Vancouver 125: Spotlight on Commercial Drive

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      It’s called Commercial Drive, or just Commercial, or, more likely, just the Drive. Years ago, some people might have called it Little Italy. City planners and the police, referencing one of the 23 official communities that make up the city we call Vancouver, would probably call it Grandview-Woodland.

      It’s what many consider to be the heart of East Vancouver, and it’s bounded by Clark Drive and Nanaimo Street on the west and east, respectively, and Burrard Inlet and Broadway to the north and south.

      It’s that part of the city where, when you ask people what they were up to that day and they say, “Oh, I went to the Drive,” you don’t need any more explanation. You know not only where they went but what they probably did as well.

      The same can’t necessarily be said of, for instance, Marpole (“What the hell were you doing there?”) or Oakridge (“Needed something at the mall?”).

      A trip to the Drive—if you don’t live in the neighbourhood—usually means strolling Commercial, maybe hitting some of the small, independent shops full of new or recycled clothing, furniture, or books; stopping for fair-trade or traditional Italian-blend coffee or a quick snack or lunch at a deli or ethnic restaurant; and generally soaking up the atmosphere while you dodge dogs, strollers, kids, and bikes on the sidewalks and secretly wish you lived there.

      If you do live in the neighbourhood, your day is basically the same. Except you don’t secretly wish that last part.

      From its early days in the late 1800s to the early 1900s as a place for western European immigrants to build homes—and with a late influx of Italians after the Second World War—the Drive has been a beacon for diversity. The Italian influence is still strong among the multitudinous nationalities represented by the gauntlet of cafés, food shops, and restaurants between Venables Street and Broadway.

      Colourful, earthy, vibrant, and progressive are some of the more common words thrown around with reference to the Commercial Drive area and its inhabitants, many of whom are employed in art, culture, education, and social-sciences fields. For people west of, say, Cambie Street, those words could just as easily mean panhandlers, hippies, lesbians, and New Democrats.

      Fair enough. There’s usually at least a kernel of truth in stereotypes, and the Drive—with its frequent marches, demonstrations, and postered-over news boxes, lampposts, and storefront windows—is always in your face with issues of social justice, labour rights, and environmental concerns.

      And what’s wrong with that?

      Nothing, apparently, given the rapid gentrification overtaking the old neighbourhood. In 2007, the average one-year increase in prices for detached housing was 19 percent, compared to 13.5 percent for Metro Vancouver. At the same time, the population in and around the Drive is younger, on average, than that of the rest of the city and contains more single-parent families and couples in common-law relationships.

      What might spell doom for the neighbourhood’s demographic mix? Those increasing property prices and rents combined with the fact that the average household income (2008) of $51,834 is significantly lower than the Vancouver average ($75,854).

      The so-called yuppification of the Drive is something that its activist population has been resisting for decades, but loud voices and demos can only go so far in the face of rising rents and dwindling apartment stock (64 percent of residents rent, compared to 35 percent in Metro Vancouver). An area trend in recent years is to buy and renovate old rooming houses and multiple-unit homes and convert them to single-family dwellings.

      It’s hard to believe that an influx of managerial, business, administrative, and finance types will supply the support necessary to keep the annual Dyke March alive. Will they throng the streets during the World Cup?

      Where will the new Commercial Drive pop up?