October 19thHistorian John Atkin telling us the “Real” stories behind Carrall Street

October 19th, 2010 Review
Written by: Samantha Knopp

One of the motifs popping up in every session of Walking Home Carrall Street is the perspectival nature of history.  Our walks have demonstrated that seeking out the past is not as simple as reading a text book to get the facts.  Rather, “what really happened” is extremely elusive because history is a composite of many perspectives from the past, and all of which are subject to change in the telling based on the concerns of the present. During today’s session, the group was given some insight into the malleable nature of the past by local civic historian and author, John Atkin.

John joined us at entrance to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden .  We had heard about the history of Vancouver already from others, but John would be another perspective to add to our mosaic of sources telling us of Vancouver’s past.  John began by explaining how much the area has changed, even down to the very ground we stood on. He astounded the group with the fact that False Creek used to come past where we stood, all the way to Pender Street!  John went on to explain the origins of the city, and the important role that natural resources – and lumber in particular – have had on its development.  Near the end of the 19th century Vancouver was completely forested, with trees recorded to be 22 feet across and 350 feet tall, the same height as today’s average high-rise in downtown Vancouver!  Such an enormous forest today would be an immediate tourist attraction, and in fact, it was the lure of these massive trees that brought the first settlers to Vancouver.  But their industry wasn’t tourism; instead, the first commercial enterprises in the area were sawmills.  The mill owners chose to build along the water at Burrard Inlet and along the edge of False Creek, which was, at that time, unbeknownst to us, right where we were standing today!  With a plethora of single men working the mills, brothels were some of the next businesses in the area, and many of them opened along Pender and Carrall Streets to provide easy access to the workers at one of the largest mills at the time, the Royal City Planning Mill.  John explained that even as this area was later developing into Chinatown, this early history still cast its shadow. From 1910-1940 Chinatown was frequently criticized as a hotbed of gambling and prostitution because of the area’s historic association with the sawmills and brothels.

Catherine welcoming John Atkin at the Garden (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

John then led the group across Carrall Street and up to Pender Street where we stopped at the Sam Kee Building.  This particular building is, famously, the world’s narrowest building.  But John chose to stop here not to tell us that, but instead to demonstrate the ease with which myths can become accepted facts.  He explained that, at the turn of the century, Chinatowns across North America were often labelled as dealing in drugs, prostitution, and gambling, speculation that was fueled largely by the anti-Asian sentiment of the time more than any actual evidence.  Since there was no tangible proof of these vices, stories emerged to fill in the gaps.  One suggested that these misdeeds were merely hidden underground… literally!  Apparently, people suggested that there was a system of secret tunnels buried under the streets of Chinatown where illicit dealings took place.  While it is a pretty cool story, John explained that it is nothing more than that.  In fact, the only reason the myth still lingers is the Sam Kee Building.  John said that many tour guides often point to the building’s narrow basement – which is now visible from the street – as evidence of a discovered tunnel, when in fact, the basement was a popular public bathhouse.

As we continued north along Carrall towards Hastings Street, John pointed out another building with a confused history, the Chinese Freemasons building.  John explained how the building is popularly described as having both a Chinese and European facade to represent the culture of Chinatown on the side facing Pender Street, and the European culture of Gastown on the side facing Carrall Street.  John explained that, based on his research, this is not the case.  Instead, it is just the common architectural practice of embellishing the front of a building that faces an important street more than the sides that do not.  This was a particularly interesting observation because our guest from last week, Annabel Vaughan, had shared the other story of the building, which perhaps goes to show that there are many versions of history.

Two sides of every story (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

As we continued past Hastings, John reflected on the history of the CPR, the Interurban Railway, and the gradual shift in the neighbourhood from being the city’s central hub to a location many would rather avoid altogether.  Even though our group has walked past East Hastings Street a few times already in the program, many of us are still shocked by an environment that is so drastically different from our own lives.  When John took us into a pungent alley between the Gospel Mission building and the Rainier Hotel (part of the Portland Hotel Society), I’d venture to say that most of the group felt somewhat out of their element.  John wanted to show us an artefact of the city’s history that still lingers if you look closely – a 100-year-old painted advertisement on the brick wall of the Gospel Mission for the original hotel offering rooms for 20 cents a night – but it was also a tangible wake-up call to present-day realities including homelessness and drug-use. While sometimes challenging and uncomfortable, I think we all recognize that it is important to expose ourselves to the DTES, and acknowledge the difficulties facing this community.

As we passed Cordova Street, the environment around us transformed as we approached the clean and charmingly-preserved district of Gastown.  Many of the city’s first buildings after the Great Vancouver Fire still remain in this neighbourhood, although the historical authenticity of those buildings is sometimes up for debate.  For instance, John took us on a quick detour behind the Byrnes Block where we entered a small courtyard known as Gaoler’s Mews.  He explained that gaoler is another word for jailor, and that the name was bestowed on this nook in the mid-1970s when Gastown was undergoing a massive renovation and beautification initiative.  According to John, the name was given based on some incomplete research about the area and the misunderstanding that a jail once used to sit in this spot.  In fact, the early town jail was nowhere near this site, but the name and legend stuck (as have a few accompanying ghost stories!).

How do you pronounce this? (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

Finally John took us across Carrall Street to Powell Street for a look at one last heritage building, Hotel Europe, a flat-iron building which is now an affordable housing complex. While John described the unique architecture and history of the building, perhaps what stood out most for many of us was FINALLY learning the truth about the purple glass one can see embedded in the sidewalks all around historic Vancouver.  John explained that these are called vault lights and were used as a way to light basements in many cities before electricity was installed.  He explained that the prisms were once clear glass, but with years of UV exposure the high manganese content found in the glass has turned them purple!

With the day coming to an end, we made our final stop at Interurban Gallery at Carrall and Hastings Streets before heading back to Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. The gallery is currently showing a photo exhibit by Horst Siegler called Angels Among the Rhetoric , which takes a closer look at the struggles and successes in the DTES.  Horst was kind enough to share his own story of his experience of the neighbourhood and its history, leaving us with just one more perspective on the area, its history, and peoples.

The Map of Where We Went – Oct 19th , 2010:


Youth Reviews

Jordan Isobel D.                                                                                            October 19, 2010
I enjoyed both speakers today.  Our first speaker, John Atkin, was very well spoken and informative!  Once again it was nice to walk around to different locations while listening to our speaker.  It was more interesting, and I remember information better that way.  A picture was left in my head with each fact I heard.

My favorite part of the tour was the visit to Interurban Gallery, and Horst Siegler, the artist who made the exhibit.  I really enjoyed his art as it was political and a bit sarcastic and it got me thinking.  I agree with his outlook and wish everyone in Vancouver could have the chance to see those photographs and statements made on them.

Interurban Gallery with Horst (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

Samantha M.                                                                                                   October 19, 2010
This week’s walk made me think that the pieces are really coming together.  I’m starting to be able to imagine the layout of Vancouver’s first neighbourhoods, and it’s amazing to think that it all started with a man and a barrel of whiskey.  I’m still thinking about what’s going to happen to our city in the next hundred years.  Is it going to get better or worse?  I’m starting to think both.  Just like the title of one of the pictures in Interurban Gallery, reading:  it’s the “angels among the rhetoric” that are really going to make a difference. I ask myself, where do I stand in all of this?

History showing through (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

Taylor D.                                                                                                             October 19, 2010
Walking Tour #4
The photography exhibition at Interurban Gallery that we saw today really moved me.  I live in Kitsilano.  It’s an incredibly beautiful area with friendly people and a safe environment, so walking through the downtown Eastside is very different for me, and I don’t feel very safe. Everywhere I looked I saw people with serious problems and addictions.  However, as soon as I set foot into the gallery, the photographs made me see this part of town in a different light.  Even though the streets are filled with people with addictions, there’s still a community here.  So many people fail to see that.  I started to think about how insanely stupid it was to spend loads of money just to fix up the Sea to Sky Highway for the Olympics, when the money could have been better invested in this neighbourhood.  That makes me really mad at the government.  But all in all I did get a lot out of today’s walk.  Next time I walk through that “sketchy” area, the thoughts in my head will be entirely different.

This isn't just sidewalk decor (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

Michelle P.                                                                                                          October 19, 2010
I very much enjoyed this week’s presenters; both were witty in their own way.  John Atkin showed us the many frauds and hoaxes of downtown, and Horst Siegler showed us the many misconceptions about politics in this city.  It was an enjoyable way of viewing diversity.  I also enjoyed the fun fact about how some of the tiles on the streets used to be clear prisms, and only turned purple due long exposure to the sun’s rays.  I also liked how many people believe Gaolers Mews to be an old jail house/slaughter house (my mom included).  As it turns out, it was nothing but a mix up with a map.  Overall this was probably my favorite walk.

Learning something quirky and new with John Atkin (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

Abigail J.                                                                                                     October 19, 2010
John Atkin
Prostitutes from San Francisco
Narrow building; underground rooms where people thought the Chinese
had large amounts of opium, drugged prostitutes, and slaves.  This is
false information.

True:  small rooms for workers, barely any toilets, sinks, or access to bathtubs.
Architecture: Built a nicer side towards an important street, e.g. the windows with nice panels faced Carrall Street, the other walls are plain.
Army & Navy building:  two buildings, stone isn’t really stone, but tin painted to look like stone because it is cheaper.
White heavy bricks shipped from Scotland, kids would bang the bricks against each other to create a loud sound.
Paul Merrick – architect who altered history for a building by renaming it and adding large modern glass windows.
Gaoler’s Mews – map was upside-down when designed, inaccurate history/location.
(Jail, people being hung, psychic lady telling people about ghosts,courthouse is a false history)
Purple glass – once clear, UV rays from sun made it purple.

Reflective writing (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

Parker S. H.                                                                                              October 19, 2010
Walking Home Carrall Street Tour 4
I think that this session was by far my favorite.  I really enjoyed learning about little secrets on Carrall Street.  It was pretty hilarious learning about alleys like “blood alley” that have absolutely nothing to do with blood or slaughter houses, and that people just made up stories that sound more interesting.  It was also nice to see the east side and walk through it a little more.  Horst’s exhibition at the Interurban Gallery was really well done, and I thought it was great that he portrayed the east side in a realistic way and did not just show the bad side of it.  I really appreciated how John Atkin would pause when something loud went by; I found that it really helped me hear what he was explaining, especially if I was near the back of the group.

Can you spot the tin? (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

Evan C.                                                                                                      October 19, 2010
Things that I learned about today:

I very much enjoyed Tuesday’s tour about Gastown and all its wonderful history.  Thank you very much for taking us on these walks! 🙂

Learning there are a lot of myths about the Narrowest Building in the world (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

Brittney A.                                                                                                    October 19, 2010
It was really interesting learning today about how much Vancouver history has been bent and toyed with.  Gaoler’s Mews for example:  hearing John talk about all the so called ‘deaths’ and ‘bloodshed’ in Blood Alley, and then learning it was false because the maps of the area had been drawn upside down.  So it turns out that historic sites were all scrambled around.  It also helps that there were a few people good at ‘bending the truth’ so the story sounded more interesting.

I think the part I enjoyed the most was being shown around Interurban Gallery, and having Horst Siegler speak about his photography.  One photo I really enjoyed was the one of the Squamish highway reading “It was one of the most dangerous stretches in all of B.C.”  I often travel up to Pemberton, B.C. along the Squamish highway, and when I first heard that they were re-doing it I was outraged, $800,000,000 going towards a perfectly good highway while we have the highest population of homeless people in all of Canada, the highest rate of child poverty in all of Canada, and climate change affecting us hugely?!
So, I definitely agreed with Horst’s opinion of the highway and how the government definitely needs to re-prioritize.

I also really enjoyed learning that the little tiles on the sidewalk on Carrall Street are purple because of 75 years of capturing UV light!

Can you spot the tin? (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

Anna W.                                                                                                           October 19, 2010
John Atkin Walking Tour
Apart from the initial day at the Chinese Garden, I think this was my favourite session so far, and I wasn’t even there for all of it.  John Atkin was more interesting than the other speakers, I think.  Maybe his attitude was just different.  I enjoyed learning about the made up history and the little-known history, as well as the general facts about downtown Vancouver’s past.  The completely false story about Gaoler’s Mews, for instance, made me laugh.  Hangings indeed…  The small details he managed to point out in places I’d have totally missed (odorous alleys, for instance) really added to the whole presentation.

Although I had to leave before we could go to Interurban Gallery, the photo exhibit sounded really interesting and I hope we do more gallery shows in the future sessions.

stown has a great story but little history (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

Rebekah D.                                                                                              October 19, 2010
For our fourth tour we got to hear about how easy it is to apply a history to something that makes it more interesting, but has nothing to do with the original story of that place. In school we are reading 1984 by George Orwell, and one of the concepts is that if you control the past, you can control the present.  This rung true when John Atkins, our presenter for this week, told us about how, throughout time, places have been given names and histories that have no truth in them.  For example, the Sam Kee building, the skinniest in North America, is rumored to be the entrance to a series of tunnels connecting to dubious businesses, where if the cops raided them, the people could escape to the tunnels and come out at this building to escape punishment.  The story was popularized because of where it is.  The building itself stands at the corner of Pender and Carrall Streets, the edge of Chinatown where, back in the day, there were thought to be opium dens and brothels.  So when the fictitious story about secret tunnels connecting these shady businesses sprung up, people just believed them.  The only problem with these tales is that the area was surrounded by water and marshes, making it impossible to have tunnels.  What was really under the Sam Kee building was a bathhouse and barbershop for the men living the hotels to come to.  This is a great example of how people will believe anything they’re told, and if no one denies it, it can soon become part of history.

The flat-iron design of Hotel Europe (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

Please click below to hear John Atkin talk about the history of Carrall Street: