Speaking of walking… In October 2010, I had the privilege of being invited to present two walking tours for the Walking Home project. For the first walk, the focus was on Carrall Street which for me is great fun because the street cuts through three historic neighbourhoods; Gastown, Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, and touches on every aspect of the city’s history. The second walk concentrated on Market Alley between Hastings and Pender.
Both walks were designed to explore and challenge some of the myths and perceptions that have coloured our view of the area. As always the walks are meant to be a discussion, not just a presentation by me and right from the get go the students were asking some good, tough and perceptive questions.
With the project’s focus on the downtown eastside and Carrall Street I was able to present fairly in-depth tours. Carrall Street is an interesting street because at the south end we look at the filling in of False Creek, the unexpected history of brothels – separated by the ethnicity of their clients – and the sawmill which occupied the street end and the site of today’s Shanghai Alley. Even the alley is as historic as it is a popular construction of the imagination.
At the north end, Blood Alley presents a history of crime and death so firmly entrenched that it is almost impossible to dislodge for the more mundane, but real history. My hope is that when presented with contradictory ideas students will at least be open to new ideas and more willing to explore and observe their surroundings.
While Blood Alley has a manufactured history, Market Alley’s has all but been forgotten. With no signs, or guide books extolling its virtues Market Alley appears to be just another grubby city alley. Yet it is of huge importance to the history of Chinatown and the city.
So, in amongst the rats, drug dealing, and dumpsters we took a couple hours to explore the alley’s fascinating history, development and decline emerging at the top end behind the Carnegie Centre. Along the way we discussed the history of opium production (it was legal until 1908) gambling, prostitution, and restaurants. We also looked at beer parlours and a unique women only drinking establishment.
A chance comment from one of the instructors that you could come back later but “with a friend” to visit the Carnegie Centre lead us on a detour to the Carnegie and into a discussion on the DTES, community and the meaning of community. This was followed by a brief walk along Hastings Street looking at community inspired projects along the street.
These tours were designed to offer a history which was not necessarily cast in stone but offered the students the opportunity to question what was presented and contrast and compare it with other information presented during the course.
The real value of this Walking Home Project was that it was focused on one area of the city allowing for a depth of experience and exploration few students would be able to have on their own. I think attitudes were changed.