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There's no argument that Vancouver's East Side has character - enough to make Harry Dean Stanton jealous, in fact... but with diverse elements such as Commercial Drive, Chinatown, Strathcona and the Pacific National Exhibition, it's no surprise that east of Cambie is as famous for its gritty authenticity as it is for its history.
Traditionally, East Vancouver's delineating lines are Clark Drive to the east, Venables Street and Prior Avenue to the south, the waterfront to the north and of course, the Eastside-Westside Cambie Street divide to the west.
The community's main thoroughfare, Hastings Street was once the backbone of the entertainment district. Much of what makes up the melancholy, derelict stretch between Main and Cambie was once a neon-lit parade of theatres, clubs and restaurants called The Great White Way, home to such legendary establishments as The Beacon Theatre, The Lux Theatre and The Pantages. A burgeoning theatre-scene was producing world-class shows of its own at venues such as The Vogue, The Strand and The Coronet. But as years turned into decades, the city core grew and developed to the west of the original Main Street neighbourhood and Old Town became more of a Ghost Town. However, recent gentrification projects have seen a rebirth of Vancouver's original heart, making the rich cultural and historical heritage of the area more accessible and visitor-friendly.
One of the city's oldest residential neighbourhoods, Strathcona is situated between Chinatown and the rail yards of the Canadian National Railway and the BNSF Railway. The area saw its heyday from the late 1880's through to the 1920's due largely to Vancouver's prominence as a western terminus but experienced decline as the focal point of city development moved west. Today, Strathcona with its population of over 8 thousand, maintains a working-class reputation but the recent and significant refurbishment of the area's numerous Victorian-era heritage houses has attracted wealthier home owners. Strathcona is home to what was once Hogan's Alley, the unofficial name for Park Lane. Now, the two remaining blocks of the famous alley that ran through the area's southwest corner bear no resemblance to the original home of the predominantly black community that grew around the railway industry for the first half of the Twentieth Century. Yet at one point, this, the city's original Red Light District stretching between Union Street and Prior Street produced some of the finest jazz and blues on the Pacific Coast.
Only a stone's throw away, Vancouver's Chinatown is the second largest of its kind in North America behind San Francisco... not surprisingly, with 30% of Vancouverites speaking either Mandarin or Cantonese. Packed with a variety of colourful shops hawking everything from fresh seafood to imported gifts and featuring a busy open-air night market, it's easy imagining you're in Beijing! Stroll through the amazingly ornate Millennium Gate and soon you'll discover one of Chinatown's most exquisite surprises: the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Tucked in behind rows of shops, this tranquil 15th Century-inspired botanical paradise is possibly the most surreal experience Vancouver has to offer. The city smells and traffic noise seem to melt away as you are transported to a world of jade-green ponds, mystical plants, bamboo forests and glimmering koi fish. Whether posing with the Han Dynasty Bell in Shanghai Alley, sampling the exotic market offerings or visiting with a traditional Chinese herbalist, a visit to the city isn't complete without a visit to Chinatown.
For a completely different cultural flavor, Commercial Drive is home to Vancouver's Little Italy. But don't let the name fool you. The dozen blocks running up from East 1st Avenue through the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood are more a mixture of Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Latin American cultures. Lined with bistros, bakeries and boutiques, this colourful, lively centre revolves around the Vancouver East Cultural Centre... a church-turned-theatre! While many parades and festivals mark Commercial Drive's social calendar, no event is as rousing as the impromptu, passionate whirlwind of blue jerseys and gaiety that occur every time the Italian national soccer team chalk up a significant victory. If you're lucky enough to find your vacation clashing with any of these crucial ninety-minute sporting affairs, get yourself onto Commercial Drive - the party goes all night. Viva Azzurri!
The Pacific National Exhibition at Hastings Park is a long-standing Vancouver tradition - an annual event that has been encapsulating the spirit of the city for almost one hundred years. Millions of guests over dozens of summers have enjoyed the shows, exhibits, sports events, concerts and culture of one of Canada's favourite fairs. But the highlight for most is Playland, the massive amusement park that features everything from the newest state-of-the-art thrill rides to one of North America's oldest wooden roller coasters!
So go ahead, hang a right off of Cambie Street. Vancouver's East Side is something worth experiencing!