Take a walk on the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s historic district in the heart of the city. Once known simply as the East End, today’s Downtown Eastside is made up of several districts: Victory Square, the Hastings corridor, Chinatown, Strathcona, Japantown (aka Oppenheimer), North Hastings, Gastown and the port of Vancouver—Canada’s largest and busiest port.
Located on unceded Coast Salish territory, the spit of land is bounded by Burrard Inlet on the north, the former tidal flats of False Creek to the south, and on the east and west between former tidal streams that once flowed through the gullies of today’s Campbell and Carrall/Columbia Streets.
Ancestors of today’s Coast Salish have used this area for thousands of years, establishing seasonal villages among the big leaf maples: K’emk’emlay’/Q’umq’umal’ay (where the Hastings Mill set up at the foot of Dunlevy and Burrard Inlet) and Luq’luq’i/Lek’lek’i (Maple Leaf Square, where Gassy Jack set up the first saloon). Three Coast Salish First Nations—the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleit-Waututh—exercised overlapping usage rights over this area, a hub of trade routes between the coast and interior nations. At that time, False Creek was four times the size it is today.
Gastown, designated a national historic site, was the neighbourhood’s earliest commercial and residential district. It contains 19th century buildings converted from warehouses into retail, offices, galleries and “down home and upscale” housing. Gastown backs onto the home of the area’s newest arrivals—the renovated Woodward’s complex and the Simon Fraser University School of the Contemporary Arts.
Victory Square’s heritage and character buildings—offices and residential—surround a Cenotaph dedicated to those who’ve fought and died in wars. Victory Square has served as a rallying point for workers and social causes, for May Day celebrations of labour struggles, and for Remembrance Day ceremonies.
For over a hundred years, people have gathered at the corner of Hastings and Main to find lost friends, catch up on the news and connect to community. The neighbourhood’s 19th century and new buildings provide housing for low income residents and the Carnegie Community Centre is their living room.
Japantown was once the site of a bustling vibrant Japanese Canadian community; today it is home to the city’s oldest buildings, to families and seniors and to Oppenheimer Park, the neighbourhood’s back yard. Once the only place in Vancouver that you could go to freely voice a political opinion, the park has been home to many major events in the city’s history and is still a gathering place for Japanese Canadians.
Chinatown, one of the oldest Chinatowns in North America, is a thriving shopping district with heritage buildings, residential apartments, stores and galleries, and a classical Chinese Garden. It has applied to be designated a national historic site.
Strathcona, one of the city’s densest neighbourhoods, is a family oriented community of diverse, closely packed homes and social housing mixed with light industry, corner grocery stores and community gardens—a community in which generations can live and work and shop and play.
Look around and listen as you walk through the streets of the Downtown Eastside. Every street, park, building, window, doorway and front porch has a story to tell.
by Savannah Walling