604 Neighbourhoods is a weekly series appearing on the Inside Vancouver blog that will feature photos, history, and information about some of the city’s most distinct communities. Today’s feature is Commercial Drive which runs down the middle of the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood and is known for its inclusiveness, its nickname as “Little Italy”, and its diverse range of dining options.
Grandview is bordered by Clark Drive and Nanaimo from west to east, and Broadway to Burrard Inlet from south to north [Google Map]. Commercial Drive (aka “The Drive“) splits right down the middle of this community and eventually turns into Victoria Drive as you head south past East 19th Avenue. Much like Robson Street is the shopping core of downtown Vancouver, Commercial Drive is the shopping, dining, and entertainment core of Grandview-Woodland.
Commercial Drive was a skid road in the late 19th century that supplied logs to Hastings Sawmill down on Burrard Inlet at the foot of Dunlevy Street. Water from Trout Lake was provided via a flume and the mill’s co-owner, John Hendry, is the namesake for the park surrounding Trout Lake today. The Drive itself became a main thoroughfare with shops and services for local tradespeople who established the surrounding residential neighbourhood. Thanks to the interurban railroad, The Drive also helped connect Vancouver to New Westminster.
Following WW1, we saw a big influx of Italian, Chinese and Eastern European immigrants. Then, following WW2, a huge wave of Italian immigrants established the basis for today’s Commercial Drive, which was called “Little Italy” for decades. [Drive History]
The morning air is filled with the aroma of roasted coffee and baked goods along Commercial Drive and at night, live music pumps from restaurant windows and crowds line up for performances at Havana Theatre and Federico’s. Theatre-goers fill eateries before heading to Victoria Drive to catch a show at The Cultch or up to Broadway for a midnight screening at the Rio. Friends grab a slice of pizza before hitting Grandview Lanes or settle in to sample one of the city’s largest selections of beer at St. Augustine’s.
When I asked around on Twitter what it was about Commercial Drive that people loved the answers were overwhelmingly all about food:
@HeisseSafari said “Rinconcito Salvadorean Restaurant. Best canrita huaraches in town!” while @MattRemp simply replied “Belgian Fries!!” and @myra_mc confirmed that it’s the “best place to go for coffee in Vancouver!”
In fact you can start with Himalayan food at Cafe Kathmandu, move onto French Tunisian at Carthage Cafe, then Bandidas Taqueria for all-day Mexican breakfast. You could also spend an more than an entire week visiting a different cafe each day.
Vintage clothing, folk art, galleries, books, and music fill the windows of independent and locally-owned shops. There is an eclectic assortment of hair salons, tailors, and day spas with hardware and bike shops mixed in. Shopping on The Drive is best done when you have time to stroll, browse, and admire all of the unique pieces you’ll find.
The #20 Victoria Drive bus runs along The Drive and on the busy intersection of Broadway and Commercial you’ll find two SkyTrain stations, combined as Commercial-Broadway. The first is along the SkyTrain’s original Expo Line and the second is Commercial Drive station which is on the Millenium Line station. They are joined by walkways and will get you out to Waterfront, New Westminster, and Surrey.
John Hendry Park at Trout Lake is a top attraction in the area, just off Commercial Drive. It hosts a farmers market, solstice lantern festivals, and has several fields, courts, and playgrounds for outdoor fun.
The Britannia Community Services Centre has an art gallery, ice rink, pool, and hosts a wide range of activities and services for families and youth on Napier Street. You’ll also find the newly revamped Grandview Park just outside between Commercial and Cotton Drive.
It’s not only the local theatres and galleries that host performances as the Commercial Drive area is home to the In the House Festival which is ramping up for the season along Napier. In fact, The Drive is full of festivals throughout the year such as Italian Day (June 9, 2013), Car Free Day (June 16, 2013), the Vancouver Dyke March (August 2013), Parade of Lost Souls (October 2013), the Eastside Culture Crawl (November 2013), and more.
If you’re visiting Vancouver be sure to check local event schedules and pick a festival date so that you can put Commercial Drive on your itinerary, or simply stop by for a cup of coffee or a slice of Neapolitan style pizza. If you’re in town during a World Cup year, even better! Cafes are full at all hours as televisions glow, chants are sung, and flags are flown for dozens of countries whose fans all converge on The Drive.