YOU SHOULD KNOW: The Fishy History Of 611 Alexander On The Downtown Eastside

by Stevie Wilson | Nestled near the end of Railtown’s industrial promenade, the modern steel and glass elevator installation at 611 Alexander suggests the building hasn’t been in place for more than a few decades. Its contemporary facade, however, is deceptive; this wasn’t always a design and commerce center – it used to produce cans of fish. In 1913, the American Can Company acquired independent company Cliff & Sons, and thirteen years later a 363,000 square-foot plant was built at the intersection of Alexander and Princess. Architect and engineer Carl G. Preis designed the building, in additional to several other North American locations including Portland and Montreal. Featuring large windows and typically corporate-style design, it was, for many years, one of the largest reinforced concrete structures in the city. To build the tin can processing plant, rows of homes and popular brothels – indicated sometimes by madams’ names printed on the front tiles – were demolished. The busy Red Light District which encompassed the 500 and 600-block of Alexander would eventually move west into Chinatown and, later, to East Georgia, leaving this area to develop in its proximity to the port.

The site attracted workers from across the city, including newly landed immigrants taking root in the Strathcona North neighbourhood (perhaps because the clatter of punch presses was heard for blocks throughout the nightshift). During the Great Depression, the sprawling industrial landscape featured development nearby of shanties and dilapidated sheds housing out of luck WWI veterans and other poor on the site of the old Hastings Sawmill. These were described as the “’Jungles’ of 1931”, and contemporary reports by city archivist Major James Skitt Matthews indicate that at one point the population rose to two hundred and forty men. A July 1931 edition of the Vancouver Sun features a glimpse into the conditions of these sites.

In wartime, women accounted for half the work force at the ACC, where incredibly loud machinery necessitated the use of signals, lip-reading, and carefully observed routines. Earplugs were eventually deemed mandatory in later years (go figure). At its height, the ACC produced over 350 million cans annually, primarily related to fishing. The company did more than just can BC salmon though: apple sauce tins and beer cans were also part of production. It also built the canning materials for other local industries, including the Gulf of Georgia Cannery in Richmond.

By 1975 the number of labourers had dwindled to just over 300, due to advances in technology and the export of canning production to Ontario and Quebec. In 1988, the building was repurposed. Celebrated BC architect Bruno Freschi (of Expo ’86 fame) transformed the site into office and studios: a “chic design centre” where, according to historian Harold Kalman, the old and new was “mated”, as it were, as a reimagined commercial and artistic space. Currently housing the SFU School for the Contemporary Arts, Anne Star Textile Agency, and Artizia’s head offices (among others), this unique building continues to play a role in the city’s vibrant commercial industries. Legend has it that sometimes at night, when the moon is full, the old punch presses can still be heard, softly clacking away. Just kidding.

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Stevie Wilson is an historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to show you the things that you already see. Just nod your head and pretend you’re paying attention.

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2 Responses to “YOU SHOULD KNOW: The Fishy History Of 611 Alexander On The Downtown Eastside”

  1. Don McNulty on December 22nd, 2012 12:53 am

    American Can did not can fish or anything else. they manufactured empty tin cans and sold them to canning companies.

  2. John Atkin on December 22nd, 2012 7:36 pm

    “The busy Red Light Dis­trict which encom­passed the 500 and 600-block of Alexan­der would even­tu­al­ly move west into Chi­na­town and, later, to East Geor­gia, leav­ing this area to devel­op in its prox­im­i­ty to the port.”

    Just a small correction on an otherwise interesting article. Alexander Street was the red light district from 1911 to 1918 and was the place the prostitutes moved to after Chinatown and East Georgia/Main Street areas were shut down by the police. The bulk of the brothels were on the south side of the street. Many of rhe buildings remain today.