I have known Vancouver since 1935. But my, how she has changed - from a tentative teen - to a lady who can match sophistication with any city in the world.
In l935, Vancouver was a random gathering of citizens of mostly British or Slavic background - a town where a person could walk north on Granville Street past the Hudson's Bay and Kresge's five and dime (or was it the Metropolitan?) and invariably meet a friend.
A few blocks north - the present Sinclair Centre - with its mixture of upscale retail shops has usurped the hub corner of Granville and Hastings Streets, where Vancouver's main Post Office dispensed two- and three-cent stamps. I remember in the late thirties stepping over the feet of the quiet, hungry men who were “sitting in” for honest work until they were dispersed by policemen brandishing sticks. When the Second World War broke out in l939, many joined the army for three square meals a day.
Downstairs in the old post office was the headquarters of the Dominion Telegraph Service - people sent telegrams in those days.
East on Hastings Street - was Spencer's Department Store - their escalators were made of wooden slats that caught high heels. A neat system of payment in the meat department downstairs had customers tuck their money for a purchase into a little machine that whizzed on overhead wires and returned with their change.
People talk about the fog, but Vancouverites today don't know what fog is! Many a day and night, the North Van ferries - fare: five cents - tooted their way through the soup across the Inner Harbour. They were always crammed full of shipyard workers during the Second World War - some of whom couldn't wait for the ferry to dock and jumped off too soon, before the ramp was down, and were crushed between the ferry and the dock. I saw it happen.
You really couldn't see your hand in front of your face and I remember once walking in front of a taxi to lead it across Burrard Street Bridge; the other bridges had streetcar tracks to follow in thick fog.
Walking east on Hastings from Granville, led to the B.M. Clarke Hosiery store and Germaine's Ladies Wear. On the south side of Hastings was PAINLESS PARKER the depression dentist who charged $1 for extractions and $2 for a filling - we had our teeth pulled not filled. Who could afford $2?
Granville Island, now a tourist paradise, was entirely commercial. Sweeney's Cooperage made the best barrels in the west and Gerody's Sawmill quietly accepted discreetly appropriated beachcomber's logs, which had detached from Davis Rafts broken up in storms. Surprisingly, Ocean Cement, an early resident, is still doing its putzy putzy thing on the Island.
Walking down Cordova to the North Van ferry terminal, there were beautiful ladies of the night beckoning from behind heavy drapes in window fronts. They were dressed in floor length coloured skirts and had huge hoop earrings. As a 13 year old, I wanted to look exactly like them when I grew up. It wasn't until years later, I discovered why they were beckoning!
In front of the popular Woodward's Department Store on Hastings Street, old Indian ladies with brown, crinkled faces sat cross-legged on the sidewalk with exquisite handmade cedar-bark and root baskets for sale for a pittance - now they are worth a fortune.
The Theatre District included the Orpheum and Capital on the east side of Granville between Robson and Georgia Streets, and the Lyric and Colonial theatres on the west side, with the Strand around the corner east on Georgia. The price of a ticket to the Colonial was a nickel and I forget which theatre but one of them dispensed boxes of soap with dishes inside and you could collect a whole set.
Streetcars were far more reliable than buses. A two-car interurban train ran from downtown Vancouver through Marpole to Lulu Island (nobody called it Richmond in those days), and it was a whole day's outing travelling to Lulu Island to pick blueberries. Richmond now sports at least six large Asian Malls and the non-Asian population is easily outnumbered but back then, the only Asians lived in the small Japanese fishing village of Steveston. A black blot in our history was when those Japanese - some third generation Canadian - were bundled off to the interior of the province and Alberta with their property and fishing boats expropriated during the Second World War.
Expensive extravaganzas have replaced the simple pleasures of the thirties, but Teddy Lyons used to be a big hit for locals and tourists alike. His festooned, open-air, red and yellow streetcar with seats graduating in height from back to front took people on tours of the city. Blankets were supplied for knees on cold days, while on many street corners, buskers performed - for thrown coins - as the vehicle slowed down. And still on the subject of streetcars, it was really exciting when a new streamlined red and yellow streetcar wended its way slowly over a rickety trestle to Kitsilano Beach, and forbidden pedestrians, like us, had to stand on outcroppings while it whizzed past.
Guys took their gals to the free Kitsilano Showboat or sat way back from the stage so they didn't have to pay to listen to the performances at Theatre Under the Stars in Stanley Park.
Ivar, of Ivars Acres of Clams fame in Seattle, opened an aquarium in the English Bay bathhouse. It was interesting, but it didn't last long. And Alex the Greek's was the hangout at English Bay (my mother forbid me to go there, and I didn't).
There were riding stables in the 1400 block of Alberni Street, and a huge arena, destroyed by fire, at the corner of Denman and Georgia, where I watched Gracie Fields do cartwheels across the stage when she was in her 60s.
The door-to-door Watkins Spice man, the bread man, the knife sharpeners, the iceman and finally the milkman are things of the past, but the old milk-wagon horses in the West End knew their route as well as their drivers and many times ambled on ahead when the drivers took too long over a customer's cuppa. Many of the horses were stabled at the southwest corner of l6th and Cambie Streets.
No international fireworks competitions were held in the good old days. Sand, ocean and friends were exciting enough. A big old red brick building called Engelsea Lodge was built over the water at the entrance to Stanley Park on Beach Avenue, and the Winter Gardens was a long pier extending into the waters of English Bay. The big raft called Big Bertha with its waterslide was towed from Coal Harbour to English Bay for the summer season.
We rollerskated at the Trianon Ballroom and danced at the Embassy on Davie Street or the Alexandra Ballroom above the liquor store at Hornby and Robson Streets (It had a spring floor).
Speaking of liquor - during the war, liquor was rationed and we were allowed one 32-ounce bottle of booze a month. Non-drinkers, like me (then), sold our ration for a profit.
Milk cost 10 cents a quart, bread 10 cents a loaf and on 99 Cent Day at Woodward's, a monthly tradition, three pounds of butter sold for 99 cents. My first taste of cynicism was when I was hired by Woodward's the day before 99-cent day to mark things up from a lower price to 99 cents for the event!
I suppose change is sometimes for the better, but I didn't think so when the old Hotel Vancouver, which stood where Sear's (and formerly Eaton's) is now located at the southwest corner of Georgia and Granville Streets, was torn down. It housed so many memories. An old man in a raincoat with rubbers tied to his feet with elastic bands used to wander into the ballroom of the old hotel and play the grand piano with artist's fingers. We called him The Professor. Veterans and their families were billeted in the old hotel during the war. It had a brownstone facade and a circular driveway.
I guess all cities have their “characters” and Vancouver didn't lack them. A man we called The Mad Russian had five Irish Terriers on a leashes. He was dressed in a white uniform with white boots and tramped around the West End. A very old lady was a fixture on Georgia Street and was said to be the mistress of a very wealthy man. She always dressed in black and teetered on high heels down Georgia Street between Howe and Granville Streets. And then there was the old Italian lady with round, rouged cheeks, who stood near the Birk's clock (where everyone met) at the corner of Georgia and Granville Streets. She had a newspaper stand and yelled loudly “LIBRETY” instead of *Liberty*, a popular magazine that sold for five cents. (I sold my first story to *Liberty Magazine* in l959! It was called “My Do It Yourself Husband Never Does.”)
The drinking hole for college students was in the basement of the Georgia Hotel. Back then, ladies weren't allowed into Beer Parlours by themselves so the signs above these establishments, at hotel fronts, read Gentlemen Only in one entrance or Ladies and Escorts in another.
My memories of the Vancouver I loved as a girl still come back to me now and then amid the hustle and bustle of the city she is today. Newcomers may appreciate the glass and steel impersonal exterior of present day Vancouver, but we old timers were lucky to be part of a small, friendly Vancouver, as we peeked into her soul.
MARCH 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
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