Homeless in Vancouver: Oak Street 85 years ago and today

Eighty-five years ago, almost to the day, on May 21, 1929,  noted Vancouver commercial photographer W. J. Moore took a series of photographs along Oak Street.

The City of Vancouver Archives has put up many of W. J. Moore’s photographs online including three of the photos he took along Oak Street that day.

I’ve taken one of those photos: “CVA 453-1 – Looking south on Oak Street at West Broadway,” and matched it up to a photo I took today.

The other two photos, CVA-453-2 and CVA-453-3, were taken over the hill seven blocks farther south at Oak Street and West 15th and West 16th avenues, both looking north.

May 21, 1929, looks to have been a nice day but Oak Street was clearly a bit of a mess. The photographs may have been taken to document the road work being undertaken to install streetcar tracks but the photos also serve to show us how the street has changed in 85 years and how it hasn’t.

A time before car was king

Detail from W. J. Moore’s 1929 photo on Oak St. looking north from 16th Avenue.
W.J. Moore

The most striking difference 85 years ago is that streetcars tracks were such a dominant feature of Oak Street. Of course they’re nowhere to be seen today.

The B.C. Electric Railway Company operated a comprehensive region-wide network of streetcars and buses for 65 years but 50 years ago streetcars were done away with and the tracks were pulled up or paved over.

TransLink, the successor to B.C. Electric, is trying, fitfully, divisively, and expensively, to recreate much the same kind of regionwide transit system that was kicked to the curb in the early 1960s to make way for the automobile.

In these 1929 photos there are lots of streetcar tracks and very few cars. Five are visible in the photo taken at 16th Avenue, along with a Union gas station—right next door to a Piggly Wiggly supermarket. Apparently, back in the day, there were 28 locations of this American supermarket chain in Vancouver, Victoria, and New Westminster.

The photos also show us an Oak Street with many less trees but very many more wooden utility poles…coincidence?

The more things change, the more some buildings don't

Oak Street at 15th Avenue showing one of the real long-term residents.
Stanley Q. Woodvine

It’s hard to say if there are that many fewer buildings in the Fairview of 1929. I think that today’s neighbourhood of mostly three-storey rental apartment buildings was yesterday’s neighbourhood of mostly single-family homes.

Building-wise, the street of 1929 isn’t all that unfamiliar. In the photos taken at West 15th and West 16th avenues we can see two large gable-topped three-storey apartments on the  east side of Oak, which are still there 85 years later.

On the west side at West 14th Avenue is a three-storey apartment that today is called the the Santa Fa—a sad-looking, run-down building under threat of redevelopment. Back in May of 1929 is was called the Van Arsdel and it was brand new and very fresh-looking.

The view of Oak looking north from West Broadway shows us the same slope as 85 years ago but almost everything on that slope has changed with two visible exceptions. One is the dominant four-story red brick apartment building on the west side of Oak, south of the alley.

The other building, visible the 1929 photo but screened today by trees, is also on the west side of Oak Street, at the corner of West 10th Avenue. Today it's a massively restored, designated heritage building housing the B.C. Lung Association. It was built in 1928 to serve as Vancouver’s first Jewish Community Centre.

The photographer William John Moore is also known for his remarkable panorama photographs.

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Natty
I lived in the building that's in the photo of 15th and Oak. It was probably top of the line back in 1929. When I was there in the mid-2000s it was a dump. Lots of break-ins, a power system not up to code (frequent power outages). Everyone was renovicted in 2005 so the rents could be jacked up. Ah, memories.
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