Historic tour of Gastown details roots of Jewish community

Photo by Adele Lewin

Organizers of a historic tour, focusing on the Jewish community who lived in Gastown, hope people will walk away with a better understanding of how culturally diverse Vancouver has been from its earliest days.

This is not to say that it has always been accepting of diversity. That’s definitely something that has improved over time, in fits and starts. But it’s important to remember that people from around the globe helped to make the city what it is today,” says Michael Schwartz, the director of Community Engagement with the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.

Schwartz notes Strathcona is the perfect place to gain an appreciation for this fact since the geography itself tells a story: Japantown to the north, along Powell Street; Chinatown to the west, along Main; Hogan’s Alley, the traditionally Black community to the southwest, torn down long ago to make way for the viaducts. Strathcona is bounded by these communities.

Strathcona – an early cultural hub

Walking tour participants outsidethe former Sons of Israel Synagogue, May 2015. | Photo by Adele Lewin

Strathcona was a working class neighbourhood where many new immigrants, including waves of Jewish immigrants, settled when they first arrived here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It also happens to be one of the city’s prettiest neighbourhoods, says Schwartz. Walking through its tree-lined streets, people can see the old houses these pioneers called home, and the sites where they built community, like the city’s first synagogue.

“For decades it was where Italians, Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews lived alongside one another, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes not so harmoniously,” he says.

Many landmarks from this community’s history are still standing around Vancouver.

“So it only made sense that we develop a walking tour to share this history lying right under our noses. Strathcona and Gastown, where the tour takes place, are some of the oldest areas of the city,” Schwartz says.

Gastown was the commercial centre of Vancouver for much of its early history. Hastings Street used to be the most fashionable boulevard in town decked with neon lights, boutiques, and popular restaurants.

“It was here that the first Jewish entrepreneurs launched their businesses. The relationship was reciprocal, as Jewish business owners contributed to city life, and these successful businesses allowed them to contribute to the growth of the Jewish community,” says Schwartz.

What can you expect on the tour?

Michael Schwartz presenting to walking tour participants outside the former home of Rabbi Nathan Pastinsky, May 2015. | Photo by Adele Lewin

Anyone can attend the tour. Those who go on the tour can expect to hear some astounding and entertaining stories of some of the people who built this city. Schwartz says the stories range from inspiring and funny to sad.

“We also point out some of the details that you might otherwise walk right past and not notice, little points of beauty in our urban landscape,” he says.

On the tour, people will pass by the former warehouse of the Oppenheimer Brothers, who ran grocery stores throughout the province during the Gold Rush. David Oppenheimer later became the second mayor of Vancouver, and is widely recognized as the “Father of Vancouver.” He established essential city services including the Fire Department, the first streetcar system, drinking water lines, streets, sidewalks, and sewers. He also dedicated Stanley Park and Central Park in Burnaby. A stone bust of Oppenheimer now stands at the entrance to Stanley Park.

Sources of history

In 1986, the first script of this tour was written to commemorate Vancouver’s centennial. Since then, there have been numerous revisions as new information has come to light. As a community archives, the organization regularly receives donations of photos, documents, and other historic materials, which are their most valuable sources. Historic newspapers and government documents are also immensely informative.

All tours begin at 11 a.m. They last two hours and start at 700 East Pender Street. Tours run once a month until October.

For more information, visit www.jewishmuseum.ca.