An Urban Palimpsest
Woodwards and Canada’s Poorest Postal Code
Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood has long been plagued by poverty, disease and addiction. As new development improves the area, the poor are pushed from their homes and community. At the centre of this transformation sits Woodwards: once a department store, now a housing and community hub. Excavating the urban layers puts the current conflict in context — and shows the possibility for inclusive development. This is the second in a four part series exploring the history of the Downtown Eastside through the lens of a single property. Get the rest of the story here: part one, part three, part four.
Vancouver is a young city compared to other settlements in North America, and streetcar technology was fully proven when development began in earnest. “You had two systems,” says John Atkin, “there were smaller, lighter cars that went around the city, and you had the interurban system, heavier cars, and they did the long distance travel.” This extensive network meant that a customer could board at the station close to Woodwards, and travel all the way to Chilliwack, one hundred kilometers away, with only a single transfer. This is a journey that can’t be done by public transit at all today.
Many east coast cities had streetcar systems that were an exclusively urban service. “Because downtown Vancouver was so tiny, the streetcar lines went out like tentacles into the farmland. So we built the suburbs in the early days,” says Atkin.
The far-reaching streetcar network allowed workers to live outside the inner city, but still access industries and shops. From its earliest days, Vancouver has relied on a working population that lives in large, disbursed homes with front and back yards.
According to Atkin, “It’s not uncommon to be in far South Vancouver doing research and you come across these beautiful 1910 houses where a Hudson’s Bay employee or a Woodward’s clerk lived. And then these guys would walk two or three blocks to a streetcar line and go to work.”
Early Vancouver residents were not only able to live in spacious houses outside they inner city; lower land values meant they were often able to own their properties too. This disbursed and spacious urban form would go on to have profound effects when Vancouver entered the automobile age.
City of Slums, City of Freeways
By the end of World War Two, many North American inner cities were nightmares of crowded living and crushing poverty. With the cold war ramping up, there was a serious fear among national policymakers of social revolution in the slums. The solution, as John Atkin says, is to “get them out of the city, spread them out… it’s a massive social engineering project, and it gives rise to the single family home as we know it.”
In the United States, the mechanism used to clear inner city slums was a clever piece of legislation known as the Urban Renewal Program. Couched in terms of rejuvenation and modernization, municipal governments used Urban Renewal to expropriate, bulldoze and rebuild inner cities. A modernist vision of high-rises in parks connected by freeways drove rebuilding efforts. The ubiquitous high-rise housing projects and downtown freeways that define so many North American cities today are the children of Urban Renewal.
In Vancouver, there was nothing that could be defined as an urban slum. The main reason for the lack of an inner city working class slum in Vancouver was the development of the streetcar network a half-century earlier. “Unlike, say, Montreal, that had crowded, dense housing, here we had pretty much the whole working population living in nice houses with yards right across the city, because they could do so right from day one.” The layers of development begun by the streetcar network created a unique context into which the policies of Urban Renewal arrived.
With federal money available for massive housing and highway programs in the 1950s, there was a meteoric rise in the use of private automobiles. As author John M. Levy has pointed out, “If one wanted to pick a single theme that defined much of urban design in the twentieth century, coming to terms with the automobile might be the best choice.” Suburban housing policies and automobile use extended hand-in-hand, and reshaped every city on the continent.
Vancouver’s population disbursed along new highways, and Woodwards flagship Hastings location became more reliant on local patronage. When the last of the old streetcar lines was finally torn up in 1953, it was no longer practical for people to travel downtown to visit the store.
The working men came into town horny and rich, stayed until the money ran out, then made their way back to the woods or the ocean.
At the same time, goods transport became land-based because of the expanded highway system. Many traditional shipping operations along the harbour closed down and left their warehouses vacant. Atkin says, “A lot of the traditional warehousing industries that used to supply saw blades and chains closed. So we had a lot of empty warehouses, we had guys sitting on the street corners with bottles, and you had the other problem of a whole bunch of really cheap hotels, filled with a whole bunch of retired loggers.”
By this time, the neighbourhood around Woodward’s had gained the reputation of Skid Road, named for the fish-greased log roads along which loggers used to pull felled trees to the mills before the turn of the century.
The hotels around Woodwards had always been the first stop for loggers and other industry workers returning from the hinterlands. The area was filled with “buck-a-day” hotels that catered to these migrant resource workers. In Guilty of Everything, author and punk frontman John Armstrong describes the scene: “The working men came into town horny and rich, stayed until the money ran out, then made their way back to the woods or the ocean. A few months later they came back and did it again until one day they were too old to go back to work or were just too busted-up and crippled. Then they moved in permanently and learned how to make a glass of draft beer last four or five hours.” John Atkin agrees with this assessment, but stresses that it was not particularly dangerous in the 1960s. “[Skid Road] was this quite lovely, rough around the edges, but stable neighbourhood.”
Many business leaders, including Woodwards new president Mr. “Chunky” Woodward, were less enthusiastic about the rough edges of the neighbourhood. While the city developed its extensive highway plans, a consortium of private interests banded together to draft a redevelopment plan for the Vancouver waterfront. The proposal was known as Project 200 (for the $200 million needed for the primary phase of development), and it epitomized the tabula rasa urban planning philosophy typical of the day.
In 1969, the directors of Project 200 signed off on an advertisement brochure that claimed the project would “create a new concept of urban environment.” The names in the list of directors include three executives of the Woodwards company, executives of the Simpson-Sears department store, the executives of various investment companies, and the general manager of Marathon Realty, Canadian Pacific Railway’s real estate arm.
A Modernist Utopian Vision
The main thrust of Project 200 was the razing of 23 acres of urban land, including the city blocks between Howe and Abbot Street, and Water and Hastings Street. The completed project would leave the flagship Woodwards department store intact at the corner of the new development, plugged into a highway and parking super-complex connected to the rest of metro Vancouver.
The core of Project 200 relied heavily on federal freeway and bridge building money made available by Urban Renewal policies. Part of the brochure reads, “Recent announcements indicate that a major programme of improvements to the arterial road network in Metropolitan Vancouver is about to be undertaken.” The federal government would finance a massive raised plaza that would support the towers above the planned highway.
A key component of the road improvements was a third crossing of Burrard Inlet through a tunnel that would connect North Vancouver to the downtown peninsula. From here, the freeway would pass along the waterfront through Project 200. Finally, the new highway system would run East-West through Chinatown and Strathcona to connect downtown with the Trans Canada Highway.
In the city’s reports from the 50s, they actually say ‘We will be purchasing these lots because of their Chinese ownership.’
City administration was eager to participate in Urban Renewal through Project 200 and the accompanying freeways. But there was just one problem: there was nothing that fit the description of a slum. “We had areas that were slightly rundown,” says Atkin, “But you really couldn’t go in there and say, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to tear this down.’”
Although the city had nothing that could be strictly defined as a slum, local officials were eager to spend the available federal money. “So the city defaulted to a racial bias,” says John Atkin. To access the federal redevelopment funds, the city branded Strathcona a blighted area in need of rejuvenation. “In the city’s reports from the 50s,” Atkin tells me, “they actually say, we will be purchasing the lots in [Strathcona] because of its high concentration of Chinese ownership.”
Racial bias in city administration was not a new phenomenon in Vancouver. In 1907, a riot by the Asiatic Exclusion League, which began with racist speeches at City Hall, trashed the city’s Chinatown and Japantown. During World War Two, the destruction of Japantown was completed when city government officials conspired to have the seized property of interned Japanese-Canadians auctioned off.
Considering the neighbourhood a slum, the city undervalued many of the Chinese-owned properties they wanted to purchase. “[The city was] offering on average 3 to 4 thousand dollars per house. At the time, the houses were worth anywhere between 8 to 10 thousand dollars,” says Atkin. Homeowners had no interest in leaving their neighbourhood for a pittance, and resistance to the city’s plan started to boil over.
As the anti-freeway chorus began to pick up steam, recalls John Atkin, the new Georgia Viaduct became a focus of citywide protests. The construction of the viaduct had destroyed Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver’s traditional black neighbourhood, and protesters were furious. “There was a massive protest the day [the viaduct] opened. Both ends of the thing were blocked,” says Atkin. Adding to noise around the viaduct, the Chinese community in Strathcona began to protest their eviction, and the federal and provincial governments were squabbling over where exactly the proposed east-west connector would meet the Trans Canada Highway.
Resistance from the Chinese community gave everyone else in the anti-freeway camp time to organize, and in 1972 Mayor Tom “Terrific” Campbell and his ruling Non-Partisan Association (NPA) were thrown out of office in favour of Mayor Arthur “Art” Phillips and The Electors’ Action Movement (TEAM). “It was a really interesting group of people,” says Atkin, in reference to TEAM, “because you had university professors, social advocates, and Art Phillips is an investment banker.”
Phillips and his reform-minded, centrist party promised Vancouver that, “Downtown should be a place where people want to come, work, stay and live, not work and leave.” With this pronouncement, federal funding for Project 200 was withdrawn. The vision of a modernist, utopian freeway city of housing projects and monolithic office towers was dead in the water.
Early streetcars generated the economic vibrancy of the 1900s; 70 years later their echoes reverberated through history and empowered the anti-freeway movement, ending the Urban Renewal agenda.
To be continued…