tugboats, barges and fishing vessels are anchored nearby, and a charming yet practical sign informs you that “Regular dredging of the river to maintain its navigability provides the silt for adding fill to marshy shorelines land reclaimation ”. These are sites that people will travel all the way to Steveston for, but they are right here in our own city.
Just east of Gladstone Park, the River District, Vancouver’s much publicized “new neighbourhood” comes into view.
To call this area a new neighbourhood is deceiving, since hundreds, if not thousands of apartment and townhouse units are located right next door. But the River District is a massive site that is undergoing significant transformation. It will not only transform the land that it sits upon, but also the areas that surround it. For all the greatness that has been achieved in placing dense housing along the riverfront already, density only means so much if you can’t walk anywhere. These townhouses are beautifully located and well constructed, but they are separated from the rest of the city by both SE Marine Drive and a large embankment. The Real Canadian Superstore is just down the road, but big box stores can hardly be described as conducive to quality urban living. What this area needs, like False Creek before it (which has a similarly industrial past), is a centre of commercial activity. One can only hope that the River District will provide this. As of now, Romer’s Burger Bar is the only commercial operation in the area, but it does appear to be successful. I stopped in myself for beer with friends after our long bike ride. It was great little spot, packed with patrons, and was even offering three dollar sleeves that day (every Sunday, in fact!). While the area to the west of the River District is pleasant and liveable, heading east you are reminded of the detoxification that must be completed in order to make this once industrial site inhabitable.
Hazco signs are visible, as is one that advertises “Oil Spill Clean Up Supplies”.
There’s a lot of work to be done to create a truly liveable, dynamic urban space along Vancouver’s southern shoreline. But, if the River District does succeed, it will link an area between Boundary Road and the Canada Line that could end up being South Vancouver’s answer to False Creek. It is always good to be reminded that we are not just a ocean city, but a river city too. The river links us to our past and to our future yet to come. And, for the meantime, it is, at the very least, a good place to go for a bike ride and to get a beer with friends at the end of a long day.
Above all, Ellen Johnston considers herself a wanderer, whether she be tramping through the rain soaked streets of Vancouver and attempting to pry loose the layers of our urban fabric, couch-surfing across America, or getting lost in the souks of Marrakech. Since wandering is sadly not a full time gig, she also fills her days with the study of African dance and drumming, writing, piano, and running her own cookie company, Cookie Elf. She grew up in Vancouver, studied in Philadelphia and London, and hopes to see even more of this great big world in the future.