Thursday, December 11, 2008

Robson Street

Robson Street is often promoted in tourism literature as Vancouver's Rodeo Drive, a tired cliché if there ever was one. This ain't Beverly Hills, but it's consumerism at its finest. Robson Street is Vancouver's outdoor shopping mall... with traffic.

Robson Street by night

Robson Street is located in the heart of downtown Vancouver and is arguably its most famous shopping district. With this kind of reputation, Robson has a lot to live up to. However, context is key.

While Robson is glamorous compared to suburban shopping malls, it can be generic and underwhelming to those that already live in large cities. While Robson's peppered with Canadian retail chains like RW&CO. and Aritzia, and even fewer independent shops like El Kartel and Plen+y, the majority of Robson consists of global retail chains like Bebe, Club Monaco, The Gap, Armani Exchange, Zara, HMV, Lush, Tommy Hilfigger, H20, Levis, FCUK, BCBG, Banana Republic, Esprit, Aldo, La Senza, The Body Shop, American Eagle Outfitters, Guess, Nike, etc. Only along the side streets around Burrard and Alberni does shopping go haute couture and you begin to find boutiques for Lacoste, Coach, Louis Vuitton, Betsey Johnson, Gucci, L'Occitaine, Tiffany & Co., and Hermès.

Robson Street is certainly not the be all end all to shopping districts in Vancouver. If you're looking for a unique only in Vancouver experience, Robson won't give you that. As far as local character is concerned, it is probably the shopping district with the least. Of course, it wasn't always this way. Robson Street once used to be a residential street flecked with German delis and shops. Prior to the 1990's, the area was called Robsonstrasse - a name you can sometimes still find on outdated maps. However, the German characteristics have disappeared entirely and have been replaced by what I described above.

There is a bit of a "see and be seen" element to Robson Street, especially on evenings and weekends. And it is not unusual to spot suburban kids driving their souped-up Hondas along Robson on Friday nights. The demographic is definitely a mixture of tourists and locals window shopping and seeking a night on the town. After all, many of Vancouver's popular restaurants such as Cin Cin and Joe Fortes are located on Robson. Even the trendy Canadian restaurant chains like Earls, Cactus Club, Moxie's, and Milestones have prime Robson locations.

Savvy locals wanting to get from point A to point B typically avoid walking down Robson. It's nearly impossible to walk down its sidewalks without tripping over the ankles of lollygagging window shoppers. Driving down Robson is no better.

For others, Robson Street represents soulless gentrification and mainstream commercialism devoid of community spirit. There are even blogs devoted to showing people that there is life to Vancouver beyond Robson.

But Robson's not necessarily all about shopping.

You can almost break Robson Street down into 4 distinct areas. I've created a map which should help illustrate my points. You can see that I've highlighted Robson Street its entirety in red.

Click to zoom in

So far I've only really talked about Robson's shopping district which exists between Seymour and Bute. I've highlighted this part in a darker red on my map. As you head west of Bute Street, you notice that the big name retail chains disappear and are replaced by hotels, small restaurants, and cafes. In fact, it almost feels like a local neighbourhood! There are grocery stores, tiny Asian specialty shops, and ethnic eateries. Even some of Vancouver's famed izakaya restaurants like Hapa Izakaya, Gyoza King, and Guu with Garlic are located down this way.

Robson's restaurants and cafes are in abundance all the way until Denman Street. While Denman Street continues this trend, if you head west down Robson for the remaining blocks, you realize that it's essentially 100% residential with older apartment towers and beautiful mature trees - a far cry from the shopping frenzy many blocks up. At the very western end of Robson is Stanley Park.

Now if you were to walk east of Robson's shopping district, you'd notice that the feeling changes. While there are still stores, the vibe is less in-your-face shopping but instead more businessy. Robson east of Seymour is home to a mixture of office towers, residential condos, and hotels. Some may argue that it's the north end of Yaletown. You can find grocery stores like IGA Marketplace and the Korean H-Mart along this part of Robson. The east end of Robson's also home to a few of Vancouver's landmarks such as the Moshe Safdie designed Vancouver Public Library Central Branch, and at the very end of Robson Street at Beatty, BC Place.

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