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Destination: Canada

From seedy to 'SoHo' in Vancouver

Boutiques, nightclubs and restaurants have transformed Yaletown into the city's trendiest neighborhood.

October 13, 2002|Margo Pfeiff

Vancouver, Canada — In my younger days, when I was traveling eight months out of the year, all my worldly possessions were stored in a locker in a warehouse in a seedy district called Yaletown, near Vancouver's waterfront. Back then, my father wouldn't let me go there alone in the evenings.

These days, it is I who must accompany my father to Yaletown -- to help him decipher the latest yuppie trends. A brick-walled bistro now occupies that warehouse, and it's beside a trendy spa and just down the street from Don't Shoot the Elephant, a chic Asian tearoom where you can peruse Vogue Taiwan and listen to the city's biggest collection of Norwegian CDs while sipping a green tea latte.

They've finally done it right in Vancouver, a city renowned for demolishing anything old or with character. (The one exception is Gastown, the city's birthplace, but its tourist focus keeps locals away.) Often called "Vancouver's Little SoHo," Yaletown has evolved over the last decade into an ultra-hip residential neighborhood. Housed in the old redbrick warehouses are nightclubs, a brew pub, cafes, art studios, galleries and some of the city's best restaurants and most interesting boutiques. The elevated, brick-paved loading docks are crowded with sidewalk tables, their cantilevered canopies now shading the Palm Pilot set from sun and rain as they chat over chai and watch the passing parade of hip Vancouverites.

It was at one of those cafes, Seattle's Best Coffee, that I met with my friend Kasey Wilson, a food writer and radio personality. I was in Vancouver visiting family and was keen to explore this rehabbed section of my hometown; Kasey promised me a walking tour of the neighborhood that she has called home for eight years.

It seems everyone knows everyone else in Yaletown. At the cafe, friends greeted one another on arrival and knew the wait staff by name. As we walked through the area, people stopped to chat with Kasey.

"It's like a small town, a closely knit neighborhood," she said.

On the waterfront

Yaletown's renaissance seemed to be a long time coming, considering its prime location alongside the downtown core and within roller-blading distance of the sea wall and Stanley Park.

In the late 1880s, when Vancouver was the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the company built rail yards and repair facilities in Yaletown alongside False Creek, an inlet off Georgia Strait. Heavy industry, from shingle mills to cement works, followed the railroad. In the early 1900s, rows of six-story brick warehouses were built for small manufacturers and shipping companies that took advantage of easily accessible rail transport. Their wide loading docks, with sloping, overhanging roofs, sheltered goods from the rain as they were loaded onto boxcars lined up on rails alongside Hamilton and Mainland streets. Yaletown became Vancouver's industrial heart.

The area suffered badly in the 1940s, when manufacturers turned to the highways to move goods, and it continued its downward slide into the 1970s, becoming the domain of the rag trade, storage facilities and tough bars. Many of its industrial sites were razed before Expo '86 briefly energized the Yaletown waterfront.

The old warehouses that remained were gradually taken over by artists and bohemians seeking large spaces, abundant light and low rents. The rag trade and rough bars have given way to lofts, studios and offices for multimedia and high-tech businesses. And to preserve its 19th century industrial character, Yaletown has been designated a historic district, which means that the buildings can be used for new businesses but that their exteriors and character must be maintained. Some of the old rooming houses where Canadian Pacific workers stayed, like the Yale Hotel, now a popular spot for live blues, remain much as they did in the past, and the redbrick Roundhouse, where steam locomotives were once repaired, is a community center. Steam engine No. 374, the first train to cross Canada in 1887, is also in the Roundhouse complex. Just outside the boundaries of Yaletown are the dramatic new public library, a coliseum-shaped building designed by noted Israeli-born, Montreal-educated architect Moshe Safdie, who also designed the nearby Ford Centre for the Performing Arts.

Although Yaletown doesn't cater to tourists -- the area's first hotel, Opus, a contemporary boutique inn that reflects its trendy location, didn't open until Sept. 16 -- its shops and restaurants are attracting visitors.

Roughly eight square blocks bounded by Nelson, Homer, Drake and Pacific streets, Yaletown is safe and easily walkable; gentrification has squeezed out the prostitution and drug trade that once haunted its streets. Even the early Yaletown bohemian pioneers were forced to flee as the area -- and the rents and condo prices -- moved upscale.

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