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Saturday, August 25, 2007

SIN IN THE CITY

Saturday, AUGUST 25/07

It's been awhile since I wrote here because of holidays (see my travel blog at
http://travelthroughhistory.blogspot.com ) and because I'm immersed in full time writing on my novel these days (see my writer's blog http://wynnbexton.blogspot.com )

But today I went on an interesting walking tour that kind of ties in with both my interest in history and the subject of 'crime' that I had previously written about on this site.

My friends and I went on a tour around the Downtown East Side, the area of town where this city had it's beginnings. As it was a tour titled "Sin in the City", we began with a tour round the Vancouver Police Museum. It's been a long time since I visited this interesting small museum and it's well worth taking the time to drop by and have a look at the crime history of our town.
The building itself is a heritage building that used to be the City Morgue and Coroner's Court right up til the late '70's. The tour includes the coroner's work place with the gurneys used to conduct autopsies on the dead. One famous person who once occupied one of those tables was the actor Erroll Flynn who died suddenly in the city back in the '50's. He was in the city trying to sell his yacht and the night he died was in a west end apartment partying along with his very young teen-age girlfriend. I was working in the news library at the Sun during that time and recall vividly the scandalous reports that circulated at the time of his death. Flynn had a huge reputation for philandering in particular with young women. In fact, when I was 10, I found out the facts of life because of him. But that's another story!

From the police museum the Sin in the City walking tour took us around to various places in the area that had notorious reputations from the time the first settlement sprung up on the shores of Burrard Inlet, which was mainly a stopping off port for loggers, to the later years, even including the 1970's when there was a huge protest riot in Gastown between the police and marijuana smoking hippies that led to the current relaxed laws on soft drugs like 'weed' in this city.

From the early days when the first saloons were built in what was then called "Granville" when there were mainly only men living in the settlement, to the street of bordellos on Alexander Street where all the madams plied their trade, we enjoyed the shady history of the city.
At that time all the houses of prostitution were contained in one area and easily patrolled by the police. The girls worked indoors and were reasonably safe. But an interfering well-meaning woman Bible-thumper began a campaign to close down the 'houses of ill repute' and laws were passed against their operation, thus putting the girls of the oldest trade in the world, on the street. This brings us up to the current time when, over the last few years over 60 women have gone missing from the downtown east side, and a pig farmer from the suburbs in now on trial for the deaths of at least 26 of them.

I haven't been writing here lately about the Pickton trial as I found the subject was becoming too disturbing. To recap what has transpired since my last posting about the Pig Farmer's Trials, several witnesses were called by the Prosecution who described in graphic details things they had seen on the farm or heard Willie the pig farmer say about how he had killed the women. The only trouble is, these witnesses were known to be serious drug users and the Defence argues that their testimony is unreliable. Like perhaps the woman who said she saw one of the bodies hanging from a meat hook in the slaughter house was just 'hallucinating'.
The Prosecution has rested its case and starting next week the Defence takes the stand trying to prove that Willie is innocent of the killings.

This area where we were touring happens to be the same part of town where the missing women plied their trade.

We also went to the old Japan town and China town where race riots broke out at the turn of the Century and where opium dens and gambling was prevalent. Up on Hastings St. we stopped at the door of a notorious bootlegging joint from the '50s that had been operated by a well-known mob figure. That story brought back more memories of the days I worked on the crime files in the Vancouver Sun news library, and the scandal at the time when it was revealed that our Chief of Police was taking pay-offs from this mob person and the whole police force was corrupted.

Down in Chinatown we saw some of the heritage buildings that still stand there, some which are undergoing renos to restore them. We saw secret alleys and an alley that used to be a market area where secret doorways allowed opium users to escape from police raids. Lots of interesting details were pointed out and the old story of the Chinatown tunnels was explained. One of the buildings there which is in the Guiness World Book of Records as the narrowest commercial building in the world, happens to have once been occupied by a Chinese jeweler who was a friend of my late husband. Mike used to do painting down in Chinatown and once Chinese New Years we were invited to a party at the jewelry shop (which is now an insurance company). So I have been inside this unique building, part of which was the jeweler's living quarters, barely wide enough for a couch - - and down under the road where his 'rec room' was located like a secret room hidden under the busy street. That New Years we sat down there around a half dozen tables where mah-jong and card tables were set up with bottles of expensive whiskey on each table and stacks of poker chips and money passing hands. I was fascinated by it all and every time I pass by that building now I remember that night back in the late '50's when we were guests there.

The tour ended up in Gastown at the famous statue of Gassy Jack, the old entrepreneur who built the first saloon there on the 'skid road' where logs where skidded down to the shores of the Inlet for transportation elsewhere. Because this is where the saloons were located and the loggers who hung out round there liked their booze, that's where the term "Skid Row" came from.

It was a fun tour and a real insight into the shady past of our city. I've always enjoyed these old stories and look forward to the tour they have at Hallowe'en which includes a tour of the old morgue, a cemetery and some haunted houses.