“Skid road” originally referred to the corduroy logging roads used for dragging logs from the forest to the saw mill. In Vancouver and Seattle, the term continued to be used for the down-and-out part of town long after the actual “skids” disappeared, while other cities adopted a corrupted variation, “skid row,” for similar areas.
By 1912, “Skid Road” was also the name of the midway at the Pacific National Exhibition. According to Jeff Sommers, this suggests the term was originally associated with fun rather than urban decay. Recently, however, I came across an article in the Sun from January 1918 in which the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was protesting the morally dubious content of the “Skidway,” although no details were provided.
Today, Vancouver’s skid road is centred around Hastings and Main streets, though it wasn’t always so. An article in the 24 January 1948 Province was an early use of the term with the same connotations it still carries. Skid road, defined as “a congested area haunted by crime, poverty and degradation,” was the subject of a speech given by Dr. Murray Blair about the area “bounded by Abbott Street, Gore Avenue, Powell Street and Railway Avenue.”
From Dr. Blair’s perspective, the main problems with skid road were that it:
*was an incubator for venereal disease; 640 new cases were reported in 1946 [the infected men blamed three popular brothels in the area; one house had line-ups outside.]
*contained “public lavatories which stand open without partitions for either sex” [the good old days, before alleys were the de facto lavatories]
*was “the hideout of law-evaders and the centre of a drug traffic”
*was so overcrowded that in one case a married couple shared a bed with their grown daughter. In another, 68 roomers shared two toilets.
*was home to a large concentration of drug addicts, who committed “not all but a goodly portion” of hold-ups in the city.
Blair gave an anecdote about an addict looking for help being turned away by the John Howard Society and the College of Physicians. “My view,” he said, “is that nothing is being done” about skid road’s drug problem.
Another concern was about children being raised in the area. This demographic would be ignored in later skid road narratives. Blair cited an example of six local boys who escaped from the Oakalla Prison Farm. “Don’t wait until boys are 16 or 17 and have escaped from Oakalla,” he warned. “It’s too late then.”
Dr. Blair’s perspective is significant for a few reasons. One is that he frames drug addiction as a medical problem rather than a law enforcement issue, a view that’s often touted as a recent innovation. Another is that he identifies skid road as an especially problematic geographic area, even though there were other slum districts in the city. In this sense, it seems that the waterfront drug and sex trades is what set this section apart from other areas in Vancouver.
That said, mapping out problem areas of town to be fixed through postwar urban planning schemes was part of a larger movement. At the same time that Dr. Blair gave this speech, UBC prof Leonard Marsh was conducting a study of the nearby East End for a slum clearance report that was published in 1950.
The timing of Blair’s analysis is also striking, because it roughly coincides with the neutralization of Hogan’s Alley as the reputed epicentre of inner-city crime, vice, and disorder. Another Province article from 4 May 1964 reminisces about the nefarious activities and colourful characters for which Hogan’s Alley was known. The occasion was that the alley was about to be demolished by Phase Three of the City’s redevelopment program: “Shed a tear for Hogan’s Alley, because its thieves, cut-throats and characters have gone where the good thieves go and even the old buildings are about to make way for progress.” But despite its notoriety, “that was long ago … Today it is unmarked and unmourned, and the rows of cabins are utilized by respectable pensioners and respectable and silent Chinese.”
The author suggests the change occurred roughly a decade earlier, close to the time when “skid road” was assuming the reputation as the worst neighbourhood in Vancouver. The term skid road, in turn, was deliberately replaced with “Downtown Eastside” in the 1970s, although “skid road” is still used once in a while. (For more on this history, see “The Place of the Poor,” Jeff Sommers’ Phd dissertation on the Downtown Eastside [PDF file])