Best of Vancouver 2011 communities: Gastown keeps on changing
On a recent Friday morning, a lineup of hundreds of perky teen and 20-ish damsels stretched down the entire 100 block of Water Street. The Aritzia warehouse sale, commonly held in cavernous empty storefronts, had found a fantastic home: the space formerly known as Storeyum, then Mona Euro Furniture. Sure, there’s been a revolving door of businesses at 142 Water Street, but it won’t stay empty for long. The Vancouver Film School just finalized a deal to move to this brick-paved promenade.
Some businesses flip in and out in weeks; others stay for decades. At ArtSpeak, which has been at 233 Carrall Street for 12 years, director Kim Nguyen told the Georgia Straight, “Every time we change exhibitions, and we change the vinyl stickers on the windows, people think we’ve closed and a new store has opened.” Indeed, Leanore Sali, the spokesperson for the Gastown Business Improvement Society said this is Gastown’s strength. During a neighbourhood walkabout with the Straight, she said, “Gastown has been reinventing itself since 1867.”
Sali, of course, was talking about entrepreneurs. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Gastown was a ’hood with a boozy after-hours scene thanks to Gassy Jack Deighton (and by the 1930s, 300 other pubs); a food-warehouse district and trendy hotel row; then a busy shopping hub. It declined after 1945, and was nearly demolished to make way for a freeway in the 1960s. In 1971, it won a heritage designation from the province of B.C., thanks to the vision of a handful of Vancouverites (including Lee Poulus, owner of the Old Spaghetti Factory, and modelling and makeup school maven Blanche MacDonald, their faces now immortalized in friezes on the outside of Le Magasin.) Still, the area bumps up against the Downtown Eastside, and attracts a sometimes-raucous club crowd, so it’s been saved from complete sanitization.
Most storefronts are independently owned, many by young innovators. For example, on September 2, brothers John (age 24), Matt (age 17), Chris (age 20), and George (age 25) Gianniakos opened Revolver Coffee (325 Cambie Street). Already that day, the place was packed to capacity with tidily dressed tech workers from the surrounding brick buildings. Boneta restaurant, opened in 2007 by the then-32-year-old Mark Brand, moved from 1 West Cordova this month into The Mews at 12 Water Street. Heidi Schmidt started alt-clothing store New World Designs (306 West Cordova Street) at the tender age of 21, with $500 in her pocket. She found her fixtures in local Dumpsters, painted everything, and 22 years later, Schmidt’s still in business. And John Fluevog and Peter Fox launched their crumbly first store at 211 Carrall Street in 1970, eventually moving the company to its flagship design space for Fluevog’s international empire today at 65 Water Street.
Gastown’s new condos have moved monied residents in for the first time. Along Alexander Street, at Woodward’s, over the shops on Water Street, and elsewhere, the number of Gastowners who live in market housing has doubled in 10 years, to about 3,500. With people come services. Nester’s Market opened at Woodward’s last year, the first full-service grocery store in the area. So the neighbourhood is settling down—hopefully without losing its edge.
Best place to find yourself on the wrong side of a police baton
At the height of the Depression in 1938, Canada stopped funding relief camps—where unemployed workers could earn meagre survival pay. Hundreds descended on Vancouver and rampaged through downtown, smashing the windows at Woodward’s and Spencer’s (now Harbour Centre) department stores. The RCMP beat many protesters with batons. Then in 1971, at Abbott and Cordova, police again used batons to attack about 2,000 pro-marijuana demonstrators during a smoke-in. This neighbourhood’s riots seem to bring out the worst in our friends in uniform.
Best corner for lusty Halloween costumes
Just around the corner from the Halloween emporium Dressew is Cambie and Abbott, a fetish-and-fantasy shopping hub. Need a corset? Hit Venus and Mars. A collar for a human leash? See the fine folks at the Kiss Store. A flattering adult Sailor Moon-like dress? Go to New World. Opera gloves? deLuxe Junk Co. How about a shiny black latex cat suit? Deadly Couture can set you up.
Most studiously ignored on-leash area
Nearly any time of day or night, gorgeous dogs from Gastown’s tony condos gallivant around the beach at CRAB Park at Portside, right at the foot of Main Street. It’s not like they’ve got much competition for the space. The water is a no-wading zone, according to local signage. So the human visitors are relatively few (considering the stunning views)—many, frankly, with messier habits than the canines. Why not let those puppies rip around the sand?
Best foot forward, Vancouver
Watch for drool on the windows at John Fluevog’s glassy design store. The colours! The buckles! The heels! The knee-high button-side Miracle Lourdes ($425), for example, is an original Vancouver wood-and-leather experience. But Fluevog isn’t the only Gastown retailer with a foot fetish. Two of a Kind, the Block, Nika Custom Imports and Shoe Repair, (212), the OK Boot Corral, Rowan Sky, Taix, and more also move feet.
Best foot forward, unceded Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam territory
Hill’s Native Art (165 Water Street) hides its shoes in the back. Here, exquisitely handmade moccasins and mukluks from across Canada outfit feet in true-north style. Moosehide and deerhide feel skin-soft, but many stand up to wear in snowshoes.
Best place to test all that space-saving super-mod furniture
Your 395-square-foot bachelor pad at the Van Horne (22 East Cordova Street), on sale now for just $259,000.
Best pop-up shop
In a closet of a storefront underneath the Van Horne, silversmith Robert Chaplin set up shop for one year only, and he’s only open Wednesdays from 12 to 5. Seriously. Given his odd location and hours, you wouldn’t think he’d be busy. However, his wares are so unique and exquisite, Royal Canadian Snowflake Factory (6 East Cordova Street) has amassed quite a following. For $200, he’ll design a silver snowflake just for you, and you can both name it and wear the original. He also sells larger pieces, such as a stunning 22-snowflake necklace for $1,650. Touristy? Absolutely. But this is no trap.