Vancouver’s Early Red Light District and the Heritage House Tour

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There are some beautiful homes on the Vancouver Heritage House Tour this year—a couple of old Shaughnessy manors, a quirky turreted terra cotta and stone house in Mount Pleasant, and a colorful Edwardian on Kitchener Street, but the one I am most interested in is a tenement building in the DTES.

The house at 313 Alexander Street first appears in the city directories in 1907 built for Yonekichi Aoki, and listed as a Japanese boarding house. Aoki was a contractor for the CPR, and this area near Powell Street was part of a bustling Japan town district.

By 1912 the area was changing as madams were chased out of Dupont Street (East Pender), bounced through Shanghai and Canton Alley, and evicted from Shore Street (100 block East Georgia). Alexander Street—especially the 500 and 600 blocks—became Vancouver’s flashy new red light district.

Brothels went up at a rapid pace, built by madams such as Dolly Darlington (500 Alexander), Lucille Gray (504 Alexander) and Alice Bernard (514 Alexander). Marie Gomez even had her name spelled out in mosaic tile inside the door at 598 Alexander, unfortunately now a vacant lot. The brothels were luxuriously decorated and furnished, the prostitutes beautifully dressed, and the work earned the “inmates” a liveable income, something almost impossible to achieve as domestics, seamstresses or florists—a few of the only jobs open to women.

A police crackdown on the brothels in 1914 gave the madams—who were mostly American—the choice between six months in prison or a return to the States—and prostitution quickly disappeared from the area.

The boarding house at 313 Alexander stayed in the Aoki family until WW2 when the Japanese were interned and their properties confiscated. Charles Haynes, a West Vancouver architect, bought the building in 2006 and proceeded to renovate 24 rooms into Single Room Accommodation as a tribute to his son Ross, 19, who died from a drug overdose in 2000. The original fir floors, tongue & groove panelling still remain, as well as the ghost lines of many doors from a room now used as a kitchen, leading to speculation that it may have at one time been part of the red light district.

The 11th Annual Heritage House Tour is on Sunday June 2 from 10 am to 5 pm. Tickets are $40 and available through the Vancouver Heritage Foundation.

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Eve Lazarus is a writer with a passion for history and heritage houses. She is the author of Sensational Victoria: Bright Lights, Red Lights, Murders, Ghosts & Gardens; and At Home with History: the Secrets of Greater Vancouver’s Heritage Houses. Eve blogs obsessively about buildings and their genealogies at www.blog.evelazarus.com.

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