City Portrait: Vancouver

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

When I moved to Vancouver in March 1987, it rained every day for the next three months and I wondered what the hell I'd gotten myself into. But on a blue-sky day in April when scanning the city from Cypress Mountain, it's oh-so obvious why. God isn't making real estate like this anymore - at least any that I can get to. Big beautiful trees, sandy beaches, a mild climate, and all with snow-capped mountains for a backdrop, and on days when Sol deigns to shine, I could ski in the morning, golf in the afternoon, and sail into the evening.

Even for the New World, Vancouver is a young city. Until 1886, it existed only as a sawmill settlement called Granville at the mouth of Burrard Inlet, just north of the 49th parallel. In 1871, offered the prospect of a railroad connecting it to the east, British Columbia was beguiled into joining the confederation that was becoming Canada. At that time, plans called for the railroad to end in Prince Rupert, 500 miles further north.

However, in 1882, Canadian Pacific Railway president George Stephen ripped up his plans and switched his terminus to the mouth of the Fraser River close to Granville. A bold move, it necessitated a push over higher, more dangerous passes. But General Manager William Cornelius Van Horne was up to the task, and the CPR's Donald A. Smith drove the last spike in at Craigellachie, BC, on November 7, 1885. In 1886, Granville incorporated as a city, naming itself after the man who charted the nearby coast and inlets in 1792: Captain George Vancouver.

One of the new town fathers' first acts was to petition Canada's Governor General, Lord Stanley (of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" and hockey cup fame) to set aside 1,000 acres of forest for recreation. He agreed, and the burghers named the area Stanley Park in his honor.

The first major Vancouver settlement, Gastown, burned to the ground in 1896, so few Vancouver buildings pre-date that time. As the sawmills moved further out, Vancouver became "terminus city" and built a thriving economy around its port and railroad. Today, more than two million people live in the greater Vancouver region, making it Canada's third largest city, after Toronto and Montreal, and the busiest port on the western seaboard of North America.

In the 1960s, Vancouver and its sister city Seattle, 150 miles south, pondered whether to put freeways through the cities. Interstate 5 now slices through downtown Seattle. Vancouver's planners decided against the idea, citing the potential impact on the city's residents, and dreamed instead of constructing a rapid transit system when feasible.

The opportunity came with Vancouver's Expo in 1986. The Skytrain light-rail system built then now connects many of the burbs to downtown, and a new line will run to the airport by 2010, the year Vancouver and Whistler Mountain host the Winter Olympics.

Living in Vancouver is a lifestyle choice and the chosen style is laid back. It's often called Canada's San Francisco for its relaxed attitudes toward alternative esthetics. Other Canadians often joke about the work ethic here, and it's true: finding someone in the office on a sunny Friday afternoon can be challenging. But with so much to do out of doors - not just motorcycling - it's tough to stay inside. Besides, Vancouver is a branch-office town for many of Canada's big companies, and showing too much initiative and ambition could mean a promotion that entails a move "back east." Looking around them, many opt to stay instead.

It's also a downtown town. The city's West End has one of the highest population densities in North America, with scores of condominium towers overlooking the waters of False Creek, Coal Harbour and English Bay. This makes for a lively street life and an astonishing number of cafes, coffee bars and restaurants. It makes the city safer at night, too.

Stanley Park is compulsory. As well as hundreds of miles of hiking trails, the Sea Wall is accessible all round the park - seven miles - then it continues through the downtown area and out to the University of British Columbia: almost 30 miles of mostly uninterrupted public waterfront access. Although you can ride round the park by motorcycle (but not on the Sea Wall), views are restricted from the road. Better to park the bike (metered parking only) and walk, or rent a bicycle.

The park has a unique collection of totem poles, an aquarium and other attractions. I prefer to watch the floatplanes - vintage de Havilland Beavers and Otters - clawing their way into the sky from their harbor-front base downtown, and listen to their thundering radial engines straining against the water's drag.

Mountains rise into the coast range to the north of Vancouver. Three of them - Cypress, Seymour and Grouse Mountains - have ski resorts just 20 minutes from downtown. In summer, the winding roads up Seymour and Cypress make for delightful motorcycling, with numerous viewpoints on the climb. From Cypress, the city is laid out below. Mount Baker hovers near the suburbs in the east. Stanley Park and the downtown high-rises float in front, and dominating the view to the west, the dense forest of the University of BC spreads, a lovely endowment given early on to ensure the university's financial survival.

Gastown is the oldest part of downtown Vancouver and was, until recently, its raciest. In the 1970s, it earned heritage status, which halted demolition of any more of its historic buildings. The Steam Clock there, a 2,300-pound, cast-bronze, long-case clock on the corner of Water Street, is a popular attraction.

The eastern end of Gastown is marked by Gassy Jack's statue at the corner of Water and Cordova Streets. Nearby Blood Alley is the site of Vancouver's first jail. Beyond lies the Downtown Eastside, a poor area of cheap rooming houses and street people around the industrial dockside - definitely not tourist territory, and a stark contrast to the affluent city center, less than a half mile west.

Vancouver's downtown boasts a stunning new public library in the style of the Coliseum. A block away, the Art Gallery, formerly the Law Courts, fronts the street with massive ionic columns. Apart from these examples, the architecture of the young city is mundane.

After jostling with the downtown tourist traffic, a great place to relax is English Bay, a sandy beach strip in the city's West End offering street cafes, restaurants and bars. The five-story Sylvia Hotel for many years was Vancouver's tallest building and tea dances were even held on its rooftop. Just over Burrard Bridge is Kitsilano, famous for beaches and beach volleyball.

And there's eastside Commercial Drive, formerly Little Italy, now the "now" address for the vanguard of Vancouver's alternative culture. The street scene there features maxed-out body piercing and skin art displays, while many of the coffee bars (more than 20 in a two-block stretch) serve as hothouses of passionate debate.

Bridges are a feature of any coastal city: Vancouver has four connecting the downtown core alone. Granville Island, just over the Granville Bridge from downtown, accommodated only wharves and warehouses until a federal project turned it into artisans' workshops and a public produce market. Now it boasts an arts theater, restaurants, and a classy hotel, although the cement plant persists.

My favorite "tour" of Vancouver involves a ride along Commercial Drive north to the waterfront, west through Gastown to the downtown core, around Stanley Park exiting at English Bay, then over Burrard Bridge to Kitsilano and back to Granville Island for a refresher at Bridges Pub overlooking the marina. Of course, there are gobs more to see and do, but if there's only so much time to spend, Vancouver certainly deserves a cruise over the Lions Gate Bridge to the North Shore and a ride up Cypress Mountain to admire the real estate.

Gassy Jack
Gastown was named for "Gassy Jack" Deighton, who left Hull in England to set up a saloon in New Westminster, the starting point of the 1860's gold rush trail. With the rush over and the opening of Stamp's Sawmill at Granville in 1867, Deighton moved his business ("...with $ 6 in his pocket, a few sticks of furniture, a yellow dog and a bottle of whiskey.") six miles downriver to service the thirsty sawmill workers. Within 24 hours of arriving, he'd opened the "Globe Saloon" (nothing more than a plank balanced on two whiskey barrels, by some accounts) and was nicknamed "Gassy" for his talkativeness. In time he built the more substantial Deighton House Hotel and married a 12-year-old native girl, who bore him a simple-minded son, Richard, derided later in life as the "Earl of Granville." Overlooking the corner of Water and Cordova Streets in Gastown is a bronze statue of Gassy Jack by local artist Vern Simpson.

The Gastown Steam Clock
Designed by Vancouver horologist Raymond Saunders and installed in 1977, this timepiece has no real 'clockworks.' Instead, it uses a Stewart Turner #4 steam engine to drive the mechanism. Every 15 minutes, the clock plays the famous Westminster carillon on its four steam pipes. And when it does, it's as much fun watching the tourists' faces as the clock! The steam comes from underground pipes formerly used to heat many downtown buildings.

Kitsilano
Vancouver's Kitsilano district is named for August Jack, hereditary Chief Khatsahlano of the Squamish Nation, who was born in Stanley Park. Upon his death in 1971, he was believed to be well over 100 years old. A particularly grueling 15-mile cross-country run through the North Shore Mountains also bears his name.