Vancouver’s Commercial Drive

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Known for generations as Vancouver’s Little Italy, “The Drive” has evolved into perhaps the most cosmopolitan neighborhood in North America. A stroll down the seventeen blocks between Broadway and Venables reveals a community where the world comes together.

Havana Restaurant on Commercial DriveFamily-owned coffee bars, the community living rooms, are found on almost every block. Regulars are greeted by name. This neighborhood was renowned for its Old World-style coffee decades before the designer coffee trend began. Whether you want eye-opening espresso to kick-start your day, or a smooth after dinner cappuccino, The Drive serves up the best with Italian, Portuguese and Turkish flair.

While the neighborhood’s Italian roots are deep, new immigrants have broadened the ethnic mix, making the area a kind of bohemian United Nations. Due to the lower rents and the critical mass of counter-culture, more writers, painters, poets, and musicians make their home here than in any other part of the city. Not to mention the large Lesbian contingent and growing population of gay men who are taking up residence in this area. Think San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury meets New York’s Mulberry Street.

Come prepared to eat. Within a 15 minute walk, you’ll find an unbelievable diversity of ethnic cuisines that reflect the local population: Italian, Portuguese, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Lebanese, Salvadoran, Mongolian, Jamaican, Belgian, Mexican, Greek, Thai, Japanese, Indian, Pakistani, Turkish, Cuban, Greek, Szechuan, and French. Wherever you take your repast, opt for a window seat (or better yet, a seat outside) to watch the parade of dreadlocked, pierced, branded and tattooed tribes mix with Mediterraneans in track suits, blazers and fedoras.

The hub of the arts community is an old church that’s been converted into avant-garde theatre—the Vancouver East Side Cultural Centre (affectionately known as “The Cultch”) – where an international roster of performers grace the stage year-round.

At Havana, live theatre and art installations can be enjoyed before or after mojitos and cubanos on the bustling sidewalk patio. (Havana photo: / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Only a short SkyTrain ride from Vancouver city centre, Commercial Drive offers the perfect antidote to downtown’s gleaming high-rises and designer boutiques. Instead of Dolce & Gabbana, you’ll find greengrocers and loonie-toonie (one to two dollar) stores. Radical literature is sold plus hemp products and accessories. Up and down The Drive, deals abound on everything from retro appliances and vinyl, to figs, saffron and organic non-GMO tofu. Here, the “corporations” are mom & pop operations, the fashions are secondhand, and the politics are somewhere left of left-of-center. Although that is slowly changing, much to the chagrin of some Drive purists, with the relatively recent appearance of retailers like the ubiquitious Starbucks.

Twenty-five years ago, a top-down political plan proposed demolishing this neighborhood in what was called an “urban renewal” project. Old heritage houses were marked for demolition to make way for huge housing blocks and a multi-lane freeway. Locals banded together to stop the development and maintain the character and cultural flavor of their community. Rallies were held to save The Drive and people packed the offices of City Hall. The locals won—as did anyone who chooses to visit.

Today, “inclusiveness” is at the heart of the neighborhood’s identity. Young lesbians shoot stick at Joe’s Café while old men play backgammon at the Portuguese Club two doors down. Vegans en route to Juicy Lucy’s rub shoulders with prosciutto eaters leaving Falcone Bros Meat Market. In Britannia Park, posing yogis vie for attention with the bongos and didgeridoos. Block by block, a world of sights, sounds and flavors blend in a new and changing pastiche that is very Canadian indeed.

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