Uh-oh. This perhaps wasn’t the best route for a scenic walk back into town. Pockmarked faces, unkempt facial hair and dead eyes are all around, and there’s some spectacularly open drug dealing taking place on the corner. A stroll down East Hastings Street in Vancouver isn’t for the lily-livered. It’s a little like being in a zombie movie*, with heroin-ravaged shells of human beings leaping out every few seconds to ask for money, attempt to sell you drugs or offer their �?services’. 


East Hastings is the main thoroughfare in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which has attracted the unfortunate tag of being “Canada’s poorest postcode”. And if it’s not a good place to be flashing cameras and jewellery, then the side lanes off it are even worse. I’m odd. I like accidentally finding myself in the spots you’re not supposed to go to every now and then. It’s good to get that wake-up jolt; the wrinkles and scars behind the make-up. This is especially the case in Vancouver. It’s a city that is regularly named as the best place to live in the world. It boasts that you can go skiing, sailing and golfing in one day and everything looks so spotlessly clean. It is a city that treats seaplane joyflights as standard practice, enjoys watching eagles swoop above giant urban parks and wears its multiculturalism with tension-free comfort. And unless you accidentally step into Downtown Eastside, you can be forgiven for thinking that the whole of Vancouver is a laid-back, positive-in-attitude idyll.


But the glossy sheen of pleasantness needs a counterpoint. Remember how Tiger Woods suddenly became more interesting once it had emerged that he was secretly plugging away with every mildly skanky waitress in sight? Well, it’s much the same principle – everything’s far more intriguing when you can see the flaws. What makes East Hastings Street seem even more clangingly out of place is what can be found within a couple of blocks to the north. Gastown is as close as Vancouver will ever get to having a historic quarter. It’s certainly the most atmospheric area in an inner city dominated by shiny skyscrapers and gleaming apartment blocks. It’s a lamplit enclave of souvenir shops, restaurants, old buildings and – most crucially - great pubs. 


It’s heartening to note that many of the latter specialise in microbrewed beers, and young Vancouverites seem to have taken to the speciality ales with gusto. It’s a delight to find a city in which an enthusiasm for really good beers isn’t the sole preserve of bearded middle-aged men with sandals, train spotting diaries and appalling halitosis. It’s great. The more emphasis there is on sampling numerous styles of beer rather than throwing as much as possible down you whilst watching ice hockey, the cooler the crowd seems to be. The Alibi Room and Steamworks, in particular, feel like they’d instantly be adopted as a favourite local if they were to be transported into my home town. Staff are knowledgeable, food is good, you can buy tasting pallets with smaller samples of four beers at a time and not look like a geek... there’s very little not to love about a night out in Gastown. 


And it’s this element of the perfect city image that I find easiest to buy into – especially after a few random conversations with endearingly open strangers at the bar. It becomes clear that despite the million and one Starbucks outlets and nagging wholesomeness, Vancouver does have a pumping heart. And East Hastings Street is the broken bit. 


*Incidentally, East Hastings by Godspeed You Black Emperor! is the scary music used in 28 Days Later. It was named after this street, and it’s fairly easy to see why. 


For more photos click here