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A recent history of Railway and Gore Streets in Vancouver

Salish Canoe most likely Squamish in Burrard Inlet near Gore and Railway Street circa 1900

The corner of Vancouver’s Railway and Gore Streets was, little more than a century ago, the mouth of Luk’luk’i Creek. The Squamish, Tsliel-Waututh and Musqueam used the historic beach, now filled and extended at the northern end of Main Streets, for beaching canoes and seasonal camps. Above the beach, where today is roughly The Edge and CORE Co-op complexes and Railtown Studios across the street, was an extensive grove of large Big leaf maple, Acer macrophyllum, trees. In their recent memoirs as urban planners in the Vancouver region, former Premier Mike Harcourt and Ken Cameron referred to an aboriginal camp called “Kumkumalay” meaning “big-leaf maple trees” a short block east at Railway and Dunlevy Streets (Harcourt and Cameron with Sean Rossier. 2007. City Making in Paradise: Nine Decisions That Saved Vancouver. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. page 37).
As the industrial operations along Burrard Inlet expanded, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the area became a margin of urbanizing Gastown often dominated by the Canadian Pacific Railway and its lines along Burrard Inlet.

Vancouver’s Gastown ca1880 one of the last remaining Bigleaf maple trees Vancouver Archives AM54-S4- Dist P11.1

The Railway and Gore block was soon part of the last Restricted District for brothels which was dismantled soon after 1917. As the sex work was shifted south, Gore and Railway became the centre of Vancouver’s expanding Japantown, Nihonmachi, an area exceptionally important for Japanese-Canadians. There were dormitories for new immigrants (such as the still-standing wooden rooming house on Alexander near Gore), warehouses for fish export, and a wide range of shops especially along Powell Street just a block to the south. In 1920, the warehouse, that was later renovated as Railtown Studios as today’s 321 Railway Street (formerly 303 Railway Street) was constructed specifically for refrigeration and fish export, especially salmon.

concept of the Canadian Pacific Railway lines in Vancouver’s Gastown along Burrard Inlet circa 1886 Vancouver Archives AM1594– Map 979

The once thriving neighbourhood saw massive removal, appropriation, and some subsequent deportations of the majority of the population, Canada and Japan-born Japanese Canadians, from February to June of 1942. Many died in the hastily constructed internment camps east of the Coast Range. Though a small portion of local residents returned after 1945, the neighbourhood’s populations never recovered. In 1945, the 303 Railway Street warehouse (now Railtown Studos at 321 Railway) was used as a morgue for the bodies of Allied troops who died on the ships while they were returning home.

City of Vancouver redevelopment concept for the post-World War II period - project 2, part of area “a” - pavements, curbs and sidewalks - Vancouver Archives AM1594- MAP 1006

The 303 Railway Street building continued to be used for refrigeration of fish and other perishables until at least the late 1970s with some warehouse use continuing. But by the 1980s, the building was identified as being contaminated with PCBs, from the refrigeration equipment, and its uses were increasingly limited. Well into the 1990s, 303 Railway Street was rented through the City of Vancouver, that at some points held title, for temporary film sets. As the area’s industrial and food production declined, subsidized and various kinds of below-market rental and co-operative housing was established and have constituted much of the local population in spite of intensifying gentrification.

City of Vancouver redevelopment concept for the post-World War II period┬á - project 2, part of area “a” - aerial photograph - Vancouver Archives AM1594- MAP 1004

Today, we can view the transformations of the neighbourhood as a series of clearances, removals, and deportations of human populations, from Salish subsistence and ownership to aboriginal day workers to expansion of the railways combined with sex workers serving multicultural populations, to Japanese-Canadians, to industrial workers, to people living on fixed incomes and cultural workers, and from subsidized, low-income cultural producers to the kinds of digital ‘incubator’ professionals established down the street at the now abandoned, first headquarters of HootSuite down the street at Railway and Dunlevy Streets.

View of the 300 block Railway Street (303 Railway to become Railtown Studio building 321 Railway Street on extreme left) circa 1980 - Vancouver Archives COV-S511- CVA 780-327

Today’s fractured legacy of ‘Railtown Studios’ at 321 Railway Street: disconnected from previous waves of settlement and economies with cultural activities as much as about historical obfuscation as contemporary production.