There was a time when the streets of Vancouver’s West End were much more vile than they are today.
In his latest book, Vancouver Vice President, author Aaron Chapman recounts a time that many current Vancouver residents may not know about.
“In 1982, there were more murders in the West End than in the Downtown Eastside,” Chapman said.
Where We Live – The West End
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the streets of the West End were home to sex workers, akin to an unofficial red light district, according to Chapman.
The area also faced violence, drugs, illegal gambling, and tensions between the police and some of the West End’s LGBTQ2 residents. The time was immortalized in the 1984 documentary Whores in Davie.
Chapman said that back then there were between 200 and 300 sex workers on the streets of the West End on any given night.
“For the neighbors who lived down here, the noise and … the comings and goings of some of the traffic were constant, going until three or four in the morning.”
Studies were conducted, committees formed and meetings held to address the situation with sex workers and the West End.
A group from Shame the Johns campaigned against sex workers and their clients.
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“Sometimes they were called a vigilante group,” Chapman said.
“They were writing down the number of license plates that were circulating and taking pictures of people and standing on the same street corners where the sex workers were working trying to intimidate customers and intimidate everyone to get this out of the neighborhood. It was like a little civil war going on here. “
A provincial court order in 1984 had the effect of expelling West End sex workers to other parts of the city.
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“Overnight, that just emptied the streets,” Chapman said of the court order. “I spoke to a police officer who said you could have fired a cannon down Davie Street and not hit anyone. There was nobody there “.
Today, few vestiges of that time remain. A memorial to West End sex workers stands on Jervis Street.
Another legacy from that time is hidden in plain sight, Chapman said. Traffic calming measures were installed in the neighborhood to curb vehicle traffic in the area.
Chapman said that as early as 1973, barricades were being talked about as legitimate measures to quell traffic. When the barricades were installed in 1981, they were introduced as a way to deter the sex trade.
“Everybody was knocking on the city gate, asking for an answer,” Chapman said. “When they put them up, they announced that it was apparently to curb the problem of street prostitution that was happening in Vancouver.”
The city erected around half a dozen barricades in 1981, varying in style. Some, like the one on Nicola and Pendrell streets, are now small parklets.
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Chapman notes that the traffic diversions, like so many efforts to combat the sex trade, did not work as expected.
“All it did was slow down the traffic and made it easier for some of the people in those cars to talk to some of the women on the street corners,” he said.
Over the years some of the traffic detours have been fixed and turned into welcoming public spaces.
“They become part of the neighborhood that way,” Chapman said. “A lot of people in the West End walk along the curbs and the barricades and the little parks in front of the buildings and think, ‘How wonderful, someone decided to cut the street and put in a nice lawn, a park and some trees.’
“But the real reason they are there is something totally secret that many people in the city probably don’t realize.”
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