gastown remixed

published: lov, issue #7, july-august 2010

Edgy, urban Gastown is becoming one of the most fashionable places to live in the city and gay men are rushing to move in. This is the birthplace of Vancouver, so long neglected it became the poorest postal code in Canada, is experiencing major renewal as the sounds of construction ring out, a surge of new shops and restaurants open, and moving trucks line the cobblestone streets.

For gay men the attraction to the Downtown Eastside is clear: it is home to some of the best architecture, dining and interior design stores in the city. It is also within walking distance to every other major neighbourhood downtown and unlike the rainbow-flagged Davie Village, it is still affordable. But what truly distinguishes the historic neighbourhood as a great place to live is its authenticity, a quality that no developer can plan or manufacture.

“There is history everywhere,” says Peter Meiszner, 27, who moved to his first one-bedroom condo on Powell Street last December. Working as an Online News Producer for Global BC, Meiszner says that for the longest time he pictured himself buying in Yaletown or the West End, but chose Gastown because of the price and the location. “Here I get significantly more bang for my buck,” says Meiszner.

For many first-time buyers, Gastown and Chinatown offers an opportunity to get into the market with all the same amenities as one sky-train stop over, at a fraction of the price. Contrary to the pages of OUT Magazine, not every gay man on this continent is awash in disposable income. A fact that long-term West End resident Cliff Thorbes knows all to well.

Thorbes, an Administrator, admits the West End gaybourhood is becoming very hard to stay in. “You have to make a lot of money now just to rent and have some quality of life.” It’s becoming more difficult for young people to afford. Thorbes recently purchased a pre-sale condo in the new Concord Pacific development that is scheduled to be finished construction in 2012. “As soon as you start paying over $1,000 a month in rent for a studio,” says Thorbes, “you might as well start putting that money back in to your own pocket.”

“Every time you go out, there is a new shop opening,” says Fred Lee, a columnist, CBC broadcaster and man-about-town, who recently returned to the neighbourhood he grew up in.

Lee moved into one of the Woodward’s towers last winter. “Five years ago,” he says, “you would have been hard-pressed to name two or three good places to go in Gastown, but now there are easily a dozen restaurants, lounges and bars to choose from, and the list goes on and on.” Although Lee credits Woordward’s with creating the ‘body of heat’ that put the neighbourhood back in the spotlight; he acknowledges the people who were setting up shop long before the large two condo tower/SFU urban park enclave, surrounded by cafes, shops and galleries, came to fruition.

“A number of individuals – especially gays – saw the potential in the neighbourhood,” said Lee. It was this leading group of idealists: the business owners, artists and restauranteurs that form the neighbourhood’s creative class whom are responsible for what the area has become. “A lot of businesses are gay-owned and operated in and around Gastown. These folks, and many others, are the visionaries that led people down there.”

Michael Bennett and Daniel Poulin are two of these enterprising individuals. The two business and life partners own Peking Lounge, a fabulous antique-modern Chinese furniture store in Chinatown. Both have lived and worked in the downtown eastside for the past seven years and are big fans of the neighbourhood.

“Every year it gets better,” says Bennett. He and Poulin both sit on a few planning committees in the area, and have seen the changes occur first-hand since they moved in. Walking to work each day, the two have witnessed derelict buildings transform into salons, cafes and art galleries and condos. Until recently “everything you heard about the Downtown Eastside was negative,” says Poulin. Now that’s changing.

When asked what distinguishes their neighbourhood from others downtown, the two agree that is more ‘real.’

“There’s more grit down here than most people want in their neighbourhood elsewhere in Vancouver,” says Bennett. “It’s a different crowd,” says Poulin. “It’s more uniform in Yaletown, it’s a bit more edgy here. Many people compare it to the Meatpacking District of New York City – it still has that ‘bad neighbourhood reputation,’ but t is being lived more and more by regular people.” And rents can be half of what they are in the West End and Yaletown, through when you leave your front door you literally are thrust into the pell-mell of the city’s rougher side.

There is no question Gastown and Chinatown are not nearly as glossy or botoxed as their fellow neighbours downtown, but it’s a quality that many new residents nevertheless feel is a breath of fresh air. “They do not dress up their dogs here,” says Leanore Sali, Executive Director of the Gastown Business Improvement Society (GIBS), “it’s less manufactured,” she says.

“There are lots of single room occupancy hotels and poor people that have challenges and are very much a part of the area as everyone else.” Many young professional and creative people are moving into the district because of the “sense of neighbourhood” the Downtown Eastside imparts, said Sali.

Looking down at the district from the Woodward’s rooftop, one is immediately struck that even the colour of the neighbourhood is vastly different from the rest of the city. Elsewhere downtown Vancouver’s bland cast of grey-green from glass and cement towers has the eye searching for colour. But here, there’s a vibrant patchwork of reds, oranges, yellows, blacks and browns from the brick buildings, cobblestone streets, and the shipyard, punctuated by turquoise copper rooftops.

From the ground, decades-old ginkgo trees line Chinatown, softening the streets without obliterating the skies. Around each corner is another heritage building being freed from old hoardings or hideous signage and modernizing efforts from the recent past.

Coming in to his first summer living in Gastown, Peter Meiszner is happy with his decision to move. “I either eat, pick-up groceries, or shop in the neighbourhood every day. I think it’s one of the most beautiful areas in Vancouver, with a completely different look.”

For those who are looking for a little bit more New York in their lives, the Downtown Eastside is the place to be.