Haunting images of pre-Expo 86 Vancouver, before the ‘Glass City’ and million-dollar teardowns


Wandering the city at night in the 1970s and 1980s, photographer Greg Girard captured an eerie Vancouver that has almost completely ceased to exist.

Before Expo 86, forests of glass condos and the birth of the million dollar teardown, Vancouver was a mid-sized port city where coffee was served up in greasy diners and the word “microbrewery” didn’t exist.

Photographer Greg Girard was there, capturing haunting images of a city just on the cusp of changing forever. Recently showcased at Vancouver’s Monte Clark Gallery, they’re also featured in his book Under Vancouver 1972–1982.

With permission from Girard, a selection of his photos are below.

Granville Street Bridge, 1975

Just underneath the Granville Street Bridge, pictured in the background of this photo, Granville Island is undergoing its metamorphosis from a polluted industrial area into a waterfront tourist destination. One of the sharpest contrasts with modern Vancouver and its industrial predecessor is the city’s changing approach to False Creek, the inlet that is now one of the city’s signature features. But it was only as recently as the 1950s that city officials were seriously tossing around a plan to completely fill in the then-filthy waterway in order to free up more industrial land.

Parked Car (Gran Torino), 1981

When this image was taken, Vancouver real estate prices were in a tailspin. Real estate prices dropped by as much as 30 per cent in the early 1980s — a sharper decline even than housing prices in Fort McMurray, Alta. following the recent oil price collapse. The average price of a Vancouver detached home in 1980 was $177,000 ($350,000 in 2017 dollars). Meanwhile, the condo — a type of apartment that you could own — was still a new and unfamiliar entrant to the city’s real estate market.

Lux Theatre, 1974

This is the Lux Theatre, a movie house on East Hastings Street that occasionally did duty as a punk rock venue. The movie on the marquee, meanwhile, is The Conqueror Worm, a mostly forgotten B-movie starring Vincent Price. Although some variety of cinema had stood on the site since 1910, the market slowly dropped out from The Lux. In one of the final pictures of the theatre taken in the early 1990s it was desperately advertising $2.50 double features. Like many properties on East Hastings, the site is now home to a social services agency — a low barrier housing complex called The Lux.

Chinese Voice Daily News, 1982

The first thing to note is the dress: Men clad casually in suits. The second thing to notice is the two men on the right obtaining their news the same way humans have been doing for centuries; by looking at broadsheet pages pinned up in a newspaper’s front window. This photo was also taken only a few years before a momentous demographic change overtook the city’s Chinese-Canadian community. As Hong Kong prepared to revert from British to Chinese control, a wave of Hong Kongers arrived in the city, bringing entirely new food, consumption patterns and and cultural norms to the city’s Chinese areas.

Unpaved Parking Lot, 1981

In this particularly gritty image, a gravel parking lot hosts a collection of cars that all seem to have some kind of scrape or dents. With Canada gripped by recession in the early 1980s the downturn was felt particularly hard in British Columbia. Vancouver was also a much smaller city that it is today. In 1981, the City Vancouver was two thirds the size of its modern incarnation, while Metro Vancouver was less than half the size.

Car and Building, Franklin Street (1981)

A feature of modern Vancouver is how echoes of its working class origins continue to dwell alongside high-end restaurant patios and pristine bikeways. Perhaps nowhere is the contrast more striking than in the part of East Vancouver where this photo was taken. This would be near the modern day sites of the West Coast Reduction rendering plant and Hallmark Poultry Processors, a chicken slaughterhouse. With pricey condos and high-end coffee shops now dotting the area, the rendering plant endures frequent complaints over its bad smell — and has taken to sponsoring a local theatre to gain community favour. The chicken slaughterhouse, now has semi-regular animal rights protests outside its gates.

East Hastings Street (Dusk), 1975

Although he grew up in Burnaby, Girard often took these photos during weekend trips into Vancouver where he spend the night in a cheap Downtown Eastside hotel. The neighbourhood has been seedy almost from the moment of Vancouver’s founding, but three devastating developments would profoundly change it in the late 20th century: Harder drugs, the AIDs epidemic and deinstitutionalization of psychiatric patients.

Camaro in Alley, 1981

Just behind this Camaro is the back of the Hotel Vancouver. Girard captured a seemingly desolate scene where a Camaro with a flat tire could sit seemingly forgotten in a downtown alley. Go to that alley now and it’s at the centre of one of Canada’s most high-traffic areas: With high end shopping, gourmet restaurants and towering glass condos on all sides. This was also snapped only a few month before the Vancouver Canucks would first advance to the Stanley Cup finals — marking the last time that the Canucks would make the Stanley Cup finals without sparking a devastating riot.

Silver Grill Café, 1975

Captured during a rare Vancouver snowstorm, this café was at 750 Davie Street, at the heart of what remains the city’s most recognizable “gaybourhood.” The site is now a condo tower, with another condo tower across the street. The café’s neon sign, meanwhile, is now an artifact at the Museum of Vancouver.

Super Valu, 1976

The misty parking lot of a Super Valu, complete with a solitary Volkswagen Beetle. This was still a time when Sunday shopping was banned in most parts of the Lower Mainland. And like any self-respecting retailer of the era, Super Valu had a neon sign, albeit with a malfunctioning “l.” Parts of downtown Vancouver once buzzed with whole forests of elaborate neon signs — until city hall effectively banned the signs in the late 1960s amid arguments that they looked “sleazy.”

Gas Pumps Near Sugar Refinery, 1981

Obviously, the modern viewer will first note the price: 26.6 cents for a liter of gasoline. The pumps are also analog and unaffected by the prepay legislation that now governs B.C. gas stations. Behind it, however, is the British Columbia Sugar Refining Co., Vancouver’s oldest industrial site. Built in 1890, it’s still there — and it’s still refining sugar.

Tracks and Bridge, 1973

This is the oldest photo in this gallery, taken when Girard was still a teenager. As an official description of Girard’s Vancouver images has noted, this was an era before post-9/11 security concerns effectively sealed off Vancouver’s port and rail facilities. Port Metro Vancouver is now so thoroughly set apart from the life of the nearby downtown that it’s remarkably easy for many residents to forget it’s there.

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