Walk along its streets on a lazy Sunday afternoon and the course of the city’s growth since then is easy to see. Moving north away from the Fraser River, the port and the railroad tracks, and industry yields to the aging grace of colourful gingerbread-like homes belted with porches and capped with gables.
Located 20 kilometres southeast of Vancouver, along the north bank of the Fraser River is the city of New Westminster. The area was originally home to the Qayqayt First Nation, who occupied those banks for more than 8000 years, until the British settlers put down roots in the 1860s.
Look closely at those homes, many classified as heritage homes by City Council. They speak to Royal City’s former glory and a desire by current residents to remain connected to that time.
Heritage key to understanding history
The homes stand as evidence that the city was once a booming social and economic hub in the region. Yet, Columbia Street and many of the rundown buildings along Front Street are clear indicators of subsequent decline.
That decline began in the mid-20th century, according to displays at the New Westminster Museum at the Anvil Centre, however, it probably had its seeds in 1868 when Victoria was chosen to serve as the province’s capital city. The second blow was establishing Vancouver as Canadian Pacific Railway’s terminus in 1887.
A foothold for gold, fur, and salmon trade
When the Royal Engineers settled New Westminster, they were looking for a location with an easy escape plan. Fur traders and gold drew many of the first non-aboriginal settlers to the area, and New West’s location on the Fraser made it a secure place for trade to happen. Fears of aggressive gold prospectors from the United States made personal security a priority in choosing that foothold.
Initially, industry in the city relied heavily on natural resources: salmon and lumber. Lumber remains an important industry with shops that manufacture shingles, paper, pulp and plywood. Over the past 50 years the dominant industries have shifted several times: from manufacturing, to retail, to business services to high tech.
Established in 1878 by the government of Canada, the B.C. Penitentiary also employed a sizeable number of residents until it was closed in 1980. Townhouses and condos now occupy that land.
After World War II, manufacturing’s dominance gave way to retail, which gave way for business consulting services. Today, high tech and fibre optic industries are growing in the region.
A criminal past
Where Steveston’s history is laced with stories of gambling and unruliness that call up images of John Wayne, Butch Cassidy and the “Wild West”, that mantel seems to be one New Westminster wants to share with Surrey today.
In 2011, MacLean’s published a report on Canada’s least safe cities. New Westminster, like many of the cities in British Columbia ranked in the top 30. New West took the 15th position. Not much has changed in five years.
Yet, it has gotten better. According to several residents I spoke with as they were smoking near the parking lot of their building near Front Street, the city has become less frightening. But Dave Miller, the owner of Antique Alley on Front Street, says that the reputation that New Westminster is unsafe, has helped keep home prices low and keep commercial rents from rising.
“Have you even been there?”
That was the question Sandra McNulty asked the city councillors after asking them to reconsider re-zoning plans.
She and her husband are long-time residents of New Westminster. The proposed changes worry her because she and her husband are not as capable as they once were. Her neighbours help them with their gardening and other tasks. If she has to move, she wonders if she’ll find the same kind of community.
Her concerns are not new. Riversky is a new development complex going up next to the River Market. When Bosa Properties first proposed developing the two tower, 33-story complex, residents were vocal about their concerns. Loudest of all were the condo owners living in the complex attached to the New Westminster Skytrain station.
This complex, along with new developments in Sapperton and along Columbia Street will gentrify a downtown core that has long been in decline.
However, the owner of Bunches & Blooms flower shop in River Market cannot wait for the condo complex to be completed. It can only help increase the the quality of life and community along the water.
Is New Westminster losing touch with the Wild West?
With gentrification, many long-term residents may feel less welcome. One wonders how much longer the Paramount will be able to offer services to its patrons on Columbia street.
In the past year, several shops, like the antique letterpress shop, have left because of increasing rents. This shop had five different old-fashioned machines that used different typefaces and fonts to create unique cards. They printed wedding invitations and cards, and were well placed to capture future brides looking for dresses along Columbia Street.
Brides still go to Columbia Street to find their gowns. The server at El Santo said that weekends are usually busy with non-residents looking for that special dress for that special day.
El Santo, however is part of that gentrification. Opened just over a year ago, this Mexican restaurant is clearly looking to change the tone of dining in downtown New West.
Clearly New Westminster is a city in transition.