Vancouver's American Hotel
Published Wednesday, May 25, 2011
It was infamous once for its cheap beer, strippers,
motorcycle gangs, drug deals and exchanges of stolen property.
Now the bar of the American Hotel on Main Street,
once the base for a Sopranos-type gang operation and the scourge
of Vancouver police, is about to become home to premium sake,
Japanese tapas, modern indie rock, art improv, sumo wrestling
shows and whatever else will bring in Vancouver's young, creative
Two young Vancouver entrepreneurs with biofuel companies
on their resumés will be launching an " izakaya-themed
social club" called Electric Owl on Friday that they hope
will become a unique new community and entertainment space. For
the uninitiated, izakaya venues are Japanese restaurants that
are less formal than most sushi joints - more pub-like and noted
for cheerleader-style customer greetings.
"We want to support emerging artists and we
want it to be a place that people will think of in a favourable
light," said Adam Levine, who co-founded Canadian Bioenergy
Corp. in 2003 and grew it into a $5-million-a-year business over
Mr. Levine, originally from New York, said he and
his business partner Alex Russell wanted to start a club at the
American because "that area is happening."
That's a recent development. Until the last few
years, Main Street from the waterfront to Terminal Avenue has
been a dicey stretch. Shoppers came to a few blocks of Chinatown
for traditional herbs or cheap clothes, but the street had declined
considerably since the 1970s, when middle-class diners would go
to Puccini's for Italian or Adega's for Portuguese.
The American Hotel, which started as the Clarendon
Hotel in 1907, next to the city's notorious red-light district
on Dupont Street, was never a four-star establishment. But as
Mr. Levine discovered from talking to locals and doing archival
research, it was the kind of place people remembered fondly, treasured
for its barbershop and well-used gym.
By the 1990s, however, it had gone from mildly down-market
- a place where university students would stop in - to a full-fledged
drug bazaar and stolen-property hub. Calls to police by the early
2000s averaged 100 a year.
In 2003, after a two-year investigation, Vancouver
police arrested 11 people and charged them with multiple crimes,
including drug trafficking, under new anti-gang legislation. At
the sentencing for the man considered to be the leader of the
operation, Anthony Terazakis, the judge noted that the American
Hotel was the epicentre of all that criminal activity.
"The drug business centred ultimately on small
quantity but high-volume sales from a particular location called
'the chair' in the bar of the American Hotel on Main Street in
Vancouver. Cocaine was typically sold by the flap or by the rock,
and heroin by the flap or by the point, at approximately $10 each,"
noted the judge who sentenced Mr. Terazakis.
But that didn't end criminal activity at the American.
A year later, after another undercover investigation, police laid
more charges against a new raft of people dealing in stolen property.
Shortly after, the city revoked the American's business licence.
Since then, the place has sat empty.
But the area has started to pick up. West-side restaurateurs
opened Campagnolo down the block from the empty American in 2008.
In nearby Chinatown, other adventurous entrepreneurs have opened
the Keefer, Bao Bei and the Fortune Sound Club.
"It's completely up-and-coming," said
Dani Vachon, the Electric Owl's entertainment director, who admits
she has heard horror stories about the American's past - motorcycles
driven through the bar, people being tortured in upstairs hotel
Ms. Vachon said some of the establishments in the
area are thinking of organizing a Chinese-bar crawl because the
area now has so many.
Of course, a lot of older residents are still living
in the cheap hotel rooms nearby, as they have for years. Some
may end up living above the American, because the city has struck
a deal with the hotel's new owner, Steven Pittman, to reserve
six of the 42 rooms in the refurbished building at $400 a month
for people on social assistance. Hotel neighbours are already
"They stop in, check on the construction, tell
us when our cars are going to be ticketed, and we give them hamburgers,"
said Ms. Vachon. "We didn't expect them to do that, because
we sort of represent gentrification."