Vancouver’s False Creek: from industrial hub to condo city

False Creek, Vancouver, BC

Industry, False Creek, 1984

The lands along False Creek were Vancouver’s industrial heartland — some might say wasteland — for over a century. The city is still dealing with the toxic fallout to this day.

As the temporary buildings for Expo ’86 rose on the north side, the south side still bustled with warehouses and heavy-industry. Today, the site of the photo above is cleared, presumably awaiting a throng of condo towers to match those on the north shore of False Creek.

The Cambie Street Bridge, a steel through-truss swing span, opened in 1911, was a busy conduit  to the downtown core. In 1984, there were plans to replace it with a modern concrete span, in time for the impending World’s Fair.

At the time, I was shooting product for Mountain Equipment Co-op’s catalogue. The retail store was located just off Cambie, on W. 8th Avenue. I often chose the bridge on bicycle-assisted shoots into the downtown core, as well as to attend a sideline, promoting the graphic design services of my friends at Acheson-Harris.

I had a plan, and one of my poor friends would be dragged into it.

Brian Hay, a fellow commercial photographer and roommate was understandably skeptical when I suggested, on a cold November day, that we get up in the middle of the night and clandestinely scale the steel girders of the doomed bridge, to reach the platform supporting a small hut that housed the controls for the swing span.

Like the vision that led to the Wooden Roller Coaster image, two-years-later, my mountaineering experience probably inspired the idea. Brian, without similar experience, nevertheless signed up for the ascent.

Above False Creek

Above False Creek

Since I’m writing this on the first day of November, 31-years-later, I assume the sun rose at approximately 7am. We jostled for position on the narrow promenade above False Creek, as the first rays of the winter sun illuminated the “golf ball” dome of the newly-constructed Science Centre, at the east end of the inlet. As the contact-sheet shows, I made a few exposures of that view.

But then an extraordinary thing happened: a flock of birds swooped into the rising emissions of a smokestack, swirling upwards in the plume. I had only moments to swing my camera around, calculate the exposure and parallax compensation, necessitated by the twin-lens reflex Mamiyaflex camera. There remained one frame on the 12-exposure roll of Ilford HP-5. I pressed the cable release. Moments later, the avian formation had disappeared and the dawn light had turned to dross.

Prints of this (and other images from the “80s Vancouver” collection) are available through the store.

Brian and I carefully descended, heading up to Broadway and Yukon for breakfast, at Gray’s Grill.

I had just finished working as part of the “background action” in a Disney film: The Journey of Natty Gann, staring Meredith Salenger and John Cusack. I was one of the many make-believe indigents in this Dirty Thirties tale, who got to ride atop a steam train between North Vancouver and Squamish and grovel in the mud, shivering in the November rain, waiting for the hoard of “townsfolk” to burn down our Potemkin shanty town, built for the set, under the Patullo Bridge, in New Westminster.

In the photo below, I’m still wearing my hobo stubble, required for the part. I used my own flat cap. My Mamiyaflex C is just visible to the right. Brian’s C220 was trained on me. The menu appears to say “Ray’s Grill.” Best bacon and eggs in town at the time.

Natty Man — Photo: Brian Hay

Natty Man — Photo: Brian Hay



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