There is a change ahead

The notice at the southern entrance to the Granville Street Bridge portends change ahead. “No Teardrops” the bulletin seems to instruct. I disregard the directive.

My goal on this November day in 2023 is to walk across the bridge to Vancouver’s West End, as my mother did every Saturday as an adolescent growing up in Fairview in the 1940s. Nostalgia fuels my every step. Nowhere can I see a trace my mother would have recognized.

I had flown into YVR from Terrace that morning, the city dark and half asleep when I land at 7 and board the Skytrain. Each stop pulls more office workers and students into a stream of bodies pulsing toward downtown. I step off the train at Broadway City Hall and follow the flow through the concrete station out into the crisp autumn air.

“Does this bus go to Granville Street?”

I ask a blank-faced middle-aged man in a business suit at the bus stop near the corner of Broadway and Cambie. He shakes his head and points across Broadway.

I could have walked to Granville Street in 25 minutes. The map on my phone shows a series of streets rising up through the avenues like tree trunks, hinting at the forests razed to build Vancouver:

Ash, Willow, Laurel, Oak, Spruce, Alder, Birch, Hemlock, Fir, Pine, Cypress, Maple, Arbutus, Yew, Balsam, Larch.

The west coast’s iconic cedar was felled from the series when the city planners opted for Burrard. Granville interrupts the trees between Hemlock and Fir.

Jumping off the bus at Alder Street I skip downhill a short block to 8th Avenue, turn left and walk up 8th to Granville. Stand mesmerized in front of the DesRosiers building, which I recognize from Google street view and the Fraser Elliott Real Estate Group’s online property listings.

This dilapidated building is all that remains of the 1500 block of West 8th Avenue that existed when my mother lived on the opposite end of the block in the 1930s and 40s. It will be torn down the minute it sells—the property, a block from the new South Granville Skytrain station currently under construction, is advertised as vacant land.

Asking price: $30 million.

It was valued at $14,000 in 1908 when an entrepreneurial tinsmith named Magloire DesRosiers applied to the City of Vancouver for a permit to build a frame store and apartment house. DesRosiers built an L-shaped building with ten storefronts—five apiece on Granville and 8th—and an equal number of apartments on the second floor.

Back of Desrosier building, 2023

Today those apartments are deserted. Paint flutters in ragged strips from their bay windows; black mould has colonized the shiplap. But when the building was fresh, one of its first tenants was Bill Chaytor, a New Brunswicker who came west to join Vancouver’s building boom.

Fairview 1911. Photo source Vancouver City Archives

Fairview in 1911 was a vision racing ahead of itself. Still today, this neighbourhood is racing to keep up with developers’ visions.

Residential tower under construction above the South Granville Skytrain station

Back in 1908 when DesRosiers built his apartment block, only six houses stood on the 1500 block of West 8th. Three on the north side of the dirt avenue were temporary shacks. The posh ones on the south side, built a decade earlier, belonged to three of Vancouver’s old boys: road and housing contractor brothers Lachlan and John McLean, and Harry Painter, accountant for the CPR Lands Department and the city’s long-serving assessment commissioner.

Coincidentally, Harry Painter emigrated to Canada from the same place as my grandmother: The Potteries of North Staffordshire, England. There the similarities between them end. My grandmother struggled to pay the rent on a 4-room cottage on the opposite side of the street from Painter’s corner house, which had ten bedrooms, four fireplaces, a den, a large living room with conservatory, a dining room, a roomy kitchen, a breakfast room, a billiard room in the basement, hot water heat, a treed lawn and a large garage.

By the time my grandmother moved her family to the block in 1936, Painter’s house had been bulldozed to make way for commercial development on Granville Street.

Nothing human-built lasts long on this acre of ground.

Bill May, a teamster, was the first settler to own 1585 West 8th. He sold it to Edmund and Isobel Menzies, who immediately tore it down. They hired Bill Chaytor, who was living in the DesRosier building up the street, to build a four-room cottage at the back of the lot, which Chaytor and his family then moved into and lived in while he built a three-storey rooming house at the curb. Both structures were built to generate rental income for the Menzies. They remained rental properties until further development razed them in the 1950s.

The cottage at the back of 1585 is the nexus of a dream world to me, and today I’ve travelled 433 air miles seeking traces of that world.

The little house in the gap was flanked by taller ones: the rooming house it shared the property with, numbered 1587, and the Willises’ house at 1555, which had a monkey puzzle tree in the front. On the corner, next to the rooming house, the Stuart family raised rabbits in the backyard. I know these details from my mother’s stories and photographs.

Mom’s family lived on the 1500 block of West 8th for twelve years, from 1936 until 1948, when my grandmother moved her brood to Alberni. Just a few years after they left, the city rebuilt the Granville Street bridge, which set in motion changes that transformed the neighbourhood.

First, the two houses on the end of the block were knocked down to build a commercial building, still standing today but its days are numbered. The Willises’ house and its monkey puzzle tree went next. The modest commercial building that replaced it didn’t last long. Today it’s the site of “a boutique building of twenty executive 3-bedroom residences, bringing the next level of living to Vancouver’s South Granville neighbourhood.”

Interestingly, the gap still exists, but instead of containing a cottage and my grandmother’s flower beds, it’s a parking lot.

I spent the whole morning walking around the neighbourhood looking for traces of my mother’s and my grandmother’s 8th Avenue world. All I found were gaps.

Where the Roxy Theatre stood on Granville Street: a gap.

Where my mother worked her first job at the Sunset Bakery across the street from the Roxy: a gap.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice there were gardens growing in the gaps.

There is always change ahead. For me, it’s easier to accept that change when it comes with a garden. Even if the garden, too, is only temporary.

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