A former Gastown visionary passes the torch as neighbourhood blooms

Gastown has changed so many times in my life. When I was a teenager, I loved it for all the strange little hippie shops where I could buy scraps of fake fur, beads, and the weird jewelry that I imagined at the time made me look cooler than Joni Mitchell.

In my 20s, it was the place we went to sit in dark, noisy bars, occasionally screaming a few incomprehensible things at each other during the evening over the music.

In later years, I avoided it religiously, unless I felt a deep need for a T-shirt that said “Vancouver, B.C.” on it. Only Inform, the city’s outpost of modern furniture, could entice me down.

This Christmas season, it turned into my go-to neighbourhood. I bought shirts and tuques and jackets for the style guys in my life at hipper-than-thou men’s stores like Inventory and Roden Grey. I got cheap blankets at Nood, the emporium of low-cost modernism, and trolled through Nood’s upscale neighbours, Parliament and Orling and Wu.

And when I needed a break, I stopped for lunch at Peckinpah’s, the latest in the empire of restaurants down there run by a collection of young men who have turned Gastown into an interesting-food station of the cross for Vancouver, including The Diamond, Cobre, Monstr Sushi, etc.

That’s all possible because, back in 1967 or so, another group of then-young men decided that Gastown wasn’t just some rundown Skid Road that had no further use, even though it was the historic birthplace of the city. Those guys started buying buildings and scrapping with the city to invest in the area again.

I talked to one of them, Bob Saunders, yesterday as he is preparing to retire this week, and packing up his memorabilia of the area as he goes. After I’d filed my story, I also ended up talking to Robert Fung, the developer who has picked up the torch from that earlier group.

He now owns the set of buildings that Bob and company first bought back in 1968 — a set of buildings that has now been transformed into the home for the places I shopped and ate, along with condos at the Garage and Cordage.

It was thanks to those guys, says Robert, that there were buildings left for him to start restoring when he came along in the 1990s.

Of course, the question is: What does the future bring? When the original newcomers moved into Gastown, they talked about enjoying the area in spite of its large population of drunks and panhandlers. In fact, they said the mix was what made the area interesting.

The first wave of developers also created a lot of low-cost studios and apartments for local artists and whoever wanted to live down there — something that hasn’t happened in quite a while.

So what will Gastown be in another 40 years?

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