I had the joy of joining one of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s walking tours. My work allows me to have Fridays off and I finally found an event I can attend on a Friday. This fall, the Vancouver Heritage Foundation is organizing two-part historic walks of Hastings Street. I missed part one in September, which was the Hastings West walk, but I jumped all over this Hastings East walk last Friday.
In this seventh and last part of the Historic Walking Tour along the Hastings East section, we encounter a recent human tragedy. Human tragedy is no stranger to the Downtown Eastside. Verna Simard was known as a strong advocate for better housing for women in the Downtown Eastside. People say she wanted to fight to make things better. She fell from the 6th floor of the Regent Hotel. Her death is almost exactly one year after the death of Ashley Machiskinic, who also fell to her death from the Regent Hotel. Both deaths are highly suspicious, although no suspects have been apprehended in either case.
A small shrine sits near the base of the Regent Hotel. Verna’s portrait centre amidst all the flowers, candles, and other memorial trinkets. We paid our respects and moved eastwards towards Main Street.
Our last stop is the grand old building on the corner of Main and Hastings – the Carnegie Centre It’s a somewhat forgotten building in my memory. I always know it’s there, but because of where it is in the city, I just don’t venture that way. The corner was bustling with people, though. Isn’t the sign of an active city an active street?
This is one of many buildings across the continent that bear the Carnegie name. Steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, donated the money to build the sandstone edifice here. From the sidewalk on Hastings Street you can see stain glass windows, but muted. On the inside, the glass is a beautiful multi-colour filling the grand staircase with light. One of my fellow walkers commented, “more dead white men.” She herself was white. Indeed, more dead white men. They did write the early history of Vancouver after all. Not surprising to see their faces immortalized in stain glass. A much grander stain glass part way up the grand staircase showcased three giants of English literature – Milton, Shakespeare, and Spenser.
The staircase here is an absolute hidden gem. White marble steps spiral up three storeys. Atop the staircase is a round window that let’s the sunshine shower down the staircase. It most definitely adds a dramatic effect when you look up from the bottom. As you ascend the staircase, you instantly notice how the steps seem to be tilting towards the centre of the spiral. Year upon year of use manifests itself in that tilt.
Interestingly, Vancouver’s early City Hall was right beside Carnegie Hall on Main Street. However, Chinatown was just next door. The eventual relocation of city hall suggests that it was not “appropriate” in those days for city hall to be next to an ethnic enclave. After City Hall moved out to the Fairview Slopes, this area of town started to change. The economic centre of Vancouver that used to reside here had moved westward.
The Washington Hotel, a beautiful example of the Chicago-style of architecture on the northwest corner of Hastings and Main, had just finished after the city hall had moved. It was meant to be in the middle of the hubbub of Vancouver. Unfortunately, it opened up to an area of town that started to wind its way down. And to this day, the Downtown Eastside has never been the same. Even though it is notoriously known as Canada’s poorest postal code, the residents of the Downtown Eastside are fiercely proud of what they have. In terms of heritage, history and architecture, there is much to be proud. In terms of all else we know about the neighbourhood, that is not my story to tell.