Tag Archives: Gastown

Burning Rituals

The detail of this map was sketched in by Major Matthews, Vancouver’s first Archivist, some 50 years after the fire that wiped out the new city of Vancouver on June 13th, 1886. Matthews interviewed dozens of Vancouver’s early inhabitants — many who were children when the fire occurred — and pieced together a detailed account of the fateful day.

The CPR work crews had been clearing land between the old Granville townsite (Gastown) and today’s Burrard Street, preparing their land grant to sell lots in anticipation of the coming railway, and the influx of new settlers it was expected to bring. They burned the massive slash piles and, as June 13, 1886 was a hot dry day, the conditions were ripe for the fires all over the area to catch and spread. The accounts tell of a “summer gale” blowing up from the west in the early afternoon, carrying embers that began raining down on the townsite. Within forty minutes of the first building catching fire, the whole town was ablaze.

The heat of the fire was apparently so intense that people were vapourized, and the sap of the wood buildings would heat and boil, making buildings literally explode into giant fireballs that leapt across streets and buildings like incendiary bombs. Of the town’s original 600+ buildings and shacks, only about half a dozen were spared, including the Hastings Sawmill, the town’s main source of industry and employment. The next day, the millowners opened their gates and allowed anyone to come and take lumber so that the rebuilding could begin immediately.

In order to prevent another destructive fire, many landowners decided to rebuild using bricks and mortar, and so the Gastown buildings we see today are mostly built of these materials. One exception, which can still be seen today on the SE corner of Hastings and Columbia, is the oldest original woodframe building in downtown (the original Hastings Mill store, which survived the fire, was later moved to the foot of Alma street and is now a museum).

125 years later, the Fire Department held a celebration of the history of firefighting in the city at Maple Tree Square. It was kind of odd for firefighters to choose this day — a day when the fire won and devastated the city — to celebrate their history. But burning rituals, like civic celebrations, help us to both remember the past, and move on from it. If I had a spot of land, or even a wood burning fireplace, I’d be burning a bunch of relics from my past as I prepare to move on from this chapter of my life, too.




The Douglas Coupland School of Marketing

What the heck is this box doing at the corner of Carrall and Cordova, next to an old disabled couple camped out on the stoop of the empty Rainier? What is “House in a box”, a new form of housing for the poor? Is some charity collecting appliance boxes and giving them to homeless people? Is this so crazy that I should visit the website, or drop by the address on the box to check it out?

Well, it was only a block out of my way, so I walked by, and it was a bloody “concept” furniture store having a grand opening, and this box in the street was their cynical little marketing ploy to generate foot traffic on a block where there generally isn’t that many pedestrians owning new condos that need professional design and furnishings, if you know what I mean…

I found this marketing ploy to be totally disrespectful and sickening (and I fully realize that I’m playing right into their hands by posting pictures), but unless the owners were just simply too clueless about their new neighbourhood to see why this was not ethical advertising, they should be ashamed of themselves. Then again, if they knew the neighbourhood and the high rate of business failures in Gastown, especially since the recession, well, they probably wouldn’t have moved here in the first place….

As if that brush with guerrilla advertising wasn’t enough, I was walking along later that night and there appeared to be another opening at the old kicks store that just went belly up on Powell after 3 years. When I saw the sandwich board with “RootsxDouglasCoupland” in black and white beside a rainbow banner, I thought, hmmn, maybe he’s launching a new book.

Admittedly, I have a love/hate relationship to Douglas Coupland as a writer. On the one hand, I thought Generation X was boring as hell when it first came out, and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. This is supposed to be the defining novel of my generation? Compared to Trainspotting or Fight Club or American Psycho, Generation X was embarrassingly cute fluff. Pffft. I could write a better novel than that, no sweat, and I have a drawer full of unpublished fragments to prove it!

But on the other hand, Coupland is only a few years older than me and grew up just up the mountainside from where I did. His locally-set novels and non-fiction reflect an eerily similar geographic perspective on the city to the one I grew up with. Vancouver is one of those places where geographical location can play a big part in shaping your psyche, and Coupland has captured that sense of ironic distance to the city one gets from growing up across the water and high up on the side of the North Shore mountains. As Rudyard Kipling once mused, “Vancouver is a beautiful but fickle woman, best admired from afar….” Well, the North Shore mountains are an ideal place to admire her from.

Coupland’s writing grew on me over time, as did a shared fascination with historical minutae. And then, about ten years ago, I went to a VIWF event featuring Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh and local boy Douglas Coupland in an intimate conversation. I thought the foul-mouthed, hard-living Scot would make a meal of Coupland, but it turned out to be the other way around. Coupland disarmed Welsch immediately by taking off his sweater to reveal a Hearts jersey, and then proceeded to have everyone laughing and enthralled for two hours, including Irvine. Since then, I’ve gained a definite appreciation for Coupland’s work. Although I still don’t like everything he creates, there’s no denying there’s a certain genius at work behind it.

Well, the small group of smokers and texters milling around on the sidewalk outside the store looked just like the impeccable hipsters on the rainbow RootsxDouglasCoupland posters I had seen in a couple of places around town earlier in the week. In contrast to the fashion slaves, I was three days unshaven, flying the flannel, and sporting twelve-year-old Docs worn razor thin at the sole – clearly a local and not on the guest list.

One of the chics rolled her eyes at me as I walked up and poked my head in the door just to see if Coupland was actually there. He was talking to a small group, the last few left in the store, which I now noticed was full of Roots clothes that I would never wear, mainly because I couldn’t afford to these days, but also because if I were to buy some new clothes, it wouldn’t be these ones, yunno, cause they looked kinda touristy. Though I might have gone in and dropped $20 on a book…

But oh, Doug, you can’t be serious! You designed a clothing line for Roots? And you’re launching it here in Gastown because, what, it gives you some kinda cred? You make me wanna puke! And so does your technicolour yawn of a marketing campaign, complete with the obligatory photo collage (like Rennie’s Woodwards ads) and the flurry of canned tweets it links to. I dare anyone to view the RootsxDC splash, marketing video and click through to the collage and not feel immediately nauseous and the need for a hot shower.

I’m sorry, but I’m not sensing any irony here, just a pure, unadulterated shill.

Thankfully, it was a one-off event, and Roots isn’t opening a store permanently on Powell. I guess they have a little more business sense than MAD, no matter how questionable their latest clothing line may be.


Dal Richards Swings Through Gastown

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Heightened Senses: A Late Night Walk in the Rain

What’s that you say? Public support for any tower proposal was virtually non-existent?

At the risk of being tossed in the klink for a sideways glance on Day Six of the DES popo pre-Olympic sweep, last night I took a late stroll around Chinatown to check out the only TWO tower sites approved, right? Huh? Right? Um, well, unless we consider… the financial considerations… cause someone, I’m not sure who, might have maybe inquired, so we thought maybe we’d look into it, on the City’s dime…

Nothing like a walk in the rain to heighten your senses! It’s money well spent, so to speak. Unlike other things….

I reconfirmed in my own mind that the Budget Rental site one could sorta swallow a high rise on, given Fung owns it and it’s still under the height of the Sun – pretty much anything will improve this intersection, And hey, now someone will be there to complain to Alex Tsakumis about the pissing drunks, loud groups of girls, too many furries coming and going, or the constant reek of McDonald’s deep fryers from across the street in Tinseltown.

But 8 East Pender on the SE corner at Carrall (bordering the new Greenway no less) is right across the alley to the north of Sun Yat Sen. So how the heck is this site any different than the site Council nixed at Keefer Square or the Cultural Centre site that didn’t even make it to Council? It’s still 150 feet over and above Sun Yat Sen, and much closer to it than Keefer Square. Remember, the business plan here says: go for UNESCO World Heritage Site. But, but… the Scholar’s Room won’t see this one unless you stand on your tippy toes, so, yeah, its totally OK, and there’ll be no shadows coz it’s to the north? A fine logic, indeed.

Yes, a tower and podium proposal to set it back …yawn… and lessen the spatial impact, but then, on the other side, across the street on Pender, a string of heritage pearls lie low, awaiting polishing. Either way, aspect ratio be damned, the sun will hardly illuminate the pearls, you know. And we’re gunning for FIFTEEN storeys here! Blah! It won’t matter what size plate you serve this thing up on…

And speaking of nimbys, I bet all these new high risers on Carrall will band together and force Rennie to take down Everything Will be Alright, or at least turn it off by nine pm so they don’t have to stare at it every bloody night from their roosts.

And, in an ode to how fast council quorums can make real estate decisions, the For Sale sign is already up on the old (unprotected heritage) service station in Keefer Square – the one tower site that got nixed by Council. I guess there’s really no point in updating the Heritage Register at this point, eh? It certainly wasn’t on the agenda presented to council by Planning, because hey, this review is all about high ideals, right? Groans (from speculative heights). More groans.

Twelve storey Paris-style apartments traversing the Hastings parade route! Think of it, even higher than the ugly Luxling! Quick, wall that whole sucker in before an Area Plan process is approved! The 20% is already institutionalized; so there’s really no limit to what we can do here now, old boy! Ever been to Greenwich, mate?

For Wendy P, and all the starving or successful artists who used to live around here, a final thought to ponder about the INTENSIFICATION! policy that’s behind all this, as quoted from a Skyscraper:

“These changes should allow the populate to increase from 8000 today to just under 17000 upon build-out in about 20-40yrs.” (Sic)

Most of you will be dead by then anyway, eh? It doesn’t really matter if it’s livable.

And either way, I’ll still be a ghost.

So I’ll give it a rest, already…

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Resigned, I Appeal to Creativity

(New Woodwards going up, with the Dominion building in the background. At the time it was built in 1910, it was the tallest building in the British Empire. If I’m not mistaken, Harbour Centre, on the right, was for many years Vancouver’s tallest building, too.)

OK, Toderian did reply regarding the HAHR, with what’s a pretty reasonable shakedown of the process, I guess. Now that I’m resigned to more height and high rises (WTF can I do?), I offered up a challenge that may appeal to our planners and builders and architects’ sense of pride and integrity. Hey, I still have some vestiges of idealism left in me! Anyway, below is my latest salvo on the bulablog

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Admittedly, I am somewhat mollified by Mr. Toderian’s comments, and the decisions by council in the context of his explanation. The Budget site, being across from Tinseltown (and same block as Shanghai Alley but outside the Chinatown gates), seems a decent choice if a high rise had to go anywhere, since the heritage in that area is pretty much screwed already, and a heritage tower (the Sun Tower) is almost kitty corner to the west – it won’t necessarily stick out like a sore thumb.

(Woodwards going up, seen from Alexander Street. The green domed building in the background is the Sun Tower, built in 1912, which replaced the Dominion as the tallest in the British Empire — see the theme?)

On the other hand, Pender and Carrall (I assume the southeast corner, since the other corners are heritage?) does not really seem like a good place for a tower at all, for all the reasons I pointed out earlier, including its proximity to many great 3 storey buildings across the street. I’m not sure a high quality design could counter its placement near the core of Chinatown, although, as David H. pointed out a few threads back, there is a fair amount of junk around here already (one of which would be demo’d to make way for this high rise), so maybe it would work?

I still don’t buy the more density=revitalization argument, and have no idea why this appears to be a given and unchallenged. I fear that those who put it forth are really only interested in making money, and don’t give a damn about history or architecture or revitalization at all…

I am very suspect about tiering so quickly up to 120 feet to the south, that’s a really big jump, and will create a serious wall-in effect, which will really become the antitheses of human-scale. The streets are too narrow for this to work without making it claustrophobic.

(Lux building going up, a new social housing unit. The old heritage Lux Theatre — anyone remember the raves here back in the 90s? — was demo’d to make way for this. It pushes the max height limit, and is very imposing; imagine a whole street of these faux-heritage monstrosities, and you get what I mean by the streetscapes getting walled in. BTW, this was a Carnegie Community Action Project rally against the Concorde condos. A sign of things to come, perhaps?)

I would also point out that, heading south from Gastown, the sheer number of non-protected sites vastly out-numbers the protected ones (see the HAHR models or VanMap). Which means that the newer buildings will, over time, eventually overwhelm the heritage buildings, leading to the denuding effect. And that’s where this becomes really problematic, and where Urbanismo’s oft-repeated message about design quality, and Lewis’ concerns over human scale and ratio, will certainly come into play.

So, will we end up with more junky faux-heritage sites that everyone agrees are crap, or will architects and Planning demand something more, say, Gaudiesque; take some real risks and maybe make the 21st century buildings something cool and unexpected, adding some real excitement to the district? Hopefully, the lessons of Concorde’s Greenwich proposal will not be forgotten, and the standard of design will be held to only: ultra high. There won’t be much hope for a UNESCO World Heritage site if we build to the lowest common denominator, and remake the streets where the sun don’t shine but for three weeks a year when it’s directly overhead…

(Concorde’s massive lot on Hastings, where the old San Francisco Pawn Shop used to be. The ultra ugly, bland-as-hell design of their Greenwich building proposed for this site met with huge opposition, not just from DTES activists, but heritage groups, designers and architects, and even Planning department thought it was horrible. The recession hit soon after it went back to the drawing board, and it’s sat empty since. I’m sure Concorde’s Terry Hui, whose yacht Councilor Ray Louie frequents, is happy that he can build an even larger monstrosity — his buddy Ray was the main Council pusher to accept the height increases….)

Nevertheless, resigned to the changes, I hearken back to the original debates on the bulablog last May, where I suggested near the end of one the threads that maybe one of the future Form Shifts should call for innovative and exciting designs for the heritage district.

It seems to me that, if we are going this route of higher buildings that will remake the district (and it will, given the high proportion of non-heritage sites), then let’s try to make it an exercise in building a new legacy of 21st century heritage, one that could be bold, daring, and yes, maybe controversial. Let’s make it a challenge for our architects and designers and planners, and hold them accountable to the highest possible standards and creativity. Isn’t that why you all got into the building profession? Not to make money first and foremost, but to build beautiful, cool, exciting and creative buildings? To make the city you work in great? If the status quo is changing, let’s also change the status quo of Vancouverism, and shift away from the monotonous, lazy, tiresome designs we’ve all grown so utterly sick of…

Think about yours and the City’s legacy as you go forward to build in this historic district, please!

Just my humble suggestion…

(The building sticking out near the middle of the skyline is the first Woodwards tower going up (and not yet at full height), which gives some perspective of just how out of place it is on the low rise heritage side of downtown. This was taken from Stanley Park, near the lighthouse, but it’s even more dramatic how out of place it is when you approach from the harbour on the Seabus.)

Across the Economic Divide: Gated Communities in the Inner City


In the 1990s, you could walk the BC Electric line that cuts diagonally across the Gastown grid from the Alexander Café (now a pumping station) to the Duck Ponds (International Village/Tinseltown) uninterrupted. I used to think these expansive unused spaces would be a perfect place for Vancouver to have farmer’s markets, festivals, etc. with shops and stoops and cafes opening along the angular sides of the old buildings. No cars, but maybe a street tram running through…


Now virtually every block and alley is gated off. The iron bars stretch across the expansive right-of-way between buildings, with combo locks and intercoms on every gate. There is rarely anyone sitting in these open spaces enjoying the sun, let alone barbequing, or chatting with their neighbours over a gin and tonic while the kids play.

(Top pic is the Koret courtyard, with the old rails still there. Next pic is the Van Horne courtyard, with a lone soul checking his PDA. Below is the alley on the other side of the Van Horne’s courtyard — perpetually busy.)


These courtyards are designed to keep people out, not bring them together. On one side, they say “Keep Out!” to the addicts in the always-busy alleys. On the other side they say, “I’m exclusive!” don’t talk to me.

Segregation is alive and well and living in Gastown’s gated communities.

Colin Hansen’s Big Budget Assumption: That He Has Any Credibility Left

Gastown railyards, serving the second busiest port city on the west coast of North America*. August 31st, 2009.


“[This budget] is based on the assumption… that we are going to see economic growth from here forward.” BC Finance Minister, Colin Hansen, September 1st, 2009.

He went on to rosily state that, ““I think this is going to be one of B.C.’s best budgets.”

Um, Colin? The small business I have run for nine years is bankrupt thanks to your cuts to the arts. I’m heading for the pogey line for the first time in my life along with the thousands of others who have lost their jobs across BC, and you are basing our future well-being on a fucking “assumption”?!

Even when you base your budgets on real numbers you screw it up, and now you want us to believe you when you say that one of BC’s best budgets is based on an assumption? I mean, aren’t you the guy who claimed over and over that our deficit wouldn’t be more than $495 million, and got it wrong by 500%? Aren’t you the guy who tabled balanced budget legislation, and within a year you had to repeal and rewrite the act twice because your forecasting was so far off the mark?

And didn’t you and Gordo promise the Olympics would provide BC with unprecedented wealth, jobs and opportunities for small businesses?

Here’s some example of how small businesses in Gastown, Vancouver’s main tourist district, are gearing up for your promised Olympics bonanza:


Carrall Street, Maple Tree Square, the heart of Gastown. (above)

Alexander Street, formerly the Marrakesh restaurant.


Water Street (below).


This is just a sampling, there are For Lease signs all over Gastown and many small businesses have recently closed, including, Farfalla, Black Water Cafe, Hunt and Gather.

So really, it doesn’t matter what kind of shoes you are wearing when you deliver your budget, Mr. Hansen — no-one looks good with their head stuck up their ass.


*See also the pictures of the railyard taken in July and early August in my previous post “Signs the Recession Isn’t Quite Over”, posted after Canada’s Finance Minister declared that the recession was officially over in July.