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Whatever Became of Cambie Street?

We’ve all been aware of the Cambie mess this past year and a half, and it has been in the news for so long that the profile has almost disappeared. So I set out to discover what a current cross section of life on Cambie looks like.

If you’re looking for a novel place to get some outdoor urban exercise, the current stretch of Cambie Street, between 12th and 16th Avenues, offers an eight block span, round trip, of construction curiosity, safe retail therapy (all you can really do is window shop), and a slight incline, to justify this as a workout, as you head south.

Surprisingly, the few retail stores or services that were open at noon on a recent drizzly Saturday were frequently staffed by people who were reluctant to share their experiences.

In part, I got the strong sense that the commercial tenants have been over-interviewed, developed a mistrust of the construction timeline pronouncements, and feel that giving yet another interview won’t make a difference.

Also, many of the people working on this strip find expressing themselves in English to be a challenge and were timid about offering their thoughts.

A few of the people I met even seemed to suggest that doing interviews was not in their job descriptions.

My biggest disappointment was in not being able to eat lunch at Shiro, one of my all time sushi favorites. Not only was it open at 12 noon, but a few people even managed to walk in the door early.

This bento box-sized restaurant had at least six staff prepping, so they were obviously expecting a dynamite roll impact of customers.

However, all of the staff are so authentically Japanese, and the English speaking manager was off duty and unreachable for comment, and so I had no chance to really find out if this once thriving sushi business has been affected.

Given that I had one hour only in which to research this article, I had to forego my culinary gratification, and chose to pursue my journalistic direction instead. What a sacrifice.

A telling sign of the current situation is that the entire strip mall that houses Shiro, with the exception of Alan’s Custom Tailors, was either empty or closed on a Saturday.

But alas, my minimal Mandarin was no match for Alan’s Cantonese, and so even there, communication was only by was of smiles, and polite declinations. Dashed was my fantasy of finding out Alan’s life story, multi-tasking as he worked over a piece of material he’d just cut out.

Half a block south, I found an open salon with a few people inside. Ada, the owner and manager of Yokoi Hair Design, said this business has been there for 10 years. Since construction began, she has lost 35 – 40% of her business.

Most of the loss, she estimates, is due to the mess of construction – the almost impossible access, no parking, tough turning. She has free parking to offer just behind her salon, but customers cannot usually access it because the construction trucks are blocking it. To make matters worse, the landlord will not cut the rent, and so this hardship is painful to endure when the income is just not there.

No one is venturing into messy, complicated territory. Ada explained that she does have a dwindling base of regular customers, but she is not getting new ones.

“No one just comes by, no one can really cross the street.” I had discovered that was true, when I tried to cross from west to east, hoping to get to my favorite sushi bar. Along this four block stretch of Cambie, a pedestrian is out of luck – there is one continuous gashed divide, with high plywood and intimidating metal protrusions. Jay walking is not even an option.

Business is so rare and tenuous that my chat time with Ada terminated politely but abruptly as soon as a paying customer walked in.

Some of the other businesses wouldn’t even engage me in conversation, reluctant to lose an opportunity lest a potential client might walk away, thinking there was a line up for service.

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