We asked some of Vancouver's historians and street connoisseurs to reveal their favourite alleys in the city, reminding us of Vancouver's most illicit and illustrious moments in its 126-year history.
Civic historian and author who conducts walking tours of Vancouver
Favourite alley: Downtown, its Market Alley between Hastings and Pender running east from Carrall.
Why: For me its the history of the alley, which was a thriving business street in the early 1900s. Tinsmiths, shoe makers, vegetable dealers and pawnbrokers could all be found there. It was part of Chinatown and you can still see a few of the old store fronts. Opium was legal in Canada until 1908. At No. 34, this was the location of one of two opium factories in Vancouver (the old Shanghai Alley location of one is pictured below). And there were the restaurants at the rear of the card rooms which, in the 1940s, became popular late night eateries and were known by the colour of their doors the last one being the famous Green Door.
Actor, history buff , and founder of Forbidden Vancouver walking tours prohibition-themed, investigative explorations of 1930s Chinatown and Gastown
Favourite alley: The view looking east on the alleyway running between (parallel to) Hastings and Pender, from under the archway beneath the Province building (now occupied by the Vancouver Film School).
Why: Its a very well-preserved alleyway view (pictured below). This alleyway also has the obligatory shoes hanging on power lines. There are many theories about these shoes (tributes to fallen friends or gang members, signs for gang boundaries, signs that drug dealing is OK in the area, pranks etc.). Farther east along the same alleyway, you see some interesting makeshift mechanisms used to release emergency staircases (old bricks, etc., hanging off ropes).
Favourite alley: Blood Alley has the most gothic reputation.
Why: The truth is Blood Alley was named in 1971 by an urban planner who was part of a project to revitalize Gastown. The basis for the name was that it hosted a butchers shop and so one might imagine blood spilling into the road. According to local historian John Atkin, the slaughterhouse for that particular butcher was at False Creek, so this was just a meat store and there would not have been blood flowing down the street by any means. Still, its a name that captivates people! I think the alleyway south of Blood Alley is more interesting. It runs in between (parallel to) Cordova and Hastings, with entrances on Carrall and Abbott and has a crazy tree growing out of the side of a building two levels up.
Tip: There is a hidden Chinatown alleyway that is largely unknown in our city. There are green and red marked tours that show its entrance, on Carrall. If you walk along Pender there are two places you can see in but keep your eyes peeled, the gates are narrow. Allegedly this alleyway was used by the Chinese in the early part of the 20th century to trade with each other, socialize etc, while they were not safe on the streets of Vancouver after dark. The alleyway is totally enclosed by buildings and is now broken down into courtyards from what I understand.
Bar manager of The Keefer in Chinatown and founding president of the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association
Favourite alley: Trounce Alley, between Powell and Cordova aka the alley in The NeverEnding Story (one of my favorite movies) and a reoccurring theme in Ken Foster's street art.
Why: I love Ken Foster and think his work is amazing. Ive actually collected five alley pictures from him done on different media. The alley, to me, represents the diversity of the city its usually dark and grimy but in the right light, there is a certain romantic side to it. I don't mind walking through alleys as long as they don't smell too bad and nothing too sketchy is going on, but I love gazing at my alley paintings and trying to figure out all of the little details of what is going on in them. (To the right is a photo Danielle submitted of her favourite Ken Foster painting in her collection)
Founder and editor-in-chief of Vancouver Is Awesome, and guest judge at many community events, including the Celebration of Light, Polaris Music Prize and Peak Performance Project
Favourite alley: 70th and Selkirk.
Why: My fondest memory of a Vancouver alleyway is from the mid-'90s when I first moved here. I landed in a one-bedroom apartment in Marpole and one of my neighbours was another recent transplant; he from from Toronto and I from Vernon. The guy always seemed to be looking for work at the bottom of a sixpack as well as looking for cigarettes on my doorstep. Now, I don't know if the rules of business are different in Ontario or what, but one day he had this flash of inspiration to make money without having to tell the government; he decided to open up a café out of his second-storey, alley-facing suite. He cut the letters C-A-F-E out of paper and taped them to the sliding door on his balcony, placing two tiny chairs and an end table between them, with a candle on it, in plain view from the alley. He went to the store and bought bags of frozen perogies and instant coffee, leaving the shopping cart at the back door of the apartment building with the other three he had piled up there. Then, finally, he drew up up a menu of sorts, which he photocopied and slid under everybodys doors in the building, while he waited for the cash to start pouring in. His business must have really taken off because I never saw him again after the end of that month... I guess he must have relocated to a larger space?
Home history researcher whose work covers close to 500 Vancouver addresses, ranging from Shaughnessy mansions to pioneer cabins and worker row houses in Vancouvers old East End.
Favourite Alley: Between Hawks and Heatley, between East Pender and Keefer.
Why: In the 1910s there was a street leveling program in the East End, so all the streets are more or less flat now. The low places were filled in and the high place shaved down to improve safety of those driving the horse-drawn drays and early cars in the neighbourhood. Therefore, in the East End (Strathcona), you see houses perched high above the streets or sometimes lower than the street and connected to the street by a bridge. The alleys, though, were left untouched and it is in the alleyways that you can see the original topography of the land. This particular alleyway stretches from the old Schara Tsedeck Synagogue at Heatley and Pender and dips low below the street level. There are several interesting houses from the 1890s and early 1900s still standing on either side of the alley, including a number of tenement apartments and rowhouses which were built to house newly arrived immigrants. The building at 733-735 Keefer started off as a bakery, but later was a grocery, then a broom factory and a fish canning business, then, for about a decade before WWII, was a Nichiren Buddhist Temple. Across the alley, 742 East Pender was a Chinese sausage factory for a number of years. On the eastern end of the alley on Hawks Avenue stand a number of pre-fab kit houses from the BC Mills Timber & Trading Company (the old Hastings Sawmill).
Favourite alley: The alley immediately to the north of that one, between Heatley and Hawks, running between East Hastings and East Pender.
Why: During the Spanish flu epidemic at the end of WWI, people were dying so fast in the neighbourhood that the undertaker who lived in the house on the northeast corner of Pender and Heatley had to stack the bodies of the deceased under tarps in the alley, just north of the house.
Favourite alley: Farther south in the neighbourhood, stretching from about Jackson to Hawks, running between Prior and Union, is an alley that locals still call Cow Shit Alley.
Why: It was the route that neighbourhood cattle (kept overnight in cowbarns... many which still stand along the alley) were taken to the False Creek Flats (todays Strathcona Park) every day to graze in the early 1900s.
Executive director of Eastside Culture Crawl a free, three-day annual event in November that involves artists on Vancouvers Eastside opening their studio to the public
Favourite alley: The west side of 1000 Parker (pictured below).
Why: There seems to be a very intriguing history there given the unusual shape and sense of seclusion on that side of the building. Its attracted a lot of taggers and graffiti artists, making the site a dynamic confluence of historical industrial architecture and contemporary urban culture. Its a unique space in a unique location and the addition of the vibrant tags, graffiti and paste-ups attracts a certain type of photographer and filmmaker. Seems theres always someone back there with a camera. It is adjacent to the railway and appears to have been two separate building with a section of track that ran between them. It was and, in part, still is a warehouse. I understand that the trains would pull into that section to have goods loaded from the warehouse for shipping. Theres something a bit poetic about the alley and how its used knowing that there are so many working artists, designers and craft-makers in this building along with the warehouse and manufacturing that continues the buildings original purpose.
Vice-president, marketing communications & member services at Tourism Vancouver
Favourite alley: I regularly run through the alleys in the East End, behind Hastings (north side) from Main to Clark.
Why: The combination of old or well-established businesses, residences, empty lots, discarded items and homeless people/addicts provides a window to the other side of Vancouver that people rarely talk about or see. Each time I run in this area of town, I see or discover something new. I am never afraid for my safety and am sometimes greeted warmly by addicts or, conversely, looked at with bewilderment (as if to say, Why is he running here instead of on the seawall at Stanley Park?)
Musician/writer (currently working on Liquor Lust and The Law - The Story of Vancouvers Legendary Penthouse Nightclub due out in October by Arsenal Press)
Favourite alley: my favourite alley these days is so rife with Vancouver show business and entertainment history that it even has a name Ackerys Alley.
Why: Its the alleyway off Smythe, between Seymour and Granville. Its named after Ivan Ackery, who was the theatre manager of the Orpheum from 1935 to 1969 back when the Orpheum was a movie theatre. Ivan was famous for his publicity stunts. When there was a Western film showing, all the ushers would be dressed up like cowgirls; if it was a science fiction picture, hed have a guy walking up and down Granville Street in a space suit passing out handbills to come see the show. He once got a real cow to stand in front of the front door of the theatre on Granville with a sign around its neck saying Theres a Great Show at the Orpheum Tonight and Thats no Bull! The city fined him $15 for having livestock on city streets but he happily paid it for all the publicity he got for the incident. He won awards for this kind of stuff.
Ackery had a lot of Hollywood stars on publicity junkets doing opening night appearances at the theatre; Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, you name it. After a show, while most autograph hounds waited at the front door, hed usually sneak them out the alley door and into a limo and usually take them down to the Penthouse because thanks to BC liquor laws at the time it was the only civilized place you could get a drink (albeit an illegal one) at a late hour!
Id irreverently argue that the BC Entertainment Walk of Fame starwalk that goes down the sidewalks of Granville street should be ripped up, and all those brass circles be set in Ackerys Alley. With the Alley today shared by both the Commodore Ballroom and the Orpheum theatre, that alleyway has seen more famous musicians, singers, actors and show people than any other the city. For all of Vancouvers sea-to-sky glory that we pride ourselves on, most bands that come to perform in Vancouver at those venues for one night shows only see that simple alleyway as the come in and out of the tour bus. Norman Young and the late Chuck Davis even put a commemorative tin sign up above the Orpheum doorway that forever denotes it as Ackerys Alley.
I was with the British rock band Kasabian a couple of years back when they were playing at the Commodore. It was after soundcheck and they wanted to leave for a bit but they were leery of leaving out the back and into that alleyway because they saw some rats and a couple of binners back there I always thought that was funny. This UK band thats full of bluster and rock and roll were afraid to go into that alleyway. I guess it looked like downtown Detroit to them. A couple of years ago when the Capitol 6 theatre was closed, the rats who had been living well for years off of the discarded popcorn thrown into the alley trash bins were flushed out of their homes when the theatre was demolished.
It's where they had to scoot Shane MacGowan up the Commodore back stairs right at showtime after theyd found him drinking all day at the Dufferin Hotel around the corner. He sang all the way up the alleyway and up the ballroom stairs.
Often some really famous people who want to come and discreetly see a show at the Orpheum or the Commodore go through that alleyway to the back door of either venue to be let in there. Its not uncommon youll see papparazzi or autograph seekers back there behind the Commodore on show day. Not when I play there of course but Ive seen it happen!
Ivans birthdate, October 30 was named Ivan Ackery day in Vancouver by Mayor Mike Harcourt in 1985.
All photos Kelsey Klassen. You can follow Kelsey on Twitter.