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Vancouver Downtown

Vancouver Central Business District: Our Downtown and its History

There is a rare visitor to Greater Vancouver who hasn’t been to its downtown area. It’s really worth sightseeing, because our downtown is a unique blend of business area, residential districts, both old and new with high-rises, entertainments quarters, and of course famous boutiques. And all that became real in a little bit more than one hundred years.

A century ago a walk through Vancouver would have been quite a short excursion: In 1876 the town, then cal1ed Granville, stretched 2 blocks along the waterfront of Burrard Inlet, a motley collection of hotels, shops and shacks in a universe of skunk cabbage, stumps and gothic firs. The census of 1881 tabulated the work force of Granville: 2 shoemakers, 44 loggers, one policeman, 31 millworkers, 4 butchers, one school teacher, 2 ministers and one wine merchant. An additional hundred labourers performed various jobs from saddle-making to construction work. The census did not count wives, children, Chinese, Indians or prostitutes.

The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway changed things dramatically. The shenanigans involving the extension of the CPR tracks 12 miles beyond their expected terminus at Port Moody provide fascinating material for the political muckraker or investigation journalist. For the most part, Vancouver’s first dignitaries were real estate agents, men who knew that wherever the trans-continental train stopped, the value of adjacent land would skyrocket. The CPR officials knew this, too. So for several years they played a successful charade on land speculators, maintaining adamantly that the train would stop at Port Moody while secretly negotiating with W. M. Smithe, then premier of B.C., for a huge tract of land on the shore by Coal Harbour as “payment” for the extension of the railroad.

Much of this was unknown to the citizens of Granville, being backroom talk over cigars and sherry. Then in February 1886, District Lot 541, virtually the entice area covered by today’s central business district, was signed away to the CPR in a sort of Promethean lure to catch the biggest fish in the economic ocean, the railroad. But this was just part of the deal. All Granville land-owners had to agree to donate a third of their lands to the CPR, since the train would bring increased business to the town. The executives of the CPR must have laughed all the war to the bank. They had convinced the hungry real estate speculators in Vancouver and the government in Victoria that unless a substantial settlement could be made to extend the tracks to Coal Harbour, Port Moody would get the prize.

On April 6, 1886, the City of Vancouver was incorporated, and a month later the first municipal election was held. After the fire the same summer the city went on a 7-year building spree. First Water St. filled up and then parallel to it Cordova St., where the Hudson’s Bay opened shop in late 1886. The CPR, eager to take advantage of its enormous windfall, spent $200,OOO in 1886 to finance lot clearing and street paving along Hastings and Pender streets. The next year CPR work crews cut Granville St. through from Burrard Inlet to False Creek. But Granville did not catch on despite its location. For 15 years Cordova St. was the popular district downtown; Granville was lined with empty shops until after the torn of the century.

Vancouver earned the rubric Terminal City when in the space of a month in 1887 two significant arrivals took place. On May 23 the first passenger train garlanded with ftowers, chugged to the siding at the foot of Howe St. And only 3 weeks later the first passenger ship, the Abyssinia, arrived in port.

By the end of 1888 people could reflect proudly on the town’s advancement towards real cityhood: Vancouver had 36 miles of streets, 24 miles of wooden sidewalks, an electric, water and sewerage system, a second 4-room school, a number of factories, a 4-storey hotel, 2 newspapers, telephones and 8,000 people whose tastes, although frequently philistine, did include a madrigal and dramatic club.

With a clang of its bell the first streetcar rattled a rectangular route along Main, Cordova, Granville and Pender on June 28, 1890. The streetcar did to the internal development of Vancouver what the railroad had initiated 3 years before, for wherever tracks were laid, villages grew up: the West End, Grandview, and a little later Cedar Cottage, Mount Pleasant and Fairview. Vancouver was beginning to develop a downtown with a ritzy suburb on the CPR land in the West End and working-class suburbs to the south and east. Downtown was still an oddly disorganized place, lacking real cohesion.

Despite the dreams of executives, politicians, bankers and industrialists, Vancouver was not destined to be a manufacturing centre. It became instead a trading centre, a place for light industry, and a home office for wholesalers, insurance companies and banks. Heavy manufacturing failed to develop and the waterfront became crowded with canning companies, paint factories, makers of stoves and clothing, glassware and stationery.

Although Vancouver continued to grow during the last decade of the 19th century, the first wave of rapid expansion ground to a halt before a world-wide economic collapse that lasted from 1891-98. It took the finding of gold in the Klondike I to rejuvenate B.C.’s economy. The 7-year drought was followed by a l4-year boom, the single most important period in Vancouver’s history. In what is now the downtown area, the empty spaces between buildings were filled in. Automobiles appeared. An age of opulence had commenced and couples would stroll along tree-lined Granville St., finally accepted as the shopping district, on their way to the opera.

Gradually the centre of the city shifted. When the 14-storey Dominion Trust Building was completed (at that time making it the tallest structure in the British Empire) and subsequently the Vancouver World Building was constructed nearby, the first signs of a southwestward movement could be seen. In a sort of urban game of musical chairs, the small factories, once confined to the Eastern shoreline, spread farther into the Water and Cordova St. area. By the end of this epoch the Central Business District was solidly developed. Off the main thoroughfares, the streets were quiet and tree-lined, with hedge encircled homes and trellises in the back yards. And in one or two places the first apartment houses were being built, miniature predecessors of the behemoths to come.

The decade from about 1912-22 was one of recession, war, unionism and finally recovery as the full effects of the opening of the Panama Canal began to influence the growth of Vancouver as Canada’s western port. Towards the end of World War I, Vancouver earned a reputation as a tough union town in a series of bitterly fought strikes that culminated in Canada’s first general’ strike. When the Depression struck in 1929 it halted work on the half-completed Vancouver Hotel, which remained a steel skeleton, black ribs against the sky, reminding the city that castles, even those owned by the CNR, are not built in the air. The economic collapse brought an abrupt end to the construction boom downtown. Except for the addition of the B.C. Hydro Building in 1955, the skyline of the city remained virtually unchanged from the end of the 1920s to the niid-1960s.

It is an interesting and little known fact that during this time large parts of downtown real estate were owned by Americans who used their holdings as a tax-shelter. Then in 1961 the V.S. government altered the tax laws, forcing these foreign landlords to sell their property, thereby making it suddenly available to developers who would soon take advantage of the city’s last great building boom. The developmental hiatus downtown between 1930-1965, did not affect the lateral spread of the city. Once. World War II had ended, Vancouver grew outward In all directions. This centrifugal motion was accelerated in the 1950s by the construction of shopping malls, which drew considerable business away from the central city. By 1962, 15% of the stores on Hastings St. were vacant

Big business came to Vancouver with a vengeance. It is hard for a newcomer to imagine the face of the central city 10 years ago. In 1968 and 1969,37 apartment buildings were started in the West End. Shortly afterwards skyscrapers were built on the western edge of the downtown core, turning Melville St. into a canyon reminiscent of New York City.

Gastown has been totally rejuvenated and Granville MaIl, finished in 1975, has lured new businesses back to that area. Another attempt to rebound Gastown’s tourism economy was erection of Storyeum in 2004, a huge theatrical museum. The main character who became the CEO of the enterprise was Danny Guillaume. He is known for his Moose Jaw attraction in Saskatchewan, Petcetera, and West Coast Video. Yet Storyeum became a fiasco. A life show on British Columbia performed by actors every hour and sometimes half an hour was cheap and rehashed pseudo-show. Some computer, sound, etc. effects were far from perfect and up to date. Result was that no one wanted to come and see it any more. Storyeum had to close in October 2006, and Danny still owns the City more than 5 million dollars. They say he never was able to pay rent. Anyway, it’s an interesting story for a present muckraker.

Mitch Grigori

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