Situated between Stanley Park and downtown, it’s a densely populated urban village that is home to one of the most diverse communities in the city.
“When I moved to Vancouver, I was a very broken person,” says Astrid O. Lalonde, who moved to the city from Ottawa in 2000. “I found the West End and it brought me back to life. There’s nothing I can say that expresses how thankful I am for this community, and the safe haven that it is.”
Lalonde is a co-owner of Mary’s on Davie Street. Originally called Hamburger Mary’s, the 40-year-old corner restaurant is a landmark in the city’s LGBTQ centre, Davie Village, and part of the more recent history of the neighbourhood, which dates back to 1862.
The area was heavily forested when three English prospectors bought much of the land. Dubbed “the Three Greenhorns” by locals who believed they’d paid too much ($550.75) for their 180 acres (each) of land, they originally intended to set up a brickworks. The area became known as the Brickmaker’s Claim and then New Liverpool before the Greenhorns sold their claim, and entrepreneur John McDougall developed the lots. By 1888, people had begun to realize the potential of the area and it became the city’s first upscale neighbourhood, home to the rich railroad families when CPR built its terminus at Coal Harbour. This lasted at least until 1911, when the CPR set its sights on Shaughnessy.
Today, the West End is a thriving neighbourhood known for its shopping, its restaurants and bars, and its inclusivity. Extending from west of Burrard Street to east of Denman Street, and south of West Georgia Street, it encompasses beaches, parks and the Seawall. Public art installations such as the famous inukshuk statue, which inspired the logo for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, and A-maze-ing Laughter (aka the Giant Laughing Statues) in Morton Park, are among the tourist attractions, along with many, many rainbow flags, the first permanent rainbow crosswalk in Canada, and iconic LGBTQ-friendly destinations like Mary’s and Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium.
The latter, which opened upstairs in a home on Thurlow Street in 1983 (it moved to its Davie Street location in 1996), drew national attention to the neighbourhood when store owners Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth and manager Janine Fuller went up against the Canada Border Services Industry on charges of censorship. The bookstore remains a hub of LGBTQ cultural life in the city.
Current owner Don Wilson has seen lots of change in the area.
“A lot more families are moving into the neighbourhood,” he says. “People are wanting to not travel as much by car. There’s definitely a base of community here.”
Such is the power of the West End, and the community feeling, that even after moving to Lions Bay, Lalonde says that the neighbourhood still feels like home.
“I think that there are a lot of people who feel that way. Even though they move away to other places, the West End will always be that home.”
The West End is one of the densest neighbourhoods in the city. Around 45,000 people live in this traffic-calmed, parking-deficient paradise, where heritage homes rub up against new condo towers, more of which are going up every day. (At least 10 are under construction right now.) Nearly 50 per cent of inhabitants are between the ages of 20 and 39, followed by those aged 40 to 64 at 34 per cent. Seniors make up 13 per cent of the population, and under-19s come in at six per cent.
Its proximity to the city’s banking district and downtown core makes the West End an ideal nesting ground for people who work in finance or in any one of the myriad nearby shops, restaurants, bars and cafés. Rent-wise, moving2canada.com states that the West End “is the most affordable of all the downtown locations,” including Yaletown, Gastown and Coal Harbour.
The West End has the reputation of being one of the city’s fastest-changing ’hoods, with new restaurants and bars replacing semi-new ones with alarming rapidity. Recent additions include Little Juke (fried chicken), Yugo (French-Japanese fusion), and Hook Sea Bar (seafood). The latter is located not far from another scenic resto, the Cactus Club (located in the former English Bay Bathhouse), and the fabled Sylvia Hotel. The West End is also home to Vancouver’s own Ramen District, a length of “lower” (i.e. closer to Denman) Robson Street lined with Japanese and Korean restaurants.
Tourists (and sometimes locals) flock to Robson Street, aka Robsonstrasse (a nickname that came with the influx of European shopkeepers in the 1950s and ’60s), which has been a commercial hub since the 1890s. Denman Street, which borders Stanley Park, is also a buzzing hive of restaurants and shops. The two-level Robson Public Market offers fresh produce, local wine, international food and more.
The West End is always buzzing with locals and tourists, especially around Davie and Denman. The neighbourhood really gets its party on during events like the Vancouver Pride Festival and the international summer fireworks competition Celebration of Light. The West End also hosts the annual Vancouver Sun Run, which brings tens of thousands to run its streets, as well as a car-free day. Outdoorsy types can cycle through the neighbourhood and along the nearby seawall to Stanley Park, or paddleboard or kayak in English Bay.