Vancouver's origins are based in this community
Gastown's sawmills helped to spawn a commercial zone along Hastings Street. Eventually, head offices, banks, theatres, hotels and department stores all set up shop there.
It was home to the main library (now the Carnegie Centre) and City Hall. Hastings Street was also a key transportation hub — a streetcar terminus located at the BC Electric Building allowed riders to catch connections to other parts of the city.
The Downtown Eastside (DTES) encompassed two distinct areas within its boundaries. The original civic centre, centered around Main and Hastings with City Hall, the City Market, the Carnegie Public Library and numerous theatres, while farther east it was home to much of the original industry of the new city including the Hastings Mill. Along the waterfront of Burrard Inlet was, as today, the port.
The numerous hotels that remain in the area were originally built for commercial travellers and tourists brought in by the coastal steamship fleets. Later they would become the permanent home to the many single men who had worked as loggers and miners.
Along Powell Street the Japanese community settled close to the port and fish processing plants. At one time they made up the majority of the school population at the nearby Strathcona Elementary School. In 1942, Vancouver's residents of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed to the interior of B.C. following the bombing of Pearl Harbour.
With the construction of the new courthouse on Georgia Street in 1906 the focus for the downtown shifted west. The DTES was still the transportation hub for the city with the BC Electric interurban station at Hastings and Carrall, the North Shore Ferries at the foot of Columbia and the coastal steamship piers between Carrall and Main Street. All of this activity put thousands of people per day onto the streets of the DTES, they in turn supported a vibrant shopping district along Hastings Street.
In 1958 street car service was discontinued and the interurban station was closed, the following year the North Shore ferries ceased operation. These two events took the thousands of people per day away from the streets and the area never fully recovered.
Soon after, the library moved to the corner of Burrard and Robson, and many head offices began to follow suit. As a result, traffic to the neighbourhood decreased by almost 10,000 people a day. The gradual loss of low-income housing in other parts of town, such as Fairview Slopes and Kitsilano, drove more people to the increasingly affordable Downtown Eastside.
Around the late 1960s, the Eaton's department store moved from its Hastings Street location (site of Simon Fraser University's Harbour Centre campus today) to the newly-built Pacific Centre mall on Granville Street.
By the 1970s, lack of public funding led to the de-institutionalization of thousands of psychiatric patients, who found the Downtown Eastside to be their only affordable housing option.
The drug situation worsened in the late 1980s, when the drug of choice switched from injection-based heroin to cocaine. More people addicted to the drug came into the community and resorted to theft to pay for their habit. This led to an increase in second-hand stores that bought the stolen goods, giving birth to a whole industry, and making it very difficult for legitimate businesses to function.
In 1993, the flagship Woodward's department store on Hastings Street went out of business, striking another blow to the community. Many other stores and restaurants in the vicinity closed soon after.
Today, community residents, businesses and service organizations are working with the three levels of government, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, the Four Pillars Coalition, the Vancouver Police Department, and the Vancouver Park Board on revitalizing the Downtown Eastide.
One of the most important projects that symbolizes the revitalization efforts is the redevelopment of the Woodward's building.
Prompted by community activism, the Woodward's site has been redeveloped into a mixed-use complex that includes market and non-market housing, retail, community amenity space, a public atrium, space for non-profit organizations, plus the SFU School for the Contemporary Arts.
Community and government initiatives like Woodward's are an important step towards bringing positive changes to the neighbourhood to ensure that it is a liveable, safe, and viable community for all.