History of Granville Island

The Story of a Peoples Place

Not so long ago, there was a place, a living place beneath the waves. It was a sandbar that emerged each day as the tides receded; a gathering place, a people’s place, where people came to fish, a place of friendship, family, and laughter. It was a place where stories were told, even acted out, the occasional songs sung, with old traditions passed from one generation to another, a nurturing place of sustenance. A place to eat and celebrate with family and friends, to share with visitors from afar, perhaps with a canoe or two drawn up for a few hours to enjoy the traditional fruitfulness of this gathering place, the False Creek Sandbar. The place would disappear beneath the waves each day, washed clean of its footprints old and young, large and small, light and heavy. Empty mussel and crab shells, fish bones and other evidence of the day’s activities were washed away by the tide, leaving nothing but pristine sand to rise again with the next receding tide to welcome its visitors. Refreshed and renewed, the sandbar would emerge like a blank canvas awaiting discovery, with new riches to be yielded, discovered and enjoyed, nourishment for body and soul.

The Lower Mainland as we know it today was once a large expanse of forest, with only five First Nations villages between the places we now call Kits Point and Port Moody. Around 125 years ago, Granville Street was a logging road that cut through the dense forest of Shaughnessy, pointing vaguely toward New Westminster. Vancouver, known at that time as “Granvilletown”, was a small, dusty logging settlement with little promise of development or prosperity.

A flat sandbar in False Creek would be exposed during low tide, and the land across was populated by members of the Squamish Nation, who called the south shore of False Creek including the sandbar, Snauq. It was traditionally a winter village, and a perfect place for fishing using corrals and weirs. A multitude of shellfish could be found there, and even a freshwater spring, which provided drinking and cooking water. Squamish people occasionally ferried loggers across False Creek for a few pennies. For most of the 1800’s, it was a relatively quiet and natural world.

Many tides wash in and wash out, and a new era comes to pass. The sands of time shift along with tons of dredged sand from the bottom of False Creek and a permanent island is born. A ‘steel ribbon’ crosses the new country with English Bay as its Western terminus, and the face of Vancouver is changed forever.

In the late 1800’s, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the symbolic ‘steel ribbon’ uniting Canada from coast to coast, was approaching completion. False Creek soon became the subject of much debate over ownership and usage. Eventually, the land was transferred to the National Harbour Commission, which agreed to fill in the island to ten feet above the high tide mark, creating a new permanent land where heavy industry could flourish. These developments could not have come at a better time. World War One loomed from across the sea. Shipping traffic was growing exponentially in the Port of Vancouver, particularly with the opening of the Panama Canal. The demand for an industrial area in Vancouver had reached a high that could no longer be ignored.

The Industrial Heyday

At its height in 1930, the newly created Island, then known as Industrial Island, employed 1,200 workers and was home to a wide range of industrial manufacturers. They made wire and fiber ropes for logging, chain for pulling barges, and other materials for the shipping, mining and logging industries. Barges brought in lumber from up the coast and took away chains, some with links larger than the tallest man. It was a time of pride and camaraderie when generations of workers placed a high value on their craft and the quality of their workmanship.

The former Britannia Wire Rope Co. Now Emily Carr.

Interior of the machine shop, 1918. Now the Public Market.

Old houses on the Granville Island landscape in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Granville Island.

The old trucking company, now Bridges Restaurant. Photo courtesy of Bridges.

Machining factory under construction. Now the Public Market.

The Dark Ages

After World War Two, Industrial Island’s decline was swift and unequivocal. It became a dark and lifeless place with rusted, abandoned warehouses. The Island had become a hazard to the environment and an eyesore to the people. The fate of False Creek was put on the back burner while the city around it progressed.

When heavy industry became unfashionable and obsolete in a centralized urban context, still echoing in the empty tin-clad buildings remained the spirit of friendship and traditional pride in craftsmanship. Just like the ocean tides of old, the changing tides of humanity would wipe clean the dirtied face of the Island and refresh it with a renewed vision of its purpose as a gathering place for people.

Panoramic view from the old bridge in 1920, when the sandbar had just been dredged and Industrial Island was born.

Time ticks away. A few visionary individuals gather in their bare feet, sensing the deep-rooted character of the Island’s ancient past. A “people’s place” is mentioned, not too defined, yet with character; fluid, diverse and flexible. They envision a place that nurtures a variety of human endeavors, respecting the need for innovation and evolution, yet rooted in the stability and integrity of the traditions of the past.

Design team taking a break: Norman Hotson, Jim Jarvis, Joanna Earthrowl and Greg Ball.

Two men had a seedling of an idea and grabbed the opportunity as they saw it laid out before them. Mitch Taylor and Bill Harvey were the first of the ‘Barefoot Gang’. They envisioned an inspiring and varied environment, from a marina and restaurant to an architect’s office, even an art studio and gallery. Liberal minister Ron Basford became known as ‘Mr. Granville Island’, taking the Island’s redevelopment to a new standard for mixed-use communities and urban renewal initiatives.

Clippings from the discontinued “Granville Island News”, 1977.

Developers, builders and many other visionaries such as architects Norm Hotson and Joost Bakker, turned the tide of Granville Island toward an aesthetically pleasing destination for a wide variety of people with diverse interests. With a restaurant and theatre newly opened, the Island became popular among the hipsters and artists of 1970’s Vancouver. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) took ownership in 1975, and the redevelopment of Granville Island started to gain momentum.

A Template for Urban Renewal

Many decisions were carefully considered, and slowly the Island came back to life, this time with colour and vibrancy. Planners introduced green space while tin-clad buildings and their huge doors were painted in bright colours, uplifting and highlighting the industrial heritage of the Island. A progressive lease rate program encouraged an eclectic mixture of tenants, allowing non-profit organizations to stand alongside fine dining restaurants, individual artisans and even a cement plant.

Independent food stands at the Public Market, an educational institution and a community center were all carefully chosen to reflect the diverse and unique character that the Island was developing. The goal was to bring in visitors all year round from early in the morning when the bakeries opened to late at night when the last bar closed.

The Granville Island Business and Community Association (GIBCA) was formed in 1994 with a mandate to promote community projects, ensuring all visitors have a positive and uplifting experience on the Island.

As the waters of False Creek become clear again over a 10-year clean up, small schools of fish begin to reappear, coming home to their old sandbar. The clean water brings fish and the fish bring birds. On the eastern side of the Island, a heron swoops down from its perch next to a small boat building shop and dives into the water nearby. A woman gazes out of her studio window to watch. A community is growing and being nurtured here once again.

A gathering of young toddlers representing many different cultures joyfully scatters the pigeons in the courtyard at the Public Market. Live Spanish guitar drifts over the water while local shoppers look out on the busy Creek. A glass blower lights the furnace in her studio while a master carver chips out a new totem pole, leaving pungent cedar shavings in soft gatherings at his feet. A cement truck painted like a strawberry stops as a group of excited children cross the road with newly created paintings in hand. The smell of fresh bread wafts out of the bakery while across the alley a jeweller carefully places a new piece on display as another day comes to life on the bustling Island.

The remains of an industrial infrastructure: the Public Market as it was (top) in 1974 and (above) today.

Everyday People

The spirit of the Island, its personality and character rooted in its ancient past, lives and breathes on. Today it is the everyday people who work and dream on the Island that make it a place that enchants and draws you in, that you can keep discovering and never know completely. Just over a century ago, it was a quiet sandbar. Thirty years ago, Granville Island re-emerged as a place for people. It has become a place for sharing once again, now a world-class destination welcoming people from every nation on Earth. Help celebrate Granville Island by getting to know some of the people who, through dedication and sharing their passion, ensure every day that Granville Island Works.

Living on my back, people come, telling their stories, singing their songs. They celebrate together, their significant days and their creative ways. I am the spirit of the island they once called Snauq, born of the ocean. Like a sand castle I may be moulded and used, remoulded and used again. Like nature itself, the possibilities abound. I am a mirror in which humanity can see the best of itself reflected, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. I am a spirit, a vision, a community, an island in the creek that over time, has become Granville Island.

Photos courtesy of Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects