Hastings Street: Vancouver’s Heaven and Hell

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. Hastings street is the most dynamic street in Vancouver.
Hastings street is the most dynamic street in Vancouver.
Often overlooked by visitors and local residents alike, Hastings is one of the most controversial and complicated streets in the City of Vancouver. It encompasses Canada’s poorest neighbourhood on one end of the socioeconomic spectrum and one of the richest on the other, separated by a mere five-minute drive.

From heroin-ridden alleys to multi-million dollar condos, issues of welfare, urban redevelopment, and foreign investments on Hastings feature constantly in local debates. While not commonly on a sightseer’s top ten list, for those who desire a more in-depth understanding of Vancouver, a walk on Hastings Street can be unusually revealing.

Named in 1885 after Vice-Admiral George Hastings of the Royal Navy, Hastings Street runs 13 kilometres westwards from the foot of Burnaby Mountain through several middle-class neighbourhoods and light commercial districts to the historical heart of Vancouver and ends at the Coal Harbour neighbourhood of Downtown Vancouver.

In the early 1900s, Hastings served as city’s most important thoroughfare and has since then witnessed the rise and fall of Downtown Eastside and landmarks such as the Woodward’s department store, Eaton’s, and Japantown. Currently, it is still one of the most important east-west traffic corridors linking Vancouver and Burnaby.

Hastings Street encompasses Canada’s poorest neighbourhood on one end of the socioeconomic spectrum and one of the richest on the other, separated by a mere five-minute drive.

Dividing Hastings into three equal sections, the first two, starting from Burnaby Mountain moving west, are residential and light commercial. A few landmarks along the way include Simon Fraser University and Pacific National Exhibition. On the map above, the first two sections are outlined in blue, from Parkcrest to Grandview-Woodland.

The last section, outlined in red, begins at Clark Drive, Vancouver’s industrial district, and is the most dynamic of the three. Before entering the Downtown Vancouver peninsula, this last section of Hastings Street takes us through Downtown Eastside (DTES) – fourteen blocks of abject poverty stretching from Clark Drive westward to Abbott Street.

DTES used to be Vancouver’s political centre in the early 1900s. Later on, a series of economic decline and policy changes gradually shifted the city’s power centre westward from DTES to the central business district of today, where Downtown Vancouver is located.

The average income for single adults in DTES amounts to a little over $6,000 before subsidies, similar to the average income of Nigeria. Over 95% of the population rents (Oppenheimer area, City of Vancouver DTES Profile 2013) compared to a city average of 52%. Over 82% lives alone. In addition, there is a high concentration of homeless people and people with mental illness due to nearby institution closures.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. Poverty-stricken individuals often gather in the dark alleys off Hastings Street in Downtown Eastside. Many are tormented by drug addiction and mental illness and are often trapped in a downward spiral leading to premature death.

Poverty-stricken individuals often gather in the dark alleys off Hastings Street in Downtown Eastside. Many are tormented by drug addiction and mental illness and are often trapped in a downward spiral leading to premature death.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. Empress Hotel is one of the many SROs on Hastings Street. It is a privately operated SRO with 73 rooms. In 2006, Empress Hotel was sold to a developer amid Vancouver's rising real estate prices.

Empress Hotel is one of the many SROs on Hastings Street. It is a privately operated SRO with 73 rooms. In 2006, Empress Hotel was sold to a developer amid Vancouver’s rising real estate prices.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. Potter's Place Mission, a Downtown Eastside church on Hastings with outreach programs to provide material and spiritual support to the impoverished.

Potter’s Place Mission, a Downtown Eastside church on Hastings with outreach programs to provide material and spiritual support to the impoverished.

Though crime rate is much higher than the city’s average, it is also true that most of the victims are the homeless and prostitutes who lack the basic protection others often take for granted.

The fourteen blocks of Hastings Street that runs through DTES are regarded as the most dangerous area in Vancouver. It is, however, captivating in its own way. There is a certain cohesion and honesty among the eccentric characters, though to outsiders the assault on the senses can be quite harsh due to the highly visible poverty.

On a typical day, open-air drug markets line the sidewalks. Prostitutes, addicts, and the homeless fill the street. Binners intermingling with barterers, flanked by storefronts with security bars and boarded-up windows. Some wander about on the street while others walk by doing their usual business.

Though crime rate is higher than the city’s average, it is also true that most victims are the homeless and prostitutes who lack the basic protection others often take for granted.

Along this skid row hosts Canada’s first supervised injection site and numerous single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels. Those are hotels rented as permanent residences, often as social housings. They make up a large portion of the low-income rental stock in the area. About 30% (roughly 1,500 units) are bought or leased by the government and in 2011, the monthly rent on those non-market units are $375 CAD.

SROs are about ten by ten feet and share a single bathroom and kitchen with other occupants on the same floor. Many SROs are in disrepair, suffering from pest infestations.

Rents and vacancy rates have been climbing as SRO owners are inclined to renovate and rent out to students or sell to developers. As the city’s population continue to grow, the pressure to gentrify puts many residents at risk of displacement.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. Hastings Folk Garden, a community garden in the Downtown Eastside portion of the Hastings Street. Insite, Canada's first supervised injection site, is the green building five metres to the right of the garden.

Hastings Folk Garden, a community garden in the Downtown Eastside portion of the Hastings Street. Insite, Canada’s first supervised injection site, is the green building five metres to the right of the garden.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. A closed shop in Downtown Eastside, in close proximity to the neighbouring Chinatown.

A closed shop in Downtown Eastside, in close proximity to the neighbouring Chinatown.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. Seeing Hastings Streets from the border between Chinatown and Downtown Eastside.

Seeing Hastings Streets from the border between Chinatown and Downtown Eastside.

Continue west, we start to notice a transition. First comes the historic Gastown neighbourhood, where galleries, startups, and professional offices sit alongside the tree-lined cobblestone sidewalks.

Continue west, we start to notice a transition. First comes the historic Gastown neighbourhood, where galleries, tech startups, and professional offices sit alongside the tree-lined cobblestone sidewalks. Then, as pavement becomes smoother, buildings on each side start grows taller and more magnificent.
Edwardian and Art Deco architectures interspersed among LEED-certified towers. People walk taller and faster. High fashion boutiques, supercars, and fine dining establishments congregate to celebrate the invincibility of a generation. This is Vancouver’s retail core and central business district.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. Located on Hastings Street at the boundary between Gastown and Vancouver's Central Business District, Cannabis Culture Headquarters (CCHQ) and the adjacent British Columbia Marijuana Party office (BCMP) are Marc Emery's effort to legalize marijuana in British Columbia.

Located on Hastings Street at the boundary between Gastown and Vancouver’s Central Business District, Cannabis Culture Headquarters (CCHQ) and the adjacent British Columbia Marijuana Party office (BCMP) are Marc Emery’s effort to legalize marijuana in British Columbia.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. Continue moving west along Hastings Street takes us through Vancouver's historic Gastown, a recently gentrified neighbourhood featuring upscale boutiques and art galleries. This cobblestone and tree-lined sidewalk is at the intersection between Hastings and Abbott Street.

Continue moving west along Hastings Street takes us through Vancouver’s historic Gastown, a recently gentrified neighbourhood featuring upscale boutiques and art galleries. This cobblestone and tree-lined sidewalk is at the intersection between Hastings and Abbott Street.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell.

Issue of Downtown Eastside gentrification is a major political controversy in Vancouver. Posts like this can be seen frequently in the DTES area.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. Approaching the intersection of Burrard and Hastings, heart of Vancouver's central business district.

Approaching the intersection of Burrard and Hastings, heart of Vancouver’s central business district.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. At the intersection of Howe and Hastings.

At the intersection of Howe and Hastings.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. Approaching the intersection of Burrard and Hastings, heart of Vancouver's central business district.

Approaching the intersection of Burrard and Hastings, heart of Vancouver’s central business district.

Condominiums in Coal Harbour average 800k CAD. Contrast this with the $375 shelter nine blocks eastward, one cannot help but be astonished by the chasm between the haves and the have-nots.

The final section of Hastings, once known as Blueblood Alley for its wealthy mansion owners, runs through Coal Harbour, one of the most exclusive stretches of residential real estate in Canada.

This area is dominated by glass high rises reflecting mountains and architects like IBI Group and James K.M. Cheng. The neighbourhood is spacious, clean, with marina and seawall metres away.

Quality, of course, comes at a price. Condominiums in the area average 926 square feet for around 800k CAD (Coal Harbour MLS HPI Benchmark). Out of 76 total listings as of this writing, over 80% has a listing price of over a million dollars. Among them, 20% are listings between five to twenty million dollars. Contrast this with the $375 shelter for the run-down SROs nine blocks eastward, one cannot help but be astonished by the chasm between the haves and the have-nots.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. Portal Park on Hastings, the gateway to Vancouver's Coal Harbour neighbourhood.

Portal Park on Hastings, the gateway to Vancouver’s Coal Harbour neighbourhood.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. Spacious, clean, with marina and Stanley Park seawall couple of metres away, condominiums in the area average 926 square feet for around $800,000 CAD

Spacious, clean, with marina and Stanley Park seawall couple of metres away, condominiums in the area average 926 square feet for around $800,000 CAD

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. Hastings Street in Coal Harbour: clean and spacious sidewalks with Neomodern high rises built out of glass.

Hastings Street in Coal Harbour: clean and spacious sidewalks with Neomodern high rises built out of glass.

Hastings Street: Vancouver's Heaven and Hell. The final section of Hastings Street in Coal Harbour.

The final section of Hastings Street in Coal Harbour.

In this postmodern world we inhabit today, what is our responsibility towards our society? Perhaps a walk through Hastings Street will guide us closer to the answer.

Walking through the last section of Hastings Street reveals such polarity it feels like two different worlds altogether. Starting from the industrial district and moving west through DTES, to Coal Harbour, this dynamic thoroughfare encapsulates vividly a widening economic gap and the challenges facing a post-industrial urban society.
It is fearfully thought-provoking and confronts us with questions of value, belief, and the interplay of luck and destiny. In this postmodern world we live in today, what is our responsibility towards our society? What constitutes basic rights? What is welfare? Perhaps a walk through Hastings Street will guide us closer to the answer.

 

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