Since becoming a tour guide for the Sins of the City Walking Tour, I have developed a passion for Vancouver’s heritage that borders on madness. I want to know it all – the details of every seedy story, the tawdry tales behind the burnt out neon signs, the whisper of tassels grazing flesh at the countless closed burlesque houses. This is the Vancouver that I am hungry for – its sordid tales replaying themselves through my voice under the mottled grey skies, skies dark and purple like a bruise on a junkie’s arm, like the shadow on the eye of a bawdy house girl.
The history that lies just under the cobblestone streets of this much-maligned neighbourhood is strangely present all around you, and if you start to listen and learn you can plunge your hands inside of it, all the way to the elbow and dig around, find the stories that interest you and connect them to the buildings in front of you.
Take, for instance, the 400 block of Alexander Street, now a no-man’s land of halfway houses and factories. In 1910, it was the bustling centre of Vancouver’s colourful sex trade, women of all shapes and sizes hanging their heads from balconies and windows to entice passersby. The deeds to these house, and all of their original water and power records are in the names of the enterprising women, mostly Californian and escaping the ruins of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, who built them. Their names are even inscribed in the tile work of the doorways. Standing with mouth slightly agape at the corner of Dunlevy and Alexander, the history springs to life.
A lot of the areas on the first half of walking tour are eerily empty, the streets abandoned during the day with only the occasional factory along the way. But it is in these areas, down on the wrong side of Hastings St along Powell and Railway and Alexander – it is down here that the down and dirty early stories of this rough and tumble little town took place. The Hastings Mill that started it all, bustling Japantown and its tragic end, Gassy Jack and his barrel of whiskey – it all started right here.
Studying for and running this tour has opened up my eyes and piqued my interest in such a fascinating way. Every walk I lead, every step I take around this city feels like an exciting discovery and there is so much more beneath the surface that I want to scratch away and reveal.
So come and take a walk with me. There is nothing I would rather do.