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5 things you (probably) didn't know about Gastown

Vancouver's first neighbourhood had some weird moments
1886-gastown
July 1886 in the new city of Vancouver. This is the view of Cordova Street looking west from Carrall Street in what is now called Gastown. Reference: AM54-S4-: Str P7.1

Gastown is central to the city of Vancouver's history.

While the Vancouver region has seen Indigenous settlements for thousands of years, Gastown is where the city, as we know it now, began, with a pub run by 'Gassy' Jack Deighton. From historical records, calling it a pub may be an overstatement.

In 1886 the City of Vancouver was founded, changing the name of the city, but Gastown remained the moniker for the city's oldest neighbourhood. And while it was the centre of commerce early on, that shifted west, and the neighbourhood evolved over the years into the historical tourist site we know today.

Some of that history may be common knowledge to most of you, but here are five things you (probably) don't know about Gastown.

1. The cobblestone streets are (relatively) new

In the 1970s there was a push to save Gastown, as a highway was proposed along the waterfront which would destroy the infrastructure there.

The reason the highway was even pitched was due to the state of Gastown at the time, which was an extension of the Downtown Eastside, with SROs, old buildings and most low-income residents, giving it 'Skid Row' status in some people's minds.

To many though, it was worth saving, and an effort to revive the neighbourhood began, which is what we see today.

Many of the iconic parts of Gastown we know now come from the period, and not earlier. That includes the steam clock and some of the names, like Blood Alley.

That includes ripping up perfectly good streets (somewhat to the chagrin of a city planner) and replacing them with the cobblestones people trip on now.

2. The first jail was two cell log building

One thing that can be traced back to the 1880s is Gaoler's Mews. It's the site of the city's first jail, which was a two-cell building made of logs.

3. It was the site of the Battle of Maple Tree Square

In 1971 Vancouver's counter-culture was strong, despite a mayor who was no fan of hippies. This led to what started off as the Grasstown Smoke-in, where 1,000 people showed up to show support for cannabis use.

It did not go well.

The Vancouver riot squad arrived with mounted police and the crowd was charged, leading to chaos.

In the end, 79 people were arrested, 38 were charged, and 12 were sent to the hospital. A judicial inquiry followed, and described the incident as a "police riot."

A week later 15,000 people showed up for the Gastown Festival, to help support the neighbourhood.

4. Greased logs used to slide down the roads

This dates back to Vancouver's beginnings as a lumber town. As the logs needed to get to Hastings Mill or the shore, some were dragged down the streets.

In an effort to help that, they were greased (note: this is from a time before synthetic grease).

The term 'Skid Row,' which Gastown wore for a while before it was rejuvenated, actually comes from the practice, and the term is thought to have originated in Seattle or Vancouver.

5. It was one of the most stylish neighbourhoods in the world according to Complex

In 2012 the culture, fashion, and trends magazine Called Gastown the fourth most stylish neighbourhood in the world, beating out the likes of the most fashionable parts of London, LA, or anywhere in Italy. Only New York's SoHo, Tokyo's Harajuku and the First Arrondissement in Paris were more stylish.

"Gastown's blocks are full of gorgeous Victorian buildings that provide unique scenery for what's currently an emerging neighbourhood," noted the magazine.

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