I’ll date myself when I say that I recognize all the stores and buildings in the slightly vintage view of West Broadway Avenue that a friend found in a Fairview garbage on Monday (April 24).
But I’ll be darned if I can precisely date the photo itself.
Physically, the photo measures about 20 cm by 10 cm and is printed in colour on Fujifilm photo paper. It shows a grainy, bygone view of the 1400 block of West Broadway, looking west from the southwest corner of West Broadway and Hemlock Street toward the intersection with Granville Street.
There is nothing descriptive written longhand anywhere on the photo and none of the dot matrix codes printed on the back as part of the development process reveal a date or a time stamp.
At first glance, all my friend and I could say was that the photo had to have been taken between 10 and 15 years ago.
And even after a good bit of Internet research I have only been able to narrow that range down from five to three years.
I can at least say that the photo was taken some time between 2003 and 2006—but that’s all I can say for certain.
Putting a date and a time to the photo
Most of the buildings shown in the photo still stand today little changed, with only one having been knocked down. All the retail tenants though, are different now save three: the McDonald’s restaurant and the Mac’s convenience store on the south side of the street and the Fortune Garden restaurant on the north side.
For starters, the big brick Clock Tower visible on the northwest corner of West Broadway and South Granville told me that the photo couldn’t have been taken before 1980—the year that the Clock Tower was finished.
By the way, the tower’s namesake appeared to show a little after 7 o’clock—either dawn or dusk, which, based on sunrise and sunset tables suggested that the photo was taken in either March or September.
The little yellow smudge of a McDonald’s “M” on the north side of the street chopped 19 years off the earliest date for the photo because the McDonald’s restaurant opened in that location in 1999, according to the franchisee John Marsh.
The red and white transit bus, which could be seen crossing West Broadway southbound on South Granville, narrowed the latest date of the photo to before November 2006, or so I thought.
I mistakenly took a November 2006 post on Stephen Rees’s blog to mean that Metro Vancouver transit bus livery began the change from B.C. Transit’s red, white and blue to TransLink’s current swooping blue, yellow and grey scheme in late 2006. Mr. Rees has commented to say that the change from BC Transit’s red white and blue livery actually began in 1999. But it does appear that the red, white, and blue livery lasted on some buses until 2009.
More definitively, the absence of the JOEY restaurant on the south side of the street set the latest date for the photo to a time before June of 2006—when the new building for Vancouver’s first JOEY location opened at 1424 West Broadway.
JOEY’s two-story building replaced the ribbed one-storey job seen in the photo on the south side of the street. I’m told that during Expo 86 the old building was occupied by a bar—perhaps called Clementine’s. I vaguely recall it being shut up and derelict by 2004.
A final clue, in the form of the tiny blue awning of the Cru restaurant on the north side of the street, allowed me to say that the photo could not have been taken before 2003.
The Cru was a French wine bar-style restaurant which operated at 1459 West Broadway from 2003 until June 30th, 2012, when it closed for good at that location.
Search me why it was so difficult
After futzing around for an hour or two with advanced Google searches by date, and Google’s archived Street Views going back to 2007 as well as the Wayback Machine website archive; not to mention the City of Vancouver’s Vanmap database of city property and infrastructure information, I was unable to fix a creation date for the photograph firmer than some time between 2003 and June of 2006.
Which is pathetic, considering how much time I’ve spent over the last 12 years in and around the area depicted in the photograph.
At least I can take some consolation in the fact that none of the Fairview old-timers I consulted were of any help. Not one of the five people I spoke to (all of whom have lived in Fairview’s South Granville area for over 20 years) could remember any details of the former building and occupants at 1492 West Broadway, for example.
In one way it goes to show, I think, how much detail of our day-to-day environment we ignore—apparently confident that we needn’t remember it because it will always be there tomorrow—until it isn’t.
Familiarity also breeds forgetfulness
Likewise, my difficulty dating the photo illustrates something about the forgetfulness of the Internet.
You might think that any urban photograph taken in the last 20 years should be easy to date, just by using online information that can be associated with objects in the image—like records of building construction, news stories of business openings and closing, restaurant reviews and the like.
In actual fact, the latency of Internet content begins to fall a cliff going back about 10 years or so.
It’s too early to say if this content drop-off represents a fixed gradient, or a moving horizon, or a bit of both.
It could be a stationary divide caused by the transition from pre-2000’s Web 1.0 (the so-called “Read-Only” web) to the consolidated and interactive Web 2.0 of blogging and Google and Facebook.
Alternately it may represent a rolling cutoff point, as large numbers of commercial websites choose to only store, say, a maximum of 10-years-worth of back content at any one time, for reasons of cost and benefit.
Pictures are not all worth a thousand words
An image out of context, with no firm provenance detailing its content and creation, is little better than a decoration. As it is, there are billions of such images already cluttering the real world and the Internet, with billions more on the way.
This is potentially a problem for archivists and historians of the future.
The archivists of the present already have their hands full dealing with millions of poorly documented photos from the past—dating back, potentially to well over a century ago (no one will ever know for sure). But at least photographers of the 19th and early 20th centuries had good excuses for not always notating their plates and prints, such as patchy levels of literacy and a complete lack of indelible black Sharpie markers.
We have no similar excuses for what is really our laziness.
Fortunately digital cameras automatically embed time and date information into the code of raw and JPEG images, along with other useful EXIF metadata—including the shooting location, if the camera is GPS-capable.
I’d explain here how a person can add their own EXIF tags and JFIF comments to digital images but it can be work and, well…see my earlier comment about laziness.
Certainly the mere fact that some date and location-specific information is automatically saved in digital photos will be appreciated by archivists of the future, assuming that said metadata reaches them and wasn’t inadvertently erased along the way by some operation or other, such as photo editing, saving the photo in PNG format and/or uploading it to any number of social media platforms.
This is why—now that I think about it—I often include explicit contextual date and location information in the file names of my photos, when I’m not too lazy to bother, that is.