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Throwback Thursday: Vancouver then and now

A look at how the Canadian Geographical Journal covered Vancouver’s 50th birthday

  • Published May 18, 2016
  • Updated Oct 07, 2022
  • 312 words
  • 2 minutes
Downtown Vancouver looking toward the North Shore Mountains circa 1936. Expand Image

“Montreal, Quebec and Toronto count their age by centuries,” wrote Gerald McGeer in the May 1936 issue of the Canadian Geographical Journal, but Vancouver “has only this year reached the stage of honouring its 50th birthday.”

Another 80 years have elapsed since McGeer’s story was published, yet one can’t help but notice that the similarities between Vancouver at 50 and Vancouver at 130 outnumber the differences.

Then, as now, the city’s relative youthfulness defined its identity. An 1882 British Columbia directory consulted by McGeer made no mention of Vancouver, but suggested “it was not too much to envision the day when these wooded slopes would be inhabited by an eager and active population.”

Vancouver in 1936 was “a proud city with towering skyscrapers, lovely shaded avenues … adorned with picturesque frame bungalows of an infinite variety of architecture,” where “every street end on the northern face of the peninsula yields a mountain view of impressive loveliness.”

McGeer made special mention too of the city’s racial and ethnic diversity and its unique trade relationship with Asia (though he couldn’t have anticipated that within a decade of his article’s publication, the city’s sizeable Japanese population would be rounded up and sent to internment camps on the flimsy premise of disloyalty to the Allied Forces).

It’s tempting to wonder what McGeer, an obvious champion of the benefits of Vancouver living, would make of the current affordable housing crisis.

“The glamour of Vancouver is associated with the unprecedented rapidity of its growth and the beauty of its surroundings,” he wrote.

“Of the beautiful city that lies at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, they say, ‘See Naples and die;’ permit me to add, ‘But not until you have seen Vancouver.’”

Here are more photos showcasing Vancouver as it looked in 1936:

Gastown on the waterfront, with Water Street visible on the left, and West Cordova Street on the right. (Photo: Canadian Geographic archives)
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The main entrance to Stanley Park, with what is today the Vancouver Rowing Club visible on the far right. (Photo: Leonard Frank/Canadian Geographic archives)
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Enjoying a sunny day at the Spanish Banks. (Photo: Leonard Frank/Canadian Geographic archives)
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