GASTOWN, VANCOUVER, BC
Gastown is a national historic site located in Vancouver, British Columbia, located at the northeast end of Downtown adjacent to the Downtown Eastside. Its historical boundaries were the waterfront (now Water Street and the CPR tracks), Columbia Street, Hastings Street, and Cambie Street, which were the borders of the 1870 townsite survey, the proper name and postal address of which was Granville, B.I. (“Burrard Inlet”). Today’s official boundary does not include most of Hastings Street except for the Woodward’s and Dominion Buildings, and stretches east past Columbia St., to the laneway running parallel to the west side of Main Street.
Gastown was Vancouver’s first downtown core and is named after “Gassy” Jack Deighton, a Geordie seaman, steamboat captain and barkeep who arrived in 1867 to open the area’s first saloon. The town soon prospered as the site of Hastings Mill sawmill, seaport, and quickly became a general centre of trade and commerce on Burrard Inlet as well as a rough-and-rowdy resort for off-work loggers and fishermen as well as the crews and captains of the many sailing ships which came to Gastown or Moodyville, on the north side of the inlet (which was a dry town) to load logs and timber. The Canadian Pacific Railway terminated on piles on the shore parallel to Water Street in 1886. From this the area became a hive of warehouses. Part of Gastown, which is Carroll Street, was particularly swampy owing to it being low ground between False Creek and Burrard Inlet. Bridges overcame this obstacle and the low ground and beach was slowly filled in with refuse. In 1886, the town was incorporated as the City of Vancouver. It fell victim to the “Great Vancouver Fire” ” that same year, losing all but two of its buildings. The area was completely rebuilt and continued to thrive. As said Hastings and Main was the traditional centre of town, and the foreshore became an important staging area with the North and West Vancouver Ferries, and Union Steamships all having docks there. Evans, Coleman, Evans a longtime merchandiser had a warehouse; also, Fleck Brothers, and Koret distributors had buildings. Department stores such as Spencer’s, Hudson Bay Company warehouse, Woodward’s, Fairbanks Morse, Army and Navy stores, and food retailers Malkins and Kelly Douglas traded and were based there.
Gastown found new life as the centre of the city’s wholesale produce distribution until the Great Depression in the 1930s. It also was centre of the city’s drinking life (there were 300 licensed establishments the twelve-block area of the former Granville, B.I.) After the Depression Gastown was a largely forgotten neighborhood of the larger city and fell into decline and disrepair until the 1960s. It was a continuation of the Skid Road area with cheap beer parlors, flophouse hotels, and loggers hiring halls.
In the 1960s, citizens became concerned with preserving Gastown’s distinctive and historic architecture, which like the nearby Chinatown and Strathcona were scheduled to be demolished to build a major freeway into the city’s downtown. A campaign led by businessmen and property owners as well as the counterculture and associated political protestors, pressured the provincial government to declare the area a historical site in 1971, protecting its heritage buildings to this day. A riot between the hippies and the police in 1971 over marijuana has gone into legend, a throwback to the more serious Post office riot of 1938.
The Gastown has been designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2009.
Gastown is a mix of “hip” contemporary fashion and interior furnishing boutiques, tourist-oriented businesses (generally restricted to Water Street), restaurants, nightclubs, poverty and newly upscale housing. In addition, there are law firms, architects and other professional offices, as well as computer and internet businesses, art galleries, music and art studios, and acting and film schools.
Gastown has become a hub for technology and new media. It has attracted companies such as Idea Rebel, BootUp Labs Entrepreneurial Society, and Marketer.
Popular annual events that take place on the cobblestone streets of Gastown include the Vancouver International Jazz Festival and the Tour de Gastown international bicycle race.
In June 2004, Storyeum opened in Gastown. It was a lively theatrical 65-minute show that re-enacted the history of BC using eight sets that were all located below street level. Unfortunately, due to mounting debt, the attraction closed its doors in October 2006.
THE GASTOWN STEAM CLOCK:
Gastown’s most famous (though nowhere near oldest) landmark is its steam-powered clock, located on the corner of Cambie and Water Street. Built to cover a steam grate, part of Vancouver’s distributed steam-heating system, the clock was built as a way to harness the steam and to prevent street people from sleeping on the spot in cold weather. Its original design was faulty and it had to be powered by electricity after a breakdown. The steam mechanism was completely restored with the financial support of local businesses as it had become a major tourist attraction, and is promoted as a heritage feature although it is of modern invention. The steam used is low pressure downtown-wide steam heating network (from a plant adjacent to the Georgia Viaduct) that powers a miniature steam engine in its base, in turn driving a chain lift. The chain lift moves steel balls upward, where they are unloaded and roll to a descending chain. The weight of the balls on the descending chain drives a conventional pendulum clock escapement, geared to the hands on the four faces. The steam also powers the clock’s sound production as whistles are used instead of bells to produce the Westminster “chime” and to signal the time.
Gastown retains few vestiges of its 1970s role as “Haight-Ashbury North”. with the area now mostly coffee shops, galleries, native art and import stores, restaurants and nightclubs.
Among Gastown’s clubs are Canvas, Modern, Fabric and Shine. Bars (a different licensing category in Vancouver) include 19 Below, The Cambie, Chill Winston, Columbia Club, Lamplighter Public House, Mao Mao Bistro, One Lounge, Revel, The Annex, and The Columbia. The Town Pump, now renamed <Fabric> was one of Vancouver’s premier live music venue since the hippie-era of the 1960s. The Blarney Stone is one of the more popular Irish-style party houses in Vancouver.
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