Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Sunday stroll along Davie down to False Creek

Burgers & sauvignon blanc on the seawall... in March!

Today I woke up at 9am and forwarded my clock to 10am for Daylight Saving Time. It was sunny and beautiful and we decided we'd go for a short walk down to the local plant store to pick up some supplies for our plants growing in our solarium. That's right - we don't even have a balcony in our shoebox apartment, we have a "solarium". I digress.

We walked outside along Davie Street, enjoying the warmth of the sun. It was so warm in fact that I was feeling fine in my t-shirt and light blazer. No need for a jacket today! So I thought, anyway.

Davie Street is one of downtown Vancouver's major east-west roads. It connects Yaletown to the West End.

At the eastern end of Davie Street is Urban Fare (a gourmet grocery store), a harbour of glitzy yachts, towers of multi-million dollar Concord Pacific condos, designer lifestyle lofts, and people in fake tans and bleached teeth wearing Chanel shades and LuluLemon pants, holding Starbucks coffee cups in one hand and their dolled-up chihuahuas in another while they contemplate the health benefits of hot yoga and botox.

There is the shit of thousands of Yaletown dogs smeared into the sidewalk, but somehow that's okay. Somehow in Yaletown, it's okay that the only few feet of green space on the sidewalk is allowed to fester into a muddy pit that smells vaguely of kibble. Obviously I am making mass generalizations here, but it paints a partial picture of the daily life in Yaletown that I have been observing for the past four years.

The western end of Davie Street may as well be a different planet. Over the past few decades, it has become the heart and soul of Vancouver's gay community. There's English Bay beach and the panoramic views of mountains and islands. There's the ugly old apartment towers from the 1960's that look like something out of Stalinist Russia, but they contrast quite nicely with the quaint art deco apartment blocks from the 1920's which are tucked away on the side streets. You have the eccentric and the mundane, the old and young, the gay and the straight, the rich and the poor all mingling on the western end of Davie. I actually feel much more at home here, likely because the demographic is much more diverse. It doesn't feel like a bubble world in the same way that exists in Yaletown. I like it for that.

Last Sunday, however, we ended up in a little area located between Yaletown and the West End along the False Creek seawall. It's a bit of a no-man's land in terms of neighbourhood identity, although I suppose "downtown" or "False Creek" would do.

We first walked up Seymour Street to Davie - a rather mundane stretch of road these days, and a major source of inbound traffic from the Granville Street Bridge. Since almost every taxi from the airport takes the Seymour entrance into downtown, this is typically the first impression visitors get of downtown Vancouver:

Seymour Street

I know what you're thinking. Well, it wasn't always sterile grey condos greeting tourists to Vancouver, though the previous structures weren't any prettier. Seymour used to be the fringes of a light industrial stretch of downtown with small warehouses, nightclubs, pool halls, strip clubs, and parking lots. Oh yes, and prostitutes. They've since demolished most of the low density buildings and have replaced them with apartment and condo towers. And tiny plots of grass which are used as doggy toilets.

But what's really fascinating about downtown - something that I don't sure people understand until they visit - is that the vibe of downtown Vancouver can be so drastically different from one block to another.

This is looking east down Davie from Seymour

You have expensive condos, organic grocery stores, trendy hair salons, gourmet coffee shops, manicured sidewalks, yuppies decked out in beautiful designer clothing...

And this is looking west down Davie from Seymour...

You have gritty buildings, cheap greasy spoon diners, hole in the wall sushi restaurants, a tattoo parlour, street punks, a dance academy, budget hotels, beggars, and the colourful sidewalk aftermath from the nightclubs. Two different worlds a block apart from one another.

But we can't forget about the alleys...

You can always tell a movie was filmed in Vancouver if you catch a glimpse of these alleys - they're almost iconic. They practically parallel every downtown street and are used for a variety of reasons - as loading zones for commercial deliveries, as garage entrances to underground parking lots for condos, as short cuts for impatient taxi drivers, as out-of-view meeting locations for drug dealers and clients, and not to mention as the ultimate of destinations for dumpster divers - homeless or otherwise.

What these alleys aren't, however, are known to be violent places. Out of towners or clueless locals assume somehow that Vancouver's alleys are dangerous... but they're not. If there's a shooting, mugging, or a stabbing in Vancouver, chances are that it didn't happen in an alley. But that's another topic entirely that I'll likely get to in another post. No, these alleys are quietly celebrated in Vancouver, especially by the photographically-inclined.

Past the alleys comes Granville and Davie where they've closed it to traffic, removed the pavement and the sidewalks for a well overdue face lift.

Granville - the historic strip of neon signs - is a shadow of its former self. Once the heart and soul of Vancouver's entertainment district, over the span of several decades the blocks between Drake and Robson morphed from a classy area into a sleazy strip of porn shops, pawn shops, piercing studios, backpacker hostels, cheap greasy pizza-by-the-slice cafes, budget hotels, and college kid booze halls. While the quality of grime on Granville made it cool for bored teenagers seeking purple hair dye, I always felt sorry for the tourists who found themselves staying at the Best Western Chateau Granville wondering why their room was overlooking 25 cent peep shows. It was never dangerous, but just... you know.

It wasn't all bad, however. The seedy aspects of Granville meant cheaper rent. And with cheaper rent in an otherwise expensive city comes a flourishing scene of locally-owned small businesses. Granville was once home to shops like the Granville Book Store and Notte's Bon Ton - two local institutions providing a taste of local identity. And businesses like The Underground, the Leather Ranch, Cheap Thrills, or The Sugar Refinery provided an alternative to the kind of gentrification spreading elsewhere in the city. Sure, Granville was gritty, but it had character.

Granville's still gritty, but a lot has been changing. A lot of the older businesses have lost their leases and could no longer afford the skyrocketing rent. Many small businesses closed entirely or moved out of downtown. Old buildings that weren't designated heritage structures were often demolished and rebuilt into condos or flashier retail spaces. Instead of the small independent businesses coming back, retail franchises such as Adidas, American Apparel, and Urban Outfitters rushed in to take prime locations. Fortunately, many of Granville's cultural institutions, such as the Orpheum Theatre, the Vogue Theatre, Harbour Dance Studio, the Commodore Ballroom, and the Yale have survived and continue to persist. They're anchors of the community. And the neon signs, almost forgotten, are once again treasured icons of the street.

But the greatest change to Granville seemed to be a byproduct of Yaletown's rezoning from a light industrial low density district to a high density residential neighbourhood. Vancouver's urban planners thought it would be a brilliant idea to transplant the city's nightlife venues scattered around in Yaletown into one concentrated strip on Granville. It seems fair in concept, but the reality turned out to be more of a gong show than was likely anticipated.

The venues that once housed a good chunk of Vancouver's popular nightlife venues like Seymour Billiards, Luvafair, Graceland, and the Starfish Room were demolished and replaced by high rise condos. Some clubs were supposed to shift over to new spaces on Granville Street and resume their music and vibe under a new venue name. But while the liquor licences and the venue management changed addresses, the former identity of the venue was lost forever. Instead, the new spaces became generic top 40 clubs catering to a common meat market clientele, all of whom ultimately spill out on the sidewalks at 3am, screaming and brawling drunkenly on the sidewalks. Sirens a-blaring, Granville is best to be avoided for a good night's sleep. Those poor tourists.

Of course, in the daytime Granville lacks the chaos of drunken bimbos and testosterone-laden boneheads. It's not really a destination in the day time. For that reason, we just kept walking down Davie Street westbound - a rather uninspiring few blocks with - surprise, surprise - new condo developements and *gasp* a new Tim Horton's about to open on the Howe Street & Davie intersection.

When you take Davie west of Burrard Street, you're in Davie Village - a major commercial district in the West End. This time, we took Hornby Street and walked south down the hill towards False Creek passing by older apartment towers, older suite hotels, and Umberto's Il Giardino - one of Vancouver's best Italian restaurants located in an old heritage house from the 1890's - a beautiful Victorian house painted bright yellow that sticks out like a sore thumb. Everything around it is an ugly utilitarian highrise.

From Hornby, we crossed Pacific Blvd past Kettle of Fish seafood restaurant and arrived at Art Knapp's Urban Garden shop - a beautiful store that's part greenhouse and part gift shop.

We popped inside quickly to take a look at what they had, but quickly went outside again to enjoy the sunshine and warmth. It was so nice, we decided we'd get some lunch along the False Creek waterfront. We were not alone - patios were busy and people were out riding bikes, jogging, and walking their dogs.

There are a few restaurants that have locations along this stretch of False Creek. There's Chili Thai Bistro (a casual Thai restaurant, part of the local Thai House chain), C (a posh, inventive, high end seafood restaurant), the Stone Grill (exorborately priced gimmicky restaurant), Nu (a trendy, overpriced, but excellent gourmet farm to table bistro) and... what the? Fiddlehead Joe's is closed?

Fiddlehead Joe's was often the choice for a late brunch/lunch option as it had good food, decent prices, a nice patio, although the service was definitely hit or miss. I remembered the last time we had brunch there, which was last spring, and it was a sunny Sunday morning. Half the staff didn't show up, so they had 1 or 2 people serving the entire restaurant - people who were clearly not trained to be servers. I guess it wasn't so surprising to see it go.

This time around we chose Marmalade - a casual bistro with a patio in the sun overlooking the boats.

We sat outside and took off our jackets - the warmth of the sun was incredible for early March. Sharing a bottle of wine, I noticed this big dark cloud hovering above the sky, moving against the westerly winds.


Our food arrived shortly after. As I chowed down on my Black & Blue Burger (which I highly recommend, by the way) that big cloud was gaining momentum and had managed to catch up to the sun, which it promptly covered and hid from our view. The temperature plunged. A chilly wind picked up and started to blow. I put my jacket back on. Girls sitting at the table across huddled together.

Then I felt a drop.

A waitress with an English accent came outside, noticed the pending rain, and unraveled the patio umbrellas. She went over to the huddled girls and covered them up with red fleece blankets.

Then it started to... snow.

I kid you not.

It was snowing so ever lightly, but it was indeed snow. After weeks of beautiful, warm temperatures, the snow seemed like a cruel joke.

We jolted back to the plant store and bought a gardenia, an anthurium, and a venus fly trap before running back outside again, through the snow, and back to our apartment. Looking outside of the solarium, the snow came down faster, and faster, but it never stuck around.

Snow falling over the city (click on the image to actually see it)

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