City Informer: Why Are There Glass Blocks in Some Sidewalks Downtown?

If there’s one thing you can count on in East Vancouver—besides the fact that the people of Commercial Drive do not understand the concept of crossing at a crosswalk—it is that the sidewalks will be made of opaque and solid materials.

But over in topsy-turvy downtown, it’s a different story. You may have been strolling along the street, dazed and weak from being lost inside Topshop for three hours, and looked down—only to realize the surface beneath your feet (are those Heelys? Nice!) is not pavement, but glass.

That’s right, glass: a material famous for its fragility and smashfullness. It’s a reminder from a time in history where the downtown core was occupied not just by finance bros and bachelorette parties from Langley but also by shopkeeps, who, in a Vancouver tradition as old as time, were just trying to stick it to their landlords.

At some point in the late 1800s, property owners in the area who were being taxed for the adjacent public sidewalks decided that was basically permission to claim the land below it. Because lava lamps had not been invented yet (oh, how history would have been altered forever!), these savvy basement builders, forced to find an alternative source of ambient light for their new subterranean spaces, installed glass prisms in the sidewalks above. It was an interior design trick inspired by cargo ships of the 19th century, which used deck prisms for illumination instead of fire (a notable fire hazard).

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Glass prisms were available in square (Prism Classic™) or round (Diet Prism™), but colour was less of a personal style choice: the manganese in the glass (which, obviously, is used as a clarifying and stabilizing agent; we all know that, duh, no one needed to consult, reacted to the sun’s UV rays and turned the blocks purple over time. In the areaways beneath, you might’ve found a rowdy saloon (like at Hotel Europe), a cozy public bath house (like the Sam Kee building) or an enchanting coal storage facility.

As time went on and glass awareness increased, the City came to realize that these prism sidewalks were not necessarily a stable enough surface for an emergency vehicle to drive upon. Ironically, it could crash through into the drinking, bathing or merry coal-shovelling crowds below and cause a situation where an ambulance was needed more than ever. So they began to repurpose the areaways for infrastructural purposes, or to ask property owners to fill in the areaways with gravel, concrete or sand. Sort of like an urban beach but less fun because we can’t go there and it ruined all the good times we were having with coal.

Nineteen prism sidewalks still exist today—some beautifully underlit to provide a dynamic visual companion to the city’s urine-forward urban musk—but those tiny windows don’t look down onto anything with the exception of Bodega in Chinatown and Calabash Bistro in Gastown. These two buildings still have accessible areaways where revellers can admire maintenance pipes, naturally lit from above through purple glass, as God intended. Yes, these historic sidewalks may be a little different from the rest of the city, but if you don’t like it, you can kiss my glass.

This story was originally published on March 31, 2020.