Out Of The Woods

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You can discover more about the city’s rise toward its eminence by visiting the Vancouver Museum and the Maritime Museum. Both are in the beautiful Vanier Park, which overlooks False Creek. That body of water was named in 1855 by Captain Richards of the Royal Navy who thought he’d come upon the way to the Northwest Passage when in fact he had found an enclosed inlet. The sprawling fir-clad peninsula across the water is Stanley Park, a thousand-acre greensward for which the city founders made provision just about a day after Vancouver got its name. The clean break of the parkland’s wilderness with the steel and glass city is a strong reminder of the sudden near-eruption of Vancouver from its surrounding Eden.

From Vanier Park’s Heritage Harbour, home to a collection of vintage craft, a tiny ferry crosses False Creek every fifteen minutes, with a stop under the Burrard Street Bridge and another (for the price of a second $1.25 fare) at Granville Island. The double fare is well worth the price. What Granville Island’s management calls an urban park is a place like no other.

Granville Island began life as a sandbar in False Creek, whose waters offered rich fishing for the Indians nearby. With the city’s growth the banks of the creek became ripe for transformation into a prime industrial site attached by a causeway to the heart of downtown. Later, as the factories and mills that had come to inhabit the island moved away, what remained was a filthy, neglected eyesore.

In 1972, with federal help, the city began to refurbish the place. The cement works remained; a wire foundry and a brewery were lured there. So were an art school, a theater, crafts workers, a vast public market, and a variety of restaurants. A hotel and a marina were placed at one end of the 37.6 acres, and a grassy park grew along Granville’s southern margin. Very little was prettified; today all the structures wear the same stucco and corrugated tin siding of the original factories. Since there were no sidewalks in the old place, there are none now, forcing visitors to dodge cars and cement mixers. This is by design. “It has always been that way,” I read on a placard at the information center. “Guys walk across the street while forklifts go in and out.” The goal is “to keep a balance between people going about with their lunch buckets, working eight to four in a chain factory or a cement factory or in a nail factory and people just coming down to the island.”

The clean break of the park’s wilderness with the steel and glass city is a strong reminder of Vancouver’s near-eruption from virgin forest.

All of this sprawls, as cheerful and busy on a rainy day as on a sunny one, beneath the struts and beams of the Granville Street Bridge, which frames the scene’s industrial underpinnings wherever you look.

Granville Island is a huge success with the people of Vancouver. Among the amazing annual figure of six million visitors, out-of-town tourists constitute no more than a quarter. After the second year, a spokesman told me, the whole operation cost the taxpayer not one cent. What is so fine for those of us who love cities is that this unique balance of the elements of urban life succeeds without the perfume of gentrification that invariably wafts through even the most sensitive redevelopment of an aging neighborhood.

You could do worse on a visit to Vancouver than simply hang out with a cup of coffee on the deck of the Granville Island Public Market. Turn your eyes toward English Beach and the bays beyond, where the first explorers stopped for only a moment and moved on, look down on False Creek, busy with its ferries and kayaks, and glimpse off to the left Stanley Park, all that remains of the great fir forest. If that wilderness couldn’t have been frozen in place, and history rarely offers up such choices, then this is a pretty good substitute.

—Caria Davidson