by Stevie Wilson | It is recognized as one of Vancouver’s most popular music venues and the longest continuously occupied space of its kind, but there’s much more to the Railway Club at 579 Dunsmuir than the occasional anecdote about The Tragically Hip. With over 80 years of history behind it, the space is yet another product of the inextricable link between Vancouver and its busy rail lines. The club, established in 1932 (at midnight on New Year’s Eve, to be exact) was originally a members-only space for the CPR’s staff to unwind, and was allegedly opened in response to the exclusivity of the nearby Engineers Club. Following the repeal of prohibition in 1933, The Railwaymen’s Club (as it was then known) operated as a busy, beer-stained and smoke-filled poker bar for the city’s thirsty working class.
The slim Laursen Building (also registered as Lawsen) dates back to around 1926, and has since featured many small businesses both upstairs and down. Prior to the Railwaymen’s Club, the top floor belonged to the European Concert Cafe, where one can only imagine what sort of fun was had. Over the years the space fell into significant disrepair until the Forsyth family purchased the bar in 1981. None of the contemporary furnishings are original, save for the fenestration and radiators; everything had to be constructed for a new crowd of patrons. Behind the main bar a set of beautiful stained glass windows are nearly hidden by a wide variety of signs and stuff to stare at over a pint.
Another surprising element of the Railway is its cozy back-end bar. While it blends seamlessly with the dark wooden decor of the front space, this room used to be the H. Miles Jewellery Store, which the Forsyths took over in 1988. The beautiful oak back bar was purchased from the storied West End gay bar Buddy’s when it closed its doors in the same year.
So whether it’s for a drink, a show, or to watch its charming toy trains circle the ceiling, just soaking up an hour at this local landmark means soaking up some uniquely local history, too. Indeed, in a city where restaurant and bar interiors seldom last as long as they really should, it’s an uncommon environment worthy of your thirsty investigation. Photos after the jump… Read more
by Stevie Wilson & Andrew Morrison | The Sun Tower at the corner of West Pender and Beatty Streets is one of Vancouver’s most recognizable landmarks, particularly due to its eye-catching, mint-coloured dome that’s visible from nearly everywhere in the city. However, despite the building’s iconic status (and its magnetic tourist’s photography), it’s not too often that hear from anyone who’s actually been inside the dome or, better still, atop the cupola, so we decided to take a look.
Keep in mind that it wasn’t easy. The dome is impossible to gain access to if you don’t have the building managers on your side. It took plenty of correspondence and explanation of benign intent on Scout’s part to convince the keymasters that we were there by virtue of sincere curiosity and true affection for the building’s architecture and history. In the end, our foot in the door came last month when Scout was invited to a Vancouver Heritage Foundation event. One thing (begging) led to another (pleading), and eventually a tour was arranged in good humour, for which we will remain eternally grateful. Take a look…
To gain access to the dome, one most first get to the 17th floor, up a winding staircase made of marble and through a locked door. The interior is a bit of a shock at first. There are no frescoes, sculptured metopes or decorative flourishes of any kind at all, which is a truth that came rudely, really, as one half expects the gorgeous thing to be filled to the knees with treasure. But it’s completely bare and unadorned save for spidery support beams in yellow painted steel that have been bolted above a noisy blue machine that operates the building’s elevators. It was all very industrial, which is to say a little deflating of the imagination.
And yet it clearly wasn’t without beauty. The dome is lit by a ring of oculi (the fancy name for circular windows). These look over the city from the cardinal points, and gazing out of them was a real trip. Though the buildings that surround it are mostly new (especially to the west and south), the windows – recessed and antique as they are – soften their glaring modernity like a Hipstamatic filter. But the real view is up even higher. A sketchy, steel-framed platform leads to a ladder that rises to a trap door in the ceiling. Once unbolted, this leads to the cupola, or the open-air nipple that stands erect at the dome’s apex. Here, the building’s big fib is revealed. The green-tinge on the dome’s exterior isn’t real. It’s a faux patina design that’s been painted to mimic oxidized copper. Alas, the view – so raw and exposed – more than makes up for it.
The history of the Beaux-Arts building is readily found and filled with fantastic details, but here’s a brief run-down: Noted Canadian architect William Tuff Whiteway (of Woodwards fame) was commissioned to design the structure in 1911-12 by the now-infamous Vancouver mayor L.D. Taylor. It began as the offices for Taylor’s newspaper company, The Vancouver World, before the publication folded and the building was passed to Bekin’s, the Seattle-based storage and moving company. At the time of its completion, the building was recognized as the tallest (commercial) structure in the British Empire – a distinction that previously belonged to the nearby Dominion Building. In 1937, the Vancouver Sun took over the building, renamed it, installed a massive red neon sign across the top, and continued operations until 1965 when it relocated to 2250 Granville Street.
Unlike the exterior of the tower – which still features Charles Marega’s controversial “nine maidens” perched at the 8th floor, bare breasts and all – the interior has changed much over the years. In 2011 it was redeveloped by Allied Properties as creative spaces, though several historic features are still on display on the top floors, including tile work, marble staircases, single-paned fenestration, radiators, and beautiful door handles. Inside and out, there’s no other building like it. Take a look…
by Stevie Wilson | Known as Vancouver’s first suburb, Mount Pleasant features an abundance of heritage homes and historic buildings, many of which have been renovated and repurposed to showcase their original charms. A perfect example is the Depencier House at 151 East 8th Avenue, the current home of Eight ½ Restaurant Lounge and Hairkraft Studio. The structure, built in the classic Edwardian style, is recognized as the oldest currently occupied single-family home outside of the downtown core, and has become a staple Mount Pleasant landmark since its construction circa 1894, 1887, or 1889 (depending who you ask).
The house was originally located around the block facing Main Street and is rumoured to have been a brothel (naturally). A few years into its life it was transported to its current location on Eighth Avenue, presumably to make way for its new neighbour, the Royal Bank. Sometime around 1912 it was converted to include an additional storey for businesses on the ground floor. Over the years, in addition to being a residential property, it has featured an array of different awnings and company signage, including those for a haberdasher and a shoe repair company.
In 1938, Campbell Munro opened production for Bains Candies and Fine Chocolate at the site, and continued to tempt locals with its large window display of hand-dipped chocolates until 2004. Following Bains’ departure, the Cook Family bought the home and fixed up the building before Wink Vegetarian Cafe opened downstairs. Later, the quintessential Mount Pleasant cafe, Soma Coffee, moved in for a brief period before Eight ½ took it over in 2009.
The exterior of the house has seen many slight renovations over the years, including the construction of a small ground-level patio, a few window replacements, and a rainbow of paint colours, but its character has remained largely intact. Among its many typical Edwardian features, the building showcases a gabled rooftop and two small front porches that have been closed in with glass tile. Inside the cozy interior of Eight ½, the original fir ceiling beams are on display in addition to the original single-pane fenestrations. It’s a unique spot to grab a bite, a beer, and a little Vancouver history all in one go, so be sure to pop in the next time you’re on the lookout for a true local experience.
Special thanks to Mike Wiebe at Eight ½ Restaurant Lounge.
by Stevie Wilson | The old, neoclassical-style building at western edge of Gastown and the northern end of Seymour Street – now known as Waterfront Station – is one of Vancouver’s many standing examples of civic evolution. Similar to the current structure of the Hotel Vancouver, the Granville Street Bridge, and various other sites across the city, this building has gone through several changes in its 100 years. Though it now operates as a transit hub for the SkyTrain, Seabus, and West Coast Express, it was once a different kind of station altogether: the terminus of the CPR Railway’s transcontinental line. It is the third incarnation in a series of historic sites whose predecessors were ultimately destroyed in favour of new design, new tastes, and the accommodation of civic development.
The first CPR station was constructed nearby at the foot of Howe St. in 1886, but it was not much more than a single-level shed. The second station, designed by Edward Maxwell, opened in 1898 adjacent to the current site, where the Granville Plaza now stands. It featured beautiful chateau-style brick architecture with a large, arched stone entranceway, two imposing tower facades, pitched roofs, and spires similar (though on a much smaller scale) to the current Hotel Vancouver, which was also built by the CPR. The chateau-style design is found throughout many of their other (former) properties, including the historic rail station in New Westminster (now a Keg restaurant) and the Château Frontenac in Quebec City.
The stations third design was constructed between 1912-1914 and reflected the success of CPR’s trade route expansions. The exterior features a colonnade façade typical of the time, with a large interior reminiscent of Beaux-Arts design. Look closely in the photos below and you’ll notice the CPR banner atop the south-facing main entrance. Inside, Canadian landscape murals high across the walls act as a subtle nod to the cross-country route of the pioneering CPR line.
Originally, the interior featured a lunch counter and kitchen, dance hall, and lodging for travellers, in addition to amenities for staff. Outside, the bronze Angel of Victory statue by Coeur de Lion stands as a memorial to CPR employees lost during WWI. It’s worth noting that the locations of the three stations had an impact on the development of the city; their location far west of the Granville Townsite became a new focus for economic growth, which in turn contributed to the area’s evolution into the “downtown” that we recognize today.
By the late 1970s the station had begun its transformation into a modern transit hub. Commuter rail travel was eventually taken over by Via Rail in the 1978, and service shifted to Pacific Central Station off Terminal Avenue. A year after the opening of the Seabus terminal in 1977, the lobby at Waterfront Station was renovated by Hawthorn Mansfield Towers Architects to include shops, restaurants, and offices. The construction of the Expo Line in 1985 required the removal of several CPR tracks. However, the West Coast express, which opened in 1995, operates on original rail lines. Take a look around next time you’re waiting for the SkyTrain, and enjoy a glimpse into one of Vancouver’s busiest landmarks. Like any good historic building, it’s rumoured to have plenty of ghosts, too, so be sure to keep an eye out.
by Stevie Wilson | Known for its scenic views, photo-op fountain, and its few graceful swans, Lost Lagoon is one of Vancouver’s most recognizable landmarks. Situated at the southern entrance to Stanley Park, it’s a welcoming start or finish (depending which route you fancy) to a walk along the seawall, and a unique link between the busting downtown core and the adjacent 1000-acre park.
The lagoon holds the title of being the largest body of water in Stanley Park, but it wasn’t always this way. In fact, the lagoon is actually a lake – it was landlocked in 1916 by the construction of the Stanley Park Causeway. Previously, this stretch of water was used as a food-sourcing site for First Nations – Musqueam, Squamish, and Burrard peoples were the first settlers in this area – back when it was known as Ch’ekxwa’7lech, meaning “dry at times”. The area was then a tidal mud flat connected to the Burrard Inlet via Coal Harbour, and was rich with clams and other sea critters ready for harvesting.
When the causeway was first proposed various groups lobbied in support and in protest. Many wealthier Vancouverites, beholden to the cause of civic beautification, were opposed to any destruction of the park on purely aesthetic grounds. Conversely, groups such as the blue-collar Trades and Labour Council were eager to see developments on the site for public and recreational use, and even supported filling in the lake to create a sports field.
In 1922, the area was officially named Lost Lagoon, and in 1929 was converted into a freshwater site with funds raised by a fly-fishing organization. The small area originally earned its name from Canadian writer Pauline Johnson, who recalled:
“This was just to please my own fancy, for, as that perfect summer month drifted on, the ever-restless tides left the harbour devoid of water at my favorite canoeing hour, and my pet idling place was lost for many days – hence my fancy to call it the Lost Lagoon.”
In addition to receiving water from a municipal stream, the lake feeds off a nearby creek and is home to a diverse group of birds and small animals. The famous Mute Swans are not indigenous; their wings have been pinioned to avoid migration to elsewhere in the province. The first swans are said to have been a gift from England circa 1890. By 1950, over 75 birds were gliding across the lagoon and neighbouring Beaver Lake.
The Jubilee Fountain, installed in 1936 to coincide with the city’s 100th anniversary, was purchased from the 1934 World Fair in Chicago [correction: see comments]. The installation proposal was fraught with public outcry, particularly due to its $33,000 price tag in the midst of the Great Depression. However, the infamous Mayor McGeer would not be swayed, and the lake was drained temporarily to erect the landmark.
The lagoon is currently plagued by a number of ecological issues, including pollution and invasive non-local species, which the Stanley Park Ecological Society and Vancouver Parks Board look to remedy in the coming years. Care for local and migratory birds, beavers, and trees are of prime concern. Their protection is a large and complicated task considering how this is one the largest urban parks in North America.
So go for a stroll hereabouts the next time you’re on the lookout for an idling place of your own. Though the lagoon is no longer lost, it’s a neat spot for lovers of local lore.
by Stevie Wilson | Like most cosmopolitan cities around the world, Vancouver is known for its distinct neighbourhoods, each with their own character, landscape, and history. But what happens when an entire neighbourhood is razed to the ground and its community is displaced? The historic Hogan’s Alley in Strathcona is a unique example of how a neighbourhood can come to define the history of a group of people, and the intricacies of cultural identity within urban spaces.
The name “Hogan’s Alley” is often explained as being the colloquial term for Park Lane, an alley that spanned from Main Street to Jackson Avenue between Union Street and Prior Street, and the surrounding area. The lane, which ran parallel to Main Street, did originally border the sides, backs, and gardens of homes, but to consider the whole neighbourhood as simply an “alley” would be a disservice to the businesses, residences, and cultural centres that developed around it.
Hogan’s Alley was not marked on the city map in any particular fashion, and its precise boundaries are not entirely clear. City archivist J.S. Matthews noted on a photo from 1891 that the lane adjacent to the home at 209 Harris Street (now East Georgia) was known as Hogan’s Alley; from where exactly he learned the nickname is unknown.
While the definitive nomenclature is still up for debate, what is clear it that multiple generations of families and workers, predominantly of African-Canadian descent, called this area home for decades. Ultimately, many of these families were displaced when the City demolished a number of homes and businesses in Hogan’s Alley to build the second version of the Georgia Viaduct.
The black community which came to define Hogan’s Alley came to the area shortly after the turn of the century. Many individuals had come from Vancouver Island, likely in search of work in local resource industries, and this section of Strathcona (then known simply as the East End) quickly developed into a mecca for those of African-American and African-Canadian heritage. Many had also migrated to Vancouver from California and Louisiana. At this time, Vancouver was seen as having limitless economic potential.
Prior to his political defeat in 1934, Mayor L.D. Taylor had a unique and often controversial perspective of how Vancouver should mitigate the growing crime rates in the city. In particular, his “open town policy” on vice crimes such as prostitution, gambling, and illegal drinking meant that areas such as Hogan’s Alley were ripe for these types of “victimless” crimes to continue unchecked. Moreover, his ties to corruption in the police department further frustrated those who recognized the fragile state of the city’s lower-income neighbourhoods. Given Hogan’s Alley’s proximity to transportation centres and the commercial hub of Hastings Street (the very same reasons residents were drawn to the area in the first place), it attracted a wide variety of legal and illegal activities for locals and visitors in the 1920s and early 1930s.
Park Lane itself was only 8 feet wide and spanned only a couple of blocks, but the area was filled with a variety of after-hours entertainments, including bootlegger establishments, cheap eateries, and popular brothels. These businesses, popular with loggers, sailors, and other resource industry workers, included Buddy’s on Union for booze, the Scat Inn on Park Lane for music and food, and even a back-alley wine merchant called Lungo. All this – including stories of a blind prostitute known as the “Queen of Hogan’s Alley” – led to a rough-and-tumble reputation that scared many folks off and intrigued even more.
While Hogan’s Alley was a predominantly black community (Vancouver’s first), there were other cultures and ethnicities prevalent in the area as well. Several Jewish families and business were well established and an Italian consular office was located in the Bingarra Block at Union and Main. Some of the houses on the 200-block of Union Street, which became vacant during World War I, later became home to Chinese families.
It is important to note, however, that this area was once a comfortable community for Vancouver’s black population. Indeed, while other ethnically defined areas are historically common in Vancouver (Little Italy, Chinatown, Japantown, etc), this was the first – and only – example of a cultural enclave for African-Canadians. It is also the site of Vancouver’s first black church, the African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel (823 Jackson Avenue), which was purchased by the community in 1918.
During its heyday in the 1930s and 40s, Hogan’s Alley featured a number of black-owned businesses that added a distinct southern flavour to the neighbourhood. One of these black-owned businesses was Emma Alexander’s Mother’s Tamale and Chili Parlour at 250 Union Street. Emma’s niece, Viva Moore, later opened the famous Vie’s Chicken and Steak House at 209 Main Street, which operated from 1948 until 1976. Run by Viva and her husband Rob, the restaurant was a popular spot for locals and even a few famous faces, including Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. Sadly, the unique culture and popularity of businesses like these, and the fact that a growing community was thriving in the area, wasn’t enough to protect the neighbourhood from “progress”. Eventually, Hogan’s Alley’s reputation as a red light district gave Mayor Tom Campbell’s government the justification to approve the $11.2 million Georgia Viaduct Replacement project.
Since its destruction in the early 1970s, the surrounding area has evolved from a primarily residential neighbourhood into a growing commercial sector, with a number of shops, cafes, and restaurants along Union Street catering to a new generation of Vancouverites. Modern civic and cultural organizations, such as the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project, help memorialize and educate people on the experiences of black individuals in Vancouver, as well as the history of Hogan’s Alley.
The Jimi Hendrix Shrine at the corner of Main and Union (adjacent to the former site of Vie’s Chicken and Steak House) pays homage to the musician and his grandmother, Nora Hendrix, who migrated to Vancouver from Tennessee in 1911 and worked at Vie’s restaurant. Nora’s home at 827 East Georgia still stands today, where she raised three children with her husband Ross. In 2013, the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s Places That Matter program installed a plaque near the Hogan’s Alley Cafe in conjunction with Black History Month. While most tangible remnants of this historic neighbourhood are long gone, the legacy of its community and its place in the story of Vancouver is, thankfully, still remembered and celebrated.
by Stevie Wilson | When it comes to adaptive re-use in historic architecture, it just doesn’t get much better than The City Square Shopping Centre at Cambie & 12th across from City Hall. Designed in 1989 by Paul Merrick Architects, it’s truly a unique blend of history and modern design, with two of its core structures designated as separate municipal heritage sites.
On the western side sits the former Model School, a Romanesque Revival Style building established in 1905 as an elementary training school for teachers. In addition to its large original fenestration and institutional-style sandstone design (the work of famed Vancouver architect E. E. Blackmore), its ornate arched entrances on its north side are still visible and accessible.
To the east of the mall is the 1909 Normal School, a Gothic-style building designed by Pearce & Hope Architects that also served as a training centre for Vancouver teachers. The two sections feature stained glass windows and (renovated) slate roofs to complement the original architecture.
The Model School continued to operate as an elementary school before it was closed briefly in 1963; it reopened the following year as an annex of the King Edward Continuing Education Centre. Over a decade later in 1979, after a few years of being boarded up, the Heritage Advisory Committee recommended the site for heritage designation. In 1986, both were designated as municipal heritage sites.
The newer section of the mall is a classic example of 1980’s postmodern architecture, with an interesting use of glass creating a courtyard-style promenade and showcasing the copper cupola perched atop the roof. In 2005, several of the original stained glass windows were unveiled to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Model School. The following year, the City awarded the mall a Heritage Award of Recognition.
So take a closer look next time you’re picking up a few groceries or dollar store gems. You’ll be amazed at what you find!
by Stevie Wilson | It’s no secret that Vancouverites love the beach, and despite our city’s proclivity for short-and-sweet summers, English Bay proves to be a popular spot even in the shoulder seasons, year after year. Since its establishment as a public recreational area in 1893, the beach has been a prime spot for locals and visitors alike. It’s known by many as First Beach, but the original First Nations inhabitants referred to it as “Ayyulshun” (soft under feet), and its official name commemorates the meeting of George Vancouver and captains Valdes and Galiano from Spain.
But more important than all that…what’s the story with those amazing art deco bathrooms?
When sand was added to the English Bay beach in 1898 it quickly became a magnet for rest, relaxation, and the occasional swim for locals. A bathhouse seemed a charming – and practical – addition to the landscape. However, like many landmarks in Vancouver (including the Georgia Street Viaduct, the Granville Street Bridge, and the Lumberman’s Arch in Stanley Park, to name a few), the bathhouse we see today is not the original design. The first Bathing Pavilion, completed in 1906, was built by the Parks Board at a cost of $6,000, and could boast the title of the city’s first bathhouse.
Other beachside attractions in the early 1900s included a long wooden pier, cottages, and a glassed-in dancehall known as “The Prom”. The beach was also the home of the celebrated Joe Fortes, Vancouver’s first official lifeguard who is credited with saving at least 29 lives while on (volunteer) duty at English Bay.
The original frame bathhouse was a large brick and wooden structure, 3-storeys high, with long open verandas stretching out on either side. While it offered impressive views of the water (and a private place to change), its 1931 successor saw a stylish new design in keeping with the sensibilities of the times. Earlier, in 1909, it was determined that additional facilities were needed at the beach, and a new building designed by E.E. Blackmore of Pantages Theatre and Jackson Apartments fame popped up on the northern side of the original bathhouse. This Bathing Pavilion closed in 1939 and the building became home to Vancouver’s first public aquarium until its closure in 1955. The attraction’s biggest draw? Oscar the Octopus. Word has it he had eight arms. Eight arms!
By 1913, beach-goers could rent lockers, towels, and even woolen bathing suits to enjoy their stay with. Circa 1938, a short 7 years after the new concrete art deco bathhouse was constructed, the wooden pier and The Prom were both torn down. Fortes, who had already seen so much come and go, passed away in 1922.
The current bathhouse has undergone significant renovations over the years, including several updates in 1986 and a complete interior restoration in 2002 that won the Parks Board an Award of Recognition from the City. In 2012, a beachfront Cactus Club location was opened adjacent to the historic site, proving that if there’s one thing this beach is used to (other than laughter, bare feet, waves, and cops pouring out perfectly good liquor), it’s change.
by Stevie Wilson | With the ink of my recent Ghost Hoods feature on Brewery Creek not yet dry, I took a look inside Mount Pleasant’s Western Front building at 303 East 8th Avenue to learn a little more about the history (as well as the current goings-on) of this neighbourhood landmark. After over 40 years as an artist-run centre and exhibition space, the building is full of distinct history and remains the oldest existing centre of its kind in the country. What’s more, it was once home to the Vancouver chapter of the Knights of Pythias, and they even have a few old ceremonial capes and spears to prove it.
One of the (many) unique features of Western Front is how the building’s original design has been preserved to accommodate and complement the needs of the staff and various exhibitions. Their Development Officer, Kristin Lim, explained how the address has transitioned quite seamlessly from a Pythian headquarters to an internationally renowned artist centre by simply utilizing the space’s existing structure. The various small rooms and cozy layout emphasize the centre’s differences from typical gallery sites.
The building was originally constructed in 1922 as a lodge for the Pythians to conduct, well, whatever it was that they did – secret meetings and such. When they sold the property in the early 1970s, they left behind various paraphernalia including their signature capes, a trophy, club signage, and a portrait of their fraternal leader. During my tour we ran into celebrated Canadian artist and co-founder of Western Front, Eric Metcalfe (formerly known as Dr. Brute, who regaled me with more amazing history and anecdotes than I could possibly fit into a short article. He mentioned that when the space was founded by himself and eight other artists in 1973, the place wasn’t in the most pristine condition, which happened to be ideal for this group of young people engaged in the contemporary Fluxus movement. Of the creativity and freedom of the early years, he observed simply, “It was a party time.”
Over the last several decades the space evolved into the professional, prestigious centre it is today, yet the building has undergone only a handful of minor repairs and changes, the most significant of which was the 2013 renovation of the Luxe Hall to uncover previously sealed windows. The original architecture remains, including the large windows, wooden wainscoting, traditional doorways (complete with Pythian peep-holes), a vintage telephone booth, and the awesome original fixed side seating in the performance hall. “One thing replaced the other,” said Metcalfe of the transition from lodge to artist haven. “The architecture informed our practice.”
For more information on this fantastic piece of Vancouver art history, visit their website, or better yet, pay them a visit! The space is open to the public – just buzz! – and offers plenty of (generally) free events and exhibits involving new music, contemporary art, media, and so much more. Who knows, you just might run into a legendary Canadian artist with a few stories to tell!
Archival photos courtesy of the Western Front Archives
The GHOST HOOD series dovetails with the new HOODS section of Scout
by Stevie Wilson | Railtown-Japantown is a compounded micro-hood that is part of DTES. Its boundaries are Main (some say Columbia) in the west to Heatley in the east and from the railway tracks (hence the name) south to Alexander Street. What was once a thriving industrial zone of warehouses and workshops has become something of a tech/design hub over the last decade. Railway St. itself is now a parade of local fashion houses (Aritzia has its head office here), design shops, tech start ups, interior stores, and even an urban winery. You’ll often find a food truck or three parked hereabouts, too, and a whole lot of Instagramming going down. What does the future hold for it? Either breweries and condos. Probably both.
Vancouver’s historic Japantown, however, is vastly different. Once home to generations of Japanese families and businesses, the area now features only a few remnants of the large community that once thrived there. The history of this cultural enclave is unique, and offers a startling look at the effects of racism, intolerance, and indifference in a city now celebrated for its multiculturalism.
Though the modern diaspora of Japanese-Canadians is now found throughout Vancouver, at one time this neighbourhood was the epicentre of local Japanese culture and business. The site spans from Cordova Street to Alexander Street, between Gore Avenue and Jackson Avenue, just north of Chinatown, with Powell Street as its (former) commercial center. It features several character buildings, primary historic sites, and a handful of municipally protected buildings, each indicative of the neighbourhood’s development – and its subsequent losses – experienced over the last century.
While Japanese (and Chinese) workers had been present in British Columbia as early as the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in 1858, the first “official” Japanese immigrant to Canada arrived in 1877. Following this, an influx of Japanese immigrants came to Vancouver near the turn of the century to work in the booming fishing and forestry industries. While they were a welcomed labour force for local industries in the city, particularly the nearby Hastings Sawmill at the foot of Dunlevy, many white Vancouverites were wary of what they perceived as a failure of the Japanese to assimilate, observing that they had their own cultural and religious spaces, generally did not speak fluent English, and had a perceived (potentially dangerous) loyalty to Japan. Additionally, many non-Japanese fishermen were concerned about the growing majority of Japanese fishing licenses being granted, fearing that their jobs were at stake. The federal government aggressively limited Asian immigration and originally only men were allowed to enter the country, forcing them to leave their families behind.
While many white Vancouverites tolerated the Japanese community, prejudice found a strong foothold in the Asiatic Exclusion League, a racist organization with aims “to keep Oriental immigrants out of British Columbia.” Following the 1885 imposition of the Chinese Immigration Act, which placed a head tax on Chinese immigrants entering Canada, racism and racial segregation had been a common sight across the country and extended the growing Japanese communities. This tension culminated in Vancouver on September 7th when members of the Asiatic Exclusion League rioted in the streets of Chinatown after being roused by racist speeches at City Hall (then located near Main and Hasting).
They marched into Chinatown shouting racist slogans, smashing windows, and vandalizing buildings. By the time the rioters reached Japantown, members of the Japanese community were waiting with makeshift weapons and bottles, ready to defend their neighbourhood. In response to the growing anti-Asian sentiment in Canada, the Canadian Minister of Labour Rodolphe Lemieux and Japanese Foreign Minister Tadasu Hayashi declared what is known as the “Gentleman’s Agreement” in 1908, wherein the Japanese government voluntarily limited its approved number of immigrants to Canada each year.
As white settlers migrated out of the area and into newer, more affluent communities – particularly the West End – Japanese business, cultural centres, and mixed-use buildings developed in the Powell Street area. Shops along Powell began opening in 1890, but the retail industry of took shape later, during the commercial building boom from 1907-1912. Multiple residential buildings, often with street-level shops, became popular in later decades as the boarding room trend developed. These apartments typically housed seasonal workers; many now function as SROs.
Business development in Japantown – which locals called “Nihonmachi” (derived from the Japanese words for “Japan” and “Town”) – culminated in the 1920s and 30s, when local shops and restaurants flourished, and ties to nearby Chinatown also became strong. A shared sense of Asian identity – and likely a shared sense of the effects of racism – joined these communities. Fuji Chop Suey at 341 Powell, which offered Japanese-style Chinese food, is a unique example of the link between Asian cultures during this period, and is heralded as one of the important locales contributing to the area’s rich multiculturalism from 1931-1942. Japantown’s famous Asahi baseball team, established in 1914, won several championships and were a popular draw during the 1930s and early 1940s for the Japanese and non-Japanese communities in Vancouver. In 2003, the team was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
Ultimately, Japantown and Vancouver’s Japanese population fell victim to the xenophobia brought forth by World War II. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, a series of legislations were imposed on Japanese-Canadians under the guise of national security. In addition to curfews, interrogations, job loss and property confiscation, all persons of Japanese heritage were forcibly relocated to Internment Camps in remote areas of the province. Their property and belongings were sold, and all mainstream Japanese newspapers and publications were shut down. In 1944, Prime Minister Mackenzie King declared that all Japanese-Canadians were required to relocate to eastern Canada or face repatriation. By the end of the 1940s, however, many individuals had been granted re-entry to the west coast and, finally, the right to vote. The variety of Japanese shops, restaurants, and vibrant community culture in Japantown never fully recovered from these events, and until the resurgence of Japanese cuisine in the 1980s only two ethnic restaurants remained on Powell.
Today, Japantown still retains a few visible reminders of its past, but has yet to be designated as a Historic Site by the City of Vancouver. This means that many of its remaining historic buildings are at risk. In 2013, the 122 year-old Ming Sun building at 439 Powell was threatened when city officials deemed it structurally unsound. Without proper heritage designation, it was up to the local community to save the site and propose restoration, rather than demolition. As a reminder of the rich history of the area and the continued legacy of the Japanese community in Vancouver, the Powell Street Festival at Oppenheimer Park is the largest annual Japanese-Canadian festival in Canada, and the city’s longest-running community celebration since its inception in 1977.
The GHOST HOOD series dovetails with the new HOODS section of Scout (launching on Monday)
by Stevie Wilson | In conversations about Mount Pleasant these days, the old “Brewery Creek” moniker is being increasingly employed on account of all the new breweries that have arrived in recent years. But what exactly is the significance of the name? It’s important to note that although it’s generally thought of as synonymous with the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, the “Brewery Creek” distinction refers to a particular stretch of waterway that was integral to the growth and economic development of the area. Long before white settlers arrived, this expansive region was a popular harvesting location for First Nations. It would later become an important economic sector for new businesses thanks to its flowing natural resource.
The patch of land that became known as Mount Pleasant was originally shrouded in dense, dark rainforest. The creek that drained this forest into the salty waters of False Creek sat at the bottom of a large ravine that was open to the sky. It offered an abundance of flowers, berries, and other plants used by First Nations for medicine and food. The (now lost) waterway began near where Mountain View Cemetery is located today. Water flowed downhill just west of modern-day Fraser Street to a marshy, dammed area near 14th Avenue (Tea Swamp Park). From here, the creek flowed down the Mount Pleasant hillside, following a northeastern path alongside a First Nations trail (near where Kingsway cuts across Main Street), and continuing into the eastern waters of False Creek (which have since been filled in) near Terminal Avenue.
In 1867, the creek area in Mount Pleasant became Vancouver’s first piped waterway, delivering water by flume to Gastown – then the center of the city – and the boilers at Captain Edward Stamp’s Mill near the foot of Dunlevy (later known as the Hastings Sawmill).
The Brewery Creek region was defined by its open landscape, its distinct flora and fauna, and the numerous businesses that followed the path of the waterway – including several slaughterhouses, the nearby Vancouver Tannery, and an assortment of local beverage-makers that used the creek to power their water wheels: the San Francisco Brewery (later known as the Red Star Brewery), Mainland Brewery, Landsdowne Brewery, Lion Brewery, and the Thorpe & Co. Soda Water Works. Read more
by Stevie Wilson | As one of Vancouver’s most unique neighbourhoods, Strathcona has plenty more to offer than just a grouping of heritage homes. The “East End”, as the area was originally called, was one the first residential settlements in the city and, unlike many other communities, it never developed its own commercial sector, preferring instead of rely on a handful of locally-owned convenience and bodega-type stores.
A great example of Strathcona’s continued romance with small markets is the street-level corner of the Jackson Apartments at 501 East Georgia. Built in 1910, the Italianate-style apartment building was designed by E.E. Blackmore, the same man behind the storied Pantages Theatre on East Hastings.
Georgia Street, which was then known as Harris Street, had been poised to be a direct streetcar route to downtown via the original Georgia Viaduct, but when those plans fell through (because the viaduct couldn’t support trams), the neighbourhood still had the BC Electric line, which not only guaranteed its popularity as a residential spot but also gave it enough commercial viability to attract some trade.
The first recorded main-floor business at the Jackson Apartments was the Costalas Costa Grocery in 1911. It began the address’ unbroken “market” tradition that continues to this day (though Finch’s Market specializes in coffees and sandwiches, it also functions as a neighbourhood grocery, selling everything from apples and dairy products to preserves and pasta).
It was here on this corner in 1917 that police chief Malcolm MacLennan famously met his end. He and an 8 year old bystander were shot and killed by a local man named Bob Tait in a shootout with the VPD. There is a mosaic memorial to the fallen chief set into the sidewalk just outside the front door.
In the 1970s, when the streetcar rails were removed, it was known to the community as Fung’s Grocery. More recently, locals will recall it as the infamous U-Go-2-Store, which featured a variety of smokes, pops, Mr. Noodles, No Name bags ‘o chips, and a few candies that cost just a nickel apiece.
Today, the address operates as Finch’s Market, whose owners, Jamie Smith and Sheryl Matthews, gutted the space and built from the ground up to reveal and maintain much of the space’s historic charms, including the original brick walls, large fenestration, radiator, and corner entrance to match the oriel windows (see above). Scout Editor Andrew Morrison lives close by and took plenty of pictures during the construction process, so be sure to also take a close look at the gallery below. You can really see just how big of a transformation it was. Oh, and pop inside sometime for a quiet lunchtime retreat (they do some seriously great sandwiches) with a little local history on the side.
Stevie Wilson is a historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she branched out with a cryptic agenda: to encourage the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with Scout columns that aim to reveal to readers the many fascinating things that they might walk past every day without noticing.
by Stevie Wilson | Just over two years ago in 2012, the Lee Building celebrated its centennial to much fanfare and fond recollection as one of Mount Pleasant’s most iconic landmarks. One hundred (and two) years on, it operates nearly just the same as ever, with an assortment of small businesses and residents occupying the 7-story building heralded as the first skyscraper in the city. Designed by English architect Arthur Julius Bird, the building features a prototypical brick and stone masonry design, a look that was fairly new on the West Coast when it was completed 1912. Bird is also remembered as a pioneering force in city zoning and planning, with a particular focus on residential construction on sloped areas – a convenient match for Mount Pleasant’s hilly landscape.
The Lee, which sits on land that once was home to a large church, is named for Herbert O. Lee, a local businessman who originally opened H.O. Lee Grocery at 2425 Main Street (now home to F As In Frank. In addition to being president of the Westminster Lacrosse Club, Lee was well known as a successful, politically-minded man with plenty to offer the growing Mount Pleasant community.
Inside, the 7-storey building still retains many of the historic features, including an original elevator (now out-of-service) complete with antique chandelier and copper walls, mahogany railings on the stairway, and elegant marble walls and flooring on the main level. It’s a happy wonder that over the last century – including a period of dilapidation in the 1960s and ‘70s – that much of the original façade and interior remain intact.
Even the sidewalk outside The Lee boasts a story: in 1952, coinciding with the widening of Broadway as a major thoroughfare, the arcade-style sidewalk was constructed offering a unique covered passage for local shoppers and residents. This meant the removal of the front section of shops (rather than tearing down the entire building) and maintaining the original pillars for support. The building still towers as one of the few (for now) visible high-rises at the Main and Broadway intersection, so enjoy a look inside and out next time you find yourself in the ‘hood.
Stevie Wilson is a historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she branched out with a cryptic agenda: to encourage the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with Scout columns that aim to reveal to readers the many fascinating things that they might walk past every day without ever noticing.