Sidewalk prisms of Vancouver

I was a shy child. Consequently, I spent a lot of time avoiding eye contact by looking down at the ground. All this time looking down at my feet allowed me to regard the ground upon which I was walking. Thus it was as a child that I first noticed the purple squares embedded in sidewalks.

Have you ever been walking in an older part of the city and noticed a checker board grid of purple squares under your feet?

Sidewalk prism light mosaic. Photos: C. Hagemoen

Sidewalk prism lights mosaic. Photos: C. Hagemoen

No, they are not simply sidewalk decoration [wouldn’t that be nice?] but rather a system to illuminate spaces under sidewalks called areaways. Sidewalk prisms, also known as vault lights (or pavement lights in the UK), are glass prisms set into sidewalks in order to reflect the natural light from above, safely illuminating these subterranean spaces. [Why are they purple? The answer to that is at the end of the post].

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Sarah’s Cafe

Sarah's Cafe

May 1960.  FL-158-2 (detail) (Franz Lindner/CBC Vancouver). Original image was a 120 medium format B&W negative.

This great image is from the CBC Vancouver Media Archives Still Photograph Collection. It sparked some curiosity amongst my fellow library and archives types — Where was Sarah’s Cafe ? Does the building still exist today?

With former VPL Special Collections Librarian, Andrew Martin on the case, it didn’t take long to find out:

  • By searching the Vancouver city directories and telephone books from the 1950s.  In the city directories Sarah’s Grill is listed at 218 E. Georgia.  It was run by a Sarah Cassell.   It was listed from 1957 up until at least 1961.
  • In the Vancouver telephone books there is a Sarah’s Cafe listed at 220 E. Georgia.  It is listed from 1957 up until at least 1960.
  • Looking at a fire insurance map it shows 220 E. Georgia on the south side of the street and beside (east side)  a north south alley (the one parallels Main St. on the east side).

Franz Lindner, a contract photographer for CBC Vancouver, took many pictures of the area … Sarah’s Cafe being one.  His assignment was to shoot publicity photos for the CBC Times (programming guide) feature on the radio documentary, “G.O.M.” (God’s Own Medicine).  A  radio documentary that aired June 5, 1960 on CBC radio. According to the CBC times, ”G.O. M. will offer the total picture of addiction in Canada, with emphasis on the seat of the concentration, Vancouver”. So it seems fitting that Lindner would choose the area then know as Skid Row, now known as the DTES – Chinatown.

Although this image was not published in CBC Times, it is part of a series of images shot for the assignment. One of the images from that series was ultimately used as the cover photo for the CBC Times for that week.

So, that just leaves one question. Does the building still exist today?  A quick check in Google Maps Street View for 220 E. Georgia revealed that the building does indeed exist today. A little worse for wear, perhaps, but considering it is over 100 years old, it is looking pretty good.

I was recently in the area, and took this photo of the building and alley today.

Sarah's Cafe today

March 2013. Photo: C. Hagemoen

It is interesting to note the difference the construction of the Georgia Viaduct had on the neighbourhood. In the photo from 1960, the neighbourhood seems to go on forever (or at least for several blocks). In the photo above, it ends abruptly a block away. Hard to imagine the impact that would have had on the people that lived and worked there.