Hope grows in Gastown’s revival: Portrait of a modern neighbourhood

Gastown, in those days, had no children.

There were shady clubs, vendors hawking trinkets to tourists and shadowy figures milling about on the cobblestone walks. But as a young man on the streets of Gastown in the late 1990s, numb from using and dealing crystal methamphetamine, Mike Hildebrandt never saw children.

“It was completely dead in the late ’90s, 2000s,” said Hildebrandt, now 32. “A few stores, that’s it. To me, it was where people got drugs and did them. That’s how it was for me.”

It is a stark contrast from Gastown today and the life Hildebrandt leads now, more than one year clean, with the love of his life and a 10-month-old son. Looking down from his bright, sixth-floor unit in the Woodward’s social housing complex, Hildebrandt now notices families: kids weaving through tourists, parents pushing young children in strollers.

In many ways, Hildebrandt’s personal transformation is similar to that of his neighbourhood. Over the decades, Gastown has evolved from a failed tourist haunt to a vibrant, thriving community.

On weekdays, camera-toting tourists and longtime locals alike bustle along, dipping into the wide range of restaurants and unique, one-off shops; on weekends, crowds and lineups are fixtures outside the area’s many bars and clubs.

The new Woodward's development, which controversially turned a much-loved decades-old department store into modern condos for high and low income residents.

Much is written about Sean Heather’s popular Irish Heather gastropub, Mark Brand’s The Diamond or Jordan Stewart’s Chill Winston, whose popular patio spills out on to Maple Tree Plaza, where a statue of John “Gassy Jack” Deighton stands guard.

Newer establishments have garnered buzz among those in the know: Cough Club on Abbot Street; HousexGuest on Water Street; Bitter, directly across from Pigeon Park on West Hastings. However different, each establishment seemed to enjoy an instant air of cool and grit, in no small part due to their Gastown location.

But while most appear to be excited about Gastown’s growth, a small but vocal group is unhappy, concerned about the gentrification of an area where the majority of residents live below the low-income cutoff line.

Fancy furniture stores and chi-chi restaurants are not what the area needs, opponents say; the city should instead erect more affordable housing and resources for the people who live there.

1890 photo of the Gold House Hotel on Water Street in Vancouver's Gastown. VPL photo #19859. Photo credit: Vancouver Public Library Archives.

Gastown’s origins date to the mid-1800s, when it was Vancouver’s historic centre, an industrial district on the water’s edge.

Over the decades, there has been an ebb and flow to its fortunes, brought on by a string of storied events that included the promise in 1871 to extend the Canadian Pacific Railway to B.C., the Great Fire of 1886, the shifting of the downtown core in the early 1900s from Gastown and the Main Street area to where it is today, and the threat of a freeway that would have sliced through the heart of nearby Chinatown in the 1960s.

From there, it transitioned from one district to another: business, warehouse, tourist. The provincial government designated Gastown a heritage site in 1971, protecting its brick buildings from demolition, and a city-sponsored incentive program launched in 2003 helped spur savvy investors to breathe new life into them.

“The objective of the program was to not only protect, but rehabilitate heritage buildings, to find new life for old buildings that would add to the vibrancy rather than just trying to preserve them as museum pieces,” said Brent Toderian, former director of planning for the City of Vancouver.

“At the same time, it was to economically revive the area. It was not only preservation of heritage but economic revitalization, and the two were synergistic.”

The new Woodward's building dwarfs the traditional Gastown accommodations of Single Room Occupancies (SROs) and hostels.

The result is a model of contrast: new condos and dilapidated single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, upscale restaurants and social services centres. Hip, modern businesses operate behind history-infused facades, and low- and high-income residents shop side by side for groceries at the same stores.

Gastown’s mix was no accident to Jim Green, a longtime community and housing advocate who died this week. A former Vancouver councillor with the Coalition of Progressive Electors, Green long championed for a new Gastown: one that catered to locals, not tourists, and was inclusive, yet economically viable.

“A lot of the problem, with tourism and all, was the fact that for many years, many of the merchants were dealing in T-shirts and chips and pop,” said Green in an interview before his death.

“That’s okay, but it’s not really something a lot of tourists are looking for.”

In other words: There was no good reason for anyone to visit, or stay in, Gastown.

The strategy COPE proposed was based on the “theory of body heat,” Green said: For Gastown to thrive, people had to not only frequent the neighbourhood’s businesses, but live in the area as well.

“You can’t have a community that’s just based on destinations, people coming for one particular reason,” said Green, who lived in Gastown for almost 40 years. “[Now], we all use the community: we go to the local restaurants, we shop at Nesters downstairs, go to London Drugs.”

Gastown’s revival was sparked in large part by the redevelopment of Woodward’s, a project that Green spearheaded in 2003. Originally erected in 1903, the location served as a “one-stop” shopping destination in its heyday, and anchored Vancouver’s shopping district with the Woodward’s department store, the popular basement food floor and various other shops and services.

Looking east towards the Europa Hotel with Alexander Street and Powell Street to the right in 1996. Peter Battistoni / PNG

Gastown’s revival was sparked in large part by the redevelopment of Woodward’s, a project that Green spearheaded in 2003. Originally erected in 1903, the location served as a “one-stop” shopping destination in its heyday, and anchored Vancouver’s shopping district with the Woodward’s department store, the popular basement food floor and various other shops and services.

A ‘great victory’

Green knew from the outset it would be crucial to replace the retail businesses of years past, but he also stipulated there must be a social housing element.

“We said we would do redevelopment without displacement,” he said.

Today’s Woodward’s building comprises 500 units of market price housing and 200 units of social housing, the latter of which is broken down into 125 units of housing for low-income singles and 75 units for low-income families.

The new Woodward’s includes businesses such as Nesters, London Drugs, the W2 Media Cafe and W Dental. Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts relocated to the Woodward’s building from Burnaby Mountain.

Hildebrandt moved into a family unit in the social housing complex of Woodward’s last July, three months after the birth of his son, Mikey.

Before that, he was homeless for most of his life, staying on friends’ couches if he was lucky and in parking lots if he was not. His partner, Molly Gaeta, lived at the Portland Hotel, an SRO building for the city’s “hard to house.”

At Woodward’s, life is decidedly better: The family has two brightly-lit bedrooms, a full bathroom, a kitchen with a dining area and a living room that leads out to a small deck overlooking the city.

Hildebrandt calls the suite a huge stabilizing factor in their lives.

“It’s extremely important,” he said. “It’s given me and Molly a chance to raise Mikey in a proper home, rather than some little one-room house. I couldn’t imagine raising Mikey at the Portland.”

Community developer and former Vancouver council member, the late Jim Green.

Green was modest about his personal involvement in the project, and quick to mention there were many who worked hard to see it realized.

But Green’s home, a suite on the 10th storey of the building, revealed his passion and investment in it: Decorating his walls and bookshelves were countless Woodward’s-related photos, artworks and knick-knacks — not unlike photos a proud parent has of a child.

He called Woodward’s “a great victory” for the Downtown Eastside.

“We have some of the hardest to house people in the country living in Woodward’s, on top of a university,” he said. “We’re really looking at new ways of doing things, and people are coming from all over the world to see this experiment that is working extremely well.”

The rich vs. the poor

According to Statistics Canada census data, 71 per cent of Gastown residents lived below the low-income cutoff — or “poverty line” — in 2005, compared with 21 per cent of residents in the rest of Vancouver. The median income for people 15 and older was $10,884, compared with $25,032 for the rest of Vancouver.

The numbers, says activist Wendy Pedersen, paint a picture of a neighbourhood in need of more affordable housing and resources — not more trendy restaurants and expensive furniture stores.

“It doesn’t seem very humanized to me,” said Pedersen, an organizer for the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) and a 15-year resident of a housing co-operative on Alexander Street.

“I don’t feel like it’s a place that really is there for local residents, especially people who can’t afford to go buy a $15,000 couch.

“There used to be a few little places for low-income people to be in Gastown,” she continued. “There was a café on the corner, near the Gassy Jack statue, where you could go get an all-day breakfast for $3, but that’s gone. [Gastown] has upscaled, and because it’s upscaled, it’s a really tectonic place for people living in poverty, and/or maybe even people who are low-income like me.”

OCTOBER 9, 2009: Houtan Rafii of Westbank Projects Corp.(L) and Gregory Henriquez, architect for the Woodwards' building in Gastown. Jenelle Schneider / PNG

Pedersen has many kind words for Green, particularly about his work with the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association in the 1980s. With Green at the helm, DERA launched several notable social housing projects, including the co-op Pedersen lives in.

But Woodward’s, Pedersen says, is not what Gastown needs. While the project may benefit the relatively small number of low-income people who live there, she feels those who don’t are now worse off: “the medicine is worse than the cure.”

“It provides a few crumbs for the low-income community; it’s also like a bomb in the community because it drives the rents up, and the speculation and property values,” she said.

She pointed to a 2010 report by the CCAP, titled Pushed Out: Escalating Rents in the Downtown Eastside.

“Gentrification of the DTES, spurred by Woodward’s and market housing development, is a major cause of the rent increases, which will also help push low-income residents out of their DTES community,” the report stated

It listed 11 hotels close to Woodward’s with rents of $425 and higher — single welfare recipients get $375 for housing — and another four that had recently closed.

“Projects like Woodward’s can’t provide for the poor,” Pedersen said. “What we really need is a provincial and national housing program. We need about 5,000 units of social housing in this neighbourhood, and very quickly.”

She worries the area is being priced up, its residents priced out. Despite having lived in the area for so long, she calls herself a Downtown Eastside resident, not a Gastown resident.

She calls Gastown an “odd place,” with “not a lot of functional places for low-income people to be.”

Edgy businesses move in

The lunch counter at the new Save-On Meats, which was saved from the wrecking ball by Mark Brand and turned into a casual eatery after decades serving Gastown as a butcher's shop.

Local businessman Mark Brand has, at times, been on the receiving end of accusations over the evils of gentrification.

Since moving to Gastown in late 2007, Brand has played a considerable role in shaping the neighbourhood, having opened seven businesses within a two-block radius. At The Diamond, patrons can wash down shared plates such as stuffed baby squid and rock cod ceviche with a wide range of cocktails; at Sharks + Hammers General Store they can pick up clothing, mugs and other items emblazoned with its popular “Welcome to East Van” slogan.

The businesses combine to offer a lifestyle: young, edgy and cool.

In June, Brand reopened Save on Meats, the beloved butcher shop and restaurant on Hastings whose neon “flying pigs” and rotating sign served as a beacon for customers for almost 50 years, until its closing in 2009. Today’s employees treat new, hipster patrons the same as they do the old-school patrons of the original restaurant.

Across all his businesses, Brand employs about 50 Downtown Eastside residents. Ingredients are sourced locally when possible, and other green initiatives include a rooftop greenhouse and in-house composting. Some of Brand’s establishments are a bit pricier — such as The Diamond and Boneta — while others, such as Sea Monstr Sushi and Save on Meats, are average to inexpensive.

The large majority of feedback Brand has received has been positive. But for reasons he has never understood, a few opponents — mostly online and anonymous, he says — have accused him of pricing up the area and displacing its residents.

“All of the buildings I’ve taken over — literally every single space that I occupy — was derelict,” said Brand, who opened his first Gastown business, Boneta, in 2007.

“There was nothing in it. It was rats and pigeons. There was nobody.

“For any block or neighbourhood to be vibrant, it has to be occupied. The thought of us being a detriment to the neighbourhood by gentrifying it is not only ludicrous, but borderline insane.”

Brand says he invested in the area because of his love for it, calling Gastown his “favourite neighbourhood, not only in Vancouver, but in the world.”

His goal, he says, is to help it thrive by maintaining unique, one-off businesses, locking down long-term rents and keeping chain stores and restaurants at bay.

Jasper Sloan Yip Band entertains the thousands at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival in Gastown. Les Bazso / PNG

The spirit of Gastown

For all his efforts, former director of planning Toderian doesn’t profess to know what Gastown will look like in the future.

“Any city planner who tells you the future with complete certainty is probably kidding themselves,” he said.

“We plan for the future, we have visions for the future, but we also respond to life, and things change. Our perspectives change. Things that were true at one time are not necessarily true later, especially in the human system, where it’s about people.”

But there are big hopes, and rough ideas: “This will not be a place — I think — where we will ever contemplate the kind of forms we see in other parts of the downtown, for example, because those would be disrespectful of Gastown’s spirit and character,” Toderian said.

Civic historian John Atkin uses Yaletown to illustrate the aging of an interesting neighbourhood, and what he hopes Gastown won’t become.

“As the residential population matures, you start to see the banks and the pharmacies — the boring stuff, but the necessities of life,” Atkin said. “I think that’s where Woodward’s plays an important role, because we have London Drugs, we have Nesters, and those sorts of things, but they’re not right smack on the street.

“With all of these things, you wish that they reach a certain point that they don’t jump the shark,” he continued. “I’d just hate to see it tidied up to the point where it becomes incredibly fashionable but really boring.

“Right now, I think it’s working really well, and I think the opportunity of having that survive is there.”


Written by

No Comments Yet.

Leave a Reply


5 × = forty