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Kelowna’s most notorious strip offers layers of rich history

Click to play video: 'The deep rooted history of Kelowna, B.C. Leon Avenue' The deep rooted history of Kelowna, B.C. Leon Avenue
Kelowna's skyline is changing as more people continue to leave city life for the beautiful Okanagan. Now, Kelowna's Leon Avenue is getting a makeover. Sydney Morton dives into Leon Avenue's rich history – Apr 5, 2022

Bob Hayes can matter of factly recite Kelowna’s history backward and forward but when he casts his mind back to his earliest memories of what is now one of the city’s most notorious strips, he’s almost wistful.

“I remember I was in Grade 7, walking down (Leon Avenue) with some friends through Chinatown on our way to the park and it was a whole different world,” the Kelowna historian said Monday while touring the street that is once again going through a massive transformation.

“It really was quite magical.… You would not have known you were in Kelowna and it was only the south side of Leon. It was totally different.”

Read more: Haunting on Leon Avenue — Kelowna historian offers up ghostly tale

That was around 1967 and what was then Chinatown was already past its heyday.

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Chinese men started moving to the region nearly 70 years earlier, around 1890,  but by the 1960s the head tax limited families from taking route and better opportunities prompted many to find other places to live. A quiet occupied the space that few from the greater community tread.

“There weren’t children around or dogs barking.… It seemed removed from the rest of the city,” he said.

While the silence was remarkable, the architecture in many cases was less so.

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Unlike Chinatowns in other cities, where ornate pagodas beckoned, Kelowna’s was more of a reflection of the community in which it was situated. There were modest brick buildings, as was the case all around Kelowna due to the brick factory that was once in the city, and other low-slung wood constructs.

That said, the “hidden history” of the street was as rich as could be and those homes, restaurants, clubs and even a little hospital on Leon bore witness to the stories of the men who frequented these spaces.

Click to play video: 'Three high rises approved for Kelowna’s Leon Avenue' Three high rises approved for Kelowna’s Leon Avenue
Three high rises approved for Kelowna’s Leon Avenue – Jan 13, 2021

Chinese men who moved to the area suffered the ravages of the Spanish flu, saw economic and labour changes, and experienced political tumult, both locally and abroad.

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Among the most notable points in the area’s history, and that of the city in general, was in 1911, when Kelowna played host to a visitor who the next year would become the most famous person in the world, Hayes said.

Sun Yat-Sen would go on to be known through history as the man who toppled the emperor of China, a historic marker that one would think would be trumpeted. A look at newsprint archives, however, shows exactly what the average Chinese man faced.

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That political force was depicted in local newsprint as little more than a cartoonish figure with little importance.

That the significant visit is barely a footnote in history aligns with the fact that Hayes’ next memory of the street. Just four or five years after that eerily silent stroll, the bulldozers rolled in with little regard for the history that was made in that space.

“They just knocked it down,” he said.

Click to play video: 'A piece of Kelowna’s history is being preserved one brick at a time' A piece of Kelowna’s history is being preserved one brick at a time
A piece of Kelowna’s history is being preserved one brick at a time – Aug 3, 2021

Shortly before, however, longtime Kelowna historian Ursula Sertes swooped in to save as much of what remained as she could and Hayes was with her, then just a high school student with a job at the museum.

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“There were papers, really neat pieces of furniture, a little set of scales, spices and herbs, pottery, ginger jars and soy sauce containers … that’s about it,” Hayes said.

“The museum has some neat things there but if we didn’t have her we would have nothing left of that time. We owe her more than we know.”

And for awhile, that was that.

When the ‘70s rolled around, the Leon Avenue Kelowna people are more familiar with today started to take shape.

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“Kelowna was starting to grow and I guess they thought, ‘Well, we could use some nightclubs and some establishments like that’ and … ‘Let’s put it on Avenue’ and it just sort of grew,” Hayes said.

“Unfortunately, the reputation I wouldn’t say was that great. I don’t want to cast aspersions on those businesspeople but it just seemed to be an area that was sort of thrown together. It didn’t have a nice feel. It’s kind of, dare I say, grungy?”

Hayes said it wasn’t a place where people would want to take children but it was lively, for a while.

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When nightclub culture started to wane, and the pandemic really pushed even the most steadfast establishment into a timely grave, the street fell silent.

“You know, the clubbing era has gone and I guess it just had its day in the sun.”

Click to play video: 'UBC Okanagan shares part of Kelowna’s history amid Asian Heritage Month' UBC Okanagan shares part of Kelowna’s history amid Asian Heritage Month
UBC Okanagan shares part of Kelowna’s history amid Asian Heritage Month – May 17, 2021

Now Leon Avenue is seeing another layer of its history go down in rubble. While nobody is picking through the broken-up concrete that marks the end of bar alley, Hayes said it’s a time that should be remembered as well as the Chinatowns.

“It’s all history,” he said.

His hope is that mediocrity won’t be on the menu when the three towers take the place of rundown clubs.

Anthony Beyrouti is the owner of Orchard Park Property Ltd., the development company that announced in 2020 plans to build three towers, one of which at 42 storeys tall, on the notorious strip. He, like Hayes, wants to see a bit of history acknowledged.

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“We bought the buildings from the August family who had been there for decades and had deep roots in the city,” Beyrouti said.

Read more: A look at the future of Montreal’s Chinatown, starting with a look at the past

They gave Beyrouti a brief history of the space during the time they were there and when he started working with the city for development permits, he dug past that layer into the Chinese history.

“That kind of got us thinking it would be cool to have some sort of tie-in that would show a bit of heritage of the area that has always been an important part of town,” Beyrouti said.

It’s unclear what that may look like, but Beyrouti said that when the buildings are done, “it will bring a smile to a lot of the community’s face.”

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