By Justin McElroy, Special to The Province
Pedestrians and diners gather on the pier in the historic fishing village of Steveston on a spring evening in 2010.
Photograph by: Les Bazso , PNG
Move over Granville and Robson. These days, the most visible street in the Lower Mainland is Moncton.
The historic Steveston street is a featured set on Once Upon a Time, the hit TV fantasy series.
The magic of Hollywood transforms two blocks of Richmond into Storybrooke, Me., a quaint oceanside town where every Sunday night on TV, characters from various fairy tales are trapped by a powerful curse.
When stores get boarded up on Moncton, it’s no sign of economic decay.
Of course, as the heart of a neighbourhood older than any other in the Lower Mainland except Fort Langley, Moncton Street has been been telling its own little stories for years.
Once upon a time, Japanese-Canadians and fishermen lived side-by-side in Steveston when Vancouver consisted of little more than a few blocks in Gastown.
Once upon a time, Steveston underwent the type of development and gentrification that worries every community — and has come out stronger for it.
Once upon a time, Frank Keitsch fished these waters with thousands of others. The community was defined by BC Packers, the largest fishing and fish-processing company in the province, and much of the town would get up every day to work on land owned by the company.
“There would be four thousand fishermen on the ocean, and they were typical fishermen in their lifestyles,” Keitsch says. “They would bust their asses off, finish the day with a pocketful of money, and where would they go? The bars. The Steveston Hotel. If that place could talk...”
He trails off and chuckles.
“It was a town of debauchery. The tourists were scared to come here 30 years ago, and I don’t blame them.”
But the economies of fishing and packing changed. BC Packers decided to develop its lands. A block away from Moncton now are modern, seaside townhouses.
Keitsch is now one of a few hundred fisherman left. At 46, he’s considered young for the profession.
“Locals fought the changes, but as we know, in the battle between common sense and money, money will win every time,” he says.
“A lot of the older generation of fishermen, the ones who don’t like adjusting to things, they’re gone now.
“It is what it is. It’s a destination everyone wants to come to, so we have to adjust to it.”
There’s no denying that nostalgia exists for the old days in Steveston. But all things considered, the adjustment has gone remarkably well.
The area changed slowly enough to retain its character. It successfully balances being a tourist hub and a mature community. Census data and police statistics show that crime is low, neighbourhood stability is high and property values are average for the Metro Vancouver area.
Which begs the question: How did it happen?
“We call it the spirit of Steveston,” says Jim Kojima. Born in a Japanese hospital, he returned to the area in 1951. In the 60 years since, he has volunteered in so many different capacities that the city chose him as Steveston’s torchbearer the week before the 2010 Olympic Games.
“The community has had a fair bit of say into what’s happened here,” he says, citing how they’ve successfully kept a two-storey maximum on buildings in Moncton. “We’re very fortunate that we’ve retained its character.”
“You’re getting more of a cosmopolitan flavour, but the old adage ‘the more things change, the more the stay the same’ is true here,” adds Vince Morlet, owner of Tapenade Bistro. “The village still has a real sense of place, a real sense of community. You have a really good group of community groups who care for the area and advocate for it. Buildings come down, new ones get built, but there’s still that history.”
It’s that mindful, community-led mix that Michael Geller, a developer involved in the original repurposing of BC Packers land, applauds.
“I think that Steveston has managed over the last 30 years to reinforce its sense of history, while making it a very attractive place both for people to live and visit,” he said.
“What is important is to have a business improvement area that makes sure the mix of businesses doesn’t become too heavily weighted towards the tourists. The butcher can’t get replaced by a gift shop. Steveston needs to walk that balance.”
It’s a balance that’s maintained through hard work. Pajo’s Fish & Chips’ waterfront barge brings in people from across the Lower Mainland, but the business buys local fish and sponsors as many community events as possible. The Gulf of Georgia Cannery is now a historical site with a book on the area’s history available in the gift shop.
“I don’t think there’s going to be dramatic changes, but there’s going to be a continual change,” said Morlet. “The fishing industry is still here. It’s going to keep growing up, be a little more sophisticated, but there’s always going to be that old charm.”
The Steveston Hotel still sits at Moncton and Third Avenue. Once Upon a Time will always be part of Steveston’s story. But the next chapter is always being written.