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Granville Street Blues

Once a vibrant and safe destination, Vancouver’s entertainment district has fallen on hard times. Jody Vance says it doesn’t have to be this way.
(Vancouver Archives)

Fade in:

Six teenagers, 15 to 16 years old, pile onto a bus laughing. They are a bit too loud, not very self-aware, and extremely excited about heading to the movies. A new action film: Escape from New York

I’m old enough to recall when Granville Street – between the Granville St Bridge and Georgia Street – was a playground for teenagers. A bona fide destination; the Times Square of Vancouver.

This week’s Middle shares my opinions about how Granville has evolved over the intervening 40 years – but first, let’s skip to the end: we need to radically improve the Granville Entertainment District, and return it to once-celebrated status.

This is a deeply personal topic for me. I cherish the memory of saving up to go to our rat pack’s favourite place to shake off our suburban shackles.

My inner young self still feels the excitement. Before the movie, hours of album flipping at Sam the Record Man, with wandering eyes cast upwards at walls filled with options for our custom graphic T’s. Then the comic shop or fancy jean outlet.

It was all in just a few blocks. A thriving, heartbeat of a place. Day or night, you could feel safe. Now it’s loud and tense most nights, and by day it’s downright filthy.

Obviously the world has changed, and of course our city has exploded in size. And yes, I know there were issues downtown then too. But no one can convince me the status quo in 2021 is even close to okay.

When was the last time you walked down Granville Street?

Mine was just before COVID hit. It feels forgotten.

My last daytime experience was taking transit to work and hopping off on the Granville Strip. It felt like another planet. Nothing was open, it’s just a bar district now? My senses were punched by the stench. A quick scan showed multiple mounds of human feces and urine in most locked doorways.

My last night experience was October 5, 2019. We always hit the annual 54-40 concert at The Commodore, but as we left at midnight we walked into mayhem. Fights and tension everywhere. It didn’t feel safe.

Not long ago a post-show club visit would have been automatic, but not anymore. We got the hell out of there.

It’s sad to see what it’s become. That beating heart of our city feels all but lost, save for a chosen few willing to risk the mayhem.

Why are there no plazas to expand patios in ways where they don’t look like walled in cubicles? Why are the neon signs all but exiled?

Did you know that Vancouver was once among the world capital of neon signs? Apparently, we were second only to Singapore – more glowing than even Las Vegas. Where did they go? Why did they go?

It’s not just Granville. Another great pasttime for socializing safely as teens would see us load into our (parents’) cars and drive in circles cruising Robson Street.

Again, this sparks such joy to reflect how simple and fun it was. We’d see and be seen. We’d wave at our friends and feel like part of the city.

At some point cruising Robson Street was put to a halt. NIMBY No more cruising signs went up. No turn signs posted. Parking costs skyrocketed so that no one could afford to go there, and folks wonder why downtown feels soulless.

On one hand, the powers that be remove the good-clean-harmless fun things young adults and teens were doing – and on the other, encourage bad behaviour by adults by extending last call? Having spent a decade working in the Vancouver bar scene, I can tell you that 1:30 last call and lights on at 2:00am is plenty late enough.

With due respect to those trying tirelessly to mend what is broken with bar bandaids, volunteer safe walks and such — not to mention the bruised business owners doing all that they can to revitalize it by creating destinations – it’s not working.

The slowness to admit the current plan is broken seems so backwards. Building more office towers on top of our heritage theatres and venues won’t fix it. What might help is putting more eyes at street level. Patios, a true European Plaza approach. Give people places to sit, everywhere.

We know what can work; after all, we did it for the 2010 Olympics. As George Affleck and I often discuss on our UnSpun Podcast, it’s not difficult; there simply needs to be political will.

Lack of meaningful action is facilitating the de-evolution of our Times Square.

It makes me sad that my newly-minted teen won’t experience the fun of heading down to Granville, and that it’s a “no for me.”

With better planning and commitment, the Granville Entertainment District could be a newly polished gem destination for all, celebrated like a revitalized Harlem, rather than a chaotic scene from Escape from New York.

Jody Vance is a born and raised Vancouverite who’s spent 30 years in both local and national media. The first woman in the history of Canadian TV to host her own sports show in primetime, since 2011 she’s been working in both TV and radio covering news and current affairs.