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South Main, or SoMa, as savvy locals have dubbed the area around Main and Broadway, is the story of a bad-ass neighbourhood that dragged itself out of the gutter and made good—or at least made probation. Fifteen years ago it was the frightening mainline artery through Mount Pleasant, an area reviled for its mix of drugs and sex for rent. But today, a relaxed kind of gentrification has given rise to the sort of local hangouts (such as funky granddaddy The Whip Gallery Restaurant and newbie vegetarian eatery Foundation) that make a neighbourhood feel like home.

Now, with a booming real estate market (prices have doubled in the last eight years), and interesting new developments in store, SoMa has gone from being the Next Big Thing—attracting brave first-time owners with low prices—to something of a sure bet. The 1990s saw more than 700 new artist lofts spring up. But there’s still room for improvement—amidst the remaining pawn shops, residents are fiercely debating what sort of neighbourhood South Main ought to become.

In the heart of it all, at Number One Kingsway, lies a giant hole in the ground. Plans are afoot to make the hole the soul of the neighbourhood, by building in its place the Mount Pleasant Community Centre and Library, which is scheduled to open in 2004. Substantial new commercial development is also at least a few years away, city planners say; that’s the natural progression of emerging residential areas.

A driving force behind SoMa’s revitalization so far is Jonathan Kerridge, local pioneer and co-founder of a triad of neighbourhood hotspots (the aforementioned Whip, as well as Soma Coffee House and Monsoon restaurant). He happily takes credit for applying the South Main designation to the Main-and-Broadway zone (officials consider it to be the more established area around Main and 41st)—and even took it one step farther, by inventing the neighbourhood’s NYC-chic nickname. “This place is on its way up,”

Kerridge says. He predicts his stomping ground will have its own distinct identity within the next five years. Kerridge envisions a unique hybrid of South Granville and Commercial Drive. But there are competing dreams. There are those in the Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Association who are very excited about a planned 30-percent expansion of Kingsgate Mall, with office-supply chain Staples as a potential tenant. They also think that a restaurant like Bread Garden is something the community desperately needs, as brand names will reassure timid Vancouverites who associate Mount Pleasant more with muggings than muffins.

Stephen Morris, a local realtor who depends on the neighbourhood’s unique style for his livelihood, is offended by the very idea. He sees South Main as a much-needed “alternative to a downtown/Gap mentality.” The last thing he wants is a new Kitsilano for yuppies to colonize—he says he isn’t interested in selling “pink and grey little things with wallpaper borders.” Nor does he care for the luxuries of downtown apartments. His live/work spaces are basic concrete and steel boxes. The idea works: people have been snapping them up.

“Ten years ago this area was at the end of its economic life,” he says. “Tired and worn out. Ho’s and trannies. Really nasty.” Now it’s on the verge of something big. “I smell it between Main and Cambie,” he continues, sipping an espresso on a couch at Soma. “There’s business there, there’s people renovating things.”

Of course, not everyone is happy with a trend seemingly driven by real-estate speculators. “I don’t even know anyone who calls this place SoMa,” says Billeh Nickerson, a poet who lives in the Lee Building on the corner of Main and Broadway. “They’re just trying to make it sound like New York. It’s embarrassing.” What he’d like to see is an area that’s mature and diverse enough to embrace its roots. “I wish people would just call it Mount Pleasant. Yes, it used to be seedy. But get over it.”

For the moment, South Main hovers in the vortex between west and east side. But the wind is not blowing in favour of the pawn shops and their dubious kin, such as the Fox Cinema (North America’s last 35-millimetre porn theatre). Earlier this year, the Fox’s new owners, perhaps hearing their own death knell, tried to lure in arty patrons by screening alternative, non-porn movies on weekends. Sales were not good. After all, who wants to take their date to the same theatre where the night before some dirty little man ogled the lovelies in Deep Throat? Perhaps what they really need is a thorough carpet cleaning, an end to the nudie flicks altogether, and intellectual post-screening discussion groups.

Or maybe the city can turn the Fox into a historical site—a monument to what South Main once was, but is no longer.

To read the rest of this Story pick up the current issue of Vancouver magazine at your local newstand today.