Riley Park⁠—The Lofty History of Vancouver’s Central Neighbourhood

This story is the ninth in our series on the hidden history of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. Read more.

If Goldilocks were to pick a Vancouver neighbourhood in which to buy property⁠—and she had over $2 million to buy a detached house⁠—the fairy-tale squatter would undoubtedly choose Riley Park. Straddling the east (Fraser Street) and west (Cambie Street) sides of the city, and bordering South Vancouver (41st Avenue) and the city’s original southern boundary (16th Avenue), Riley Park is the most geographically central neighbourhood in Vancouver.

It’s also a scale model of the city as a whole, with all its contradictions and inequities: bougie bespoke homes and restored Edwardian standalones alongside crumbling Vancouver Specials, the liveliness of the bars and restaurants on Main and Fraser streets beside the un-liveliness of the city’s only cemetery, a tourist-luring public park and lauded baseball stadium blocks away from a torn-down low-income housing project.

Long before the neighbourhood was called Riley Park—the origins of the name are unclear—it was a forested area rich with spawning salmon and home to bears, elk, and wolves. Settlers moved into the area for resources, logging the base of a volcanic basalt upheaval Little Mountain (the name often hyphenated together with Riley Park), which, at 125 metres above sea level, forms the highest point in the city. The basalt quarries from the mountain, then owned by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, were used to surface the roads on nearby Main Street, where quarry workers began building homes early in the 20th century.

To the east at Mountain View Cemetery, the digging served a different purpose. Opened in 1886, the cemetery holds 92,000 grave sites—with separate sections for Jewish and Asian people and soldiers killed in war—and in total the remains of over 145,000 people, including 11,000 stillborn babies interred in common graves. Notable Vancouverites buried here include the infamous murdered Scottish nanny Janet Smith and the iconic West End lifeguard Joe Fortes, who was carried to his final resting place in a lifeboat while a band played a funeral march. After reaching capacity in 1986, the cemetery began to welcome new business again in 2004 when unused plots were reclaimed and funerary practices shifted toward cremation. The cemetery is also home to a thriving community of coyotes.

As the 20th century progressed, the neighbourhood acquired its destination amenities. The park on Little Mountain was dedicated by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth⁠—the woman later known as the Queen Mother⁠—after a 1939 visit, and still bears her name. The park was finished in the early 1960s with a parking lot that sits on Little Mountain Reservoir, built 50 years earlier, which still provides much of the city’s drinking water. While tourists flock to its arboretum and sunken gardens, and high-school grads and newlyweds from the metro area use it as a scenic backdrop for portraits, active locals visit to play tennis and disc golf, sled on snow days, and practise tai chi.

Around the time the park was landscaped, Capilano Stadium first welcomed Minor League Baseball fans in 1951 as the home of the Capilanos and the Mounties. The park survived some rough years after the Mounties’ departure in 1969, when it was repurposed as an art gallery, a drop-in centre, and the site of a failed rock festival called Summerthing. “Soon after,” wrote Tom Hawthorn in a 1990 Vancouver Province profile of the stadium, “glue-sniffing teenagers known as the Riley Park Gang claimed the abandoned grandstand as a clubhouse and held drag races across the outfield.” The baseball park was saved from demolition when the Vancouver Canadians arrived in 1978, the same year it was renamed after White Spot founder and local baseball booster Nat Bailey.

For many years, the commercial artery on Main Street, now a bougie eating and drinking hub, was the sleepy home of antiques shops and outdoor car washes. One of the most interesting stops was Exotic World, the homemade shrine to Barbara and Harold Morgan’s decades of international travel. Located in the storefront of their commercial paint business and home (now Neptoon Records), the Morgans’ collection included souvenirs and photos from trips to “New Guinea, Borneo, Africa, Thailand, South America, archeological sites, Machu Picchu Peru, pagan Burma, the Nile Egypt, Abu Simbel.” Before the Morgans passed away at the turn of the century, the collection was acquired by Alexander Lamb Antiques on Main Street, where it’s still displayed.

Before restaurants on Riley Park’s fringes gained Michelin Guide recognition, a long-established Filipino Canadian community on Fraser Street was served by restaurants, bakeries, and travel agencies. The community is also represented by former bus driver and anti-war organizer Mable Elmore, who was elected as the province’s first MLA of Filipino descent in 2009.

In 2003, the ethnic diversity of the area became a source of tension when Jomar Lanot, a Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School student of Filipino descent, was beaten and left to die by a group of high schoolers of Indian descent following a confrontation that involved “racial insults.”

As in the rest of the city, soaring property values have remade the face of Riley Park, which was described by Robert Sarti in a 1995 Vancouver Sun story as “a bit older, a bit lower-income, and a bit more lived in” than its next-door neighbourhood, Oakridge. In the past three decades, according to census data, Riley Park has remained old but has become a bit whiter, a bit more prohibitively unaffordable, and a bit more unfriendly.

Sarti cited the Little Mountain Housing project as an example of that less-than-genteel vibe. Built in 1954, the long white two-storey buildings provided 224 units for low-income households. In 2008, they were demolished after being sold by BC Housing to a property development company that accepted an interest-free loan to purchase the land and has, since then, not yet delivered the 282 units of affordable housing it had promised to build alongside market housing.

In 2016, urban planner Andy Yan made headlines for revealing that the border between the east and west sides no longer served as a bulwark against sky-high real-estate valuations. Read less than a decade later, Yan’s data feels inevitable and shockingly obvious. Nowhere is that vanishing divide better felt than in Riley Park, the Vancouver neighbourhood where east meets west.

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Post Date:

November 10, 2023