Bus Lines: The No. 19, Vancouver’s time machine

From present-day to prehistory, route cuts through many layers of the city’s past

It’s not quite the Magic School Bus, but the No. 19 is a time machine in its own haphazard way.

Between Metrotown and Stanley Park, it cuts its way through several strata of Vancouver’s (and a bit of Burnaby’s) history, passing through different eras of the city. 

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At its eastern terminus, the line begins with the very present-day view of creation through destruction.

Across the road from the Metrotown bus loop, several new high-rises have soared skywards in the past few years, rapidly changing the face of this part of Burnaby. More projects are underway. 

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Development continues apace at Metrotown in Burnaby. - Jan Zeschky

Look between the towers and you’ll see the past: piles of floorboards, joists and rubble, the remnants of low-rise blocks that once covered the area south of the mall. You’ve likely heard of renoviction; this rubble is a sign of what housing activists have termed demoviction, when developers buy up entire city blocks, evict residents, then demolish the buildings for denser, costlier condo towers.

The Metrotown case has been particularly sensitive due to the number of lower-income, senior and disabled residents in the area. But the City of Burnaby is pressing on with its plan for a new downtown core in the Metrotown area.

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Low-rise housing blocks near Metrotown are being demolished as part of the City of Burnaby's plan to turn Metrotown into downtown. - Jan Zeschky

In a way, this neighbourhood’s fate has been decided by transit; more specifically the SkyTrain, whose stations have been targeted as important hubs of density by city planners.

The lowly bus route doesn’t attract as many development dollars along its path, a fact that’s clear when the No. 19 heads west onto Kingsway and crosses Boundary Road (after passing Swangard Stadium, which looks a little forlorn in its post-Whitecaps era). 

The areas bisected by Kingsway – originally a First Nations trail, then a wagon road between New Westminster and Gastown – aren’t what you’d exactly call scenic. But neighbourhoods such as Collingwood, Kensington and Cedar Cottage remain neighbourhoods in the traditional sense. They’re full of cafes and restaurants for locals, and mom-and-pop shops that predate the era of the big box stores. On closer inspection, it seems miraculous that some of these places are still in business. 

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The Tipper has been a mainstay in the neighbourhood around Kingsway and Victoria. - Jan Zeschky

A neighbourhood in point is the area around Victoria and Kingsway, where my wife and I first lived when we moved to Vancouver in 2008. (We lasted three months in a damp, cramped suite in a duplex on Beatrice.) I hop off the bus near Victoria and I’m transported back to those days of eking out a living on what work we could get and the remaining savings we had.

It’s the storefronts that bring back the memories: The Tipper pub/restaurant, where we first had a taste of local beer; Dominick's Barber Shop, where the chat was as sharp as the scissors; the fabulous Famous Foods supermarket; the Green Lettuce Desi-Chinese restaurant (“SPICY”); and, perhaps most improbably, Trade-Ur-Vac, a vacuum cleaner store and repair shop that has been open since either 1948 or 1955, depending on which sign you read. 

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The indomitable Trade-Ur-Vac. - Jan Zeschky

Some things have changed. I walk past a luxury bathroom showroom that looks garishly out of place. Sushi Hut has, sadly, moved on. And, of course, several new developments are rising along Kingsway, including a huge project at Gladstone featuring three 14-storey towers. But, even in the light of multiple reports of small, independent businesses closing down in the west of the city, the stores here give off a sense of resilience. It’s difficult to see towers marching down the length of Kingsway in the near future.

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The huge Kingsway and Gladstone development. - Jan Zeschky

The full weight of Vancouver’s development boom doesn’t really hove into view until Kingsway merges with Main Street, where towers are sprouting like mushrooms after rain.

Next stop for the time machine is near the city’s origins in Chinatown, where some buildings are approaching 120 years in age. Then it’s back to the future as the bus heads into downtown, the business district and past the glass towers of Coal Harbour.

By this point, at this tourist-light time of year, the bus is virtually empty as it rolls into Stanley Park and parks at the loop just a short stroll from the aquarium. When the engine cuts out, there’s a wonderful stillness. Stepping out of the bus, I’m met by a lush freshness that’s not just the result of escaping the contained aroma of several dozen humans. There’s a scent of the sea and fir needles in the cool, humid air. It’s the surrounding trees that soar skywards here, not glass towers. 

For a second, the time machine appears to have gone back to prehistory. I close my eyes, take a deep breath and— 

There’s a blast of hydraulic air and a loud beeping noise from the No. 19 behind me. Time to return to the present.

• Bus Lines is a twice-monthly series featuring stories from Vancouver’s most interesting bus routes. 


Transit Talk: The No. 19

Terminus stations: Metrotown, Stanley Park Loop

Length of route: 12.2 km

Estimated route time: 64-74 minutes

Average speed (2016): 14.5 km/h

Length of Kingsway (from New Westminster to Main Street): 13.9 km

Number of different kinds of vacuum bags sold at Trade-Ur-Vac: 67

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