Recently, I came across an image of the Astoria Hotel -a little bit of local-referenced colour to brighten-up a shoebox condo or a dimly lit basement suite, maybe.
In the boom preceding the First World War, hotels sprang up around the city’s core at Main & Hastings. Many primarily catered to itinerant labour, those taking leave from logging, fishing, mining and the merchant marine, as well local stevedores.
By the late 1970s, as the consumer and entertainment focus of the city shifted to Georgia and Granville, many of the hotels came to serve as modest, and decrepit, long-term residences.
While many have been destroyed over time, a 1971 provincial government heritage designation for Chinatown and Gastown spared others, and under the auspices of the British Columbia’s 2012 Habitat Housing Initiative 13 provincially owned Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels are undergoing rehabilitation. Of course, the current building boom is putting pressure of those hotels that remain and lie outside of these schemes.
The Astoria Hotel is one that appears to have slipped through the cracks. Perhaps as a result of its interstitial location at the edge of the DTES at Hastings & Hawks, the Astoria –constructed in 1910, and so far neither rezoned nor scheduled for revitalization- carries on.
Keith “The Laughing Hand” McKellar’s description of the current iteration of the Astoria could have been written any time over the last 40 years: “a slumlord syndicate tenement, infamous for an ongoing record of lodger bullying, dilapidated rooms and plumbing, maintenance bylaw violations, infestations of rodents, cockroaches and bedbugs. Reputed to be a shill for drug-dealing, welfare fraud, and fencing of stolen goods.”
Aside from these charming qualities, the Astoria is primarily known for its basement boxing club, which has been in place in one form or another almost continuously since the mid-1960s.
Less well known is its role connection to serial killer Robert William “Willie” Pickton. According to Stevie Cameron’s On the Farm, in the 1980s and ‘90s the Astoria was Pickton’s preferred haunt. “He almost always parked his truck or his motorhome in front of the Astoria and would amble in to buy drinks for the girls that flocked to his side. Often he’d pick one to take home.”
Willie Pickton was charged in the deaths of 26 women, but is believed to have murdered 49, many from the Downtown Eastside. In 2007 Pickton was convicted of the second-degree murders of of Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Georgina Papin, Marnie Frey and Brenda Wolfe. The remaining charges were stayed.
In recent years changes have come to the Astoria. It’s substantial neon sign was restored in early 2009, and its parking lot has been converted by the Sole Food social enterprise into an urban farm.
And in the bar where Pickton sought victims, there are DJs and live music. There’s also a “Rent Cheque” night: “all bodies welcome.”