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The Drive: A Retail, Social and Political History of Commercial Drive, Vancouver, to 1956

By Jak King

Review By Daniel Francis

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 174 Summer 2012  | p. 140-1

On the morning of April 8, 1949, a nattily-dressed crook named Robert Harrison visited the Bank of Commerce at the corner of First Avenue and Commercial Drive and relieved it of $3,000. Armed with a 9mm pistol, the agitated Harrison sprayed the interior of the bank with gunfire, wounding the manager and an accountant. Stepping back into the street, he was making his escape using a young boy as a human shield when Constable Cecil Paul, a member of the Vancouver Police Force assigned to the motorcycle squad, dropped him with one shot to the middle of the forehead.

This scene does not conform to our modern image of Commercial Drive as a place where progressive politics, ethnic diversity, and coffee-drenched hipness converge. But it is clear from Jak King’s excellent history of the Drive, that in its origins the neighbourhood was a much different place than it is today, much more Main Street  (and occasionally Mean Street) than arty bohemia.

The Drive began to take shape as a distinct neighbourhood with the arrival in 1891 of the interurban streetcar line linking New Westminster to Vancouver. There was a stop at Largen’s Corner (Venables and Glen) and a scattering of houses appeared. Development was stalled by the economic downturn of the 1890s but resumed its steady pace during the boomtime that preceded the Great War until by the time King picks up the story in 1935 the area was a settled neighbourhood with its own identity in the constellation of Vancouver “suburbs”.

The book’s subtitle promises retail, social and political history and King delivers on all three. His encyclopaedic cataloguing of every storefront between Venables and Seventh Avenue may try the patience of some readers, but generally he keeps the story moving at a brisk pace. The social is epitomized by the Grandview Lawn Bowling Association, whose greens were at Victoria Park. Among its members, the Club counted everybody who was anybody in Grandview. It was the glue, remarks King, that kept the local elite together.

As for the political, King argues that the good burghers of The Drive invented a master narrative to get the improvements they needed for their neighbourhood. According to this narrative, Grandview was the victim of discrimination on the part of the City Fathers who habitually neglected the needs of the east side in favour of the downtown and the west side. “They positioned Grandview as the neglected colony of the indifferent Vancouver empire,” writes King, “and pitched their demands as requests for deserved equal treatment.” King does not always agree with this point of view but he argues that it usually worked, especially when it came to obtaining important communications links to the downtown.

King explores several subjects that impact the larger city. To take an example, now that the future of the viaducts has come up for debate, it is interesting to read about the role that Commercial Drive boosters played in the planning of the First Avenue Viaduct in the 1930s. As well, King’s description of the end of the ward system, abolished by the voters at the end of 1935, adds useful background to another perennial debate in the city.

The Drive is the first of a projected series of books about the neighbourhood. If this one is anything to go by, residents of the area are lucky to have found such an intelligent and entertaining guide as Jak King.

Jak King
The Drive: A Retail, Social and Political History of Commercial Drive, Vancouver, to 1956.
Vancouver: The Drive Press, 2011   pp. $25.00