Saturday, March 28, 2009

Gastown: a rant and a walkthough

Vancouver's Richards & Pender
For three weeks now I've been spending my Friday nights in Gastown at one of my favourite pubs, The Irish Heather. As far as I'm concerned, it's the only legitimate Irish pub in the city, complete with its own separate whiskey bar in the back called the Shebeen Whiskey House. I mean, U2 comes here when they're in town - it's that authentic.

For a while, the only time I'd go into Gastown was to visit the Irish Heather. Of course, when I was a teeny bit younger (ie: 5-6 years ago) it was for the nightclubs - places like the Purple Onion (RIP), Sonar (RIP), the Brickyard (RIP), Honey Lounge's Mod Club, the Red Room, the Alibi Room, Lotus, the Blarney Stone, Shine, Blinding Light Cinema (RIP), the Marble Arch (RIP), Club 23, the Cambie, and so on.

The nightlife still thrives in Gastown, except now it has expanded into chic foodie hangouts, classy "gastro"pubs, and some of the city's hottest restaurants. Jules Bistro, So.cial, Cobre, Salt, Chill Winston, and Boneta are the new famed hotspots. Gastown is now trendy. Gastown's gentrifying. It's gentrifying at an incredible rate.

This was not always the case, of course.

I used to have a love-hate relationship with Gastown. I loved it for its local history, for its architecture, and for its cool pubs. I hated it for its kitschy souvenir shops, guilt tripping beggars, and how it always seemed be written up as this ultimate "must see" in the guide books. I always disagreed on that point.

For a neighbourhood with such a reputation, Gastown lacked energy. It lacked fun. Its dining options were uninspiring for the most part. Its alleys smelled of urine. The clatter of homeless people's shopping carts echoed along the streets, and yet tourists would always go out of their way to visit Gastown. I could only imagine what they thought. I often cringed in empathy for them - a sure disappointment after the hype.

Even the steam clock - the world's first steam clock (which you'd imagine to be a historic relic) - was built in 1970's as a clever steam vent disguise. The story goes that the clock's steam mechanisms kept breaking so much that it now runs on electricity. The emitting steam? Well that's just for show!

Gastown's famous steam clock
The steam clock, April 2002

Gastown has always been the stock answer given by locals when tourists ask "what must I see in Vancouver?" But I always wondered - why?

For the "old" architecture and historic ambiance?

Let's be realistic - architecture isn't what Vancouver's about. Perhaps us locals are so used to Vancouver's drab architecture and beautiful scenery that any brick building is quaint and charming - a complete novelty to us. Surely others would like to marvel at our old buildings with us! But I always wondered - do you really think somebody from London, Boston or Montreal would be able to appreciate Vancouver's oldest buildings - buildings from the 1890's? It's like an Englishman trying to allure Canadians with British wilderness or an Australian trying to impress the Swiss with the mountains of New South Wales.

Buildings on Water Street, June 2007

Gastown, Vancouver
Behind Water Street along the railroad tracks - February 2006

Gastown's Europa
Eastern end of Water Street - March 2005

So why else would a local recommend Gastown to a tourist?

For the cheap Canadiana? The maple syrup (shipped 2000 miles from Quebec)? The Old Spaghetti Factory? The steam clock? I didn't get it.

But tides are turning. The tacky souvenir shops have been closing a lot recently and a whole variety of other businesses have been opening up - businesses that are attracting both tourists and locals. There's a certain vibrancy returning to the sidewalks. Gastown appears to be morphing away from being just a collection of tourist traps - it's actually becoming more interesting.

Gastown in my eyes starts at Richards and Cordova and stretches east until Columbia. Its touristy heart lies on Water Street - its most picturesque and historic strip. Any of the blocks east of Richards Street and north of Pender could possibly be considered Gastown, but it's at Columbia where it kind of morphs into the Downtown Eastside as well as Chinatown, depending on the block. You'll know when you're in Gastown because it doesn't look like anywhere else in the city. Likewise, you'll know when you've crossed into the Downtown Eastside, and you'll definitely know when you've entered Chinatown.

Aerial view of GastownOverlooking Gastown in May, 2006. Water Street is the tree-lined street on the left.

A few weeks ago on Saturday we decided to go for a late afternoon stroll into Gastown from Yaletown. It had been a while since we had been there during the daylight hours, and it's really a photogenic part of the city in terms of architecture and grit. The alleys are particularly captivating, although the people that live in them don't always appreciate others taking their photos. This is their space.

This green building on Pender and Richards used to be home to an art gallery, Misanthropy Gallery, where I used to frequent on occasion back in 2003-2004. It was my first taste of the local, artist-run independent gallery scene and it was quite an exciting time. They'd throw some pretty epic parties which would spill out down the stairs and into the parking lot. It was all very New York. The only way into the gallery was via the fire escape.

Out front looking east down Pender. The copper-domed Sun Tower is several blocks down the road at Pender & Abbott. Beyond the Sun Tower begins Chinatown.

We continued north down Richards - a part of the city abundant in ESL schools and bookstores.

An alley off of Richards between Hastings and Cordova, next to the Red Room nightclub.

I remember exiting the Red Room after a rare dEUS concert back in 2006 and finding myself (and everyone else) in this alley. Great graffiti too.

But it's here where Richards meets the intersection of Cordova and Water that Gastown truly begins.

The non-descript concrete building to the left is the Harbour Centre tower - the space needle-like revolving restaurant and lookout tower that's one of the few easily recognizable landmarks in the Vancouver skyline.

Harbour Centre (note the spelling) is an office tower. There's SFU's downtown campus on the ground floor with shops and a food court in the basement. Apparently the basement used to be Simpsons-Sears department store before the 1980's.

Looking west down Cordova is Waterfront Station - the red building. A CPR train station until 1979, it's now a major public transit hub with a major bus stop outside, the Waterfront Skytrain station inside, and the Vancouver terminal for the SeaBus. It's also home to Vancouver's first Starbucks - the first to have opened outside of Seattle, way back when in... 1987!

Now looking east is the heart of Gastown. This is where Water Street and Cordova fork away from one another. Water Street is the street on the left and Cordova's on the right. You can tell immediately that this neighbourhood's quite different from the rest of Vancouver.

We stood on the corner and contemplated walking down Water Street...

... but we've seen it so many times. We decided to head down Cordova - the underdog of Gastown streets. The nearly-completed Woodwards condo tower at the end dominates the skyline now. That tower is supposed to be the catalyst of gentrification for Gastown and the Downtown Eastside. It's also the location of a downtown BCIT campus and a new London Drugs store.

Cordova immediately east of Richards is a bit of a local's secret for independent boutiques.

Cordova has also become a local haunt for some of its restaurants and cafés. We wanted to pick up a bite to eat at Brioche (a bakery cafe), but they were closing. Despite this, my better half ran in for something to drink. I sat outside.

Brioche is located where the northern foot of Homer Street intersects with Cordova. This was the view looking south down Homer. If you were to walk down Homer for 15 minutes, you'd get to Yaletown.

With drinks in hand we continued down Cordova. I noticed - based on the demographic of the people on the sidewalks that the nature of this neighbourhood was indeed shifting to one that's more fashionable and trendy.

Another hotspot, So.cial (with the red curtains) makes use of an interesting space. This is their Cordova entrance although if you were to walk through the entire restaurant, you'd end up on the other side of the block on Water Street.

Further down Cordova towards Cambie are a string of shops that I used to always pop into. New World Designs (a gothy-industrial-fantasy clothing shop) and Deluxe Junk (vintage clothing) have called Cordova home for quite a while now.

A few years ago my friend Lorra and I were in Gastown on this very block. There was a guy on the sidewalk standing with his leashed dog. Lorra ran up to the dog without a second thought and said "cute dog!" She crouched down and started to pet it. A few seconds later she got back up and we popped into Deluxe Junk where who other than Rebecca Romijn was browsing the clothing racks. That guy with his dog? Jerry O'Connell.

Still hungry, I noticed The Greedy Pig. I had read some positive reviews on the local Chowhound forum and seeing cassoulet de Toulouse on the sandwich board outside, I knew we'd be in for something delicious. We popped in for a quick bite to eat.

After our meal (and a few glasses of wine later), we left the Greedy Pig and found ourselves on Cordova and Cambie - home of the lovely Cambie Hostel & Pub. As far as pubs go, this is the true Vancouver watering hole.

We continued an extra block east to the base of the Woodward's tower. In a city where most condos are glass tower clones, it was nice to see the unique detailing of this structure.

At this point in time we were feeling like heading back to our neighbourhood. Turning around and heading west down Cordova, you can see the Harbour Centre's revolving restaurant and lookout tower. The office towers and condos of downtown are in the background.

We didn't want to retrace our steps so we walked south a block along Cambie until Hastings.

Looking east down Hastings. It's not much further east than here where you're essentially in the Downtown Eastside.

On the south-west corner of Hastings and Cambie is the cenotaph at Victory Square. On Remembrance Day (November 11), Victory Square hosts a large memorial service. On the Labour Day long weekend, it becomes the site of the Victory Square Block Party - a free concert featuring the latest and greatest local indie bands.

This is the view looking back north along Cambie from Victory Square.

The building on the north-east corner of the intersection is the Dominion Building. They sure don't build structures like that in Vancouver anymore! I really wish they would.

Next door is the infamous Amsterdam Café and the headquarters of the BC Marijuana Party.

From Hastings we headed back south along Homer Street. I took one last look behind us at Gastown in the distance before continuing back home.

As we head south, the neighbourhood shifts back into that hybrid of quirkiness and the mundane.