Kitsilano and Arbutus Ridge

by Michael Kluckner

Since it was first settled around the turn of the 20th century, Kitsilano has been home to a very diverse cross-section of Vancouver’s population. Throughout its history, the homes of the wealthy have stood next to rental apartments, and workers’ cottages occupied streets near popular bathing beaches. In the early days, the two factors which created this diversity were the pretty English Bay waterfront on the one hand and industrial False Creek on the other. Since the 1970s Kitsilano’s proximity to the white-collar jobs of downtown Vancouver has boosted prices on both the surviving cottages and the mansions.

In the 19th century the English Bay waterfront was the scene of small logging operations, supplied by skid roads and logging railways extending back into the hills of Mackenzie Heights, and a cannery at the foot of Bayswater Street. The large parcels of surveyed property on the south side of the bay were bought, sold and traded among Vancouver’s early speculators, but there were too few customers to support any real-estate development until late in the 1890s, when a few homes began to appear on the muddy streets west of Granville Street and the Fairview Slopes streetcar line. Workers’ cottages and tenements occupied the lowlands within an easy walk of the sawmills and sash-and-door factories on False Creek.

At the time, natives lived in a village called Sun’ahk, facing into False Creek near the Kitsilano side of the Burrard Bridge; in 1869 they had been granted a tiny reservation around the village, bounded roughly by First Avenue, Chestnut and the Burrard Bridge right-of-way. Although eight years later the land grant was doubled to include pare of Kitsilano Point, in 1901 the Provincial Government decided to displace the native community, which broke up, some members going to Squamish, some to the Capilano reserve. A decade later the reservation was abandoned and considered to be a future industrial reserve.

Also displaced was the first white settler, Sam Greer, who lived on Kitsilano Beach from 1882 till 1890, when he lost a dispute with the Canadian Pacific Railway over title to the land. Greer went to jail for shooting and wounding the sheriff who had come to evict him, and the CPR publicized plans for a deep-sea terminus on Kitsilano Point, However, the company soon abandoned the plans and turned its thoughts to residential development. After consulting with Professor Charles Hill-Tout, the CPR decided in 1905 to name the new area after Chief Khahtsahlanough, whose grandson August Jack was a resident of Sun’ahk.

Meanwhile Vancouverites flocked by rowboat, and on foot from Granville Street, to camp at Greer’s Beach, as it had become known. To service the beach community and open the area for settlement, the CPR leased its trestle across False Creek and right-of-way along English Bay to the B.C. Electric Railway Company, which started a regular streetcar service in 1905. Permanent occupants of the new area included a few brave souls who had built homes along the beach: the earliest was a realtor named Theodore Calland, who built the mansion “Edgewood” in 1902 (demolished) just west of the Trafalgar Street CPR boundary, and the MacGowan family, who built in 1904 at 2575 Cornwall.

A number of other fine estates were erected on the Kitsilano hillside and along the beach in the years before World War I: the Rorison house at 3148 Point Grey Road, in about 1906; the Ells house on the triangle of Point Grey Road and York Avenue, in 1908, now converted into condominiums; “Killarney” at Point Grey Road and Bayswater, now the site of an apartment building of the same name, in 1908 by Sam Greer’s daughter; the Stearman house at First Avenue and Larch in 1908; the Logan house at 2530 Point Grey Road in 1909; and “Seagate Manor,” at the foot of Macdonald Street, in 1912 (demolished).

On nearby blocks, land was subdivided into 10-metre lots and sold to builders catering to middle- class home-buyers. The CPR itself developed Kitsilano Point for housing in 1909. By the time of the outbreak of World War I, most of the slope above the beach was occupied by houses, mainly two or two-and-a-half storeys in the “Vancouver Box” or Craftsman styles, interspersed here and there with the occasional rowhouse or apartment building.

Another streetcar line, extending from Granville Bridge along 4th Avenue to Alma, was completed in 1909, opening up more land. Block after block of wooden houses were thrown up between 4th and 9th (named Broadway in 1912). A more exclusive subdivision of grand, Craftsman-style homes was marketed by James Quiney north of 4th Avenue and west of Blenheim. To meet the population boom, new schools opened--West Fairview, on the north side of 4th between Yew and Vine, in 1907 (demolished); Henry Hudson at Cornwall and Cypress in 1911; General Gordon at 6th at Bayswater in 1912; Lord Tennyson at 10th and Cypress in 1913; Bayview at Collingwood and 7th in 1914; and Kitsilano High at 10th and Trafalgar in 1917.

The eastern end of Kitsilano was dominated less by aesthetic and family concerns and more by its proximity to industry. The blocks of Cypress and Cedar (now Burrard Street) near the beach were home to Vancouver’s Sikh community before World War I; nearby employers included the B.C. Electric’s interurban car shops near the Kitsilano trestle, the sawmills, and a number of businesses served by the B.C. Electric rail line, including the Reifels’ Vancouver Brewery at 12th and Yew and the metal shops on Granville Island.

The fate of the former Indian reservation, coveted by industry but used during World War II as an RCAF Equipment Depot, was only decided in 1956, when the Parkview Towers apartment building went up at Chestnut and Cornwall. Over the next 20 Years institutions, including the Maritime Museum, the Vancouver Museum, the Planetarium, the Southam Observatory the Vancouver Archives and the Vancouver School of Music, occupied the land; grassy swards beloved of kite fliers extended to the windy point.

Most of the old estates, and many single-family homes, converted into rooming houses during World War II and stayed that way through the 1950s and into the 1960s, by which time Kitsilano was very popular with university students. Following city council’s 1954 decision to rezone the slope above the beach for apartments, few owners maintained the old houses, leading to the deterioration of the neighborhood. With this affordable housing, the nearby beach, and vacant shops on 4th Avenue, Kitsilano was the perfect home for Vancouver’s hippie community of the sixties and seventies.

Many who moved to the area at that time established themselves and, with their new-found wealth from well-paying downtown jobs, bought and restored houses and became the yuppies of the 1980s. Kitsilano is today quite a wealthy area with a young, mobile population. Although many single-family houses have been demolished, or converted into strata units, there is still a “heritage” feeling clinging to many of its tree-lined streets.

Unlike Kitsilano, the Arbutus Ridge area south of 16th Avenue is more homogeneous. Lying between the interurban tracks and the CPR’s boundary at Trafalgar Street, the area was largely bypassed by development, which sought more desirable properties on higher ground. Only in the late 1930s did the blocks north of King Edward Avenue become popular for starter houses,” usually hipped-roof, stuccoed bungalows with octagon windows near the front door. The process continued after World War II with much the same kind of houses, many of which have since been replaced by newer generations of “Vancouver Specials.” The most prominent survivor from the immediate post-war years is the block of shops at 16th and Arbutus, with the distinctive Ridge Theatre and bowling alley.

South and west of King Edward Avenue as far as the Quilchena hillside at 33rd, the land was marshy bushland known as Consumption Hollow, Asthma Flats or Johnston’s Farm. It was leased in 1925 to the Quilchena Golf Club, which had a clubhouse at 29th and Maple Crescent, and a small interurban station for golfing passengers! After the club moved to Richmond in 1960, housing development commenced. Prince of Wales School, the Arbutus Club, Arbutus Gardens, and a few private-care hospitals took large blocks of land, while rancher-style houses filled the adjoining, winding streets (Valley Drive, cutting diagonally across the area, follows part of the route of an 1870s-era logging railway). The Arbutus Village shopping centre and housing complex, completed in the 1970s, were the last pieces fitted into the puzzle.

One thing that Arbutus Ridge shares with Kitsilano is a Greek presence; in the former, it is the Greek Orthodox church on Valley Drive, which superseded the Greek community’s earlier church--now Kits House at 7th and Vine. Since the 1950s, Vancouver’s Greek commercial area has been the blocks of Broadway west of Macdonald.

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