Show and Shine – a trip through Car History

Showing how behind the times I am, here is another post at least two weeks late…

Yes, I went to the Show and Shine here in New West. Sapperton Day(s), FraserFest, SummerFest, the 12th Street Festival: they all have their charms, but the Show and Shine is really the biggest one-day event we have in New West. The sheer numbers of people downtown and the scope of the whole affair is daunting. Kudos to the Downtown BIA for a great show.

I can’t avoid the irony that the biggest “Car Free Day” we have in New Westminster is, in fact, and Ode to the Car, in all its forms. However history of Columbia Street and Downtown New Westminster is, in many ways, drawn from the history of the automobile.

Columbia was built in the 1850s for horses, wagons, and pedestrians. It hosted electric streetcars for local service from 1891 to 1938, and Interurban electric passenger rail from 1892 to 1950. During this time, the rails shared space with increasing numbers of cars, and it was the increase in cars that brought Columbia to the fore.

The building of the Pattullo in 1937 brought more cars (and the end of local streetcar service along Columbia), and around the same time a bunch of what we would now call “stimulus money” was used to expand Kingsway from a small rural road to a major urban throughfare. Thus began the “Golden Mile” era of Columbia Street, as it became a major regional shopping, business and entertainment district, peaking at the time when Car was King.

Clearly, traffic wasn’t a problem in 1953. Nothing but free flow here in the good old days.
(photo courtesy the Province, via KnowBC)

Like most Kings, the Car giveth, and the Car taketh away. First the Interurban was gone, leaving an almost 40-year gap in train service. Then by the late 1950s, another phenomenon began to rise: the car-oriented shopping centre (soon to evolve into the Mall). If American Graffiti told you everything you needed to know about North American culture at the end of the ‘50s, then Mall Rats told you the story of the end of the ‘80s. The “Golden Mile”, after only a few decades, started to tarnish. Drivers went to places like Oakridge, and Lougheed, and Lansdowne; shoppers drawn to their massive free parking lots and climate-controlled browsing opportunities.

Not that Downtown gave up without a fight. They built a Parkade in 1959 to compete directly with the burgeoning shopping centres. In 1964, the Trans-Canada Highway was built way over on the Port Mann Bridge, stealing yet more attention from Columbia. Downtown New West doubled down on parking, increasing the size of the Parkade.

Alas, there seemed to be no stopping the forces at work. It wasn’t the lack of parking that was killing Columbia Street, but change in lifestyle and shopping patterns. New Westminster’s Golden Mile was yesterday’s news.

The first sign of resurgence came 20 years later with the arrival of SkyTrain and the Expo-86-funded Westminster Quay. Along with a waterfront Casino, a new hotel and the relocation of Douglas College, but for whatever reason, the momentum didn’t hold. Maybe poor City planning, inexperience on how to exploit the growth, the damn NDP, who knows? Maybe it was because despite the new improvements, Columbia Street was just not that nice a place to be in the 80s. Fast forward another 20 years and a few well-timed and well-placed developments, along with a significant road diet have changed that. A major shift came when Columbia Street once again turned from a place for cars that barely tolerated people, to a place for people where cars are tolerated. Things are booming again.

Still, one day a year, we turn the street back over to the cars, with a vengeance. And this year, the crowds were phenomenal. The beer gardens were full, the food carts had line-ups, the streets were just less than uncomfortably crowded, and the sun was out with bare midriffs everywhere (unfortunately, mostly expansive and belonging to middle-aged men). Somewhere around 100,000 people on Columbia Street easily make this the busiest day of the year downtown. It was a great opportunity for the Downtown BIA to show off Columbia Street, and they did a great job.

Of course, to support the visiting crowds on the busiest day of the year in Downtown New West, the Parkade was free. It was advertised as being free, there were cops manning the barriers at 6th Street and 4th Street so that people could drive easily into the Parkade, with signs showing just how free it was. So was I the only one not surprised to find it was not only free: it was mostly empty.

All 4 photos above taken between 1:00pm and 2:00pm on July 8, 2012.

Again, I ask the merchants of downtown, if on your busiest day of the year, when all of Columbia is turned over to public space and you could not comfortably fit more people downtown; when the Parkade is free and duly advertised as such; when the free Parkade remains is mostly empty: isn’t it time to recognize the Parkade for the white elephant it is? Can we now accept that it is time to move past the Parkade, and recover the potential human space it supplants? Can we now stop saying it is necessary to support business growth in the City?

Oh, yeah, the Cars. As much as a I appreciate the level of effort that goes into keeping them valve covers so brightly polished and chroming those headers, American muscle cars and over-wound rice rockets don’t do much for me. My personal best-of-show choice was this perfect combination of design, agility, and elegance: Porsche 356 Speedster.

Cruising the Golden Mile in 1959 – this would have been my chariot of choice.

2 comments on “Show and Shine – a trip through Car History

  1. The parkade was way busier for the Pier Park Opening and it wasn’t free that day. I would say maybe half full? Maybe the weather impacts car use for locals. It sure affected my decision that day. If the lot is city owned, should there not be data by day detailing its use that could be requested?

  2. Hey Mona, the Parkade was free during the Pier Park Opening (or at least that’s what they told us water-logged traffic volunteers to tell the visitors looking for parking!)

    The lot is managed by the Parking commission, and the usage is tracked. The most recent report I can find from the City’s webpage (I linked to it in a previous blog post) said the lot is, at most 1/3 occupied during busiest times. It would be interesting to track that through the last 10 years as the face of Columbia has changed.

    The City is commissioning a report on parking needs downtown, so hopefully a rational strategy will be developed from that, and we can start planning for a post-parkade waterfront.

    Thanks for reading, and commenting!

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