Founding Communities

The Downtown Eastside is Vancouver’s Founding neighbourhood and founding community, home to Coast Salish people since time immemorial, and site of many major events in the city’s history. Our community has been multi-cultural since the first newcomers arrived from the four corners of the globe. Today we’re home to the largest urban Aboriginal “reserve” in Canada and to the 2nd largest historical Chinatown in North America.

British immigrant John Deighton (aka Gassy Jack) arrived in 1867 with his wife Marion, a Squamish woman of the land, to set up shop a few feet from high tide on a Coast Salish summer campsite. Here in the place we now know as MAPLE TREE SQUARE he sold “spirits” to lumbermen working at Hastings Mill. One year later—just down the street— Portuguese immigrant Joe Silvey and his wife Khaltinaht (Mary Ann) opened a grocery store and saloon (the Hole-in-the-Wall). She was Chief Kiapilano’s granddaughter and of Musqueam and Squamish descent.

African Canadian immigrants Josephine Sullivan and her husband Phillip, a piano player, arrived in the early 1870s and opened a tiny restaurant and general store next door to the Hole-in-the-Wall. Their son Arthur formed the town’s first band with his brothers, built the Sullivan block on Cordova Street and signed the petition for incorporation of the city of Vancouver.

In 1872, Louis and Emma Gold, a Jewish family originally from Poland and Prussia, arrived in Gastown where they set up a general store on Water Street. A Chinese immigrant family operated the Wah Chong Laundry in 1884 on Water Street facing the waters of Burrard Inlet. Jennie Wah Chong was the first Chinese person to attend school in Vancouver. Portuguese Joe Silvey fondly remembered the early days of Gastown as a place where everyone was accepted on their merits regardless of birth or race.

Twenty years later, Japanese immigrant Take Jisan arrived to work at Hastings Sawmill. By 1906, Sikh immigrants from Punjab were working at the sawmills on False Creek and Burrard Inlet. By the 1920s, the East End was home to Chinatown and little Italy. A Jewish community gathered around the synagogue at Pender and Heatley, a Japanese community gathered around Powell Street and an Afro-American community formed around the CPR train station. There were clusters of Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Russians, Ukrainians and Arab Christians.

Although Gastown’s pioneers included families from many distant lands, within ten years of its founding racism reared its head. BC passed legislation denying the vote to “Chinese and Indians” and denied them the opportunity to own land. The federal government removed First Nations children from their homes and put them into residential schools and prohibited indigenous practices including Coast Salish Winter Dances and the Potlatch. Although by 1907 one seventh of the city’s population was Asian, an economic downturn ignited an anti-Asian riot of looting from Chinatown to Japantown where they were halted by resisters armed with clubs and bottles. The Downtown Eastside community is still healing from the aftermath of these events.

Today almost half the population of our neighbourhood is a visible minority. Each street is like walking a different neighbourhood, filled with people from various cultures, walks of life and circumstance.

Blessed with a rich and diverse culture, heritage and history, for over 125 years our residents have provided jobs, cultural activities, food and services for working people’s off hours. We’ve organized for equal rights, work, wages, housing, social services, treatment programs, green places, cultural centres and memorials. Our neighbourhood has shaped this city’s history and we are still contributing to Vancouver today.

by Savannah Walling