Commercial Drive’s Historian: An Interview with Jak King

East side of Commercial Drive - 1700-block - in 1936 (VPL 23618 part)

Jak King knows a lot about the history of Commercial Drive.

In his recently released The Drive: A Retail, Social and Political History of Commercial Drive he does a great job of outlining a detailed history of the Drive — focusing on the area from Venables to 7th Avenue in the period between the early 1920’s to 1956.

Having read every issue of the Highland Echo — Commercial Drive’s weekly newspaper (which ran from 1936 to 1969) — Jak has documented change through a detailed construction of the people, stores, buildings and curiosities that shaped the ‘backdoor’ of Vancouver. His book also highlights changes in technology, the important creation of a transportation hub, as well as the formative people and interesting events that saw Commercial drive through the beginning of the 20th century. These early events truly cultivated this unique and often autonomous Vancouver community.

This was recently followed by The Encyclopedia of Commercial Drive – a 558 page collection of all businesses and business owners along this well-known street up to 1999. Both books are the first of a series by the area resident on the history of the Drive that tells a story not often heard in our future-foreward city.

Spacing Vancouver contributor David Peacock recently had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Jak to talk about his book in a cafe on the Drive that he certainly knew a long back story on.

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Spacing: The Drive details so much change in ownership from the 1920’s through the 50’s, does this constant rebirth reflect a bigger societal value in the neighbourhood?

Jak: I think that the one thing that we’ve really maintained is the fact that our stores here are small, and they are generally locally managed. There are chains here — there is the Starbucks here, the Safeway here, whatever else — but essentially most of the stores here are small and locally managed. That’s something that has come through history and has been retained. I think that does add to the friendliness of the neighbourhood, and to the fact that we have survived some pretty rough times here.

I am a little concerned about the fact that 30 years ago we had a dozen restaurants here and today we have 94. In many ways that’s a good thing, making it a very friendly neighbourhood. But what bothers me is that there are 86 businesses that are no longer in existence, that have been taken over by restaurants. I would hate us to become just a foodie neighbourhood. We used to have a lot of furniture stores, appliance stores, more shoe stores, and now we have almost nothing but restaurants for the last 20 years.

Spacing: You compare the Drive in it’s early days to a small town in the interior, isolated from the developing City. You seem to hint at a ‘friendly small town’ shopping and living experience.

Jak: Yes, this is more of a look-and-feel thing. I spent time in the early 1980’s in some of the interior towns in BC, and many of the pictures from the Drive in the 1930’s remind me of the same sort of —I don’t want to say barrenness —but a certain vacancy, or the early development feeling of some of those places. When I look at pictures of the Drive in the 30’s, I’ve often think about standing outside on a quiet day in Nelson, it was kind of the same feel to it.

What also helped create the small town feeling was the fact that, certainly in the 1920’s and after the Depression, Grandview and the whole area was kind of ignored by the City. As I try to explain in the book, that really came down to a question of transportation. Because of the False Creek Flats, transportation from downtown went both north and south of Commercial Drive, leaving us high and dry right in the middle without much traffic.

On top of the lack of transportation, very few City services were given to the neighbourhood and throughout the thirties many felt neglected by the City. I think that’s what created the self-reliance and the individuality that has stayed with Commercial Drive. We’re the only part of the City that built it’s own recreation center. In the 1930’s other neighbourhood had City financed community centers, and we didn’t. It was the East Vancouver Lions, the Grandview Chamber of Commerce and the local YWCA who financed the first community center here. It was that sort of self-reliance that developed this community.

Spacing: Commercial Drive (Grandview) was often seen as a city developing as a ‘backdoor’ to Vancouver. You suggest the area shaped it’s own ideals to some degree, its lifestyles and sense of community. Is this unique? What is the lasting effect?

Jak: What the Drive has given us mostly is an understanding of how multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-sexual groups of individuals can work well in a fairly old-fashioned residential and commercial neighbourhood. I’m not sure it works as well elsewhere in the city. Here it works very well, and I think it has developed naturally here for more than 50 years, since the first large wave of Italians arrived here in the mid 1950’s.

Before that time it was very much an Anglo and Scottish neighbourhood. However, the response of the Drive to the massive changes that took place in the 30’s and 40’s allowed us to accept new immigrants in the 50’s with great ease. Since then, we’ve simply had wave after wave of new folks from different countries, different sexualities. Each of these groups has stopped here and left some of their patina before moving off. The lesson that the Drive can teach the rest of the country is that this type of diversity really works.

Spacing: Key innovations that affected the Drive during WW2 are outlined in your book. One of which was the modernization of grocery stores, such as Safeway in Vancouver. Was this a present day ‘big box’-like presence on the Drive?

Jak: You have to remember that until the late 1930’s, all the businesses on the Drive were ‘stores’ — by which I mean you had the apron-clad guys who took orders and delivered them. But what you had in the 1930’s was self-service. This was invented only in 1917 and expanded into the newly-developed supermarkets after that time.

This was a completely different mindset of how shopping was done because self-service took the power away from the salesman and gave it to the customer, giving people choice. Safeway had helped. They built four of their new supermarkets in the City in 1940/41, two of which were on the Drive; one at Broadway and one at First Ave. And that did change the nature of the shopping experience on the Drive. People saw what self-service was and what lower prices — in theory — could buy you.

Reliable Drugs at the corner of Commercial Drive and 3rd Ave.

Louis Toban and his Reliable Drugs store up at 3rd and Commercial, he was really the conduit of this type of information for the storekeepers here. He was well-respected and influential so that by the time the end of the war came, most of the stores on the Drive had evolved from old-fashioned ‘stores’ into modern ‘shops’.

This was a really interesting period in retail history because there was a second revolution going on at the same time. The Americans had a lot of arms factories that didn’t have anything to make after the First World War. So they turned their hands to making furnaces, refrigerators and washing machines. So what used to be the hardware store developed into the appliance store in the early 50’s.

With self service there is a mentality to get rid of staff and be a cash-only business. But appliance stores had the exact opposite dynamics. They were all to do with high-pressure sales and easy access to consumer credit. Totally opposite to the self-service revolution, which was going on at exactly the same time.

By the early 1950s, appliance stores were the kings on the Drive. Manitoba Hardware, for example – formerly located in the Dryden Block in the space currently occupied by Mintage – was at that point the largest store outside of downtown Vancouver.

Spacing: Another innovation was the Arctic Food Market, a massive frozen food locker located in the building that now houses Santa Barbara Market – on Commercial Drive between Charles St. and Kitchener St. What effect did these changes have on the food choices and cuisine on the drive?

Jak:  It was an excellent idea by Clarence Webber, and it did last for a while. People not only stored big cuts of meat from the butchers, but also their hunting and fishing catches.  But it was also a badly timed idea, to be honest.  He faced competition with the rapidly falling costs of home refrigerators. So in the end, it didn’t last but it definitely had introduced a new idea to the Drive.

Spacing: You detail two important social and cultural centers in the early days; Grandview Park and Grandview Lawn Bowling Association. Both have seen heavy use throughout their history, bringing divergent groups together. What is the lasting significance of these two important nodes?

Jak: The lasting value of Grandview Park is simply that it exists in this area — one that is not heavily serviced by parks. The fact that this sits right in the middle of the Drive and is so well used is amazing. I don’t know the figures, but in the past it was the most heavily used park in the City. I suspect that it’s still very much the same now. Just the fact that it has managed to survive in an area with increasingly high rents is wonderful. I think there were a lot of better things we could have done with the recent two million dollars spent on the Park upgrade, but that’s past now. The new bathrooms actually sit near the spot of the very first house on the Drive, George McSpadden’s house. He owned the Grandview Park lot. He sold the land to the Ministry of Defense in 1912 for $100, 000 which was a lot of money at that time. It finally became a park at the end of the 1920’s.

The Grandview Bowling Club in Victoria Park — off Victoria Street between Kitchener St. and Grant St. – was an extremely interesting venture. It lasted from 1933 until the end of the 60’s, when eventually finances and the weather destroyed the greens. At that point, they turned it into a bocce park which is a cultural phenomenon all of its own.

What is interesting about the lawn bowling club is that, when I was first reading about it, I assumed it was the place where the high class guys went. But that was not true at all. In fact, it was a place where everyone went. It was full of carpenters, joiners, lawyers and everybody else. It was very representative of the whole community and it was well run. It seems to have been a very well enjoyed space. It used to be an empty space, and it was the Chamber of Commerce in 1933 that had it changed into the Lawn Bowling Association — having the greens and buildings built as a works relief program.

Spacing: Charles E. Smith was very involved in the Grandview Lawn-bowling Association. Do you think he was the greatest catalyst in the urban planning and design of the neighbourhood?

Jak: He was. Charles E. Smith was the catalyst behind the 1st Avenue Bridge, as part of his Grand Plan for Commercial Drive. Without that bridge I don’t know what we would have become. I think we would have been a completely forgotten suburb.

In ’36 and ’37 people were seriously talking that Commercial Drive would completely disappear as a business center, as there really was no traffic coming here. So when Charles E. Smith pushed that through, that really set up Grandview and the Drive. Had that not happened, things would have been very different.

Spacing: Looking to the future, do you have anything else on deck?

Jak:  I have two more books to complete the set on Commercial Drive.  The next one is called The Biography of Buildings and is a history of every building that has existed on the Drive and their occupants.  The fourth will be the second volume of “The Drive” taking Commercial Drive’s history from 1956 through to 1999. That will keep me busy for the next couple of years.

At the same time, I am working with the Grandview Heritage Group and the Grandview-Woodland Area Council to ensure that the changes that will inevitably come to Commercial Drive will be in a form that complements our heritage and our history, and which the community will enjoy and appreciate.

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One more heartfelt thanks to Jak King for taking the time out of his day to share his wisdom with me and the Spacing readers.

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Be sure to check out Jak King’s blog  – Jak’s View of Vancouver – for his frequent historical writings on Commercial Drive as well as the Drive Press for information on his current books and get updates on those that have yet to be released.

For more information in the Grandview Heritage Group, you can visit their blog here.

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Dave Peacock is a Vancouver enthusiast and an independent web designer. His personal and professional interests lie in the parlé between digital and physical space.