Granville Island: Success and Good Company

Along the southwest edge of downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, tucked underneath bridges and freeways, bisecting what the locals named “False Creek,” is the peninsula and shopping district of Granville Island.

I first set eyes on Granville as an adult, just last year, on a birthday trip with my friend, Asaf. He insisted we do something special, something with traveling involved; and I chose Vancouver. Granville Island is home to over 275 businesses, art galleries, a community center, the working marina, and an expansive public market.

Granville is in its 37th year of operation—according to the Canadian newspaper, Globe and Mail. The site is still home to a university, Emily Carr University of Art and Design, focal point for about 2,000 students, until the school moves to a larger location on Great Northern Way reportedly later this year. The market draws tourists and sightseers, plus the occasional street performer. And the marina keeps berth for hundreds of boats, including the odd kayak one can rent for an hourly paddle into the Bay, or two ferry companies which shuttle passersby who’d rather not catch a bus over to downtown proper.

Asaf and I went to Granville our first full morning to kayak, at least for starters. We took two kayaks from a berth out into Vancouver Bay—to explore, to exert ourselves a little, to get a view of the city. We crossed the inlet to the downtown-side, hugging the shoreline toward Stanley Park’s Siwash Rock. $39 got us two hours, barely enough time to (nearly) reach the rock and then circle back. The marina itself is quite active, and the ferries are constantly shuttling locals and tourists (mostly) across the inlet. We got a little wet, too, from the wake of passing boats and our own ill-done paddling. But it was sunny, and warm, with a light sea breeze drying us and halting any sweat from too much exertion. We talked about life and upheavals, friendship, of course about boys. The island was boisterous when we returned: busy, vibrant, a center of culture and tourism and commerce.

In that same Globe and Mail article in 2014, journalist Wendy Stueck had this to say about Granville: “[our series, for which this article was a part,] takes a look at businesses, services and infrastructure that are not often heralded because, well, they actually work well.” What Stueck describes is a daily bustle that, if you’re a coastal city-dweller or used to sharing your city with tourists, may sound familiar to you.

Here is what Stueck sees in Granville:

It is often crowded, parking can be a headache and prices for food and goods are not what most people would think of as a bargain. Yet 35 years after it opened, Granville Island continues to charm. Its mix of artisans, shops and restaurants draws an estimated 10.5-million visitors a year. It is also home to industry: Ocean Concrete is the longest-established tenant on the island, having set up shop there in 1917. The company’s six silos this year became a giant mural as part of Vancouver Biennale. There is a theatre and a distillery, painters and glass-blowers, restaurants and buskers. A 14-hectare chunk of federally owned land in the midst of a city, Granville Island has been called a national treasure and has become a benchmark for urban vitality.

What’s striking to me about this, is to whom Canadians attribute Granville’s successes: the federal government. Granville is co-managed by CMHC and Port Metro Vancouver, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and Vancouver Fraser Port Authority respectively. Both are non-shareholder, financially self-sufficient Crown corporations established by the Government of Canada, the former in 1946 and the latter in 2008. It is these two government entities which will oversee Granville’s future. According to Stueck, the finances are already sound:

Between 1973 and 1982, the federal government invested $24.7-million in Granville Island, CMHC says. Of that amount, $5.7-million was for taking over debts from the Harbour Board, which previously ran the site. The remaining $19-million went into capital improvements. Since 1983, Granville Island has been self-supporting.

That first day, Asaf and I walked to Granville, about 20 minutes, from our AirBNB in south Van-City on our way toward downtown and Stanley Park. The streets weave past an interchange, converging on the bridges that span air over the inlet, as the hillside drops suddenly into the bay’s final reaches. One road continues onto Granville, with wide sidewalks running along either side.

The island—though, again, it’s actually a peninsula—seems paradoxically smaller and bigger than it is. (Apparently, I laid eyes on Granville as an 11 year-old, during a family trip through Victoria and Van-City, but I have no memory of this…) It’s magical almost. There’s little room between buildings, and parked cars choke what little extra space there is. Yet there’s always another corner around another corner on Granville: it’s a beautiful, colorful maze one can get easily lost inside.

Asaf and I weaved our way through the little storefronts and stalls into the Public Market. Ever the researcher, Asaf had heard tell of a cheesemonger and wanted to show me: Benton Brothers Fine Cheese. I’m a sucker for cheese, quite frankly; it’s the drawer in my fridge that’s always the most full. I ended up taking home three Canadian favorites, including a local curd. We ate lunch on the island, too—two different market shops. And on our way out that day, we halted distracted by The Nut Merchant and their maple sriracha pecans.

Granville’s Public Market is both like, and unlike, its more-famous northwest cousin, Pike’s Place in Seattle. Both are hip, overflowing, colorful monstrosities; both hold a special place in their city’s respective heart. But in my opinion, Granville is the more unique. By its trickery of naming, and its village-like sense of place, Granville bursts with a personality that is as much showmanship as it is commerce or culture.

When we caught the sunset later that evening from Stanley Park, lazing on a makeshift beach wood chair, I spent as much time watching the activity, exquisite lights, and hearing guitars from Granville, as I did listening to seagulls and gazing out at the dimming horizon.

I was with my friend, in a cool place, much loved by its citizens. With kayaks. With specialty pecans and new cheeses to try. The flavors and sounds of good company and a new city. It was enough.

Stay Backwords,

Matthew D. Kulisch

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