Vancouver’s False Creek: a photographic history

False Creek, 1890

Up the creek

Along what is today known as Vancouver’s False Creek, ringed by condominiums and coffee shops, aboriginal villages once flourished. Skwachàys was established along the productive marshes that covered its eastern terminus. Senakw occupied an area on the south shore rich in elk, bog cranberries, wild rice, sturgeon, and salmon.

The natural wealth of these environments supported the great artistic traditions of Coast Salish civilization.


Following the arrival of European explorers and settlers, Admiral Sir George Henry Richards (13 January 1820 – 14 November 1896), hydrographer to the British Admiralty from 1864 to 1874, gave the waterway its present name. Exploring for coal, the engine of the industrial revolution, Richards discovered that the inlet, falsely attributed on earlier charts as a “creek,” hid greater prospects.

In 1869, the colonial government set aside a small reserve at the creek mouth, allotted in 1877 to the Squamish people. The next 100 years saw the reserve bisected by railway lines, the Burrard Street bridge, and other development. By the mid 1960s, the entire reserve had been sold off.

False Creek, 1983 (Photo: Gerry Duncan)

Industrial Zone

The “creek” was soon transformed into the industrial heartland of Vancouver, home to sawmills and factories. A massive fire in 1960, fought by every piece of equipment and firefighting personnel in Vancouver, destroyed the BC Forest Products plant and lumber storage yard on the south side. The area deteriorated over the following decades, eventually a sclerotic artery, blighted by toxic soils and polluted waters.

By the time I documented the landscape from the top of the old Cambie Street Bridge in 1984, only a small portion of that southern industrial zone remained, Granville Island having already been converted into the popular market and artists’ haven enjoyed by residents and tourists today. The “golf-ball” geodesic dome of the Expo Centre (now home to Science World) was nearing completion.

False Creek dawn

Dawn, False Creek, Vancouver, 1984

Play Zone

The idea for an exposition in Vancouver was first floated in the 1970s. The plan got the green light from the Bureau of International Expositions in November 1980.

Life Support, Expo 86

Billionaire Jimmy Pattison, famous in his car lot days for weekly firings of the least-performing member of his sales team, was tapped to head the Expo venture, first as CEO, then as the president of the Expo 86 Corporation.

Expo 86 featured 107 provinces, countries, and corporations, with a transportation and communications theme. It attracted 22 million people over its May to October run. The original budget of CAN$78 million ballooned to $802 million, with a deficit of $311 million.

The construction came with an agreement hammered out with BC’s notoriously fractious labour sector to allow non-union labour alongside union workers.

Bill Bennet’s Social Credit government of the day, eager to include as many Pacific Rim countries as possible, including those balking at the price of admission, agreed to subsidize the China Pavilion, which was also allowed to run its own knickknack shop.

For several years, during construction of Expo 86’s pavilions and attractions, overseen by architect Bruno Freschi, I included the shores of False Creek in my photographic explorations of the city’s fast-changing urban landscape — much of it driven by the impending fair.

I wasn’t a great fan of some of the “urban renewal” plans that went along with the clamour to tart up the city in time for her unveiling to the world, especially the greed-driven expulsion of low-income residents from Downtown Eastside hotels. My 80s Vancouver portfolio is filled with architectural victims of the gold rush fever that accompanied preparations.

No one would now deny that the Expo 86 relationship came with benefits. The fair itself brought us the extraordinary treasures of Ramses II (the pink granite colossus took my breath away), the music and dance of Indonesia, the United Nations message of “Peace Through Communication” and hope for nuclear disarmament; the California Pavilion touted its part in “creating the future” through such advances as geothermal energy, space exploration, bicycle design, and computer to computer communications — which now bring you these reflections.

Today, the inlet is in better shape than the place we see in many historical photos — a scene of utter despoilment, the foreshore littered with the refuse of unregulated industrial activity.

Remediation of land along False Creek, led to the formation of BC Contaminated Site Regulations (CSR)

City artists and entertainers enjoyed a boost in their fortunes, including my late father Ray Parker, 57 at the time, who, among other “walkabout” roles, played The World’s Oldest Gas Pump Jockey for Esso’s Corporate Day. The guest passes Dad gave me assured that I attended the fair more than once. It was a jolly good party.

The playbill of the open air, 1500 seat Xerox International Theatre was eclectic — from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Miles Davis and Loverboy. I recall attending an evening performance of the German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, who may have been channelling the tortured sounds of False Creek’s ghost factories and mills, some of which still survived on the south shore and to the east, on False Creek Flats.

Gm Pavilion

GM Pavillion, False Creek, 1985

The GM Pavilion

Getting into the General Motors Pavilion, arguably the most popular attraction at the fair, usually required a long wait — in the rain that marked the start of the fair, or the hot sun that accompanied its final weeks.

Predictably, the ground floor was dedicated to GM’s latest collection of automobiles, but the upper reaches of the 30-metre-high wedge-shaped building, accessed by external ramps, housed a “Spirit Lodge” where a storyteller in traditional aboriginal costume recounted a mythological story of a magic canoe, precursor of the Yukon SUV perhaps, that bore his ancestors to their destinations.

The storyteller conjured memories from a campfire, his dreams materializing in the shadows of the theatre by the magical illusions of a Pepper’s ghost hologram.

After dark, the pavilion’s outer facade, lit with red lights, threw a shimmering reflection across False Creek, just as it did pre-event, lit by the sunset, in my black and white photograph above.

Outer space

The Minolta Space Tower (left of GM Pavilion in photo above)) was the tallest structure on the Expo grounds. Where the tower’s revolving “Observatron” and 12-person parachute capsules once treated fairgoers to a panoramic view over the city, tenants of Park West condo tower now enjoy the scenery, albeit from whatever fixed direction their unit faces and at a much higher ticket price.

Expo 86 construction

Expo Construction, False Creek East, 1985

Post-Expo and the “Toigo affair”

I briefly mentioned in a recent post the “deal of the century” sale of Expo lands to Chinese real estate tycoon Li Ka-shing (whose surname reminds of a cash register recording a sale). His net worth of US$27.1 billion ranks him as one of Asia’s richest men.

According to the Vancouver Sun, “He bought the Expo lands in 1988 for $320 million, to be spread over 15 years. But the real price is generally considered to be about $145 million, in part because the province paid the staggering cost of remediating the soil.”

Wheeling and dealing over the coveted lands led to accusations of influence peddling and an RCMP investigation (that found no wrongdoing), involving sitting premier Bill Vander Zalm and real estate developer buddy Peter Toigo.

Boom … or going for bust?

Expo 86 constituted a giant “For Sale” sign, flown above the ocean and mountain-girded city. Students of Vancouver history agree that the deal was the icing on the celebratory cake of Expo 86; it sent out a follow-up message that Vancouver was open for business, or perhaps ripe for the plucking.

As veteran broadcaster Stuart McNish opined in a recent interview, Expo 86 marked the beginning of Vancouver’s transition into “an Asian city.”

If the fair’s success can be judged merely by counting the number of new towers on Vancouver’s skyline, as breathlessly suggested by Michael Meneer, then the fair truly did “put Vancouver on the map.” But, in the same interview, Expo CEO Jimmy Pattison himself admits that the downside has been the stratospheric inflation of city real estate prices caused by the flood of offshore money. Pattison complained last year, in another interview, that Vancouver’s high cost-of-living was making it hard to retain staff.

The adage “be careful what you wish for” springs to mind.

The consequences of this unnatural bubble — one of the greatest in history — has been to shut out young people and new, homegrown business. These unintended but predictable effects may yet lead lead to a creative decline in the city that might undo any benefits claimed by the condo counters.

Historical documents

My friendship with Gerry Duncan at Action Reprographics specialty black-and-white lab and gallery had exposed me to the photographic documentary record of Vancouver through the wonderful reproductions his company was making from historical negatives.

Using a giant enlarger mounted on rails embedded in their darkroom floor, Gerry and his partner Bob Abbott created panoramic prints that graced the walls of bars and restaurants around the city. Accordingly, I was aware that the visual record I was making of contemporary upheaval and transformation existed within that documentary tradition.

R.V. Winch Grocery Store, 66 Cordova St, 1888 (VPL collection)

Gerry recently reminded me, “We were doing all the work for the Vancouver Public Library historical photo section at the time. We printed various widths depending on the size of the negatives, but around 24″ to 36″ or so. They were contact prints from negs made with a “circuit camera” owned by the Dominion Photo Company.

“The circuit negs were much too wide to project but we did have that 8″ x 10″ enlarger which allowed us to enlarge the library collection of 8 x 10 glass plate negatives.”

One amusing anecdote perhaps encompasses a certain arc of British Columbia history.

“Remember that beauty of the R.V. Winch Grocery with the wild game hanging behind the grocers?

“At 4 foot by 6 foot you could see the individual hairs on the deers’ tail. [Vancouver hand-colouring specialist] Cliff Baldwin coloured that one for me and I sold it to Mr. [then-premier] Vander Zalm.

“‘Lillian [the premier’s wife] will love this,’ he cooed.”

80s Vancouver prints are available in limited and open editions.







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