An easy walk east of Downtown – five minutes from Canada Place and concentrated on Water Street – Gastown is a piece of city rejuvenation distinguished by cobblestone streets, twentieth-century brick buildings, stylish shops, and the city’s hippest and most exceptional cafés, restaurants and bars. The name derives from “Gassy” (as in loquacious) Jack Leighton, a retired sailor turned publican and self-proclaimed “mayor”, who arrived on site by canoe in 1867, quickly opening a bar to service the nearby lumber mills. Leighton’s statue stands in Maple Tree Square, Gastown’s heart, focus of its main streets and reputed site of this first tavern. Trade was brisk, and a second bar opened, soon followed by a village of sorts – “Gassy’s Town” – which, though destroyed by fire in 1886, formed in effect the birthplace of modern Vancouver. Over the years, the Downtown focus moved west and something of Gastown’s boozy beginnings returned to haunt it, as its cheap hotels and warehouses turned into a skid row for junkies and alcoholics. By the 1970s the area was declared a historic site – the buildings are the city’s oldest – and an enthusiastic beautification programme was set in motion.
It’s a Gastown rite of passage to snap photos with the Steam Clock, on the corner of Cambie and Water streets. Easily identified by the fog emanating from its frame, the two-tonne landmark sounds out the Westminster “chime” every fifteen minutes and was the first of its kind when built in 1977.