Monday, 7 November 2011

Vancouver from then to Now: A Reflection on the History of the Downtown Eastside

     Too often we walk past buildings in our own city that have histories we don’t know about. We walk past that gated-off plot of rubble and think nothing but, “What a mess,” forgetting that it used to be the landmark of the Pantages Theatre. We forget that when this theatre was built in 1907, the anti-Asiatic riots had just begun. We have no idea that one of the bricks from the construction of this historical building was used to break the first window, beginning a racial riot that lasted three days.  We see these buildings all the time, as we walk to our classes at Harbour Centre, as we grab a coffee from our local coffee shop, as we forget about the lush history that exists in our own city, but every now and then we are reminded of our past and how it plays an integral role in our present, and in our future.
     Last week I had the privilege of being guided around the more historical parts of the city by Vancouver-based writer Michael Barnholden. Our tour began at Victory Square off West Hastings Street, a hop and a skip from SFU’s Harbour Center.
“You see that corner over there?” he asks our group as he points over to the corner of Hamilton and Hastings. “That’s where our city began.”
Victory Square, that often-gloomy park with the Vancouver War memorial looming over the street corner, stands as the intersection of old Granville Town (now Gastown) and the CPR townsite. This corner stands as the very tip of the original CPR legacy, and is essentially the birthplace of Vancouver.
People roam around the park in the background as Barnholden tells us the story of the incorporation of Vancouver in 1886. These people are carrying bags of bottles and glancing furtively at us, curious as to why we are standing here in the dark, where people are more often found sleeping on benches. One man is wearing sunglasses — though the sun went down an hour ago — and is carrying a milk crate, and I can’t help but think that this corner is greatly representative of much of modern-day Vancouver. A war memorial stands tall, yet in its shadow people are sleeping in the cold.
     We saunter further up Hamilton Street and stop in front of a narrow, four-story building with the words “Unlimited Growth Increases the Divide” printed across the top of the first floor. The text was part of an art project, aimed at addressing the problems associated with the old being disregarded and replaced for the means of market value. The Del Mar Hotel, built around the turn of the century, stands defiant against those who control the free-market economy and neglect the interests of the community. The current owner, George Riste, has had numerous offers to buy the building, namely from B.C. Hydro, whose mammoth enterprise now stands directly behind the Del Mar. He has turned every single offer down, choosing rather to keep the building as a haven for low-income housing. Standing there, looking at the tiny building with the brace on its side, you can see B.C. Hydro directly behind it, heavily indicative of the new devouring the old.
Our walk continued down to the threshold of Chinatown and onto Abbott Street, which is actually built on fill; the water used to come up this far into the city. “If you’re looking to buy property, don’t buy it here. If we ever get hit by a big one this place is just going to float right out to sea.”
     We continue into Chinatown and our group clusters around the corner of Shanghai Alley and Pender Street, where, according to Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, the thinnest building in the world stands.
     The storefronts have been updated, but the date “1913” is still printed on the upper scaffolding of the building. Supposedly, the original owner, Chang Toy, was only allowed two metres of building space as an expansion of Pender Street. Toy met the challenge, and the building still stands at 8 West Pender Street. Articles proclaiming the building’s fame are plastered all over the windows of the tiny stores.
Supposedly, the original owner, Chang Toy, was only allowed two metres of building space as an expansion of Pender Street.
     As we walk back into the heart of Gastown, I am struck by the changes that our city has undergone since its conception.  Areas which once stood as flourishing public domains are now filled with ruin, with sad, bearded men mumbling to themselves, as if they have been quarantined here. An overwhelming feeling of melancholy rushes in.
     Barnholden leads us down Blood Alley, a block of dilapidated apartments which receive the most police calls out of anywhere else in the city. The alley gets its name from the butcher houses that used to line the street, resulting in blood running through the streets. Rumour has it that it also used to be the location for public executions, though this is likely a draw for tourists more than anything else. The lamp posts here are also rumoured to be equipped with vein light technology, making shooting up nearly impossible.
Directly across the alley from all of this though is Judas Goat Taberna, a Spanish-inspired tapas bar with hip art on the walls and a long wooden bar outside. You can sip your glass of merlot as you admire the historical low-income housing across the way (cue the irony). The juxtaposition here is a prime example of the gentrification in much of the eastside, and a striking example of the stark contrasts between the old and the new.
You can sip your glass of merlot as you admire the historical low-income housing across the way (cue the irony).
      Our tour ends at the old Woodward’s building. What used to be a flourishing department store in the early 20th century now holds SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts. Most of the original building has since been demolished, but the iconic ‘W’ atop the building still stands as a compass for those needing a reminder of where the heart of the city began.
     Greeting us above the Woodward’s atrium is a photo installation of the 1971 Gastown riot, when police in full riot gear broke up a peaceful ‘smoke-in’ protest. The 50-by-30 foot picture is an image of young hippies, struggling out of police officer’s arms, running through the streets with long hair and bell-bottoms alike. The peaceful protest, also known as the Battle of Maple Tree Square, represents the disunity of government officials with the public’s desire for space in the Downtown Eastside. This giant photograph seemed a poignant end to our tour, a reminder of the past, and a stirring manifestation of current conditions.

Originally published in The Peak, issue 9, volume 139 
Painting by David Wilson, via Ian Tan Gallery

No comments:

Post a Comment