YOU SHOULD KNOW | All About The Sidewalk Stamps Still Spelling Out Vancouver’s History

April 11, 2017.

CVA 677-5841906 date stamp on an early sidewalk at Hastings & Richards (City of Vancouver Archives – CVA 677-584)

As someone who commutes mainly by walking and public transportation, I have the pleasure of seeing the world at a slow pace. It allows me to notice small things, like sidewalk date and name stamps, that most people are unaware of. These inconspicuous markings in the urban landscape were originally used to date the construction of sidewalks but consequently mark the provenance of entire neighbourhoods. Sidewalk stamps aficionado Andrew Alden refers to them as “fossils in the city’s hardscape”.

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Concrete sidewalks have existed for approximately 150 years in North American cities and in Vancouver for over 110 years. The oldest known concrete sidewalk date stamp in Vancouver is from “1906” and can be found at the northeast corner of Robson and Bidwell streets.

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This is significant, as 1906 is believed to be the first year that the city started to install and stamp concrete sidewalks. Unfortunately, the only parts of the original 1906 sidewalk that survive are the name and date portions. The City preserved these features when they updated the sidewalk for accessibility. While there’s no formal preservation policy in place, City engineering workers will often try to save significant sidewalk stamps when possible and re-install the heritage pieces into sidewalks. However, since most sidewalk name and date stamps are found near the end of a block, many original stamps have been lost due to upgrades such as curb ramps and redevelopment.

There is a “1908” stamp at the southeast corner of 10th and Columbia on a block of historic houses in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. (Also at the other end of the block at 10th and Manitoba.) Unlike the 1906 stamp on Robson, this stamp is found imprinted upon the original sidewalk, thus preserving the integrity of this “fossil” in the city’s hardscape. Many of Vancouver’s older dated sidewalks can be found in residential neighbourhoods, likely due to the relative stability of property development in those areas.

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Vancouver is not the only urban centre to have dated sidewalks; many other cities in North America have them as well. In the United States it’s common not only to have the date, but also the contractor’s name stamped into the concrete. There is actually a website out of Berkeley, California that’s dedicated solely to the “documentation, cataloging, and publication” of sidewalk contractor stamps. The website’s author, Lincoln Cushing, notes that “much can be learned from these artifacts, including construction dates and patterns of urban development.” We are fortunate that in Vancouver sidewalk naming and dating seems to have been a consistent practice over the years, one that continues to this day.

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Major civic infrastructure projects are often reflected in the sidewalk date stamp. For example, the 1954 completion date of the construction of the Granville Bridge by the City of Vancouver is echoed in the sidewalk stamps found underneath the north end of the Granville Street Bridge on Pacific Street…

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The “Cedar St.” sidewalk stamp below reveals the former name of the southern portion of Burrard Street. According to the excellent resource Street Names of Vancouver by Elizabeth Walker, Cedar St. dates back to 1885 and was named by L. A. Hamilton, Vancouver’s most influential street designator. Lachlan Alexander Hamilton (1852-1944) was a land commissioner for the CPR and named most of the streets in Vancouver’s West End, Downtown (including Hamilton St. which he named after himself) and the series of “tree streets” in Kitsilano and Fairview (eg. Yew, Arbutus, Larch, Fir). When the Burrard Bridge was completed in 1932, Burrard St. (north side, downtown) was then linked to Cedar St. on the south end of the bridge. Cedar Street was officially renamed Burrard Street in 1938.

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Another mysterious marking preserved in concrete that I have noticed in my travels over the years are the seemingly arbitrary markings of the letter “D” stamped into the sidewalks. I learned that these markings denote the location of a City water connection or drain. When the City built concrete sidewalks, the “drain” underneath it was marked with a “D”.

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In the past couple of decades, the City introduced other more decorative sidewalk markings. You may have noticed, for example, leaf impressions stamped into sidewalks, usually at the base of live trees, displaying a unique fall pattern all year round. Other intentional markings indicate the types of businesses and activities of a particular neighbourhood as shown in the photo below.

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However, not all sidewalk markings are intentional. Perhaps you have noticed an impression of a foot or paw prints preserved in the sidewalk. During my “sidewalk investigations”, I found the footprint pictured below preserved in concrete in Fairview. I would date its origin to 1926, as it was most likely made at the same time as the adjacent section of dated sidewalk was poured. I wonder if the person who made this impression is still alive? Was this an accident, or was it intentional? It’s a mystery preserved in concrete.

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And who, really, can resist the lure of fresh, still-wet concrete? I know when I saw the unguarded expanse of wet concrete at Langara College 20 years ago, I couldn’t resist. What is the irresistible force that compels people to write in wet concrete? Is it driven by our urge to leave something tangible in the world, a legacy? A way of recording a temporary, sometimes fleeting emotion? Or is it the element of secrecy and covertness? Whatever the reason, immortalizing oneself in concrete has been going on since the Romans invented the stuff.

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Even though we are told to always walk with our heads up, I invite you to look down the next time you are out walking (looking down at your phone doesn’t count). You never know what you might discover about the built history of your city!

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