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East End Excursion

Explore Vancouver’s East End on a balmy spring day and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you see:

Lanes of cherry blossoms in full bloom. Sprawling daffodils poking out of front yard fences. Rose bushes growing in wild abandon. Nature, you’ll notice, thrives in this neighborhood.

So too, you see, do architectural colour and diversity. The houses that line the streets exude a character all their own. The builders of the past appear to have had a rainbow of colours to paint with and a variety of materials to build with, too. There are houses lined with brick, covered in tiles, adorned with shingles, trimmed with wood…and they come in vibrant reds and yellows, deep purples and greens – and everything in between.

You might even marvel at the intricacy and detail in some of the homes you pass – with their fine woodwork, or fancy gables, or beautiful stained-glass windows.

Perhaps you will even wonder about the history of the houses, about their designers and builders, about the people who called them home. What stories could these houses tell, if their walls could speak?

* * * * *

James Johnstone is a local house historian in Vancouver. Uncovering the stories of the houses in the city’s East End is something he does for a living – and he does it thoroughly. Having researched over 250 homes in this neighborhood and an appreciative resident of the East End himself, James is very knowledgeable about this particular area of Vancouver and its colourful past.

James runs East End History Walking Tours periodically, and the first Saturday in March, on a gorgeous, blue-sky day, I had a chance to join him on one of these walks through Vancouver’s earliest neighborhood, known for years as the East End before the City officially named it Strathcona in the 1960s.

The walking tour is a two-hour excursion that takes us through many of the principle streets and avenues of the neighborhood: Heatley, Keefer, Princess, East Georgia, Jackson, Union, Gore, Dunlevy, East Prior, and East Pender.

We stop at numerous houses and landmarks along the way, and hear about some aspect of their past, whether about the builders, residents, or buildings themselves; or about the community that lived along that street; or about some great (or terrible) event that took place in that particular location. We also learn about how these people, communities, and events fit into the larger social history of the neighborhood.

James carries with him a show-and-tell binder full of archival records, which he flips through at ease throughout the tour, and holds up for us to see. The records are mostly photographs of the men and women he’s recounting and they serve to give us a clearer picture of the characters in his tales.

And what dramatic tales they are!

The East End has had its share of tumult and tragedy, of triumph and transition, and James’s tour acquaints you with these varied elements of its history. It’s a story that can be told concretely through the typography of the neighborhood.

So, for instance, we get a sense of the extent of the 1918 Spanish Flu when we stand in the slanted alleyway behind the former undertaker’s house on the corner of Heatley and East Pender, and hear, with shock, that that is where dead bodies were once piled up, victims of an epidemic that claimed more lives than the undertaker could speedily examine.

We learn that the row houses – literally, a row of nearly identical units, often attached to one another – were often the homes of new immigrants to the city. The turnover rates were high in these Vancouver starter homes, as settled immigrants moved and another wave of newcomers filled the space they left.

Like the individual units of the row houses, poverty and prosperity existed side by side in the East End. At one set of such housing on Jackson Street, James touches on suicides and mentions a particularly horrible one he came across: in 1910, one down-and-out tenant drank carbolic acid to end his life.

Then too, there is the terrible shooting that occurred outside a former East End home located at 522 East Georgia. Although the original house no longer stands, James points out the Spanish-tiled two-story home that currently rests on the site of Vancouver’s most infamous shooting, one which solidified the popular image of the East End as a “dangerous place”.

It occurred on March 20, 1917, and involved a couple – Frankie Russell and Bob Tait – who refused to pay their rent and a disgruntled landlord who would not have it otherwise. Guns were wielded, police were dispatched, a shoot-out occurred. In the end, Tait, Chief Constable Malcolm MacLennan, and an eight-year old boy were dead.

But not all the stories of the East End’s history are dark. Far from it.

James takes us by the homes of activists and aviators, writers and musicians, civic and community leaders whose energy and vision have left a lasting impact on the city – and beyond.

We pass by a two-story home on Keefer Street belonging to Mary Lee Chan and her daughter Shirley, community activists who fought City Hall when the future of the East End was in jeopardy. Founding members of the Strathcona Property Owners & Tenants Association, mother and daughter joined with others to oppose the City’s redevelopment plans, which included building a freeway to downtown between Union and Prior Streets.

Their efforts prevented the further destruction of century-old homes in a neighborhood that had already experienced harsh rezoning measures in the past.

On Union Street, we get to glimpse the former homes – two of them – of pioneer female aviator, Tosca Trasolini, and wonder if it was in this neighborhood that the young Trasolini first dreamt about her own place in the air.

My particularly favorite stops were by the former residences of acclaimed Chinese-Canadian writers, Paul Yee and Wayson Choy, at Heatley Avenue and Keefer Street, respectively. Having read Yee’s Saltwater City and Choy’s The Jade Peony, I appreciated the chance to see where these writers grew up and what neighborhood inspired their creative works. And I learned some things I never knew: such as how the East End’s MacLean Park – an important setting in The Jade Peony – is not the original one mentioned in the novel. That one, on Union & Jackson, was turned into a major apartment complex that stands today. This complex and the park that now exists by the same name between Heatley and Hawks Avenues is a reflection of the City’s intermittent lunges towards modernization in the East End in the 50s and 60s.

We also see the former home of Michael Bublé’s grandmother on Union, and those of Ross and Nora Hendrix, the grandparents of Jimi Hendrix, one on East Georgia and a second on East Pender. (There’s even a shrine to the late musician in the neighborhood located at 207 Union Street.) James mentions too that k.d. lang used to live in the East End, in the 700 block of Union. Wow! It’s neat to connect physical homes with musicians, and wonder if they worked out some tune while walking through the streets, whether as resident of, or visitor to, the East End.

James also takes us by the homes of BC’s first Supreme Court Judge of Italian descent, Angelo Branca, and of former premier, Dave Barrett. They’re located on Prior and Union Streets, respectively. We stop, too, at the corner of Keefer Street and Princess Avenue, in front of a stately old house that once belonged to Gregory Tom, a former principal of Lord Strathcona Elementary, the oldest school in the city. James explains how this keen leader had his house designed in a certain way so that, from his second-story corner window which faces the school grounds directly, he could keep a sharp eye on his pupils during the lunch hour. You never know what lively details a quiet old house can reveal.

* * * * *

Near the end of the tour, James tells us that some of his history-sleuthing occurs by “happenstance and coincidence”: while searching the archives for one record, he might stumble fortuitously on another that reveals some new angle on an old house; while leading participants on a walking tour, he might learn a little-known fact from a participant connected to a particular house in some way. And so on and so forth. These details, in turn, are ones that James passes along to future participants. They’re little anecdotal gems that make the tour so interesting. One could take it twice, I’m sure, and still gain new insights the second time around.

One of the most memorable parts of the East End tour for me on that sunny day in March was also something that occurred entirely by coincidence. A happy one, you might say.

While showing us a circa 1894 photo of a house currently standing on 527 Union Street (formerly 511 Barnard Street), James notices that its inhabitants – an elderly Chinese couple – are making their way down the front stairs and towards their car.

“I wonder,” he muses, “if they know that this is their house in this picture.”

He catches the eye of the elderly woman, just as she opens the passenger door to slip in, and flashes his photograph up.

“This is your house,” he says.

“My house? That not my house,” she replies, squinting at the photo. But she’s intrigued. Because she leaves the car door open and walks toward us.

“It’s your house,” James affirms.

“No, that not my house,” the woman says again. But she keeps looking as James points out the details in the photo – the stairs leading up to the door, the front gable and its pattern of ornamental shingles – and points back to the house she’s just left.

You can see her eyes begin to sparkle during this exchange. Sometime between the glancing down and back up, between the inspection of the photo and of her own house, the woman becomes excited. So too does her husband, who, at this point, has gotten out of the car and is also peering at the photo with interest.

The details that James highlights have convinced her:

“That my house!” she exclaims at last.

Her husband looks at the date on the photograph and again at his home.

“My house over 100 years old!” he remarks, with an expression of pride and incredulous wonder on his face.

We grin to see their excitement.

The elderly woman asks James if she can have a copy of the photograph. He offers to make her one and leave it in her mailbox. Can he also give her some details about the house? She wants to know more – who built it, who are the people posing in front if it, what did they do? Again, he agrees. He’ll write some details on the back of the copy for her.

Satisfied that he’ll keep his promise, the woman smiles and the couple return to their car, with bemused looks on their faces.

I’m sure that, sometime during that day, this elderly and spirited Chinese couple must have stopped and mused about the coincidence of what had just happened. I know I did. I was reminded too about History’s evocative power: how it can reach out and touch you; how it can leave you with a sense of wonder, a sparkle in your eye, a humble amazement at your very direct connection to the people before you, and, perhaps, to those who will come after you.

That’s the beauty of learning History, and of passing it on too.

* * * * *

Explore Vancouver’s East End on a balmy spring day and you don’t know just what surprises might await you.

For any Vancouverites interested in touring the East End, or any visitors planning a trip here and in search of a more authentic experience of the city, you can find out more about the East End History Walking Tour by visiting James Johnstone’s blog:

You can also read a detailed account of the March 20, 1917 shooting incident on James’s blog as well as that of Vancouver historian Lani Russwurm:

And finally, as I had my trusty camera along on the day of the walking tour, you can view some photos of the East End here along with a few more notes from the tour:

Posted: 11/04/2010 8:16:28 PM by Vicky Vinh Tran | with 0 comments
Filed under: architecture, BC, East End, Vancouver, Vicky Vinh Tran, walking tours

Vicky Vinh Tran

Vicky Vinh Tran holds a B.A. in History and English Literature from the University of British Columbia, and an M.A. in Public History from the University of Western Ontario. She lives on the west coast in a beautiful city defined by mountains, trees, ocean, and, well, rain. Fortunately, she doesn’t mind precipitation.

Vicky is interested in history, archives, communication, technology, photography, literature, and design. She believes that history matters, and that it can also be fun, exciting, and downright riveting! She is currently working at an exhibit design and planning firm in downtown Vancouver which inspired her to pursue Public History in the first place.

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