Beyond bridal boutiques and payday loans: re-envisioning downtown

Copp's Shoes on Columbia St. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd.
Copp's Shoes on Columbia St. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd.

Downtown New Westminster has it going on.

Well, it could have it going on if it could once again capture the vitality of its once historic past. From an urban planning perspective you could not wish for a better template; you’ve got history, great public transit, a waterfront, shopping, density. So what happened, why did the city turn its back on the downtown?

New Westminster did what almost every North American city did in the post-war era; it decided to re-invent the wheel. How many cities had a perfectly good urban core and decided a shopping mall in the suburbs was the way to go? We don’t even have a suburb, yet that didn’t stop us from building a huge mall just 1 km up the hill. While probably bustling with stores when it first opened, it is hardly an example of a thriving mall as we’d like to see it. The mall is tired, lacks interesting merchants, and doesn’t have the convenient access of SkyTrain, which is a must these days. It did not help that the mall lost its last anchor tenant with the closure of Woodwards. Uptown is probably not quite the gem urban planners had envisioned, but let’s leave that for another post.

So what else contributed to the demise of the downtown? Like with many cities, the decline of public transit combined with the introduction of the personal automobile changed the way people live. With a car you could now live in one city, work in another, and go shopping in yet another. Before the TransCanada Highway was built to the north of the city, Columbia Street was essentially the commercial hub for all residents east of the Fraser River. People would come here from as far away as Chilliwack on the interurban railway. With the construction of the highway and the discontinuation of the interurban line, Columbia Street’s importance as a retail destination was delivered another blow. No longer did you have to pass through New Westminster on your way from A to B.

So how does it look for the future of New Westminster’s downtown? People are once again moving to New Westminster, realizing the potential of living in the geographic center of the Lower Mainland. And they are moving to the downtown to be close to transit and other amenities. Certainly they deserve more than a couple blocks of bridal boutiques and payday loan shops. The city must promote the downtown not only as a place to live, but as a place to shop, and a place to work. More people moving downtown will bring more diversity in terms of shopping and employment opportunities. The building of the Civic Centre and (slow) emergence of the River Market are good examples. Companies may look to New Westminster as a location to open up their head offices. We need all levels of employment to once again make the downtown vibrant.

New Westminster is not a large city. It can support both a vibrant downtown and a thriving uptown. At the moment however, it seems like the downtown has the momentum in its favour.

A trip to Columbia (Station, that is)

“I want to go to Columbia. Because it’s a really good place, and they have toothbrushes there.”

So said The Girl, my four-old daughter to me on the SkyTrain just yesterday. You see, on certain days, I pick her up from daycare in Surrey, and bring her back to my house, where she’s played with, fed, bathed, and Treehouse-TV’d, before she goes back to her mum’s. But, since I have no car, it’s public transit for us.

One of the advantages of the system lately is The Girl’s fascination with maps – maps of anything. But, in the stations, there are all kinds of maps for her to look at. She’s fascinated by the correlation between images and real life locations, and the idea that she is inside of those images in a representational sort of way.

She hasn’t explained it to me this way, of course. Instead, she fingerpainted me a map, and showed me where my house, her house, Nana’s house, Gram’s house, and her daycare are. Amazing.

But, needless to say, if she sees a map, she wants to find out where we are on it. And at some juncture, she focused on Columbia Street Station as the be all and end all on the SkyTrain map on our journey back into New West. One day, we got off there because I needed to buy her a toothbrush (hence the toothbrush reference). And for the last few trips, we’ve been getting off the train there at her insistence, even though the station closest to me is New West proper.

As if that means anything to a kid.

I explain to her that Columbia Street Station is further away from my house, and that getting off at Columbia means extra walking. There are times when, without a car as I am, the Girl complains about how much we walk. Opinions about car ownership are pretty cut and dried as far as the Girl is concerned. “I wish you had a car,” she says. Fair enough. In any case, the extra walk (which is not really that much of a hardship) doesn’t deter her. She’s got it bad for Columbia Street Station and that’s that.

I do have a theory.

First, I think it’s the novelty of getting off the train one stop early. To her, Columbia Street Station has been the one we pass to get to the station we’re really going. It has an air of mystery. And mystery has a certain gravitational pull to a child, and to many adults too. Who, as they say, can resist a good mystery?

Second, to a kid that young, I believe locations are experienced differently then they are as adults. Everything is so much bigger, and generally more explorable. And there is more of a chance that a story will happen. The imagination is activated so easily by every corner, every stairwell, every concourse. It’s appeal perhaps rests on the way the light hits the station’s wall tile as the sun is sinking, or on the way a corridor twists out of sight, making one wonder what fanciful land it may lead to.

Who knows what Columbia Street station feels like for the Girl right now to make her think it’s so great. But, that’s a part of the wonder of childhood, and part of its tragedy too. Eventually, we leave those keen kid-perceptions behind. In their place, we favour of the explainable, the mundane. We stop expecting stories to happen.

But third, I think dresses may have something to do with her fascination with Columbia Street. In another post about New Westminster I wrote, I talked a bit about the wedding district and how quirky I think it is. I especially like the presence of the Paramount wedged in there. And the Tattoo parlour.

Anyway. The dresses.

There are all kinds of dresses of varying colours and cuts to be seen in shop windows along Columbia Street. As much as The Girl’s recent love of maps captures her imagination, her love of princess-stuff and glamour outdates it. One can see the appeal, the raw fantasy that those garments evoke. Who knows? Maybe this is tied back to the idea of the story, too. It’s a story people tell themselves all the time – the one that ends in a “happily ever after”. We all need that particular tale, I think. And along Columbia Street, for a little girl, those happy-ever-afters are plentiful, woven into the fabrics of dresses waiting in the windows.

To a child, any place can be extraordinary, given the right conditions. It strikes me that if we could take a fragment of that with us into adulthood, then life would be so much richer. We’d get a rush of joy just by getting off the train one stop early because one day we had so much fun searching for toothbrushes, and looking at dresses through shop windows.

When the Girl gets older, she’ll be harder to impress. She won’t find joy in the same things she does now. And she’ll temper her expectations for happily-ever-afters with a necessary wariness in an unpredictable world. That is what it is to grow up. But, I hope she retains that seed of childhood wonder. And I hope she’ll always have the adventurous spirit to get off the train early and not be afraid to explore the maps set out for her as she navigates her way into adulthood.

As a nod to the Girl’s fascination with dresses, here are …

5 songs about dresses.

Mailbag: Shop New West this Christmas

Here at Tenth To the Fraser, our editorial team has been kicking around ideas for localizing our Christmas celebrations this year. Our family will attempt to source most of our food locally, and I had in mind to explore local shopping opportunities as well. One of our readers is taking it one better, and plans this year to do all her family Christmas shopping locally.

Hey there.  I just checked out your blog for the first time today at the suggestion of my husband, Blair Fryer [ed. note: Blair is the City of New West’s communications manager].  What a great resource for New West!  I just posted a link on my Facebook page so that all of my NW friends can check it out. 
I also wanted to tell you about something Blair and I are doing this Christmas which might be of interest to you.  We’ve decided to do all of our Christmas shopping in New West this year, purchasing as much as possible from local businesses. (The Wii for the kids might be the only exception.  Best Buy is technically in NW but doesn’t exactly qualify as a local business!)  There are so many fabulous new shops and galleries on Columbia and E. Columbia, I don’t think we will have any problem finding perfect gifts for our family members, teachers, coaches etc.  Gifts certificates for a our favourite cafes and restaurants are another option.  I’m planning to let all of our friends know about this via email and Facebook in hope that others will consider doing the same, or at least supporting some local businesses as they make their Christmas purchases.  It’s a great way to support our community, particularly during such difficult economic times.  It’s also a message to other businesses that NW is a great place to set up shop.
Congratulations again on your blog!

Rebecca Maurer

Thank you for your note Rebecca! Your email was a timely reminder for us (and our blog readers) to remember New Westminster businesses when planning our Christmas shopping this year.

In the post I wrote on Peter Julian‘s idea for a destination B.C. history museum and arts centre downtown, my co-author Jocelyn said in the comments

I vote they take over the Burr theatre and knock down an ugly next-door neighbour for the museum part. Columbia seems perpetually on the edge of greatness, perhaps this would push it over. Can’t you see Columbia as the Commercial Drive of the Fraser?

The funny thing is, while Columbia may be teetering on the edge of greatness today, once upon a time the ‘golden mile’ was the place to shop. A recent Newsleader article paints the picture:

It was the 1950s and 1960s, boom years for New Westminster’s most famous street nicknamed the “golden mile.”

Woodward’s, Eaton’s, Army and Navy and Spencers, all dominant retailers of the time, were found on the mile—actually four to six busy, crowded blocks.

It was one of the busiest retail districts in Canada, said historian Archie Miller—busier than Toronto’s Yonge Street, Vancouver’s Granville Street and Montreal’s rue Sainte-Catherine.

Think about that for a minute. Busier than Younge Street, Granville Street or rue Sainte-Catherine. Oh, New West! What a decline! And yet it is improving. More boutique businesses are opening along Columbia and in Sapperton, and many locals are hopeful that we really could be approaching the tipping point to retail greatness once more. If and when we do, it will be thanks to people like Rebecca and Blair, who look away from the generic frenzy of mall shopping and seek out unique gifts from local shopkeepers.