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Hacktreks 2

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Vancouver Dateline June 2002
A Walk along False Creek
Sam North
Nice neighbourhoods are consumed quite rapidly. But it's no use getting nostalgic
for a place that never really existed.

Photo: False Creek Towers from Fairview -SN 2003
You go away from Vancouver for a while and come back to find they basically grew another city over Yaletown. Somewhere down there under the skyscrapers is a charming place with nice lofts and some cute shops and restaurants. That’s the problem with cute, people like it so much around here they just want to eat it. Nice neighbourhoods are consumed quite rapidly. But it's no use getting nostalgic for a place that never really existed.

I happened to have a latte in the Roundhouse Community Centre (where once the trains were turned around); on the wall was a clear aerial shot of Yaletown and Vancouver as it was in the fifties and what it wasn’t was cute. Yaletown and False Creek was basically your average railway wasteland bordering some fairly nondescript brick buildings and a lot of scruffy wooden ones. From the air, the whole city looked squat and unambitous. (Curiously I am reminded of Tampere in Finland which was a logging and textile town a hundred years before Nokia made it rich.)

False Creek was where they built the factories that attracted the immigrants from all over the world. It was also a huge Candaian Pacific Railroad marshalling yard. No one post-1920 ever thought it remotely attractive or worth putting a scenic walk around it. Yet back at the turn of the last century False Creek was once considered so pretty they built and sold lots overlooking it and called it Fairview. Years of neglect and industrial indifference meant it became polluted and something of an eyesore. They even considered filling it in at one time or worse deeping it with a 'small ' atomic device. I'm sure that would have put Vancouver on the map. Luckily common sense prevailed.

The railroad tracks were lifted in 1986 to make way for Expo '86 and it was this five month long event that attracted people from all over the world and it came to shape Vancouver's new future. After the very successful Expo ended they sold the land to a Hong Kong consortium and ever since then they have been building the largest private residential project in the world. False Creek is now transformed and Fairview would be one way to describe it.

It’s always tempting to think that in obliterating the past we destroy all that was good and beautiful, but aside from shock, anyone who came back to visit from Vancouver’s past would find a city that is actually a lot more attractive than it used to be. Of course this is heresy (I hear a lynch mob forming a line outside) and a lot of people will point at the rich old wooden homes across Granville Bridge and mutter something about grandeur in Shaughnessy Heights. (First developed by CPR in 1909.) Yes the rich did build themselves grand homes, but everyone else had to make do with pretty unspectacular homes. You can still marvel at how small some of these wooden homes actually were. When you travel by Skytrain toward New Westminster in the suburbs and see the few survivor dwellings looking lost in their big lots, you wonder at how people raised families of ten or more without the benefit of a monster home and wash & go shampoo. OK some of the good old stone and brick city buildings such as the Sun Tower and the art-deco Marine Building (1929) (once the tallest buildings in the Empire) have been preserved, and Gastown with it's (old) brick buildings and restaurants attracts vistitors from all over, but much has been left to languish and is being eaten up by the worm virus of poverty that grows along Hastings.

In building up Yaletown (invisibly insulated from the great unwashed that gather close to Tinseltown movie theatre and Chinatown), they have created something new and pretty damn ambitious. It’s a little bit high-rise for my liking but at least it connects with the water and there’s a gesture of parkland there. Concord Pacific are building a mini city of their own. Contrast that with the people who used to run the city and you’ll find little time or consideration was given to leisure or walking or making the harbours attractive. They did preserve Stanley Park of course and that alone makes the city father visionaries, as it is certainly one of the most attractive ‘city’ parks in the world.

Essentially though, in the past these were hard working cities on the West Coast. Seattle and Vancouver only belatedly rediscovered their ‘past’ sometime in the sixties and placed a value on it. After all, Vancouver burned down to the ground in the last century (1886) so it must have been a bit discouraging. San Francisco of course was blessed with people who thought about posterity all the time. When they had quakes and fires, they just grew more determined to make it last.

Nevertheless Vancouver has always been a place for opportunity. It is worth recording that there were just 50 real estate agents in the city in 1900 and 650 by 1910. According to a neat little book Vancouver - A history in Photographs (authors Vogel & Wyse) Vancouver has been the scene of many real estate booms - often promoted by the CPR looking to pull investors in to use their railroads and events such as the Yukon Gold Rush in 1897. The Population grew from 10,000 souls in 1890 to 100,000 in 1910. (Which by my calculations gave them one realtor per 153 people!)

Vancouver present day is a changed city, the population mix is changing, the cultural diversity has been transformed and the immigrants probably outnumber the native born, certainly in the city itself. I hestitate to guess how many real estate agents there are now, but I expect the ratio hasnšt changed one jot. This is still a city where you get rich flipping lots and property. The sophistication of Urbanfare off Pacific Boulevard, a grocery store to equal Harrods Food Hall right in the middle of this new apartment building frenzy is an interesting new development and testimony to the new types of city dwellers living here. Every exotic food group is catered for and whatever you might think you miss from your old country; they’ll probably have it. Of course there’s a few hundred Starbucks and Blenz and whatevers, so there’s never more than one hundred feet between lattes, muffins and blueberry scones and lots of places to rest your feet. I do wonder what all these people do for a living who are out jogging or walking or drinking coffee all day… but they are probably thinking that about me. One nice curiosity was strolling past a 'boutique' car showroom selling just the new BMW made Mini Coopers. If ever there was a fashion icon in the making. They fit nicely between the high fashion and shops that sell 'children's furniture'.

This is Vancouver ‘now’. But it is a town to be savoured, especially now that the warm weather has arrived. From Kits Beach to Jericho the people look so fit and tanned. Hell rent a bike or blades, you can look good too.

If you are thinking of taking a city break and you have never been, Vancouver is a special place and a great jumping off point to visit mountains, forests or just taking the train south to points beyond Seattle. It’s also a good walking city with lots of places to eat and friendly people to talk to.

I remember the first time I arrived here in 1980 coming up all the way by train from LA. It was special then and is probably more so now. It is no use lamenting the growth and new urban sophistication of this city. This is a city with a future and when did you last visit one of those?
If you want to buy a place here in Concord Pacific or elsewhere in the city well here's a friendly real estate agent to help you.
Tony Towe email:
or phone 604 219-9191

© Sam North
June 2002

Extended feature on Vancouver here

A Walk Down Main Street

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