Friday, August 6, 2010

Walking Home Projects July 22nd - Historical Yaletown Walk with John Atkins

Today’s Walking Home Projects focused on the history of Yaletown. John Atkin, a well-known local historian and author[1] was our guide, so the group was very excited. John explained that his interest in Vancouver’s past was initially spurred from the lack of thorough and accurate information about our city’s history. He illustrated this point right off the hop. We had all met in front of the Roundhouse, and John decided to give us a more in depth explanation of the history of the rail-yards in Yaletown, the Roundhouse and Engine 347. In an earlier session, we had learned that Engine 347 was the first to make it all the way across Canada. Although this is true, John let us know that the engine had been almost completely reconstructed by the time it found its way back to Vancouver and that, today, it isn’t even operational!

As we walked south along Davie Street, John informed us that, when the rail-yard was first built in Yaletown, the waterfront actually used to be much closer to the Roundhouse. In fact, the water reached all the way to Pacific Boulevard! The land which we were standing on was essentially created to make space for train tracks, yards and terminals. The area had originally consisted of mud flats which were filled in with sediment, contrary to the popular rumour, which John was eager to debunk, of scrap trains and tracks. John explained that some people have worried about the buildings in this area being constructed on unrooted sediment in recent years, thinking that this ground would be less stable in the event of an earthquake, particularly “the Big One”, which is predicted to hit the Vancouver area anytime in the next 100 years! You can bet I was keeping my fingers crossed for the rest of the day!

After some discussion, we headed west along Marinaside Crescent to see something rather unexpected: Co-operative housing. I’m continually surprised to see that Yaletown is more than the “yuppy” label it receives, but I feel as our sessions continue – and in light of this session in particular! – that things are almost never what they seem!

John explained that this area ceased to be the hub for train activities after the 1920s. The space was inefficient for the newer large freight cars and with most of the railroad companies out of the business of transporting people, the yard was relocated to Port Coquitlam. The area went mostly unused until Expo ‘86, when it was purchased by the BC government who cleared the old buildings to make room for the exhibition. The only building saved was the Roundhouse, escaping demolition thanks to a group of historical activists who stood between the building and a herd of ready bulldozers – literally! After Expo ‘86 the province sold the land in one large chunk, rather little pieces, to Chinese billionare Li Ka-shing. John explained that this sale bothers many people, who think the land was given cheaply. But, at the time, this kind of sale probably saved the province (and the city) a lot of money in development planning. Because they sold in bulk, there was only one developer, Concord Pacific, and one consistent plan, which resulted in a well-designed, multi-purpose neighbourhood. John explained that North False Creek has served as a laboratory of sorts for figuring out how to make high density neighbourhoods work, and because of its success, cities often use it as a model. The model is so popular that it’s known in architectural circles as “Vancouverism”!

One interesting detail of this urban design that John pointed out was the use of street level condos with patios that open onto the street. They are separated by a small slightly raised porch with a staircase descending onto the sidewalk; John explained that this design feature was inspired by the Georgian architecture of the 1800s, which used these raised terraces to house servants beneath the steps. These terraces were mimicked in Vancouver, but not for their original usage! Unlike many flat high rises, which come right down to the sidewalks, these buildings create space between the building and the street which creates a sense of safety and community; pedestrians feel like they are able to easily access and interact with their neighbours, while residents have privacy and separation from the street. This little detail of urban planning stood out for me because it was something I would never notice on my own, but did affect me and my interpretation of this neighbourhood on a subconscious level. It was also an amazing reminder of how past innovation and style continues to be used – albeit in a modified form – in the present.

From here we headed up Drake Street towards Hamilton and “the warehouse district”, which was, according to John, the name for much of what is now “Yaletown”. The warehouse history is most evident along Hamilton and Mainland which both used to function as loading docks for train cargo and thus have raised sidewalks, narrow streets and large garage doors on the buildings. John explained that these industrial details were left in place to preserve the history of the neighbourhood and create a sense of character. This historical preservation seems important for a young country like Canada which doesn’t have a long history, and I was impressed by the foresight of those who worked (and work) at maintaining this neighbourhood’s identity.

The day ended back at the Roundhouse Canada Line Station where we learned that the narrow weaving concrete wall in the park surrounding the station was a marker of where the shoreline used to reach. It was a good final reminder of the changes this neighbourhood has undergone, from its natural state, to industrial train yard, to cosmopolitan residential neighbourhood.

sam - the notepad kid


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